by ASIFF HUSSEIN
Anuradhapura, the one time capital of the Sinhalese kingdom would have no doubt surpassed in grandeur most other cities of its time. Situated in the heart of the Rajarata or ‘Kings Country’ in the present-day North Central Province, this ancient metropolis with its multi-storeyed buildings roofed with gilt bronze or tiles of baked clay glazed in brilliant colours would have been the pride of its kings and the envy of neighbouring nations.
Said to have been originally established as a village by Anuradha, a minister of Vijaya, it rose to prominence as the capital of the Sinhalese kingdom in the days of King Pandukabhaya and served as the seat of Sinhalese royalty for over a thousand years from about the fifth century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. before succumbing to the Cholan invasions of the time and falling into melancholy ruin. It is only in recent times with the renewed interest in the country’s history have attempts been made to recover the remains from the ruins and preserve them for posterity. Many such artifacts, some dating back to the pre-Christian period are today housed in the Anuradhapura Archaeological Museum situated within the old city of Anuradhapura and faithfully reflect the splendour of a bygone era when Sinhalese civilization was at its peak.
Anuradhapura was primarily a Buddhist civilization and it is not surprising therefore that many of the exhibits should depict the Buddha or Buddhist themes. Especially prominent are the huge limestone Buddha images from Maradankadavala in the Anuradhapura district and Chunnakam in the Jaffna peninsula dating back to the 6th century A.D. They have been sculptured according to the Amaravati tradition, a style of art centred round Amaravati on the banks of the Krishna. Besides these, one would come across a large limestone Buddha statue in samadhi or meditative mood from Puvarasankulam, Anuradhapura dated to the 5th century A.D and a standing Buddha image made of granite from Mannar dated to the 8th century A.D. Particularly fascinating is a headless Buddha statue made of coral from Mannar whose date is unfortunately not known to us.
Also noteworthy is a viragala or carved herostone depicting a war scene from Vilachchi Korale in the North Central Province. The carving depicts a large male figure with sword in hand who has defeated three others and is preparing to attack an enemy aiming an arrow at him. The hero continues to fight in spite of the arrows and all indications are that he would fight to the death. A carving above it depicts what appears to be the hero reborn in the realm of the gods served by two apsaras or heavenly nymphs.
It is said to be a Mahayana theme though one cannot help but notice its similarity to an old Tamil concept of the afterlife as reflected in Sangam literature. The Sangam works often allude to hero-stones erected on the spots where warriors who fell in battle were presumably buried while Sangam poetry contains numerous allusions to the heroes’ heaven where it was believed dwelled the warriors who fell in battle. This heroes’ heaven seems to have somewhat resembled the Valhalla of the Norsemen.
Also on display are friezes of dwarfs and dancing female figures from Anuradhapura dating back to the 8th century and numerous frescoes from the relic chamber of the Mahiyangana Dagaba belonging to the 11th century.
A particularly impressive fresco pieced together with much care depicts what appears to be an apsara or heavenly nymph who closely resembles the damsels of Sigiriya. Also displayed are a collection of rare bronzes representing Hindu divinities such as Brahma, Varuna, Indra, Yama, Siva and Ganesha as well as Nataraja or Siva in his dancing aspect and a Siva lingam or stylized phallus of Siva which still constitutes an essential feature of worship among the Tamils.
The figurines of a crab, turtle and pair of fish found deposited at the bottom of the Kuttam pokunu or twin ponds at Anuradhapura dated to the 8th century are of interest. These items seem to have figured in some sort of fertility ritual evidently borrowed from the ancient Tamils.
The Tamil work Paripatal refers to people dropping in the river Vaiyai crabs, prawns and fish made of gold with chants of vilaika ! polika ! a ritual which seems to have been intended to promote fertility.
An inscription of a Nestorian Cross from Anuradhapura belonging to the medieval period is also particularly interesting as it suggests that there existed a sizeable community of Persian Christians in the country in the olden days as borne out by the Topographia Christiana of Cosmas Indicopleustes written in the 6th century A.D.One would also come across the offerings of the Monaravila disaves to the Janananda Vihara in Maradankadavala including what appears to be a somana cloth depicting a female figure and peacocks in red, black and white.
Besides this one could find a selection of ancient jewellery including necklaces of coloured stones and conch bangles from the Dakkhina Thupa of Anuradhapura going back to as far as the first century B.C. and an assortment of medieval coins belonging to the reigns of Parakrama-Bahu, Nissanka-Malla and Lilavati as well as punch-marked coins, Lakshmi plaques and xeraphins containing Arabic characters found at Dondra.
Other interesting exhibits include a miniature ivory figurine of four horses driving a chariot from Tiriukketisvaran, a figurine of a lion from Sigiriya and a large burial pot from Pomparippu in which the remains of the deceased were placed prior to burial.