Sublime Temple Art of Veheragalla Samudragiri Vihara

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In the ancient town of Totamunu in Mirissa stands the Veheragalle Samudragiri Viharaya. It is famous for its intricate murals, which were featured in several postage stamps in the 1980s. The history of  veheragalle Samudragiri Viharaya states that it was established under the patronage of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe (reign 1747 – 1782). Also known as the Mirissa Viharaya, it was renovated by bikku Thiranagama, a pupil of the most venerable Welivita Sri Saranankara thero (1698-1778). The vihara has produced many erudite priests who have contributed much to the revival of Buddhism and monastic education in Southern Sri Lanka.

Murals adorn the walls that lie between the inner sanctum of the Buddha and the outer Temple walls. The paintings are in the form of strips that spread from the ceiling to the floor. The top-most strip depicts various incidents in the life of Prince Siddhartha and the lower strips are Jathaka stories ie. moral tales relating to the Buddha in his previous births. The Jathaka stories featured in the murals are identified as Kanthivadi, Saama, Sassa, Kurudhamma, Devadhamma. The Kurudhamma Jathaka is given more prominence in comparison to others. Each mural is succinctly described in a continuous flow of text in old Sinhala, below the painting.  In addition to wall murals, the Vihara library boasts of a rare and magnificent collection of ancient ola manuscripts (Pus Kola Poth) with wooden covers that have been intricately painted by the authors themselves.

The ola-leaf manuscript covers are shown here to the writer by Tharaperiye Sara thero who resides in the vihara. He described the background story of the formation and historical significance of the vihara.

A distinctive attribute of these murals is that they have a deep red background. Compared to other temples in the south, another remarkable feature is that blue and brown are mixed with traditional colours. The robe colour of the Buddha and student priests is golden. The painting style is two-dimensional with many human and animal forms facing directly forward or at right angles. Lines of different styles have been used in a creative way when illustrating the stories.

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The three doorways are encased with traditional ‘Makara Thorana‘s (guarded entrance) with the Bodhisathwa – the One who strives to achieve Enlightenment – featured in the centre as can be seen in the very first image. The wooden door frames are also adorned with beautiful floral designs. The wooden ceilings are intricately painted in multiple rectangular sections where humans, deities, floral designs, animal forms and astrological signs can be seen. The lotus flower is also largely featured here.

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With many a temple around the country that boasts of exquisite murals from different eras of the past, the art of temple murals is a subject in itself. The Veheragalla murals follow the ‘Southern Style’ which is somewhat distinct from the ‘Kandian Style’. The southern style is said to be inspired by the natural surroundings and even show signs of western culture, while the Kandian style is regarded as an art form of abstract symbolism. The murals in Samudragiri Vihara are credited to the Kadolgalla ancestral artist family. The ola-manuscript artists are identified as Garandoowe Edo and the great Denipitiye artist.

Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photography | Danushka Senadheera
References | Sri Lankawe Viharashritha Sithuwam Kalawa - ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ විහාරස්ථ සිතුවම් කලාව (Temple Mural Art in Sri Lanka) by Dr. Daya Hewapathirana, and http://www.artsrilanka.org/buddhistart/

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