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Kelaniya Royal Temple (Kelaniya Raja maha Viharaya), Sri Lanka


The city of Kelaniya was the capital city of King Kelanitissa, a scion of the dynasty of King Devanam Piya Tissa (third century B.C.) of Anuradhapura. The royal family of Magama in the south was connected to the royalty of Kalyani by the marriage of King Kavantissa of Magama to Vihara Maha Devi, the daughter of Kelanitissa. It was this matrimony that resulted in the birth of King Dutugamunu (second century B.C.) of Ruhuna, the hero of the nation, during whose period Sri Lanka enjoyed a golden era, both politically and culturally.

Annual pageant

The glorious pageant called Navam Perahara in January, second in splendour only to the famous Kandy Esala Perahera pageant in August, is held annually in celebration of the event of Buddha's visit.

Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple, Sri Lanka, 10km east of Colombo in Colombo-Kandy Road is one of the most sacred, most beautiful, largest temples of Sri Lanka. The temple stands majestically on a higher plain of the west bank overlooking River Kelani (Kalyana) that flows right in front.

History of the Kelaniya Royal Temple

The temple of endless beauty is of long history. The fascinating history of Kelaniya goes back to pre-Christian times. The city was connected with the epic of Ramayana in that Kelaniya's Prince Vibhisana was befriended by Lord Rama of India in his battle against King Ravana of Lanka. A younger brother of Ravana, Vibhisana, like his brother, propitiated Brahma, and obtained a boon in return of a vow. The vow was that he would never commit an unworthy action even in the greatest extremity. Then when the payback time crashlanded, the testing encounter took flight, he had to make his stand against his own land & his own brother.

The chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, record in detail the story of the Buddha's visit to Kelaniya on the eighth year after his Enlightenment, on a Wesak day, on the invitation of the Naga King Maniakkhika. Following the expounding of the Dhamma (Buddhism) by Buddha, Kelaniya Royal Temple was build by the king. The jewelled throne, on which the Buddha sat while preaching, Buddha's hair, the utensils used in the past are said to have been enshrined in the stupa at the Kelaniya temple. Kelaniya Vihara however, received its hallowed status and became a place of Buddhist worship after Arhath (supremely enlightened) Mahinda brought the Dhamma to the island.

Kelaniya has remained important in all historical periods, especially in the fifteenth century under the reign of Parakramabahu the 4th (1351A.D.) and his successors. In the years 1424 and 1475, Kelaniya was visited by Buddhist monks of Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. After that it remained an important religious centre through the centuries and underwent successive developments. The temple was destroyed by marauding Dravidian invaders from South India. But then, restored by the Sinhalese kings.

Laid waste by the Portuguese

Laid waste again by the Portuguese in the 15th Century, the reconstruction of the Vihara was carried out in the patronage of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha (1746-1778) under the supervision of then Chief incumbent Venerable Mapitigama Buddharakkhita during time the Dutch held sway in the western coastal belt of the island. The paintings of the old shrines are dated to the middle of the nineteenth century by the inscription in a medallion decorating the space within the makara-torana (dragon arch) on the facade of the sanctum. It gives the date as 1851 AD. The style of the paintings corroborates this date.

Development during the first half of the twentieth century

The shrine has undergone further development during the first half of the twentieth century in the patronage of Mrs. Helena Wijewardana & under the supervision of then Chief incumbent (Viharadhipathi) venerable Mapitigama Dharmarakkhita thera. A new shrine of great beauty was built. The new shrine, together with an additional wing to the old shrine, has been painted entirely with a completely new style of the old idiom that remains unrivalled. Mrs. Wijewardana was able to get the services of one of the greatest painters of the era to do the renovation. Illustrious Solius Mendis, the highly respected master painter of neo-classical tradition of Sri Lanka, brought the ancient paintings to its original glory by using paints that he himself had made from organic materials. The renovation work took 20 years to complete.

The Stupa of the Temple Complex

The stupa of Kelaniya is architecturally important in that its dome retains to this day and apparently its original form was known as dhanyagara (heap of paddy) shape.

The re-inventor of Sri Lanka's ancient tradition of art: Solius Mendis

Following the betrayal of the ancient island nation to the British Colonialists by the highland nobles of Kandy in the Kandyan Kingdom, the social fabric of the Sri Lanka was torn to pieces. Amidst numerous traditions, the ancient and medieval traditions of paintings in Sri Lanka too declined. In the absence of the masters of art, the decorators gained ground. M. Sarlis very nearly killed the old traditions of art by painting a series of pictures, which were quickly grabbed by an enterprising commercial firm sold the cheap reproductions of those paintings to by the thousands to the poor Buddhist home in all four corners of the island. Such was the spread of those gaudy paintings, even some ignorant Buddhist monks commissioned new series of paintings by M. Sarlis in their temples. But then, in time, there emerged a master to save the temples from vandalism: Solius Mendis

Kelaniya Frescoes

The modern Kelaniya Frescoes by Solius mendis at Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Raja Maha Vihara (Sinhala: Kelaniya -royal-temple now popularly called Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Frescoes of the Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Rajamahavihara composed in the regular rectangle panels of the Kandyan Art are pleasant to the eye with their subdued colors. Line work is robust and retains rhythm. Delineation of character by a sureness of modeling has been achieved to such a degree, the craftsmanship is not second to ancient Sigiriya frescoes. Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Frescoes are justifiably considered best work of Sri Lanka Frescoes after the Polonnaruwa period.

The ancient North Indian schools of Art related to Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Frescoes

The modern paintings of the Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Raja Maha Vihara (Sinhala: great royal temple) are without comparison, as these have been the creation of one single artist, Illustrious Solius Mendis of the twentieth century. However, the inspiration gained by the artist through his studies of ancient Indian and Sinhalese painting is quite apparent.

The flying divinities in the panel on Sumanakuta (Sinhala; the mountain of God Sumana Saman) or Sri Pada or Adam's Peak remind one of the flying celestials of famous Ajanta frescoes at Ajanta caves (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Aurangabad district, state of Maharashtra in India.

The graceful bust of Hemamala with elegantly arranged coiffure in the panel on arrival of Sacred Tooth Relic during the reign of King Kirti Sri Meghawarna (Sirimevan) (302-330 A.D.) draws its inspiration from the fastidious celestial nymphs at the Lion Rock citadel (Sigiriya).

The portrayal of the Buddha and the divinities seems to have been influenced by the paintings on the Buddha's descent from heaven as well as the assembly of gods at the Tivanka pilimage at Polonnaruwa.

Most of all, the divine and royal personages worshipping the Gauthama Buddha, clasping their outstretched hands in various postures, are suggestive of the artist's study of the second-century Andhra sculptures portraying vivacious ladies venerating the Buddha in various scenes.

The modern North Indian schools of Art that influenced Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Frescoes

In a perspective of recent Indian masters, the two magnificent panels depicting the arrival of Buddhist nun Theri Sangamitta bringing a sapling of the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree (Bo or Peepal or Ficus religiosa) at Bodh Gaya (Historically, called Uruvela, Sambodhi, Vajrasana or Mahabodhi), modern state of Bihar (mid-way between West Bengal in the east and Uttar Pradesh in the west and bodering Nepal in the north) in India to Sri Lanka, for all we know, might as well have been painted by the brush of the Bengali revivalists of classical Indian culture, Nandalal Bose (18821966) or Sarada Ukil (1889-1940). The thin diaphanous texture of the apparel and the smooth tonal built-up of colours, are obviously inspired by the Bengali school of painting mastered by Rabindranath Tagore (18611941). Nandalal Bose and Sarada Ukil were students of the peerless Gurudev (Sanskrit: noble teacher), sage-like Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagor.

The depiction of the landmarks of Sinhalese Buddhist history in Kelaniya Frescoes

The Subject matter of the Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Frescoes arent confined to the events associated with the Buddha or Jataka stories, which allude to the 550 previous births of Buddha as narrated in the Buddhist literature somewhat in the line of Aesop's Fables. Depicted in the wall spaces are also the landmarks of Sinhalese Buddhist history.

The entry of Sinhalese Buddhist history into the panels of Kelaniya (Kaleniya) Frescoes is especially significant since with the exception of Golden Dambulla Rock CaveTemple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) where the duel between King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC), the Hero of Sri Lanka and Elara, the Dravidian invader from southern India had been painted, such historical paintings arent in existence today.

The shrine of the Temple Complex

Today the large temple complex consists of Stupa, old shrine, a new wing to old shrine, new shrine & monk's residence is of highest order. The art therein, old series of painting at the old shrine, classical paintings of the new shrine, an array of recumbent carved statues of Buddha, a series of status of deities, makara torana (Dragon Arches), Sinha Makara torana (Lion dragon arches) is testimony to the Buddhist culture in the Low country of Sri Lanka. The portrayal of Lord Hanuman among these deities is an unusual feature, apparently based on the association of Kelaniya with the epic Ramayana through Vibhisana, the tutelary deity of the city.

The older paintings of Kelaniya belong to the low-country idiom of the Sittara art tradition of the nineteenth century. The selection of the themes also conforms to the general pattern found at the shrines of the same period. The arrangement of the paintings in the sanctum, with its emphasis on the presence of important divinities attending on the Buddha, however, is known only at a very few other shrines, of the island. The exaltation of the Naga king Maniakkhika, the special emphasis given to the Buddha's visit to Kalyani, represent the unique features of Kelaniya, inspired by the history of the city.

The ceiling of the vestibule of the old shrine has been devoted to the themes dealing with cosmology. It contains seven panels, bordered by scroll and garland motifs. Four of these depict the Tree of Life, each differing from the other in the delineation of the tree and the environs, and yet each symbolizing the axis of the Universe where life of all kinds originated. The other three panels contain three schematic cosmological diagrams, consisting of

  1. the twelve signs of the Zodiac that mark the twelve phases of the annual cyclic movement of the sun,
  2. the nine divine guardians of the world directions, conceived of as identical with the nine planets that rule man's life from day to day, and
  3. the ten incarnations of Vishnu which are associated with the cyclic evolution of the world, namely, its creation, destruction and re-creation.
The ceiling space was obviously conceived of as the vault of Heaven in which the sun, the moon, the constellations and the planets rotate. Nevertheless, there could have been another consideration behind the installation of such diagrams in religious edifices. According to ancient practice, such an act would have transformed the structures into the axis of the Universe, the place of origin, and the consecrated abode for the Supreme Lord of the Faith. And, vice versa, by the very act of incorporating cosmological diagrams in the Buddha shrines, the entire cosmos and all the divine powers that rule the world and the destiny of mankind would come under the auspicious influences and the benevolent protection of the Buddha.

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Photo Gallery

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Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple

Kelaniya Royal Temple

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