Seeing Perfection in Imperfection; Nagalakanda ruins, Minneriya

“I have always believed that it is the artist who creates a work, but a society that turns it into a work of art.” 

– Johannes Cladders

Nagalakanda Raja Maha Vihara is a fascinating archaeological site located in the Minneriya town, North Central Province. This archaeological site can be reached once you pass the Minneriya town and then walk about 200 meters ahead from the town towards Colombo. On your right hand side you will see a black board of the Department of Archaeology with the name of the temple. From there you have to walk about 1.1 km to reach the temple. 

The mountain of the cobra’s gem

How the mountain was named as Nagalakanda or the Mountain of the Cobra’s Gem remains a mystery. Nevertheless, there are two stories behind the name of the temple. One story goes as: there was a massive cobra that lived on the rock that was guarding a precious stone. Stones that are protected by cobras are known to be precious and rare. 

The second story is that there were a large number of Na or Iron wood trees at this place therefore it got the name. 

It is also said that earlier the place was called Nagahakanda which means ‘Iron Tree Mountain’ and later gaha was pronounced as gala, therefore the place got its present name. 

Built by the first God King of Sri Lanka

The temple is believed to be first built by King Mahasen who ruled from Anuradhapura. He built the massive Minneriya Tank which is still the main source of income in this area. In the Mahavamsa it is said that King Mahasen built a temple called Minneri Vehera, and scholars presume that this could be that Minneri Vehera. 

King Mahasen was worshipped as Minneri Deviyo or the god of Minneriya after his death, as a tribute to his enormous contribution towards agriculture, irrigation and to the country’s economy. This is one of the earliest examples of a Sinhalese monarch being worshipped as a god after death. The cult of Minneri Deviyo still exists. A small shrine built to him can be seen even today at Minneriya where rituals are performed to him in the hope of evoking his blessings. It is as if his blessings still work for the locals since their living is mainly woven around the Minneriya Tank built by him. The tank nourishes the region and a vast area of land is fed by the waters of Minneriya, while the fishing communities and the local tourism industry are sustained by it. Therefore it is clear why the king was venerated as a god after his death and still continues to be done so. 

A view one must not miss

As you enter the premises of the temple what you will witness is a picturesque scene of a pond, rock cut steps and some araliya trees. There are a number of ruins scattered all over, including image houses, stupas, an uposathagara and foundations of ruined buildings. Once you climb up the mountain, the view is breathtaking and picturesque. Although these ruins are fascinating, the most fascinating feature of the temple is the standing Buddha statue of the first image house you encounter as you climb the mountain. 

Unusual masterpiece

The sight of a colossal standing Buddha statue in the midst of the many shades of greens and the bright blue sky as the backdrop is a sight that will awestruck anyone. The once crowded temple, where the air was heavy with the fragrance of tropical flowers and burning incense, while the echo of prayers would fill up the spaces, is now all drowned in a strange silence, only to be disturbed by the noise of the wind. The faint echo of a long lost prayer could still be heard from a distance, if you are good listener. I do not know if that prayer was ever answered or not.

The statue where once thousands of devotees would have lit hundreds of lamps, and performed rituals, seem to be lifeless today. The inert eyes are gazing far beyond the horizon, standing tall and proud as a silent witness of its survival against the harshness of time. 

At a glance this statue reminds the viewer of the famous standing Buddha statue at Raswehera or Sasseruwa. This limestone statue in spite of it reminding us of another masterpiece which is the standing Buddha of Asokaramaya, has something very unusual about it. The statue is a masterpiece at a glance, yet if you study it further, the uncanny imperfections of the work could be witnessed.

Iconography of the statue 

Time has not treated the statue with kindness as the facial features, feet and hands are withered.

Although both the hands of the Buddha statue cannot be seen anymore, it can be presumed that the mudra was abaya, the commonly seen mudra in Sri Lanka. The right hand is raised up to the shoulder while the left hand is also raised forward, holding the cascading robe. The exquisite details of the robe could be only achieved by a master artisan, who has excelled in his art. 

The rear view of the statue is fascinating as the details of the robe are carefully carved with such perfection. The cascading robe which is held by the left arm makes us forget it is made out of stone, as it looks so soft and flowing. On the rear view of the statue, close to the shoulder bone, where the robe is gathered, the lines are carved in such delicacy that cannot be seen elsewhere. 

The style of the lines of the robe makes it easier to date the statue, in an art historical approach. Therefore, this can be dated to the 8th or 9th centuries CE, late Anuradhapura period. The close resemblance of the seated Buddha of Ashokaramaya and the face of this statue once again prove the accuracy of the assumed antiquity of this statue. 

The essence of eternal bliss and calmness that is captured in the face of the statue is transmitted to the viewer through the once crystal studded eyes. 

Imperfection of a masterpiece

It is said that where imperfection meets perfection, there lies the true beauty of a work of art. 

This statue is a peculiar combination of the work of a master and an amateur. Therefore this unique work of art could be considered as one of the rarest ancient statues in Sri Lanka bearing oddness. 

The height of the statue is notably undersized while the two sides of the shoulders are very asymmetrical. The right shoulder is broad and stout, while the left shoulder is shorter and slightly sloping. If one draws a line dividing the statue into two halves, this can be witnessed clearly. 

The height of the body is not proportionate compared to the size of the head and the broadness of the shoulders. This eerie mistake cannot be seen in any other ancient Buddha statue discovered in Sri Lanka so far. Even the unfinished ancient statues in Sri Lanka do not display such unbalanced or undersized details. Nevertheless, the perfect craftsmanship of the face, robe and hands have subdued the imperfections of the statue. 

In retrospect

It is difficult to answer why exactly this beautiful statue is a unique combination of such exquisite craftsmanship and inaccuracy of proportions. One explanation could be that this work could have been the work of two artisans. An amateur artist’s work was completed by a master, which can be explained as an attempt to refine the work which was done in a much improper manner.  Also, the statue could have been an earlier work unfinished or improper, later seen by a master who wanted to make it much more refined and suitable enough for display and veneration. Therefore, he must have taken up the challenge of refining the sketched monolith, which was carved unsymmetrical and not proportionate. This resulted in creating such an unusual piece of art that cannot be found elsewhere in the island. The flaws in the initially carved out sketch of the Buddha statue was outshone by the excellent craftsmanship of the later master artist. 

Only the artist of this statue would know the truth behind this unsolved mystery…

“To accomplish the perfect perfection, a little imperfection helps.”

– Dejan Stojanovic

(Pix courtesy Tharindu Amunugama)

© 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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Uncategorized, Buddha statue, Buddhist heritage, Nagalakanda rajamaha vihara, Nagalakanda temple, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY