Upulvan; The god who is in colour like the blue lotus

Sri Lanka’s history and culture is interwoven with fascinating age-old myths and legends. Though Buddhism enjoys its states as the state religion of the country since the 3rd century BCE, pre-Buddhist beliefs and rituals of the islanders never faded away. In fact, these beliefs blended well with Buddhism and resulted in a beautifully unique intangible heritage. A vast number of gods and goddess are venerated among the Sinhalese, marking the traits of their pre-Buddhist beliefs. Among the large number of deities, the islanders believe that four gods are mainly responsible in protecting their country. These gods are called as the Hathara waram deviyo (four guardian gods). According to folklore and history, these four gods were given the responsibility of protecting the island and its inhabitants by Buddha.

The concept of chief four guardian gods reformed from time to time depending on the popularity of veneration cults. These four gods’ roots are evidently local. The 14th century inscription of King Buwanekabahu IV is the first inscription that refers to the guardian deities of Sri Lanka. Therefore it is clear that it was after the demise of the Rajarata civilization, veneration of gods became popular. In the 14th century Nissanka Alagakkonara erected four shrines for the guardian deities in Kotte.

Deities such as Vedi devi, Vessawvana, Kaala wela yaksha, Chithra raja yaksha and Pashchima rajini yakshi were venerated during the early historic times of Sri Lanka and they are not being venerated at present. However, we cannot be sure if these deities were overlapped with gods who became popular later and if their identities were merged into the new ones.

With time different gods have replaced local guardian gods. Local god Saman, was replaced by Natha. Uppalawanna was replaced by the Hindu God Vishnu. Kataragama is not yet completely vanished, yet he is mostly referred to as Skandha. Skandha could be as same as the war god who was initially venerated at Kataragama. So then why we should not use the term Kataragama Mahasen devi to refer to this ancient war god of the Sinhalese? He is known to be a local ruler in ancient Kacharagama and he is linked to the Veddas residing in Sri Lanka. Saman and Uppalawanna both are local deities who has their roots in Sri Lankan folklore and beliefs. They are believed to be local rulers and patrons of Buddhism. Saman is also linked to the Veddas. According to local folklore, Kataragama Mahasen and Saman has encountered with the Buddha. Uppalawanna was appointed by Sakra to protect the island, and Buddha has asked Sakra to do so. Vibhishana’s origin goes back to the time of the mythological king Ravana. He is known to be the younger brother or Ravana and Kuwera. Although Pattini comes into the platform much later, she is also a goddess of local origin. She is known as a female bodhisattva who will be a future Buddha. 

Kali, Visnu, Siva Parvati, Skandha and Ganesh were popular during Polonnaruwa. As the Sinhala kingdom was usurped by the Cholas, their cultural and religious influences were forced upon the Sinhalese. During the time of Damabadeniya and Kurunegala we can see a rise of various gods and goddesses cults. During Gampoala, Kotte and Kandy, veneration of Hindu gods were highly popular in Sri Lanka. Mahanaya Bodhisattva beliefs also added into this. Deities such as Samanthabarda, Natha and Tara are results of Mahayana influences.

The god who is in colour like the blue lotus

When the lord of gods heard the words of the Tathagata he from respect handed over the guardianship of Lanka to the god who is in colour like the lotus. And no sooner had the god received the charge from Sakka than he came speedily to Lanka and sat down at the foot of a tree in the guise of a wandering ascetic. And all the followers of Vijaya came to him and asked him: ‘ What island is this, sir?’ ‘The island of Lanka’ he answered. There are no men here, and here no dangers will arise.’  And when he had spoken so and sprinkled water on them from his water-vessel, and had wound a thread about their hands he vanished through the air.

(Chapter VII Mahavamsa)

Sujampati the king of gods, having heard the Sambuddha’s command, committed to Uppalavanna the business of guarding the island. Having heard the command of Sakka that powerful Devaputta with his attendant demons kept guard over the island.

 (Chapter IX, Deepavamsa)

According to the 6th and 5th century Pali chronicles, Deepavamsa and Mahavamsa, a deity named as Uppalavanna was given the responsibility of protecting the island of Lanka by Sakra, the king of Gods. He is described as a god who is in colour like the blue lotus. The second appearance of god Upulvan in literary sources occurs in the 7th and 8th centuries and again after a gap of several centuries his name reappears in 13th and 14th century literature. Though god Upulvan is mentioned in Mahavamsa as the guardian deity of Sri Lanka, the first reference to the worship of Upulvan is dated to the 13th century.  The 15th century poetical work The Paravi Sandesaya, mentions the name of the consort of god Upulvan as Sandavan Biso, and his son as Dhanu or Janak.

Upulvan fades into the shadows of Vishnu

At the end of the 15th century, god Upulvan was identified with god Vishnu of Hinduism, due to the advancing Brahmin Hindu influences. There are many shrines dedicated to Upulvan or Vishnu all over the island. As Vishnu’s popularity surpassed Upulvan, he merely became a deity mentioned in ancient literature and arts.

The earliest shrine in Sri Lanka dedicated to Vishnu is at Polonnaruwa. It’s small size and simple architecture suggests that Vishnu veneration was not given a priority at that time. These must have been erected by the Cholas who usurped the Sinhala throne in the11th century. The Cholas used Polonnaruwa as their administrative capital. Unlike Anuradhapura period arts and architecture, Polonnaruwa arts and architecture has a notable amount of foreign essence, especially South East Asian cultural influences. Vishnu was popular in these countries. Not only Vishnu, we can see beautiful Siva devalas in Polonnaruwa. Also a shrine dedicated to Kali is among the ruins there. A large number of bronze statues of Siva, Parvati, Visnu and Ganesh are found in Polonnaruwa. However, later Sinhalese monarchs did not demolish these shrines or sculpture as a result of religious harmony that was practiced in Sri Lanka for thousands of years.


As his name suggests, Upulvan is always shown in blue colour. As most of the remaining sculptures and paintings are Vishnu’s, Upulvan’s iconography is not clear enough to us.

Shrines dedicated to Upulvan

The main shrine dedicated to Upulvan is located at Devinuwara. There had been a shrine for Upulvan in Kotte, yet its ruins are not visible today. There are ruins of an ancient Visnu devale in Polonnaruwa. The Kandy Vishnu devale is also of high importance.

The City of Gods, Devinuwara

Devinuwara or Dondra, is situated in Matara, southern Sri Lanka. Based on inscriptions and archaeological data, the city’s importance as a commercial port reached its peak during the 13th to 15th centuries and was flourishing as a central trade centre and a sacred city.

The Shrine

The dazzling blue shrine, although small in size at present, must have been stood in pride and splendour in the past as ancient records hints that the shrine’s roof was gilded copper and had many stories.

It was in a Nissankamalla inscription that the name Devinuwara appears for the first time. That was in the 12th century. Mahavamsa mentions about a Kihireli Pirivena built by Dappula of the 7th century AD. This Kihireli pirivena is believed to be a temple at Devinuwara linked with the Devinuwara devale. The 15th century poem Parakumba siritha also mentions that King Dapulusen (Dappula) installed a sandalwood idol of Upulvan at Devinuwara. Many Sinhalese kings during the 13th and 14th centuries have renovated the shrine at Devinuwara. The shrine was demolished by the Portuguesa and a church was built over the ruins. Later, King Rajasinghe II during the 17th century re-built the shrine after he ousted the Portuguese from Matara. Paravi Sandeshaya, a poetrical work of the 15th century, describes the deity residing at Devinuwara as a slayer of the Asuras. Kotte era poem  Perakumba Siritha describes a story of how Upulvan transfigured a log of a kihiri tree and floated it to the shores of Devinuwara. On the night prior to the incident, King Dappula who was a 7th century regional ruler, had a dream about the arrival of this transfigured kihiri log. Accordingly, the king and his people rushed to the beach and recovered the kihiri log. They carved the god’s figure out of the log, and brought it ceremonially for enshrinement.

Esala Festival

As the month of Esala dawns, the shrine prepares for its annual festival, the perahera which is held in honour of the god residing in the shrine. The origin of the Esala festival at Devinuwara goes back to the time of King Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya Kingdom (13th century). He restored the ruined shrine and held the first perahera in honour of Upulvan.

To some it is Vishnu and for some it is Upulvan. No matter the name, thousands of devotees are attracted to the shrine during this time to fulfil their vows and to pay tribute to the mighty deity who resides in Devinuwara. The god who is in colour like the blue lotus is believed to be fulfilling his devotees wishes for thousands of years.

Uncategorized, devinuwara, gods of Sri Lanka, perahera of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan gods, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, upulvan devi