Photographic Exhibition and Documentary Film on Paintings that Adorn Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Shrines
Posted on May 5th, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

This was a unique cultural event held at the University of Toronto’s prestigious Robarts Library, from May 21 to 30, 2005, to mark firstly, Vesak”, the most holy and venerated time of the year for Buddhists, and secondly, in commemoration of 100 years of Buddhism in Canada.

Vesak full-moon day, which usually falls in May, has threefold significance for Buddhists, namely, the birth of Prince Siddhartha the Buddha to be, his attainment of enlightenment and his final passing away referred to in Buddhism as the Buddha’s ‘mahaparinibbana’. For people of Sri Lanka, Vesak also marks the beginning of the Buddhist New Year and the arrival in Sri Lanka of Prince Vijaya, the founder of the island’s mainstream Sinhala community. Vesak has been the primary national festival of Sri Lanka since the 3rd century BCE, for almost 2300 years.

THE EXHIBITION

The highlight of this unique cultural event held in Canada for was the Photographic Exhibition and Documentary Film show on Sri Lanka’s rich Heritage of Buddhist Paintings. This public event was facilitated by the University of Toronto, and was organized and presented by Dr. Daya Hewapathirane and a team of enthusiastic  Buddhist youth volunteers from the University of Toronto, York University and Ryerson University.

The exhibition highlighted the richness of Sri Lanka’s visual arts inspired by Buddhism and the Buddhist tradition. It displayed over 300 enlarged photographs of spectacular Buddhist works of art found in a wide assortment of Buddhist shrines located across Sri Lanka, thereby providing a comprehensive perspective of the island’s rich heritage of Buddhist art, spanning over a period that exceeds 2200 years. Exhibits were displayed chronologically, in the form of a visual pilgrimage to a wide assortment of Buddhist sites of Sri Lanka, including its World Heritage Sites” containing exquisite ancient Buddhist works of art.

In parallel with the Exhibition was the screening in the University of Toronto theatre, of a  Documentary Film titled Arts of the Ancient World: Heritage of Buddhist Paintings of Sri Lanka”, produced by Dr. Daya Hewapathirane,  with the outstanding Art Direction of Arjuna Samarakoon  of Trillion Design Inc. of Toronto.  For many who saw it, this film was an exciting experience, eliciting vividly the richness of imagination, creativity, aesthetic sense and inspiration of Sri Lankan artists.   

This event was planned as a place where people could see, appreciate and learn; a place that stimulates a sense of pleasure, pride and discovery; as an experience, which provides an aesthetic challenge resulting in a greater cultural awareness and discernment. Buddhist paintings are among the most gentle and sublime art of mankind. They are among the oldest surviving art of the historic period in the Indian subcontinent from the 3rd century BCE when the Great Indian Emperor Ashoka was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and all over Asia. Sri Lanka became the centre of the earlier Theravada Order of Buddhism from where the Buddhist tradition traveled to the countries of South-East Asia. The religion and the art associated with it had a transforming effect on the countries which it reached and, till today, the art heritage of Buddhism flourishes in the Asian continent.

Buddhism, which was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE, was the primary source of inspiration and influence for artists, sculptors and architects of the country. Paintings form a dominant component of the heritage of Sinhala Buddhists. A spectacular collection of ancient sculpture and architecture further adorns the conspicuous elements of the island’s Sinhala Buddhist culture. For some 2500 years, the Sinhala people inhabited Sri Lanka as its dominant community. Up to the 16th century, they accounted for over 99% of the population and all were Buddhists. They form 75% of island’s present population and about 95% of them are Buddhists.

BUDDHIST SITES WITH PAINTINGS

Innumerable ancient sites with paintings are scattered throughout the country – north, south, east and west, in the hill country and the coastal areas. The large majority of Buddhist paintings are found in Buddhist ‘vihara’ (shrine) and monasteries, the best known are those in ancient cities such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Mahanuwara (Kandy). All these cities were designated by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, owing to their artistic treasures, considered as masterpieces of human creative genius. Paintings found in ancient cave temples are over 2000 years old and some more than a 1000 years. Most of the earliest paintings are found in a fragmentary form. Among the oldest paintings are those on rock surfaces in caves, and walls of relic chambers inside ancient ‘dagoba’ or ‘stupa’ (pagoda). Most of these sites are ‘Raja Maha Viharas’ or Buddhist temples established by Sinhala kings, or which received their patronage in ancient times. UNESCO has identified 1037 shrines with paintings which are more than 100 years old. Paintings are found on ancient cave and rock surfaces, walls, ceilings, doors, wooden surfaces, statues and other sculpture, pottery/earthenware and on cloth or textiles. Paintings were done on a layer of plaster applied over these surfaces.   Material used on all surfaces were natural, obtained from the immediate environment. Some of these products were boiled and processed in different ways in order to obtain necessary shades of colours.

The predominant themes of ancient artistic pursuits were the life of the Buddha, ‘Jataka Tales’ based on former lives of the Buddha. Some narrative paintings are reflective of the teachings of the Buddha. Paintings reveal the great adoration the artists had towards the Buddha and the strong inspiration drawn from the Buddha’s life and teachings. Buddhist paintings have a strong impact on one’s inner spirit, transforming your mind to a state of innocence and overflowing compassion, joy and peacefulness. According to the Buddha’s teachings, developing tranquility of mind is fundamental to the development of wisdom. 

PERIODS OF ART (from 3rd century BCE to 21st century)

Based on general differences in art traditions the following major periods of art can be identified:

(1) Classical Period

      (a) Anuradhapura Period :   3rd century BCE to 10th c.CE

      (b)  Polonnaruwa  Period :  11th to 13th c. CE

(2) Period of Changing Capitals : 13th to 17th c. CE

(3) Mahanuwara Period :  18th to 19th c. CE

(4) Modern Period: 20th century onwards

The Classical Period

The classical style of Sinhala art is naturalistic, exemplifying a transformation of nature by imaginative contemplation. Paintings show a highly tasteful use of a variety of colours and a skilful depiction of facial expressions of the figures.  With the exclusion of Sigiriya, most of the surviving ancient paintings of the Classical Period  such as those of the Tivanka Pilimage in Polonnaruwa, are found in fragmentary form. Most were destroyed when foreigners invaded the Sinhala kingdoms of Sri Lanka.

Period Of Changing Capitals

Political instability of this period had a negative impact on people’s artistic initiatives. South Indian invaders plundered local settlements and inflicted widespread damage to  Buddhist temples.  

Mahanuwara (Kandyan) Period

Paintings exhibit a predominantly stylized form, referred to by art professionals as ‘abstract symbolism’. It is a unique art form of great appeal, with its own dynamics and structural properties.   

The Modern Period

Enchanting modern paintings are found the Kelani Raja Maha Vihare, Gotami Vihare, and Bellanwila Vihara. Also, several modern artists and photographers have contributed to the conservation of ancient paintings by producing near perfect reproductions on canvas and some commendable photographic reproductions.  

SERENE JOY AND EMOTION 

The exhibition and film show were occasions for those interested generally in art and art history, and for creative artists in general, to enjoy and draw inspiration from, an array of work of art ancient and modern, that are of great aesthetic appeal and artistic value.  It was an occasion where art enthusiasts interacted freely and were sharing observations and feelings on Sri Lankan art. The exhibition and film show provided considerable opportunities for intercultural dialogue and appreciation by the diversity of visitors. Besides, judged by the reaction of some visitors, this event generated a good amount of interest in conserving and promoting these priceless treasures. Being a Canadian of Sri Lankan descent, initiatives of this nature which Canada encourages, inevitably makes me feel good about being a Canadian. Canada has been the meeting place of all cultures of the world and also a place where these cultures are well nurtured. Our sense of Canadian identity derives from an understanding of our shared cultures and the richness of our collective histories. We are hopeful that our endeavors will generate increased awareness of the richness of this cultural heritage, and lead to greater interest in its conservation.

The festive inauguration of the Exhibition Documentary Film show on May 21st 2005, was marked by a Buddhist Cultural Festival, attended by a large number of people, including Buddhists representing all Buddhist traditions, and non-Buddhists. Among the special invitees were dignitaries from the Toronto City, Universities and cultural establishments. This Cultural festival included musical recitals, traditional drumming, an assortment of traditional dances performed by youth and  children, and a slide show on ancient Sinhala sculpture and architecture. The active participation of reputed performers and artists of the Ontario Sri Lanka community was a welcome addition to this spectacular cultural event (Latha Dissanayake (singing), Sampath Edirisinghe(singing and Music),  Praneeth Alawatte (traditional drums), Dhuwaraka Sivathasam (table), Mitra Ramlakhan, Bakthi Deeyadaha (dance), Janani Nithiyeswaran(dance), Natalie Garth(dance), Rebecca Hettige(dance) and Keesha Jinadasa(dance).

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

COMMENTS MADE BY VISITORS

•           A most impressive photo documentation. Completely unique –  We had a detailed tour by Yoshani DeSilva.

Robert Siebelhoff

•           Thank you for such a wonderful introduction to Sri Lankan Art. The tour was informative, the people receptive and pleasant to talk to. We look forward to seeing the documentary film tonight.

Razmiera Justin (ineligible)

•           Thank you so much for the personal tour of the exhibition. You have inspired us to visit these wonderful sites ourselves as soon as we can. Your images of sculpture and paintings are truly stunning!  With Thanks

Mary & Ron Dergh (inelligeble)

•           This is really fantastic. I enjoyed it very much. Great work.

Loles  (inelligeble)

•           A really powerful display. Pity my students can’t attend as a group for the great learning experience – self identity and self esteem!

M. Chang

•           Wonderful exhibit! Students very helpful and enthusiastic!! Spread this cultural exhibit throughout Canada for others to enjoy.

B… (inelligeble)

•           I found the exhibit overwhelming – a revelation,  not only the beauty and elegance – the sheer extent and variety – and exuberance and vitality.

James Beckmann

•           I enjoyed the documentary film tremendously. The use of colour and the beautiful design work are simply wonderful. I have two suggestions for editing. 1. the music in the first section employing the mail narrator drowns out his voice. 2. the word capitals is misspelled several times. Best wishes to you in finding a venue for future exhibits.

Michelle Farell

•           Both events were very enriching and have opened my eyes to such an artistic and spiritual culture. The movie was very informative and detailed towards Buddhist art and culture and has kindled a greater interest in understanding the different symbols and representations used in Buddhist art work. Participating in the art exhibition was truly and honour and privilege.

Mitra Ramlakhan

•           Excellent presentation. Very interesting, informative and beautiful work.

Angela Colm

•           Wow! I was very impressed about the quality of the production

(inelligeble)

•           Good luck guys!!! You were moved from the heart in undertaking this project. (keep it up)

Michael Banate (inelligeble)

•           Very educational and personally interesting to learn about Buddhist history and art in Sri Lanka. A very good documentary and surprising that it is a pioneer effort. I’m impressed about the talent of everyone who worked on this project

Sujhan P. (inelligeble)

•           As an artist I am overwhelmed by the time it took to paint all these surfaces. I have been reading and studying Buddhism for the past year and finally found the spiritual outlet I needed – I thank you for the tour and much enjoyed this exhibition.

Cynthia Lineel (inelligeble)

•           It’s wonderful! To get in the buddha’s realm through the exhibition! Best wishes to keep going on! The compassionate heart

Luat Tran

•           It’s good to see something which is spirituality instead of just high technology and science. This exhibition brings me one more step forward towards Buddhism. Nowadays people really need this kind of information though they don’t think so. Keep going!!

Alan

•           The most beautiful paintings of love, peace, enlightenment, devotion and all that is good in our world. Thank You. Peace, love and Blessings

Kathy Mstapha- Ali (CTS Television)

•           Thank You very much for letting me have a good chance to view all these valuable historical remains. I am a visual artist, so you will understand how I appreciate this exhibition. Also as a Buddhist this exhibition is very important to me – educationally and in terms of appreciation of art. Thanks for all you hard work and look forward to see you next year.

Miranda Mak (Canadian Multicultural Links Association)

•           I am moved by the delicacy of detail, the richness of colour, texture and motif and the endurance of the materials over time

Mosa Meshma Mcnelly (inelligeble)

•           Quite encouraging. Lots of efforts put. Thanks…., we viewers speak for you

Nishtha Rajiv Dhiman

•           A wonderful experience seeing the photos was almost being in front of the images. May this exhibit continue to delight and inform wherever it can go.

Dr. Carol Farkas (inelligeble)

•           This is really fantastic. I enjoyed it very much. Great work.

Loles (inelligeble)

•           Really powerful display. Pity my students cant attend as a group for this great learning experience it could be for self identity and self –esteem!

•           The photographs are amazing. Sorry I missed the documentary film. Hopefully the documentary film contains the history of the rich culture.

Loretta Wong

M.Chang

•           A wonderful exhibit! Students were helpful and enthusiastic! Spread this great cultural exhibit throughout Canada for others to enjoy!

B. (inelligeble)

•           We appreciate the art at you exhibit. It is great job and big success to Sri Lanka.

G. (inelligeble)

•           Impressive exhibition.

Evelyn Chan

•           Thank You very much for the comprehensive exhibit that are exquisite and informative and educational. Enjoyed the Tour given by Yoshani and Discussion with Daya

Frank Yong

•           I really enjoyed ancient Buddhist Paintings and Statues in Sri Lanka. These are all beautiful and attract my interest. For sure I would travel to Sri Lanka to see them in an year.

Takashi Igarashi

•           Very informative and extremely interesting. A spectacular exhibition! I would definitely recommend this show case to friends and family who take interest in the Buddhist Tradition in South-East Asia.

Sydney Trang

•           I would like to keep in touch about future exhibitions. I belong to an art gallery and interested in various art work

Kathy Mac Isaac

•           Please send me information on Jataka

Al Karim Dharsee

•           It’s a one of a kind exhibit, rare historic serene images photographed in one of the most remote areas of the world for all of us to enjoy and appreciate.

Neal Van Meter

•           Excellent Presentation. Should be shown on Program Opening Night” Thursday Night on CBC.

(inelligeble)

•           Excellent visual quality and contour supports the magnificent contents of the film. Minor auditory problems in presentation – could not always understand the male voice in early part of the film – I think technical problems with the equipment. Otherwise, its perfect.

Neil Van Meter

•           Thanks for this wonderful film you enabled me to see. Such an impressive and spiritual art of Sri Lanka. As a person interested greatly in Buddhism I  was really impressed on all the art and I’d only encourage people to visit Sri Lanka. Thank you so much.

Christine Hiratsuka

•           Wonderful! Best Wishes to success & spiritual harmony

Luat Tran

•           Magnificent cultural and religious achievements. Deserves greater knowledge!!

Robert Siebelhoff

•           Very interesting. I had not known any of the history of Sri Lanka it’s art. This gave me some of both.

George Bacon

•           Very interesting and fascinating. I enjoyed the documentary very much. It is very interesting to see Buddhist art to compare to those of China. Thank you. Great work.

Lery Lieng Chun (inelligeble)

•           It is a wonderful exhibition. Third time I saw in Toronto. Promoting our culture to the world through our Buddhist Photos of Paintings is unique venture. Sri Lankan’s must be proud of your scholarly works. All the best in your future endeavors too.

C.S Poolokasingham (Consul General, Sri Lanka in Toronto)

•           Once again, you’ve have done us Sri Lankans living here as one Nation, proud! The Show you have put up this time around is even greater and better! But the greatest thing about your flashing vision is that now it has got wings and there’s a whole community to help you soar… for the love of the country that have all of us, you and me, a name and identity! Congratulations and Best Wishes.

Aloy Perera

•           I think I would underestimating my feelings if I say that you have done a fantastic job, organizing an exhibition of this nature. At times I was simply spellbound – to say the least.  Please carry on the good work. We wish you well.

Anonymous Sri Lankans

•           It’s a pleasure to be here today and enjoy this incredible Buddhist painting exhibition after a long time. With thank you so much for taking us 2500 years back and sharing the historical information.

Anushka & Bimal Abeywardena

•           I was highly impressed by the great work you have done. Even though I’m a Sri Lankan by origin and have tried to visit most of these temples while I was there, there was so much that we missed and I should note that some paintings that were exhibited were very rare ones, those of which caught my mere attention. It made me realized ones again of the great heritage we do hold but are not aware of. In a time where ancient things are fading away gradually and especially in a foreign country, what you have done is marvelous. But also the short but really factual and interesting lectures, gave me a glimpse of many things I didn’t know. This step taken by you to value our ancient Buddhist paintings is both a great asset to us Lankans and foreigners living here. How beautiful these paintings are I simply feel inexpressible to describe them. They so attractive and thank you so much for all your hard work valuable time and money you spent in order to make this event a success.

Dilini Jayasinghe

•           I really enjoyed this event. The paintings you have brought here are so beautiful. Your effort was certainly successful. Wish you all the best in continuing this kind of great events to value are ancient heritage. Thank you.

Asoka Perera

•           I enjoyed the tour of the exhibition. I understood more about the pictures with the explanations about them and it made me enjoy and appreciate more. I enjoyed the modern paintings and the pictures of Sigiriya. I like looking at the pictures in order because it made more sense.

Anushie Mahavitane

•           I like the items in the exhibition. Daya did a good job exhibiting these rare valuable paintings which reflect our religion and culture. It made me proud to show the whole world about our religion and culture.

Kushlan Seneviratne

•           Very well organized to demonstrate how Buddhist art has evolved over the centuries. Pictures are breathtaking and inspirational. Now when I visit the temples I will have a basic understanding and appreciation of Buddhist culture.

Nilu Mahavitane

•           Thank you very much for the exhibition of photo images of Buddhist paintings. I enjoyed it.

Nimna Fernando

•           I am so glad that Quintus and I were able to make time even on the last day to visit City Hall. All of us visit these Temples and marvel at the paintings and architecture, but we have never had such detailed information to go along with what we have seen in terms of Buddhist culture. The long hours of research, dedication and the obvious love of history has made this Exhibition and eye opener to all of us. In short, it was and AWESOME EXHIBITION!

Quintus & Krishanthi Ratnayake

•           Nice movie, it would be nice to have something available online for further information.

Rodrigo

•           It was a great pleasure to be a part of this event

Predeep Waragoda

•           The arts are exhibited really well and we enjoyed a lot seeing the heritage of Buddhist pictures. Hard work and effort was well worth for reverse.

Lucky and Champa Viswakula

•           Great step taken to show the Sri Lanka culture and the art to the world.

Thusitha Weerasuriya

•           It’s a great exhibition. Keep it up.

Chanaka Gausaethige (inelligeble)

•           It is really great that a culture and art that as these are being promoted in a foreign country like Canada.

Shri

•           Great effort, wonderful presentation. Thank you very much.

Ranjan & Neru Weerasinghe

•           Very interesting, good work, enjoyed very much.

Rupi Wadugodapitiya

•           It’s amazing to see how much work you have put into this project! I thoroughly enjoyed it as it brought back so many, many memories. I hope you will continue and make more of these available to us!! Congratulations one job. Well done.

Krishanthi Ratnayake

•           Arju….Very well done. Enriching experience, looking forwart to any future films…

K.B.

•           WOW! That was so good .. we really found most interesting and educational. Exceptionally good.

Dinuk & Nadine

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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