Female Guardians of Ancient Sri Lanka

The sight of the old brick stupa standing tall and proud in the middle of a vast spread of paddy land was a pleasant sight. The bright blue sky that stood up as a back drop would contrast highly against the dark brick colour of the stupa. The name of this place is Dematamal Vihara which is situated in Okkampitiya, Buttala, and it is quite famous for the said brick stupa and the place’s close relation to the life of Dutugemunu and Saddha Tissa, the famous royal siblings of the ancient Sinhalese. 

The history

It is said that the temple was first built by King Mahanaga, who was the ruler of the kingdom of Ruhuna during the 3rd century BCE. According to Pali chronicles Mahanaga was the younger brother of Devanampiya Tissa, which means he is a direct descendent of the Anuradhapura royal family. However, recent archaeological research suggests that he originally belonged to the royal family of Ruhuna that originated in ancient Ruhuna. 

The surrounding paddy fields are as ancient as the temple as legend says that these were first cultivated by King Saddha Tissa. 

The story behind the temple’s name is fascinating. After the death of King Kavan Tissa the two sons had a struggle for power. The younger brother Saddha Tissa won the first battle. But he was defeated in the second battle by Prince Dutugemunu. Therefore Saddha Tissa fled while he was being chased by his elder brother. At this time he hid inside a temple which is believed to be Dematamal Vihara. While he was inside, Dutugemunu came to the temple in search of him, whereas Saddha Tissa was hiding under a bed. Later, the monks carried the prince wrapped up as the corpse of a dead monk, as they wanted to let Saddha Tissa flee. Assuming that this was his younger brother, Dutugemunu said that it was not a righteous thing to do as he was being carried by Buddhist monks. Hearing that comment by his elder brother Saddha Tissa realised that he had being caught. This was when the monks interfered and solved the dispute between the two siblings. As this was the place where the elder brother saw his younger brother, Dutu-Mal (Dutu – saw/ Mal- younger brother) it later on become Dematamal.

Another belief is that this place got its name due to the large number of Demata trees at this place. 

Archaeology of the place

The stupa – The stupa is built on a square shaped platform which has four stairways from each side. The bubble shaped stupa is constructed on three basal rings. 

The brick stupa would be an eyesore to those who believe in whitewashing ancient stupas and adorning ancient monuments, while obliterating its antiquity and identity. However, ancient monuments and sites should remain intact which means, they should be seen in their antique look instead of being whitewashed or reconstructed into modern structures to please the eye and taste of modern devotees and clergy, who have mostly drifted away from the first teachings of Gautama Buddha. 

The monastery – Ruins of a Buddhist monastery can be seen here. The architecture displays characteristics of the Anuradhapura period art school. Stone pillars, stone steps and brick foundations are among the ruins. 

The Buddha statue – A standing Buddha statue can be seen inside the newly built image house. The stone statue displays mid-Anuradhapura period characteristics, especially the style of the robe. The right hand is in abhaya mudra. The Buddha statue veneration is a later addition to the three-chethiyas (thriwidha chethiyas), as it was greatly influenced by later sects of Buddhism. Therefore, it is fair to presume that this belongs to the mid-Anuradhapura period or after.

Bodhisattva head – The head of an ancient statue can be seen here, kept outdoors, leaving it to be exposed to harsh weather conditions. This can be assumed to be a head of a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattva veneration was quite popular in ancient Ruhuna as Mahayana had a notable influence in this part of the country during the Anuradhapura period. 

Lovers entrapped in time…

Among the many muragalas or guardstones that can be seen in Dematamal Vihara, the most notable one is the muragala with two figures, a male and a female, carved on it. 

The muragala is a unique architectural feature of the ancient Sinhalese which can be seen at the entrance to ancient buildings in Sri Lanka. There are two of them on the each side, placed at the two edges of the first step, supporting the balustrade or the korawakgala. 

A humble beginning… 

The earliest guardstones are simple and plain. Later, simple carvings were added onto these stones such as a pot filled with flowers or plants (punkalasa). Guardstones near ponds or reservoirs had a five or seven hooded cobra carved on it. At non-Buddhist buildings such as royal palaces or devalas, the two bhahiravas, Sankha and Padma, were carved on the guardstone. These two bhahiravas are believed to be the protectors of the treasures of Kuwera, god of wealth. 

During the mid-Anuradhapura period, more elaborate guardstones appeared. These had a standing Nagaraja in his human form, all decked up with jewelry and a cobra hood emerging from the back of his head. He holds a punkalasa in his right hand while a bhahirava can be seen at his feet. 

In some guardstones there can be seen a bull, horse, lion or an elephant seated on a short pillar, on the side. This indicates which direction the entrance is facing. 

Female figures on guardstones

Usually it is a male Nagaraja carved on ancient guardstones. Therefore, this unique guardstone with a female figure standing on the right hand side of the male figure is fascinating. The second guardstone of this one is missing. Another guardstone with a female figure carved alongside with the Nagaraja can be seen among the ruins at Anuradhapura. The two display similar characteristics. The female figure is shown smaller than the male figure. As the male is a Nagaraj it can be assumed that this is a Nagini. Nagini figures are not uncommon amidst ancient Sinhalese arts as one can see them among the Jetavana Ayaka carvings. What is more fascinating about this is the female bhahirava figure standing next to the Nagini. This carving can be dated earlier to the two guardstones described here. 

A similar carving of a Nagini and a female bhahirava can be seen at the Lankatilake image house, Polonnaruwa. This is a korawakgala or a balustrade carving. 

These female figures who are Naginis and female bhahiravas are depicted as guardians of those buildings. They are all adorned with beautiful attire and jewels, and feminine beauty and grace is captured at its best in these carvings. Although they are rare in Sri Lanka there could be more such carvings of guardian females that are yet to be discovered. Female guardian figures are not uncommon in ancient Cambodia, as one can see many female guardian figures among the ruins of palaces and monasteries in Cambodia. However, these at Cambodia belong to a later date than the Sinhalese carvings mentioned here. Also, they are believed to be apsara figures, not Naginis or bhahirawas. 

As we are taught to interpret and study history in a male perspective, we tend to interpret archaeological remains in a male perspective too. Also as people who grew up in a patriarchal society, we find it peculiar and challenging to understand the past in a female perspective. Therefore, the role of women in history and depictions of women in ancient arts is often being overlooked. What is surprising is that in a society where women are considered impure and weaker, and are not allowed to take part in certain religious events or enter certain religious places, these guardian women have always stood bravely guarding these temples for centuries. They were not discriminated, or considered impure but admired for their valour.

© සියලූම හිමිකම් ඇවිරිණි. කතෘගේ ලිඛිත අවසරය නොමැතිව මෙහි සඳහන් කිසිවක් හෝ උපුටා ගැනීම, ගබඩා කර තැබීම, නැවත ප්රකාශය, පලකිරීම සපුරා තහනම්ය.

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