27th August 2000
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The Tivanka Pilimage at Polonnaruwa

In search of a roof

By Dr. P.H.D.H. de Silva 
Visiting the ancient city of Polonnaruwa a few months ago, my general impression was that there was a lack of caring by the authorities for the proper maintenance of both ancient sites and monuments. Name boards were sparse and much damage was being caused by visitors tramping on the ancient brickwork.

Once again I was overjoyed to bask in the aesthetic beauty of the colossal rock- cut images of Lord Buddha at Uttararama or northern shrine built by King Parakrama Bahu I, especially the standing image. To me this image is unique in that it expresses eloquently Lord Buddha's boundless maitri and karuna to all beings. Generally this image is referred to as that of Ananda Maha Thera but Dr. S. Paranavitana identifies it as that of Lord Buddha in the attitude described as Para dukkha dukkhita - "He who sorrows for the sorrows of others".

Many visiting this shrine may not take the trouble to move northwards to view the three monuments - Demala Mahasaya, so named because it was built by prisoners-of-war from Parakrama Bahu's Indian campaigns, the Lotus Pond and the Tivanka-ghara or the Tivanka Pilimage. 

Of these the Tivanka-ghara is of special interest. So named because it shelters a tall image of Sakyamuni in tribhanga (thrice bent) posture. At the time of my visit the entire building was surrounded by a scaffolding reaching to the top and supporting a roof of galvanized sheets. The whole thing looked cheap and temporary and obstructed the visitor from obtaining a clear view of the outer architecture of the edifice.

Why is this ancient monument of special significance?

This brick-built Image-House with vaulted roof was built by King Parakrama Bahu I (1153-1186 A.D.) in the latter part of the 12th Century. It is smaller than the Lankatilaka Image - House built also by this great King in this ancient city complex.

Some think that the Tivanka Pilimage is similar to some Hindu shrines in India. Mr. H.C.P. Bell held the view that it resembled the Vaikunta Perumal kovil at Kanchipura. Dr. Nanda Wickramasinghe recently writing on Sri Lankan Murals of the period 800-1200 A.D. states that both the Pilimage building as well as its murals had been influenced by Pallava art and architecture. She calls this tradition the Pallava-Sri Lankan tradition. 

Dr. S. Paranavitana holds an entirely different view pointing out that it is erroneous to believe that the architecture of this building is Dravidian in its features. According to him ("Art and Architecture", pp. 24-25): "But if we analyse the characteristics of those edifices built at Polonnaruwa," (especially Thuparama, Lankathilaka and Tivanka Image House) "by the Sinhalese rulers, it becomes obvious that their architectural style is a natural development form, if not, a continuation of that of the Anuradhapura period. Compare, for example, the details of the base mouldings of the Thuparama, Lankatilaka and the Tivanka-ghara with similar details from Shiva shrines. The architects who designed these Buddhist shrines.... have continued the forms which are found in many edifices at the earlier capital," i.e., Anuradhapura.

"Vaulted brick buildings of the type of Lankatilaka and Thuparama do not have prototypes among Dravidian buildings," he said.

Thirdly, the Tivanka Image-House provides the largest series of wall paintings of this period. These murals are all tempera. The colours used are brick red, yellow and green.

Dr. Sri Gunasinghe observes two main groups of murals on the inner walls of this shrine. These are the more classical looking murals in the inner sanctum and the jataka paintings of the entrance vestibule.

In his book, "An Album of Buddhist Paintings of Sri Lanka" published by the Department of National Museums in 1978, he describes the main features of these two groups of paintings as follows:- "The murals of the Sanctum are clearly the work of more sophisticated artists and have been executed with greater technical competence. The compositions are of a more ambitious scale as evidenced by the size of the human figures which are larger than life, the better educated pictorial sense displayed by the balanced disposition of groups of figures on large wall areas, line work which is more delicate, controlled and masterly the colours which are calculated and subdued showing a virtuose refinement and above all, the subtle feelings expressed clearly through characters."

"The Jataka paintings of the entrance vestibule are stylistically speaking, a resurgence of the oldest Buddhist art tradition exemplified by the base-reliefs of Bharhut and Sanchi. In their total effect, as well as in many details, the Jataka murals of the Tivanka shrine appear sufficiently similar to the reliefs of Bharhut, thus indicating a spiritual kinship".

When I visited this shrine at midday the inside was dark and we could hardly observe the murals. The officers working there told me that inside the building the relative humidity was very high and had affected the murals so much so that the paint was flaking in certain spots.

What really baffles me is the 'takaran' roof supported by a scaffolding all round the building. Surely the Department of Archaeology could have thought of something better?

At this time and age to stick to a 'takaran' roof is hardly the answer. I have heard also of a suggestion to construct another massive building to enclose the shrine.

During a visit to Kew Gardens in London I took a photograph of the "Hot-House" for tropical plants and to my mind the roof design of the "Hot House" could give us an idea how an appropriate 'roof' over the Pilimage could be constructed with suitable modification.

The roof could extend several metres outside the building and could dip downward for about a third of its height. The vertical supports should be the optimum and have to be of non-rust metal. They could be encased in brick and plaster simulating ancient pillars of this period. The roof should be of acryllic thick sheets of plexiglass which absorb the ultra-violet rays of the sun. These should be of a darkish tint and fitted well into a frame work of non-rust metal. The entire construction should be designed in the typical architectural tradition of the period and made harmonious with the surroundings.

A rather diffused lighting system should be adopted for the inside of the building by using minimum fluorescent tubes encased in ultra-violet absorbent filters placed at suitable points, so as to throw the light upwards, and never directly on the paintings. The Tivanka Buddha image could be highlighted by two spotlights of low intensity. This soft lighting, I am sure, will help the visitors to conveniently view, study and enjoy the unique paintings of this 12th Century shrine.

Over to you - the Minister of Cultural Affairs. 

(The writer is a former Director of National Museums.) 

Thoughts from LondonHuman rights: will the floodgates open?

From October 2 the European Conven-tion on Human Rights (ECHR) will become enshrined in English law under the 1998 Human Rights Act.

While the ECHR has already been adopted in Scotland and will not be a part of English law until a few weeks from now, the influence of the European Convention is already being felt here.

Certainly those who have the resources and the determination to pursue their causes beyond the legal boundaries of the English courts have already benefited from the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Some British newspapers have been among the beneficiaries. In 1991,The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Observer all succeeded in their appeals to the European Court when the British authorities tried to stop them from publishing excerpts from The Spycatcher- the memoirs of Peter Wright formerly of the British intelligence agency MI 6.

At the time the European Court held that the press played the "vital role of public watchdog".

While those who value the freedom of expression and indeed, human rights in general, will applaud the European Court's decision to safeguard the right of the media, there are fears here that the application of the ECHR will open the flood- gates to unnecessary litigation and many unhappy and even dangerous rulings.

But it is not only those in the UK who would have concerns about the new laws. Even countries such as Sri Lanka, which are faced with the problem of terrorism, need to be concerned about what could happen after October 2.

Early this month two known Sikh militants- some might well say terrorists- who were to be deported to India had their deportations orders stopped by the courts.

These two had sought asylum in Britain. They were found ineligible for refugee status and their presence in Britain was considered by the police to be a threat to Britain's national security.

Even so the British judge ruled that they faced the danger of torture if they were sent back and so were permitted to remain enjoying social security and other benefits which were earlier denied them.

The important point here is that even the possible threat to Britain's security was subsumed in the interests of two individuals. 

Mr. Justice Potts, the judge who made the ruling, said he thought that law abiding persons might feel "disquiet" over the decision, but that the European Convention did not allow him any other choice.

So even if there is an extradition treaty between Britain and a second country-in this case India- that would not be sufficient to ensure that a wanted person is deported.

Admittedly, the existence of an extradition treaty is no guarantee that a person will be returned for trial in a second country where he/she is wanted. The country seeking extradition needs to produce evidence to justify such deportation.

But now the English courts can stop deportation if it fears that the deportee might be subject to torture at the other end. So even where known and established terrorists are refused asylum and are to be deported, the fear of persecution at home is sufficient grounds for the courts to cancel such deportations.

In the case of the two Sikhs, the British courts relied on the European Convention even before it became law in England.

Sri Lanka might do well to keep this case in mind because its security forces-particularly the police-have a terribly bad reputation. There have been numerous cases-and doubtless there will be others- where those taken in for questioning by the police have been mistreated, abused and tortured in violation not only of international treaties to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, but even administrative orders and regulations issued to safeguard detainees.

However much a government might try to see that those detained by the police are treated humanely, many policemen act no differently from the thugs they apprehend.

Barging into houses and searching premises without search warrants, threatening and assaulting people brought into police stations are the common practice of even some educated policemen.

The stories that the world reads in newspapers and other despatches, the stories told by those who have run the gauntlet of police brutality, form part of the regime of evidence collected and collated by human rights watchdogs and agencies of foreign governments.

A lowly sergeant in the Buttala police station would not even have heard of international treaties against torture and inhuman treatment. He is the king of all he surveys and it means nothing to him to beat with a baton or kick a suspect, in the confines of his kingdom, the police station.

Nine times out of 10, his brutality will not be known far and wide. But news does reach the outside world and a compendium of such stories usually forms the basis on which international organisations concerned with human rights make their evaluations. Most often the stories are checked and double checked to ensure that these organisations are not misled by propagandists and those interested in discrediting countries and governments.

Admittedly people lie, they exaggerate and often try to magnify situations in order to justify their own actions such as illegal entry into a country. Asylum seekers are not above painting pictures of gruesome human rights violations in order to win sympathy and a legal right of stay.

But that does not detract from the fact that inhuman treatment is not uncommon among those who are mandated to maintain law and order.

While terrorism has indeed brutalised security personnel, much of the trouble lies with the politicisation of the police and to a lesser extent, the armed forces. Every policeman wants his political patron to cling to and win favours. So he will do the politician's bidding. Politicians want their pet policeman whom they could rely on to extend the long arm of the law further than the law allows.

This unfortunate symbiotic relationship has led to much of the abuse that we are privy to today.

If governments in countries noted for human rights abuses wish to rebuild their tattered reputations abroad, they must rein in, even at this late stage, their pet goons, in and out of uniform. They must be seen to respect law and order and deal firmly with the guilty.

The ruling given in the case of the two Sikh militants should serve as a cautionary tale for those who think that tame judges and fumbling judiciaries are found in every country.

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