Ridi Vihare: The Flowering of Kandyan Art
Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda
Stamford Lake Publications, 2006, pp. 210, Rs 3,750
by Uditha Devapriya
This is a fascinating study of one of the more fascinating Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka, authored by one of our foremost historians. The Ridi Vihare, or the ‘Silver Temple’, traces its history to the second century BC. It occupied a prominent place until the 14th century AD, when it disappeared from view. Three hundred years later, during the time of the Nayakkar kings of Kandy, it regained that position. What Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda attempts in his book is to explore its history and its art, viewing them not in isolation but in unison. The result is a superb work of scholarship, at once edifying and accessible.
Though written 15 years ago, before even the civil war ended, the scope and breadth of ‘Ridi Vihare: The Flowering of Kandyan Art’ resonates well even today. Partly, that is because Sri Lanka’s Buddhist temples have never become the object of study that religious institutions elsewhere have. This is certainly an unfortunate omission, a glaring one.
While the Sangha has been studied as an institution, most discernibly by Leslie Gunawardana, very few have tried to understand the social history of Buddhist temples. It is to the likes of Senake Bandaranayake that we owe our understanding of this aspect of our culture. The finest historian of art to come out of the country, Dr. Bandaranayake authored the finest work of scholarship on Buddhist art. Yet while ‘The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka’ remains essential reading, it is a testament to where we are now and how we regard our past that since its publication, no comparable effort has come out.
Sinhala historians frequently do write monographs on these institutions, and many of them are available for cheap and even free, often at the very places their monographs are about. Yet while such efforts are laudable, they are hardly enough. To highlight the uniqueness of these places, it is necessary to dig deeper, to go beyond essays, to put the Buddhist temple of Sri Lanka in its proper historical context. Such an undertaking requires time and money, a sense of purpose, an overwhelming desire to probe.
It is that purpose and desire which colours Dr. Tammita-Delgoda’s outstanding work. It stands out not so much as a scholarly foray as a labour of love, an exploration into our past, who we are, and what we make of ourselves. Interspersed with photographs, diagrams, and illustrations, all painstakingly taken and meticulously captioned, the book doesn’t just focus on the temple, it uses it as the base from which to explore everything around it. As Dr. Siran Deraniyagala informs us in the introduction, Ridi Vihare offers no less than “a microcosm of Sri Lanka’s turbulent past.” This is a point the author engages with constantly.
How the book came about is as interesting as what it contains. Due to the high position it occupied in late mediaeval Sri Lanka, Ridi Vihare forged ties with Malwathu Maha Viharaya, one of the two Buddhist monastic chapters within the Siam Nikaya. Over the last 250 years, three of the Chief Incumbents of Ridi Vihare have wound up as Chief Prelates of Malwatta.
It was one of these Chief Prelates, Thibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera, who took over the task of teaching “the religion, the philosophy and the customs of the Sinhalese” to the author. After his stint ended, Sumangala Thera requested his erstwhile student to write about the temple he was serving and officiating at the time. It was as a result of his request, and the author’s only too eager response, that this book came about.
Writing the book was not easy. Having begun in 1998, Dr. Tammita-Delgoda had to stop mid-way. The main problem was funding; not so much for travel or research as for photography. Desperately in need of money, and with no one to get it from, the entire project had to be stalled for several years. It was picked up again only through the intervention of a much loved icon: Sri Lanka’s most celebrated photographer, Nihal Fernando, who agreed to undertake its photography through his outfit, Studio Times, at no cost.
Thanks to Fernando’s support and the assistance of friends, patrons, and well-wishers, Dr. Tammita-Delgoda found himself digging deep into the history of the land. Having planned it as the story of a temple, his project soon became so much more.
The history of Ridi Vihare begins with “the greatest king of Anuradhapura”, Dutugemunu, in the second century BC. The Mahavamsa records Dutugemunu as the first of the Sinhalese kings who unified the country. Having achieved this task, he embarked on the construction of stupas, the last of which, the Mahathupa, became a huge undertaking. It was in reply to his prayer, that money be found for the Mahathupa, that silver was found at a cave called Ambattakola in Kurunegala. As a token of gratitude, Dutugemunu had a temple built by a jackfruit tree near that cave. It is here that the Varaka Velandhu Vihare, the oldest and perhaps most important establishment at Ridi Vihare, stands today.
As with all such institutions, the temple amply reflected its times. By the time of the Polonnaruwa kingdom, South Indian influences began making their way to the Ridi Vihare. We are told that a Hindu devale was constructed within the courtyard somewhere after the 12th Century. Though popular writers portray this as a period of decay and destruction, it was also a period of cultural fusion. Ridi Vihare did not escape such influences, in spite of the impoverished conditions of these years. It remained a centrepiece of the kingdom well into the 14th Century, though once the capital of the Sinhalese polity shifted from Wayamba to Kotte to Kanda Uda Rata it fell into much decay, decline, and disrepair.
The next chapter of Ridi Vihare unfolds at the time of the Kandyan kings, specifically the Nayakkars and particularly the reign of the second of them, Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. An ardent, passionate patron of Buddhism, Rajasinghe oversaw a period of renaissance marked by the resumption of the ordination of monks, a practice that had fallen into neglect for centuries. We are told of the political conditions prevalent at the time, the ambiguities that dotted the Nayakkars’ rule over an eminently Buddhist realm, and the rebellions against them aided by none less than the leading revivalist of his time, Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thera.
In the course of his reign Kirti Sri Rajasinghe brought Buddhist monasteries under the sway of Malwatta and Asgiriya. This had a profound impact on not just Ridi Vihare, but also the Sangha. It had much to do with the personality of the king himself.
As an outsider looking in, Rajasinghe had to show that he was the true heir to his Sinhalese predecessors. Though Leslie Gunawardana and Gananath Obeyesekere have suggested that opposition to Nayakkar rule was not as prevalent as popular writers make it out to be, there was opposition, and it was considerable. His motives were constantly under scrutiny by the radala aristocracy and clergy, and he needed to prove himself worthy in their eyes. To let go and belittle their concerns was to invite disenchantment and dissent.
It was against this backdrop that Kirti Sri Rajasinghe pursued a policy of detente and then confrontation with Dutch governors, while sponsoring efforts at purifying the Sangha and expelling foreign elements within his kingdom who had been indulged by his predecessors. Spilling over to the religious institutions of his realm, these efforts transformed Ridi Vihare into a leading centre of learning and study, in particular under Thibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Buddharakkitha Thera, the closest disciple of Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thera.
Partly due to his upcountry ancestry, Dr. Tammita-Delgoda is at his best in these chapters, when he is charting the social and artistic history of the last Sinhalese kingdom. Having read and researched his sources well, he goes beyond them, conjecturing about the reputation Ridi Vihare would have enjoyed under Buddharakkitha. He takes pains to emphasise that though Kandy was at war with the Dutch, this did not preclude contact between officials and Buddhist monks, a point that shows well in the Delft tiles at the Maha Vihara of Ridi Vihare. Long thought to be a gift from the Dutch Governor to the Vihare’s Chief Incumbent, these objects shed light on the nature of relations between Kandy and Holland.
From historicising Ridi Vihare, Dr. Tammita-Delgoda goes on to deconstruct its topography, periodising its construction from the pre-Christian era to the 20th Century. He then delves into the paintings and sculptures at the temple. With more than a connoisseur’s eye for the elegant and the sublime, he expresses much distaste for contemporary efforts at repairing the site, particularly the “hideous” restored vahalkada at its entrance. In exploring the inner courtyards and sanctums, he also attempts to reconstruct life as it would have been back in the day, especially through the use of archive images and illustrations.
There is clearly an art historian lurking beneath the historian, and in the chapters on the art and sculpture of Ridi Vihare Dr. Tammita-Delgoda lets him out. Not surprisingly, these make up some of the best forays into Kandyan art and architecture I have read.
Colonial officials and scholars often painted Kandy as a period of cultural decay, a pale reflection of the classical art that once prevailed in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Such generalisations were questioned, rightly, by the likes of Dr. Senake Bandaranayake and Siri Gunasinghe. Dr. Tammita-Delgoda continues their line of critique, unearthing Kandyan art for what it is and not for what it is often imagined to be. Its aim, he observes, was to appeal to devotees, not conform to European rules of perspective and representation.
Because of these insights, the sections on the paintings and sculptures of Ridi Vihare are the most edifying in the book. Even more edifying is the final chapter, a personal meditation on the nature of Sinhalese art. Dr. Tammita-Delgoda provocatively calls it the “art of the poor people”, as it indeed was. Reflecting on Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, he contends that the world around these temples shaped their architecture, differentiating them from the much larger monuments of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
Scholars may consider that a defect in Kandyan architecture, but it was a form shaped by the society around it and the privations imposed by colonialism. Hemmed in from all sides, Kandyan temples could not aspire to the gigantism of earlier periods. That they managed to attract devotion and patronage despite this is, in that sense, truly remarkable.
A book like this contains few flaws, indeed almost none at all. Its only limitation is its lack of focus on the material conditions of Kandyan society, the contributions of the people to the construction of these edifices, and the point that such institutions were as much the work of kings and monks as of the citizenry. Dr. Tammita-Delgoda does identify the painters of Ridi Vihare and their backgrounds, but all too often he implies that kings, aristocrats, and monks were all that mattered in 18th Century Kandy. What were the conjunctions of class and caste that produced these magnificent edifices? We clearly need to know more.
Nevertheless, as a labour of love and a token of gratitude to the monks who tutored the author, ‘Ridi Vihare: The Flowering of Kandyan Art’ remains a first-rate work, the first of many that would follow. What it shows us is a pathway to the past, a way of life which modernity has eroded. Seeing it, one can only quote Ananda Coomaraswamy.
“In the words of Blake,
‘When nations grow old,
The Arts grow cold,
And commerce settles on every tree’.
In such a grim fashion has commerce settled in the East.”
If we don’t make sense of our past, we are doomed to forget it. The result can only be a hideous reconfiguration and reconstruction of our identity, a distortion that bears little to no resemblance to who we once were. It is this point that Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda brings up, a point we would do well to acknowledge and to heed.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org