Isurumuniya temple in Anuradhapura is best known for two pieces of rock cut sculpture – one is the ‘Isurumuniya Lovers’ and the other is ‘Man and the Horse’. The temple is situated on a picturesque setting – high up on a rock close to Tisa  weva. As we approach the temple is a pond with [...]


Re-visiting a rock temple best known for two sculptures


Isurumuniya temple in Anuradhapura is best known for two pieces of rock cut sculpture – one is the ‘Isurumuniya Lovers’ and the other is ‘Man and the Horse’. The temple is situated on a picturesque setting – high up on a rock close to Tisa  weva. As we approach the temple is a pond with rocks and tall trees forming its backdrop. The temple, however, is not one of the eight places of worship – Atamasthana – in Anuradhapura.

Professor Emeritus J.B. Disanayaka’s recently released book, ‘Isurumuni Rock Temple’ is a well-researched publication describing what one can see in and around the temple. Foreign and local researchers over several decades have shown a great interest in the temple and JB uses their writings to substantiate the facts quoted by him thereby adding a lot of value to his own interpretations.

JB deals at length with both sculptures making it an interesting read. He first writes about ‘The Man and the Horse’ seen on the boulder to the right of the cave shrine. R. Raven Hart calls it “a simple rock-carved figure above the pool, a horse’s head seen over the shoulder of a proud seated man who seems to have been in the rock all the time, so that the sculptor had only to release him.” Can it be Prince Siddhartha and his horse Kanthaka? Can it be Greek king, Alexander the Great with his horse Bucephalus?  Why can’t it be the Indian sage Kapila? Could it be God Avalokitheshwara, a Bodhisatva of the Mahayana pantheon? These are a few possibilities.   According to Professor Senerat Paranavitana, the man represents the Indian deity Parjanya, the God of Rain and the horse represents Agni, fire.

Having discussed the numerous theories at length, JB is of the opinion that the figure must represent someone relevant to Anuradhapura. He then argues that it is “undoubtedly King Pandukabhaya, who had the strongest relationship with Anuradhapura” and his mare, Cetiya. To prove his point that it’s no one else but the king who ruled for seventy years (377-307 BC), JB devotes several pages in the process quoting from the Mahavamsa as well.

The Lovers

Identifying ‘The Lovers’ as the most outstanding sculpture at the temple museum, he says that it is the showpiece that brought fame to the temple. He hastens to add that it was not an integral part of the monastery but something that was stuck into a parapet wall. Its original home could have been the Royal Park adjoining the temple.

The popular theory is that ‘The Lovers’ are Prince Saliya, son of King Dutugemunu and Asokamala, a low caste damsel who was unacceptable to the royal family. JB reproduces the interesting story of “the most attractive romantic tale in the Island’s history” as related by R.L. Brohier in ‘Discovering Ceylon’, while dealing with the other theories.

R. Raven Hart, in his ‘Ceylon History in Stone’ referring to it as ‘fine, fluent piece of work’, says it’s more probably a Hindu god and his consort.

To Professor Zestiri, an Italian archaeologist, the man is the Bodhisatva, Shiracakra Manjushri (one of the eight Bodhisatvas in the Mahayana tradition) and the woman his consort, Shakti.

Martin Wickramasinghe thinks that the man represents a warrior and the woman, his wife whom her husband meets after a long period of separation. “Even if it is conceded that the figures are those of a god and a goddess, the thematic interpretation would be that they represent two lovers and not as some believe, Siva and Parvati,” Martin W says in ‘Aspects of Sinhalese Culture’.

Arguing that the couple represents a man and a woman that have a specific relationship with Anuradhapura, JB believes it is King Pandukabhaya and his queen. He says that Pandukabhaya was famous not only for his royal duties as the first Sinhala king but also for his romantic endeavours. “His story of romance was as popular as that of Prince Saliya and Asokamala, an episode that took place about a thousand years later,” he says.

When Pandukabhaya was a prince of 16, as prophesied by a Brahmin, he met a maid at whose touch leaves turned into gold. Princess Pali (later known as Swarnapali) became his queen. JB points out that since Asokamala, though very pretty, was not of royal caste, the royal family would not have encouraged the sculptors to give publicity to such an episode. On the other hand, Swarnapali was not only of the royal caste but also a maiden who had the magical power to change leaves into golden vessels.

JB also discusses the other pieces of sculpture in the temple which are among the things to be seen and admired. These have been illustrated with black and white pictures. I wish some of them were better reproduced.

A set of high quality colour photographs takes the reader through the old cave shrine which displays a set of old tradition murals and through the new shrine with a set of Buddha images.

JB starts the book with a historical introduction to Anuradhapura followed by describing what the eight sacred sights are. The Moonstone (Sandakadapahana), the Guard stone (Mura gal) and the Balustrade (Korawal gal) are common to all ancient temples. JB explains these along with a detailed description of the different styles of a Stupa and what it contains.

He ends by taking the reader on a visit around the temple to Tisa weva and the Goldfish Park (Ran Masu Uyana), and Vessagiri situated a little away where one can see lot of ruins including rock caves. To him it is “one of the loveliest places around Anuradhapura, quiet and shady and with monkeys often clamouring over the rocks”.

I wish to wind up inviting JB to provide the English reader with books on ancient monasteries. If the same style of the text, layout and size is maintained, it will be convenient for the reader to make it a collector’s series in his or her library.

Book facts
Isurumuni Rock Temple by J.B. Disanayaka. Reviewed by D.C. Ranatunga

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