Commemorating Valour; Hero Stones of Sri Lanka

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

“A true warrior fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

 G.K. Chesterton.

Battles have always been a part of human civilization. Fighting against each other for territories is a nature of almost every living being, no matter if they are human or not. Battles for acquiring land, to gain authority over geographical and natural resources, or over certain possessions, and for freedom (political or religious) have shaped the history of mankind. 

If one group of people forcefully enter the land of another group of people and take control over that land by force, those who are living in that land enter into a battle; a battle for their own freedom and sovereignty. Such wars are celebrated by natives as freedom fights or as battles fought for the freedom of their land and national pride. Hence, war heroes are celebrated and even venerated in some cultures and war memorials are built on places where certain wars took place. 

In the history of Sri Lanka, we have a long history of wars and a long list of war heroes that we celebrate. Building memorials for war heroes and to commemorate certain victories has always been a practice in Sri Lankan history. Among the many ancient monuments we have, there are certain stupas that have been built to commemorate warriors. The recently built Sanda Hiru Seya can be seen as a continuation of this practice of commemorating war heroes and victories. This is not a practice common to Sri Lanka but a practice that is common all over the world among any race, religion and culture. All over the world, wars have been glorified in ancient cultures and religions. In arts and literature, wars and war-related victories have been given a great place. 

Among such ancient memorials in Sri Lanka, there is a type of memorials which are carved stone slabs that we know today as Veeragal or Hero Stones. There are a number of hero stones that are kept at the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa National museums. Some scholars identify the Isurumuniya Lovers carving also to be a work of art following the theme of war and war-related victories. Such stone slabs are common and popular in India and similar carvings and paintings were a popular theme in many parts of ancient SouthEast Asia. 

Hero Stones are a subject that the majority of Sri Lankan history and archaeology lovers are not very familiar with. Therefore, Ceylon Today Heritage explored the story of Hero Stones or Veerargal in Sri Lanka. 

Hero Stone at Velanadamana, Vilachchi Korale, Vilpattu

This extraordinary piece is known as the largest Hero Stone found in Sri Lanka and now can be seen at the  National Archaeological Museum, Anuradhapura. In his scholarly work, Hero-Stone at Anuradhapura and Other Essays, professor T.G.Kulatunga states that H.C.P.Bell writes about this piece in his Archaeological Survey of Ceylon Annual report of the year 1896. This stone slab is reported to be 2.175 m height, 77 cm breath and 20 cm in thickness and was found by him in the Velanadamana area of the Vilacchi Korale, Vilpattu. 

Professor Kulatunga says that the practice of having such memorials of soldiers who lost their lives in war has been a popular practice in South India as is evidenced by the large number of such memorials found there and they are known as Virakkal. He writes, “it is, therefore, reasonable to believe that Viragal in Sri Lanka followed the examples set by the South Indian tradition.” 

It is further reported that this slab was removed from its original location in 1947 by H.A.Caldera and was brought to the Anuradhapura archaeological museum. Professor Kulatunga believes that the place where the stone slab was found may have been the location where the hero died or was buried; for hero-stones are placed in such locations.

Professor Paranavitana is of the view that this hero-stone belongs to the 10th -12th centuries CE and professor Kulatunga says that the letters of the inscription on the stone clearly belong to the 10th – 11th centuries CE and therefore this hero-stone undoubtedly belongs to the 10th – 11th centuries. Professor Kulatunga further examines the carvings and confirms that the seated figure on the upper panel represents Bodhisattva Samantabadra (this name is mentioned in the inscription). He explains that, “the engravings depict the idea that a soldier who died in battle for his country, race and religion is born as a Bodhisattva. There is evidence that this idea was widespread during the 10th – 12th centuries CE in this country, when it was facing numerous wars.”

It is reported that there are a few more Hero-stones kept at the Anuradhapura museum and later moved to the Polonnaruwa museum. It is also reported that there have been found two stone slabs with similar engravings at the entrance of Vijayasundararama temple, Dambadeniya. 

Isurumuniya lovers; a Hero-Stone?

Professor Kulatunga believes that the male figure of the Isurumuniya lovers is a soldier. He writes that the prahamandala or the circle of rays that is shown behind him is the reason that it is difficult to identify him as a mere figure of an ordinary soldier. Therefore he says that it can be an indication of a soldier dying in war acquiring a divine form. The female figure seated next to him could be an apsara or a divine maiden. 

Hero Stones; the concept

Hero Stones are basically a stone slab built as a memorial of a warrior. Usually, these slabs are erected on the place where these heroes died or fought a memorable battle or were buried. The belief behind these memorial slabs can be seen as a concept that was popular in Hindu literature and in many other religious and cultural beliefs elsewhere in the world. The belief is that if a person dies in battle, he is reborn in heaven surrounded and attended by divine maidens or apsaras. In Sri Lanka, this belief took a slightly different twist and the soldier who dies in battle is born as a Bodhisattva. This shows that the Hindu belief was revised with a touch of Buddhist philosophy. 

Professor T.G.Kulatunga states that it is mentioned in the Manusmriti that a king dying in battle is destined to be born in heaven. In the Hitopadesa it says that a soldier dying in battle enjoys the company of divine maidens in heaven. Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsa depicts a soldier born in heaven after dying in battle, watching his own headless body while embracing an apsara. 

According to the Mahabharata, war is a religious offering and whoever offers it after performing a yajna (a religious offering) is born in heaven and enjoys the company of divine maidens. Professor Kulatunga further says that the Mahabharata contains many stories of heavenly maidens competing with each other to obtain the company of such soldiers born in heaven after losing life in war. 

Are war heroes to be celebrated?

One may question, in today’s point of view and in a Buddhist point of view, how morally correct and righteous it is to celebrate wars and war heroes. Moreover, Sri Lanka being a country that has a culture and civilization that was mainly shaped by Buddhist philosophy, may have a fair question or a criticism of how and why wars and war heroes were venerated and celebrated in the past. One may even say that this was mainly because of the Hindu influence we had in the past. 

However, in the Mahavamsa, which is a 5th-century Pali chronicle, wars that were fought to protect the sovereignty of the island and wars against usurpers are mentioned a lot. The victories and warriors are celebrated. The 5th century CE was a period of Sri Lankan history and culture that had a least amount of Hindu influence. This was a time when Theravada Buddhism flourished in Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura was the capital and there is no evidence of a devale or temple being built for gods/goddesses nor any evidence of a religion or belief or any cult apart from Buddhism that has been found during this period. 

In the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa (the oldest chronicle of Sri Lanka), the first major war of the Sinhalese is the war of Pandukabhaya against his nine uncles. He is celebrated as a great warrior in the first half of the Mahavamsa. Then, the most celebrated warrior of the Mahavamsa is Dutugamunu who fought a battle against the usurper Elara. Then there is Valagamba, Dhathusena, Vijayabahu and Parakramabahu and the list goes on. Mahavamsa being a chronicle that records the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka doesn’t shy away from admiring these victories. It even says that the battle of Dutugamunu was to protect the Buddha sasana of Sri Lanka. Similarly, all the other wars fought by Sinhalese kings and princes are praised. Soma Devi and Viharama Devi, two brave women who played a vital role during historical wars are praised as brave and great women in Mahavamsa and other local chronicles.

Monuments were built to commemorate them. Lahugala kota vehera, Chulangani stupa and Yudaganawa stupa, Dakkhina stupa, Galhebakada stupa, Dedigama kota vehera, Lankarama stupa, Two stupas at Beddagana kotte, are stupas that have been built in memory of warriors in Sri Lanka. It is said that Dutugamunu built a tomb in honour of Elara, who was a valiant warrior, and requested the public to pay respect whenever they were passing the tomb. This again shows that those who sacrifice their lives in wars have always been celebrated and praised in Sri Lanka. They are celebrated for the valour and skills they have shown during wars. As we have mentioned above, this practice is universal. 

Although today, some people are of the view that according to Buddhist philosophy wars should not be commemorated and war heroes should not be celebrated. However, anyone with common sense would know that unless these kings and warriors fought these historical wars, our history would have been completely different. Unless for the sacrifices of them, the sovereignty of the country and the national identity of our race would have been something else. 

Sri Lanka being a country that experienced a bloody war for thirty decades, and we being a generation that spent almost all of our lives along with this war, and now experiencing the post-war period, know very well of the dire consequences of a war. If not this war was fought and won by the Sri Lankan army, our lives would have been doomed. We need not to say how many lives and property was destroyed in this war and about the devastating state of the country due to it. 

This is why those who fight and win wars are considered as heroes and are admired. Wars should be ended. Wars should be crushed. Those who start wars and destroy others’ lives, lands and property should be stopped. This saves lives and countries. This was why the ending of World War I and II was celebrated with great happiness all over the world. 

“Protecting yourself is self-defence. Protecting others is warriorship.”

Bohdi Sanders.

Information and image courtesy; Hero-Stone at Anuradhapura and Other Essays by Professor T.G.Kulatunga

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, Hero Stones of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY