Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

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WILLIAM E. WARD: SELECTED BUDDHIST SYMBOLS IN S[NHALESE DECORATIVE ART I T HE GOD SAKKA (INDRA) APPEARS TO MAHINDA AND COMMANDS HIM TO SET out on his journey (this being at the time the monks had invited Mahinda to go to Lanka (Ceylon) to preach the faith of the Buddha). "Mahinda, arise into the air like a swan and flyaway from Jampudipa to alight on the Missaka mountain".l Thus from the ancient chronical of Lanka we are told the story of the introduction of Buddhism onto the island of Ceylon. It was Mahinda, son of Asoka, who brought the faith of the Mahayana Buddhism to Ceylon in the year 307 B. C2 The Missaka mountain is today called Mihintale and is located but a few miles outside Anuradhapura, first capital of Buddhist Ceylon and the seat of the government ruled by King Devanampiva Tissa. The legends tell us of how, while King Devanampiva Tissa was out hunting one day, he met Mahinda and was converted at that moment to Buddhism together with forty thousand of his followers. Keeping in mind that since the landing of the "Sinhalese" in the sixth century B. C, the greatest landmark in Ceylonese history was the conversion of the inhabitants to Buddhism in 307 B. C, we shall attempt to trace decorative elements and symbols back to their origins wherever they may be. We shall see how the craftsmen and artists of Ceylon must have been influenced by various contacts with other countries and their artists, e. g. Burma, Siam, and India. In fact, there was an active exchange of Buddhist priests between India and Ceylon at various times as were there actual visits made by priests of Burma, Arakan, Siam, China and Cambodia. Also there is made mention in the chronicles of Ceylon of several missions being sent from Ceylon at various times to the countries mentioned above, when the order had died out or had been weakened by invasions and non-Buddhist rulers. 1 Wilhe1m Geiger, Dtpavamsa and Malziiva11lsa, (Colombo, H. C. Cottle, 1908). Dtpavamsa 36-37. 2 S. M. Burrows, Buried Cities of Ceylott, (Colombo, A. M. & J. Ferguson, 1885). An interesting note is that copper plaques with inscriptions, 7 th & 8 th century A. D., found at the Vijayarama monastery Dagaba give proof of the presence of adherents of the Mahayana School of Buddhism on Ceylon. 270 There was a great deal of travel on the part of both the laymen and Bhikkhus between Ceylon and the mainland of India. The most important pilgrimage being to Gaya to worship the Sacred Bodhi-tree. Dr. Coomaraswamy, writing in his Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon, informs us that the Sinhalese are Dravidian and had already possessed a highly developed civilization when first Aryan teachers reached them sometime before the Birth of Christ.3 Supporting this View, we note that a Dravidian inscription was found near the pokuma in Anuradhapura.4oIt is stated in the itfahavansa that King Prakrama Bahu, A. D. II 15, "brought Damilo artificers" from the opposite coast of India to decorate Polonnaruwa. No comment is made of this as an unusual proceeding.5 Certainly then there is no question of whether or not there was influence from India. One has but to look at the Lankatilaka in Polonnaruwa today and he can see clearly the evidence ofDravidian workmanship and Dravidian influence. Note also the striking resemblance between the Seven Pagodas at Mamallapuram and the architecture of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, especially the latter. Today the Sinhalese willingly agree that sculptors from Southern India were employed at both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Evidence of this is to be found in the many existing villages of Tamil, (Hindus from Southern India), "gal-7vaduwas" (stone carvers). This interesting question is asked by Mr. Burrows; "If the Sinhalese were the artists that produced much of this architecture and sculpture, etc., why do we not see traces of their art among them today?" He then goes on to comment that" We have but to look at the great "Madura" temple to see proof that the Tamil is still a great builder and artist." I agree with Mr. Burrows for I have seen work being carried out at the new Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy and true to tradition the craftsmen working on this Buddhist temple were Tamils. But there is a good reason for this. The Sinhalese are agricultural and consider it degrading to work for hire, yet they will do any form of work so long as it is for themselves or their family using their own land and products of that land. It follows then that such a people would "import" craftsmen to build and decorate their great temples. In Ceylon a man may be the architect of his own house, a jeweler, painter and ivory carver.6 Knowing 3 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Arts and Crafts of India and Cey!on, (London, FouIis, 1913), p. 5. 4 Burrows, oj. cit., p. 34. :; Ibid., p. 40. 6 Coomaraswamy, oj. cit., p. 35. .all processes for his personal use. Regrettably, European influence is changing this position of the Siilhalese "landowner". It is important to keep in mind that since Buddhism is the "form" of Buddhist art it is necessary to understand Buddhism and its history. As Dr. Coomaraswamy points out; An understanding of Buddhism is indispensable, not only for a rarional interpretation of the iconography, in which the logic of the work is expressed, but also as prerequisite to aesthetic experience.7 I feel it will be valuable therefore to consider a brief discussion of the history of Buddhism on Ceylon. Noting especially the various exchanges made by the Siilhalese Buddhists with the faithful of other countries. In pre-Buddhist Lanka there were no elaborate temples or buildings, likewise there were no elaborate rituals for religious assemblies. In each city there were but two places of worship, one devoted to Vessavana, guardian of the city and the second, Vydhadeva the Siilhalese guardian god of the aboriginal population, who was placed under and symbolized by a tal a (palm) tree. Mention is made of the Entrance to the sacred Bo-tree in Anuradha-pura as having two palm trees growing on either side. This is supposed by some to be a remnant of phallic worship. 8 Buddhism on Ceylon begins with the arrival of the Elder Mahinda, son of Asoka. Here, there is a slight discrepancy of dates. Codrington calculates the event as having taken place eighteen years after the coronation of Asoka and 236 years after the death of Buddha.9 This reckoning would bring the date to 247 B. c., a difference of 54 years from the date given in the legends of Lanka. The important point being that the Elder Mahinda arrived on Ceylon and met the king, who was hunting at the time near a hill afterwards known as Mihintale. The sovereign had already become interested in Buddhism but lost no time after the arrival of Mahinda in establishing the religion on Ceylon. As tradition has it, the sacred teachings and sermons of the Buddha as well as the Elder Monks had been handed down from generation to generation of monks orally. However in the first century B. c., 500 Rahats assembled at Alulena (present day Aluvihare) and put 7 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, (Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), p. 52. 8 Burrows, op. cit., p. 43. 9 H. W. Codrington, A Short History of Ceylon, (London, Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1939), p. 13. 272 down in writing the text of the three Pitakas beginning with the Buddhas "In many a birth of being" which He attends in His felicity while seated on the Vajra throne at the root of the Bo-tree on the day He scattered the hosts of Mara and attained Buddhahood and ending with the last words, "Oh Bhikkus, since all things are impermanent, be diligent," spoken by Him at His final emancipation.1O Thus due to the efforts of the Siilhalese we have in writing all that Gautama preached during His 45 years as a Buddha, "His discourses to Devas, Brahma's, Nagas, Suparnas, men, Yaks as, Raksasas, Siddhas, and Vidyadharas for their edification, the same in the number of letters, words, granthas, and bhanavaras leaving nothing, adding nothing, free from all hearsay, upheld by the three convocations of monks, pure as a stream of the heavenly river, free as a crystal from all impurities, comforting the whole world like a great shower of nectar, great straight path to the threefold knowledge and the names for the attainment of all happiness desired by men, the same which had been brought down orally in succession of the great Monks." Thus in the words of the Nikiiya Sangraha, we have clearly presented the work of the counsel who, encouraged by the king, held a great convocation, recited the Blessed One's teachings, while scribes carefully set down their words in writing. By the 5th century A. D., Ceylon had become the center of Buddhism with the fame of its literature established throughout India. At this time Siilhalese Buddhist monks traveled to foreign lands, India, China and others, to introduce the literature as preached in Cey-Ion. It is also noted that Buddhaghosa Maha Thera made a pilgrimage to Ceylon in the 5th century. By the 1I th century troubled times weakened Buddhism in Ceylon and King Vijayabahu, 1I64 A. D., sent an embassy to King Anuruddha of Arakan requesting for monks to enable the restoration of the ordination in Ceylon. Theras were sent to Ceylon and "thousands of Siilhalese joined the Order and the Sasana was established again to the great joy and satisfaction of the people". In the 13th century A. D. agam the Bhikkhus were disorganized but monasteries were established and learning encouraged by bringing monks from Soli in South India. The Order in Burma fell into decay in the 15th century A. D. and the King of Burma, 10 Bimala Churn Law, Editor, Buddhistic Studies, (Calcutta, Thacker, Sprints & Co., Ltd., 193 I), P.482. 273 Dhammaceti, sent 22 Bhikkhus to Ceylon to obtain and bring back to Burma the tradition of the island. At a later period (c 16th century) the ordination of the Nikaya was carried to Siam from Burma. "Books that existed in Ceylon were taken to Burma, Siam and Cambodia and the Maha Nikaya was established in these countries. These countries helped Ceylon get back the books and the ordination at a later period when the ordination had disappeared from the island and when the books were lost". Prince Rajasimha was an internal enemy to Buddhism on Ceylon. We are told that in 1592 A. D. he killed his father and began to destroy the Buddhist religion by "slaying its priests, burning its sacred books and breaking down its temples". Many priests, however, stripped themselves of their robes through fear of the king, others fled to the mountains taking with them some of the sacred books. With the priests gone and the books and temples destroyed, it was necessary for Vimala Dhammasuriya to bring Bhikkhus from Arakan (Northern coast of Burma) and again institute the ordination. In 1734 the king sent ministers to Pegu, Arakan and Siam. Due to rough seas and the death of the Sinhalese king the plans had to be abandoned after the ships had reached Batavia. Later, however, in 1750, an embassy was sent to King Dhammika of Siam. The next enemy of the Buddhists were the Portuguese with their over-active missionaries who made every effort to convert the Sinhalese to the Roman Catholic Church. There was for a time wholesale conversion on the part of the Sinhalese Buddhists to the Catholic Church. This mass conversion, it follows, was only on the surface. At heart the Sinhalese remained Buddhist, keeping what few sacred books they had and practiced their true faith in secret. The Dutch were little better in regard to the religion of the Sinhalese. Then came the English in 1815 and attempts were made to restore Buddhism as the national religion of the island. "Buddhism in Ceylon today is a continuation of the traditions of the Mahavihara Nikaya formed by Mahinda Maha Thera in 306 (307) B. C. The ordination of all three Nikayas of the Buddhist Bhikkhus now active in the island is a continuation of the Mahavihara fraternity, for Burma and Siam had received their ordination from Ceylon at different times and the continuity of the ordination is preserved by bringing this ordination back to the island from these two countries". 274 With this picture before us there can be little doubt that there was much outside influence upon the arts and crafts of Lanka. It would be impossible for monks being sent from Siam, for example, to spend years upon this island without leaving some of their own inherited traditions and artistic abilities especially since "art" (and here I use the term referring more to the decorative aspects of their art) is carried on as part of the Buddhist church. Decorative art 11 in the Orient is not pure and simple decoration but carries vast meaning and signi-ficance. Not forgetting, of course, that with each embassy to Ceylon or from Ceylon there would be sent vast cargos of fine gifts, made of precious metals and enriched with precious stones for which Ceylon is so famous. Indeed books and images used in the church were sent in quantity. Also pilgrims carried back to their homes small votive plaques and images obtained at the place of worship: As do the faithful pilgrims today. We find evidence of Siamese influence in the fact that in a small vihare in Anuradhapura there is a small recumbent figure of Buddha that had been brought by devotees from Siam. I have myself seen in t...