series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
Tradition continues: Moonstones in Polonnaruwa
The high quality of Sinhalese architecture and sculpture continued
when Polonnaruwa became the capital of Sri Lanka after Anuradhapura.
In fact, some of the religious monuments were more impressive than
those in Anuradhapura.
Sandakadapahana or the moonstone is a unique feature in Sinhalese
architecture. Though described as the moonstone because of its shape
and design, it is really a semi-circular stone doorstep set up at
the entrance to a stupa or vihara. The best examples are the ones
preserved in Anuradhapura. Altogether six have been identified.
The ones in Polonnaruwa (one pictured on this page) are not so exquisite
though basically, the same features can be seen.
the moonstones found in Anuradhapura as “masterpieces in the
sculptor’s art”, renowned archaeologist Professor Senerat
Paranavitana describes the general characteristics in the design
ornamenting a moonstone thus: “A conventional half-lotus in
the centre enclosed by concentric bands which, proceeding outwards,
are decorated respectively with a procession of geese, an intricate
foliage design, a procession of the four beasts – elephant,
lion, horse and bull, racing each other – and an outermost
band of stylized flames. The various elements of the design are
skillfully integrated into a very effective whole. The motifs which
constitute the design are symbolic.”
sees a difference in the moonstones in Polonnaruwa. Instead of a
single band of the four beasts, each animal, except the bull, has
its own row in the ones at Polonnaruwa. The absence of the bull
is because of Hindu influence. The bull is held in veneration by
the Hindus and would not want to be trampled each time one went
over the moonstone. The best example in Polonnaruwa is the moonstone
at the northern entrance to the upper terrace of the Vatadage. It
is finely executed, says Professor Paranavitana.
for the animals depicted on the moonstone, each is of symbolic significance
to denote four aspects of life. The elephant represents birth while
the bull is indicative of decay. The lion represents disease and
the horse is a symbol of death. The geese have been interpreted
as representing the distinction between good and bad. Some interpret
the moonstone as being symbolic of surpassing worldly temptations
and reaching the ultimate goal of ‘nibbana’.
lotus petal also forms a key feature in most moonstones. The lotus
is regarded as a sacred flower by the Buddhists. The lotus figures
prominently in Buddhist art and architecture. It is also mentioned
at important events in the life of the Buddha. Seven lotuses sprang
into bloom at the feet of Prince Siddartha, no sooner he was born
and took the first steps of his life.
‘mura gala’ or guardstone is another major feature at
the entrance to stupas and other religious buildings. Elaborate
carvings are a feature of these guardstones. Generally, two guardstones
have been erected on either side of the entrance, just beyond the
is the most important of Sri Lanka’s early capitals. The shifting
of the capital was mainly due to Tamil invasions. Being of a much
later date, the ruins are better preserved there. Polonnaruwa is
closely associated with the famous king, Parakramabahu the Great,
who ascended the throne in 1153 A.D.
of the chief religious buildings in Polonnaruwa are the Lankatilaka
image house and Kiri Vehera, seen in the picture. Lankatilaka is
a mighty ‘gedige’ whose side walls still stand 55 feet
high and are decorated on the outside with architectural bas-reliefs.
are typical of what can be found in buildings of that period. The
lime plaster on the stupa of Kiri Vehera was in perfect condition
when it was found in the jungle 700 years after King Parakrmabahu’s
queen founded it.