Semage recreates the life of the Buddha in Lumbini temple

From birth to enlightenment
By Tharindu Premaratne, Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

He has lovingly laboured over a beautiful bronze statue of the infant Prince Siddhartha and also painted many an intricate mural at Lumbini just before his return to Sri Lanka two weeks ago.

‘Enlightenment’, ‘Queen Maha Maya’s Dream’, ‘Defeating Mara’, ‘Sujatha’s Meal Offering’, ‘The First Discourse’ and ‘Parinibbana’ encompass the magnitude of the work at Lumbini that Kalasuri Jayasiri Semage has undertaken at the first Theravada Buddhist temple being set up by Sri Lanka at the birthplace of the Buddha.
“I mixed Ajantha and Sigiri frescoes to create a new style.”

Following in the footsteps of ancient masters, Semage has decided to paint the huge ceiling of the temple with lotuses, similar to the Dambulla and Polonnaruwa Periods.

“I mixed Ajantha and Sigiri frescoes to create a new style,” says Semage, for ancient frescoes have always had a lasting effect on him. “After finishing I hope to have done a better job than Ajantha and Sigiri frescoes,” he remarks with a smile.

His trips back and forth to Lumbini began recently on being invited by a committee appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to undertake the sculptures and painting of the murals at the temple, in his unique style.

Semage works with a few amateur artists as assistants, guiding them at every step and doing the major part of the work himself. Using water-based acrylic colours, with a special background, he says they have to be very careful when selecting the materials because the weather could otherwise destroy the painting. The climate in Nepal varies from time to time, becoming very hot and then very cold.

Describing Lumbini, Semage says, although there are many Mahayana temples, this is the only Theravada temple there. It is the first of its kind in Nepal and will be constructed on a grand scale.
“The temple is about a hundred yards from Lord Buddha’s birthplace,” says Semage, explaining that the murals will tell the story of the Bodhisatva Siddhartha on his road to enlightenment.
Semage working on a mural in the first Sri Lankan temple in Lumbini.

The temple project was started during the time of President Ranasinghe Premadasa but did not see completion. It has been revived under the Mahinda Chintanaya and is supported by the Nepali government.

At the entrance to the temple is the 40-foot Makara thorana (pandal) designed by Semage depicting a dragon, complete with the sun and moon motifs. Figures of lions representing the Yapahuva Period will adorn the pandal’s entrance. There will also be a Sandakada Pahana (moonstone), representing the Anuradhapura Period at the foot of the pandal.

Then the visitor will come upon the 3.5 foot bronze statue of the infant Bodhisatva, which was ceremonially opened recently. Meanwhile, scenes depicting the birth of Prince Siddhartha are being painted on the walls measuring 19 ft. X 10 ft. in the shrine room. “We have tried to depict the life of Buddha and tried to always create a flow, a rhythmic beauty to the murals,” says Semage.

On the other side of the chamber are the Jataka stories like the Nalagiri Dhamanaya and Angulimala.
Coming from a remote fishing village in Ambalangoda, this humble artist recalls how at the age of five, he was asked to draw the first letter of the Sinhala alphabet, the “ayanna” on the class blackboard. Picking up the chalk, the little painter drew what resembled the head of an elephant with its trunk. It was then that his teacher predicted that he will be an artist one day.

Later, while busying himself with school work, the young Semage would also paint pandals, joining art clubs and winning honours from the Royal Drawing Society of London. The painter would visit the village temple after school to study the murals there. He says he admired the lotuses and other depictions of nature and found the paintings of that day to be detailed with rich shades of blue and red.

This extravagant colouring of the statues and murals, the artist attributes to the influence of Indian culture. This aspect and a few others of such murals, Semage would change for his own work. He says that these attributes themselves were what led to his selection to undertake the Lumbini project, by the committee.
Another of his paintings in the temple.

“If George Keyt had Picasso, I had those ancient murals,” he says. What followed those visits to the colourful murals of the temple was a spectrum of experimentation which allowed Semage to come up with the new colour schemes he has used today. He has refrained from using blue in his work and uses sober shades of orange and green for his Lumbini artwork.

He varied not only the combination of colours but the composition as well. Pointing at the creation titled ‘Enlightenment’, he said that this scene from the buddhacharitha is usually depicted with gods and goddesses leaning over in obeisance.

“I have instead given more attention to mother-nature, showing how the birds chirped and trees, leaves and vines paid obeisance to the Buddha,” says Semage, adding that those very trees and ponds that would have been there when Prince Siddhartha was born may still be there.

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