The sculptures of the Vahalkada
The frontpieces of the Stupas
Among the earliest sculptural art are those which adorn the stelae of
the Vahalkadas or frontispieces of the large size stupas of the early
Examples for these are found in places like Kantaka Cetiya at
Mihintale, Dakkhina Stupa, Ruwanvalisaya, Mirisavatiya (now collapsed
and re-built), Abhayagiriya and Jetavana Stupa at Anuradhapura.
The material used for these sculptures is limestone of a
coarse-grained variety which is not very durable.
Stylistically these scuptures exhibit the influence of the sculptures
of Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and Jaggayapeta, and belong to a period
between the second and the fourth centuries.
However, the sculptures of the eastern and western Vahalkadas of the
Kantaka Cetiya are different from the above both stylistically and in
subject matter. The carvings on the stelate are in an archaic style
which reminds us of the sculptures of Bharhut and Sanci.
The faces of the stelae are divided into a number of square panels by
the bead and reel pattern, or by semi-circular lines. In the square
panels are motifs such as the elephant, a decorated vase with leaves and
flowers issuing from it, a peacock with young and a palmette design.
The Vahalkadas are of brick construction. However, the lower portion
of the faces are of limestone. The stonework of the eastern and southern
frontispieces are in a good state of preservation.
The Vahalkadas of Kantaka Cetiya are profusely ornamented. On the
cornice below the topmost one is a frieze of ganas (the dwarfs) and on
the one further below is a fieze of hamsas (geese). The brickwork above
the facing contains arched niches between plasters.
In these niches were the images of deities made of stucco or
terracotta. Some of these images are still seen in position though they
are not well preserved. These and the whole structure of the Vahalkadas
were originally painted.
The stelae at the Kantaka Cetiya are surmounted by figures of animals
facing the four sides. The elephant faces the eastern side, while the
lion, horse and the bull face and northern, western and southern sides
respectively. These figures of animals are believed to symbolize the
The friezes of ganas mentioned above are interesting from the
religious point of view. Many of those figures are portrayed in varous
Particularly interesting is an elephant headed Gana with tusk
attended by other ganas. If this is considered to be the figure of
Ganapati then, according to Alice Getty, it can be the oldest figure of
this god ever discovered.
The relic casket of polished black earthenware which was discovered
in the unknown Stupa at Mihintale is the oldest and also the most
important specimen of ceramic art so far found in Sri Lanka. This
casket, which is cylindrical in shape, is formed of three pieces. It is
believed to be a relic casket brought to Sri Lanka from India in the 3rd
or 2nd Century B.C.
The moonstones, balustrades, and guardstones that adorn the doorstep
of ancient monastic buildings are important pieces of sculptural art.
The examples of these at Mihintale belong to several stages of its
evolution. These examples undoubtedly help us to understand the history
of art in Sri Lanka.
The moonstone which is called Sandakada pahana in Sinhalese is a
semi-circular slab of stone at the beginning of a flight of steps which
lead to the ancient monuments and in particular to the religious
This sculptural element is also referred to as patika in Pali
literature as well as in the Mahavamsa. The Samantapasadika explains the
word patika by calling it a half moon shaped stone, the
addha-canda-pasana which in Sinhala is called Sandakada pahana.
The two sides of the entrance to these religious or secular buildings
were decorated with guardstones flanked by a pair of balustrades plain
at the beginning but later decorated. The beginning of these so-called
guardstones or muragal as they are known in Sinhala, was a pair of
dressed rectangular slabs of stone with no sculptures on it.
The earliest of these were shaped archwise at the top and remained
rectangular at the base both in plan and elevation. This was achieved by
chiselling off the corners of the rectangular slab of stone. At the next
stage of its development the shape at the top was made more elaborate by
raising its centre smoothly to a point at the apex. The first attempt at
decorating the guardstone is seen with the sculptural design of a
purnaghata (Sinh: punkalasa) a full pot with lotus buds or flowers which
It appears that this idea "arose out of the concept of placing a
symbol of luck at the entrance to a building. In some instances a solid
rock is cut into a form of a full pot and placed at the two sides of the
entrances as a pot of plenty. Examples for these are seen at the site of
the Indikatusaya monastery and in the full pot decorated slabs of stones
at the monastic buildings near the beginning of the flight of steps to
the Mihintale mountain.
pair of balustrades that join the guardstones at the entrance were
simple slabs of stone with no decoration at the start but later like the
guardstones and the moonstones, became elaborate and decorative.
Examples for this development also can be observed at Mihintale.
A complete Naga guardstone has seven cobra-hoods, the flowering
spring, the pot of plenty and the dwarfs, and the naga king. The flowers
of the sprig are stylized and those on the pot rise tier over tier. The
arch above these figures is profusely sculptured with figures of double
The Sinha Pokuna or the the Lion Pond is described as a handsome
specimen of bold artistic work of its kind in granite to be found
anywhere in the country. The water from the mountain is brought down to
discharge through the open mouth of the standing lion. The faces of the
pond above the lion figure are decorated with sculptures depicting
dancers, musicians, elephants, lions and wrestlers, which are great
works of artistic quality.