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Architectural Significance

   The Gadaladeniya Vihara, designed according to the architectural style of ancient Dravidian Hindu shrines, particularly reflects South Indian architecture. Archaeological investigations have unveiled that the temple’s architecture seamlessly merges South Indian architectural techniques with ancient Sri Lankan architectural traditions dating back to the Polonnaruwa era (11th century). This synthesis underscores the profound impact of Hinduism in Sri Lanka during the temple’s construction period.

Archaeological and Architectural Significance

     The Gadaladeniya Vihara, a Buddhist temple designed according to the architectural style of ancient Dravidian Hindu shrines, particularly reflects South Indian architecture. The main temple building bears striKing resemblance to the fundamental features of Shiva temples constructed during the Polonnaruwa period (11th century).

     Archaeological investigations have unveiled that the temple’s architecture seamlessly merges South Indian architectural techniques with ancient Sri Lankan architectural traditions dating back to the Polonnaruwa era. This synthesis underscores the profound impact of Hinduism in Sri Lanka during the temple’s construction period, where Hindu principles intertwined prominently with Buddhist tenets. The existence of a Vishnu shrine within the Gadaladeniya Vihara’s primary sanctum serves as additional evidence of this amalgamation, corroborated by inscriptions delineating the establishment of a Vishnu shrine inside the main shrine.

The Main Shrine

     The main shrine at Gadaladeniya Temple features three sections, typical of South Indian Hindu temple architecture: the Outer Pavilion (Pita Mandapa), the Antechamber (Antarāla), and the Inner Sanctum (Garbhagṛiha). Measuring 70 feet in length and 28 feet in width, the temple structure is recorded as a three-storied shrine in inscriptions. The second floor is an empty pavilion, and the third floor forms a tower (Vimāna) covered with a spire (Śikara).

Outer Pavilion (Pita Mandapa)

     The outer pavilion is the first section visitors encounter, featuring a moonstone from the Gampola era, distinct from traditional moonstones of earlier periods. The carvings are simpler, featuring only a lotus flower and scroll designs. The pavilion’s staircase, unique to the Gampola era, has intricate carvings depicting various figures and activities. The outer pavilion serves as a drumming hall for Buddhist rituals.

Three-Sided Stone Pillars of the Outer Pavilion

      The pavilion’s unique three-sided stone pillars are crafted from single stone blocks and feature intricate carvings depicting seated lions, octagonal pillars, and blossoming lotus flowers. The pillars’ designs vary significantly, reflecting both Dravidian and traditional Sinhala styles. One pillar features Hindu deities like Lord Shiva, while the other is adorned with Sinhala carvings, suggesting contributions from both South Indian and Sri Lankan architects.

Antechamber (Antarāla)

    Connecting the outer pavilion to the inner sanctum, the antechamber houses a shrine dedicated to God Vishnu. The roof is made of large stone slabs, and the drumming hall (Digge) of the Vishnu shrine is located on one side.

Inner Sanctum (Garbhagṛiha)

        The inner sanctum, accessed through a grand granite doorway, is entirely made of granite and houses a twelve-cubit meditative Buddha statue. This statue, adorned in golden robes and gold-plated, is accompanied by four standing Buddha statues in the Abhaya Mudra. The sanctum features a dragon pantheon above the Buddha statue, symbolizing protection and the Buddha’s supremacy over all beings.

External Decorations

       The external decoration of the outer pavilion differs significantly from that of the inner sanctum. The pavilion’s upper parts feature Vāmanas and dancers, while the stone slabs around the roof bear leaf designs, with carved figures of Vāmanas adorning them. In contrast, the shrine’s outer walls follow the South Indian tradition, designed with ledges, bulwarks, and pillars, with a main portal at the center and two windows on each side, each topped with a pediment. Lion images embellish canopies above the windows.

Upon entering from the east side, a line of Vāmana figures adorns the roof level of the front pavilion, while on the sides and rear of the building, Vāmana figures in the center and lines of lion figures on both sides stand out. Rare Gajasingha images are also carved among the lion images. These carvings, reminiscent of South Indian Pandya and Vijayanagar traditions, contribute to the building’s external beauty, characterized by simple, shallow carvings. Ananda Kumaraswamy suggests that these carvings may have been plastered with lime plaster and adorned with paintings in the early stages, a theory supported by the remains of plastered parts.

Main Buddha Image

    Inside the inner sanctum of the main shrine stands a twelve-cubit Buddha statue with the meditative pose (Dhyāna mudrā). The statue’s basic plan, made of bricks, is shaped and prepared with a fine lime mortar surface, then painted to completion. The closely fitting, intricately draped robes are golden in color, with the entire statue being gold-plated. The intensely colored, wide-open eyes reflect South Indian iconography, while the lines on the neck and forehead accentuate the sculpture’s complexity. 

      Unlike the calmness and serenity seen in the sculptural art of the Buddha statues in early eras such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, commentators note that these characteristics were added to the sculpture art during the Gampola period.

     Near the main Buddha statue, positioned slightly in front and the two sides of it, four standing Buddha statues have been created. According to the main rock inscription, initially, only two statues were made, but the period during which the other two statues were created remains unclear. Additionally, it is challenging to ascertain which two statues are the older ones. All the statues are sculpted in the Abhaya Mudra, symbolizing protection, benevolence, and fearlessness. The front two statues are adorned in yellow and gold, while the rear statues are painted in red and yellow, despite significant discoloration evident on all statues.

    The main statue sits on a raised brick seat completed with lime mortar, with a large stylized flower altar in front adorned with scripts and line designs. The interior of the shrine is adorned with paintings, most of which have been destroyed due to rainwater seepage. Only parts of the central ceiling paintings, dating back to the Gampola period, are slightly preserved.

Dragon Pantheon

     Above the Buddha statue rests a beautiful dragon pantheon, followed by a group of small statues offering worship to the main Buddha statue. The dragon pantheon, featuring the image of a dragon, stands out as a distinctive element in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist carvings, showcasing remarkable architectural artistry. Often positioned at temple entrances and around Buddha statues, these dragon pandals exhibit intricate craftsmanship and symbolic significance.

  Adorned with intricate details such as garlands, and scrolls, the dragon pantheon is characterized by two dragon images flanking its sides. At the apex, these dragons are united by a cruel face known as Kihimbi or Kīrti Mukha, symbolizing Ishvara (God Shiva) in Hindu theology. The arched design of the dragon pantheon symbolizes prosperity, fortune, and protection for those who traverse beneath it, warding off potential dangers.

The depiction of the dragon in the Pantheon embodies features from various animal forms, reflecting a rich symbolism. With elements such as the elephant’s trunk, lion’s feet, crocodile’s teeth, monkey’s eyes, pig’s ears, fish’s trugank, and turtle’s wings, the dragon amalgamates diverse animal attributes into a singular, mythical form.

Constructing a dragon pantheon with powerful gods positioned atop the Buddha image symbolizes the Buddha’s supremacy over all beings, including gods. It conveys the message that the Buddha stands as the ultimate and most powerful figure, surpassing even the highest celestial beings. This arrangement emphasizes the Buddha’s transcendence beyond the realm of gods and asserts that no entity holds authority over him. It serves as a visual representation of the Buddha’s enlightenment and his status as the supreme teacher and guide for all sentient beings.

According to the main inscription in the temple, the statues above the dragon pantheon represent the deities of Shakra (Indra), Brahma, Suyāma, Santhusita, Nātha, and Maitri bodhisatva.

  1. Shakra (Indra) – the lord of the deities (celestial beings) and the lord of the Cāturmahārājika and Tāvatiṃsa Considered to be the guardian of Buddhism.
  2. Brahma – according to the Hinduism, the creator of the universe and one of the principal deities of the Trimūrti (trinity) along with Vishnu and Shiva. In Buddhism, considered as one of the highest heavenly beings (higher than the Deities) who dwell in the form realm (rūpaloka).
  3. Suyāma, – the lord of the deities in Yāma
  4. Santhusita, – the lord of the deities in Tusita
  5. Nātha, – a Bodhisattva residing in the heaven, aspiring to attain Buddhahood in the future. Often considered as the Avalokitevara
  6. Maitrithe future Buddha, is believed to presently dwell as a Bodhisattva in Tusita heaven. The successor of the current Gautama Buddha.

The Tower (Vimāna) and the Spire (Sikhara)

    At the top floor of the building, there stands the tower as a stupa with an image house, constituting the main shrine which, as depicted in the inscription, is three-storied. This structure encompasses the ground floor, the section above the corridor, and the image house at the summit. The top spire of this image house is octagonal, with its upper part resembling a small stupa. Presently, only a dirt seat occupies this space, as described in the inscription. It is noted that a golden Buddha image once resided inside the stupa, which indicates the Buddha preaches the Abhidharma to his mother deity in the Tāvatimsa heaven. Regrettably, during the later Portuguese invasion, the statue met destruction, and the remaining seat is crafted from brick and lime mortar.

    This stupa-shaped tower follows the design tradition of Gedige (Stupa-shaped tower), featuring various carvings and faded paintings on the exterior, with the principal one resembling a dragon arch with a kihimbi face. The Gedige tradition refers to a style of architecture found in Sri Lanka, particularly in ancient Buddhist temples and shrines. It is characterized by the use of stupa-shaped towers or structures, often with elaborate carvings and architectural features. These structures typically incorporate elements of both Hindu and Buddhist architectural styles, reflecting the cultural and religious interchange that has occurred in Sri Lanka over the centuries. The Gedige tradition is notable for its unique blend of aesthetic influences and its significance in Sri Lankan architectural history.

   Within the stupa, murals from the Gampola and Kandyan Kingdoms can be found, many depicting the Vessantara Jātaka story. The Vessantara Jataka is one of the most famous and beloved stories in Buddhist literature. It narrates the tale of Prince Vessantara, the previous life of the Buddha, who was renowned for his extreme generosity. In the story, Prince Vessantara gives away his most cherished possession, a magical white elephant, to a neighboring Kingdom, which ultimately leads to his banishment from his own Kingdom. Throughout the narrative, Prince Vessantara faces numerous trials and tribulations, testing his commitment to selflessness and compassion.

  The Vessantara Jataka is considered significant in Buddhist teachings as it exemplifies the virtue of generosity (dāna) and selflessness. It is often recited and depicted in various forms of Buddhist art, literature, and performances across Buddhist cultures. The story is also valued for its moral lessons and teachings on the path to enlightenment.

    Additionally, other paintings, such as images of Arahants, adorn the interior. These artworks have been meticulously preserved by the Kandy Project of the Central Cultural Fund, under the supervision of the Department of Archaeology in the late 20th century. However, due to its location above the main statue, entry is currently prohibited.

    The tower of the Vishnu shrine stands vacant, save for a small aperture facing southward. Legend has it that these minute portals were fashioned to facilitate the ingress of celestial beings imperceptible to mortal sight.

The Ancient Covering Roof (Purage)

    King Parakramabāhu VI, the first ruler of the Kingdom of Kotte, constructed a curved tile roof atop the main shrine building. This roof was removed in the mid-20th century due to safety concerns, but ancient photographs document its historical presence.

Vijayotpāya Pagoda

     The pagoda, towering 40 feet tall on the hilltop in front of the main shrine, dates back to the Gampola period, although the exact period of its construction remains a subject of debate. Historical records suggest that King Parakramabāhu V of Gampola built a secure roof atop four tall pillars to safeguard the pagoda. Adjacent to the main pagoda are four subsidiary pagodas, each facing a cardinal direction. Beneath them originally stood four small stone shrines and eight elephant images, unfortunately destroyed by Portuguese invaders in the 16th century.

   This ancient pagoda is named Vijayotpāya, inspired by the concept of “Vaijayantha Prasada,” believed to be the abode of God Sakra (Indra). The main pagoda symbolizes the god himself, while the four subsidiary pagodas represent the four main deities. Notably, this is Sri Lanka’s only pagoda featuring four small shrines facing each cardinal direction and a Chetiyagṛiha (a building with a covering roof created to safeguard the pagoda), maKing it the primary Chetiyagṛiha extant in Sri Lanka.

The subsidiary pagodas were constructed in the 1960s. Originally, these small temples had roofs covered with tiles. However, references in praises of the Vijayotpāya Pagoda, written during the Kotte Kingdom period in texts like Saddharmaratnākaraya, indicate that the original construction included four subsidiary pagodas alongside the main one. Due to the destruction of the original subsidiary pagodas, it appears that the existing ones were constructed at a later date. The sacred relics of the Lord Buddha and Arahants are believed to be placed inside the Pagoda.

The Ancient Bodhi Tree

    The origins of the Bodhi tree in Gadaladeniya Vihara are subject to two differing opinions. One belief holds that it was planted by Venerable Dharmakīrti I in 1344, who acquired a branch from the Ananda Bodhi tree at Jetavanarama in Shravasti, India. Conversely, according to the Sulu Bodhivamsa, it is regarded as one of the thirty-four branches that originated from Sri Mahabodhi in Anuradhapura. However, the Bodhi tree is more than 700 years old. Despite the variance in beliefs, this Bodhi tree, adorned with an ancient stone Bodhi wall and a Malasun house, holds profound spiritual significance.

Golden Relic Casket

   On the left side of the main statue, there rests an ancient gold-plated casket, offered by Venerable Welivita Saranankara II in 1820 during his tenure at the Gadaladeniya Vihara. Crafted from copper-alloyed brass metal and adorned with intricate carvings, this sacred casket houses relics of the Lord Buddha and Arahants such as Sāriputta, Moggallāna, Sīvalī, Anuruddha, Ānanda, Bakkula, Angulimāla and Pajāpatī Gotamī preserving their sanctity for over two centuries.

   A wooden box, intricately adorned with decorative paintings, serves as the protective encasement for the casket. Both inside and outside, paintings dating back to the Kandyan period adorn its surfaces. Inside, one finds depictions of the Buddha, while outside, images of Sāriputta and Moggallāna, the Buddha’s foremost disciples, grace the scene. Additionally, traditional scroll designs and depictions of deities such as God Vishnu and Saman embellish the exterior, adding to its spiritual significance and aesthetic allure.