Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Moonstone Wanderings in Anuradhapura

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Moonstone in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura. A mosaic of several images.

In the waning days of the summer holidays I took a short pilgrimage to Anuradhapura where its ruins, old stones and living traditions drew me back. My days previous to this outing had been spent with friends and our daughter Amy looking for wildlife in Wilpattu National Park. The road to Anuradhapura  was a relatively short detour and helped me complete a summer of Sri Lankan dry zone exploration.

It was the summer of the pandemic and the sacred city was relatively empty-perfect for some solitary explorations and wandering with my camera. Our family has visited several times during our stay in Sri Lanka (see my October 2014 post). Half a century before our time, my father Merrick recalls visiting Anuradhapura on the journey from Colombo to Jaffna. In the 1940s and 50s when they visited, there large areas were overgrown and unexcavated. The town itself had a relatively small population and was not an urban center. The irrigation reservoirs (tanks or wewas) were being restored and rich agricultural areas revived. Now, in 2020 after 72 years of independence and more than a decade after the end of the civil war, Anuradhapura has a new town while its sacred precinct has been preserved for its historical and religious significance.

Amarvathis_panel_with_wheels_1b(B&W)(MR)(06_18)

Panels from the Amarāvatī Stupa housed in the Chennai (Madras) Museum. These 2nd/ and 3rd Century BCE Buddhist limestone carvings were once part of a large complex that was abandoned and only rediscovered in the early 19th Century. Most of the pieces of surviving art are located at the British Museum in London and the Government (Madras) Museum in Chennai. They are exquisite works of art. The stylistic similarity between Sri Lanka’s moonstones and the semi-circular parts of the vertical columns that encircled the stupa (dagoba) are uncanny.

Echoes from Amarāvatī

Two years ago, while preparing the Hills of Murugan exhibition in Chennai, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Madras Museum, now renamed the Government Museum, Chennai. This repository has priceless collections of ancient Indian heritage and art. The gallery of bronzes is, perhaps, the most famous space but the museum also hosts a gallery dedicated to the once colossal Buddhist stupa at Amarāvatī. This site on the banks of the Krishna river in Guntur district was an early center of Buddhist learning and worship. Its story is well known: from being one of the earliest stupas/dagobas (3rd-2nd  Century BCE) to being abandoned and then broken up for construction material before being rediscovered by Colin Mackenzie in the early 19th Century. Amarāvatī’s most valuable limestone carvings now sit in two museums: the British Museum in London and the Madras Museum in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai.

There was a great deal to appreciate and observe in the museum. In fact far too much for a single visit. One thing that struck me were the semicircular designs carved in relief that are found at the bottom of the columns below a set of discs or wheels (see image below). These columns originally provided a circular protective wall around the stupa. The wheel or dharmachakra, of course, is an important Buddhist, Hindu and Jain symbol associated with the cyclical nature of life. Some of the images in the gallery have intricate scenes from the Buddha’s life (these are mostly encased in glass that make them difficult to photograph). The majority of disks/wheels (or “lotus medallions”) are relatively plain with concentric patterns radiating out from the center. Some of these would have been a part of a “crossbar” that linked pillars together (see Akira Shimanda’s articles below). James Fergusson and James Burgess refer to these objects as “disks” decorating ornamental pillars (in Sanchi) in their book The Cave Temples of India (1890). In the Madras Museum there are dozens of wheels/discs that seem largely decorative. Some are parts of pillars while others are solid pieces of limestone carved to be a piece of a complex puzzle. However at the bottom of several pillars is a semicircular relief that looks like a proto-moonstone propped upwards. I’m not sure to what extent this striking similarity has been investigated but I assume that others have noticed it before. Amarāvatī’s stupa predates the estimated dates of Anuradhapura moonstones by nearly a millennium and in their day there would have been considerable interaction between these two important Buddhist centers.

Ruwanwelisaya_moonstone_Mirror_(MR)(11_19)

Moonstone mirror study in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura.

Anuradhapura’s Moonstone Gardens

Back in Anuradhapura this summer, I marveled at the connections between Buddhist sites across South Asia. The most famous moonstone (or Sandakada pahana as moonstones are known in Sinhala) in Anuradhapura is located in a complex to the west of the colossal Abhayagiri Stupa. Like all moonstones, it provides an ornate and visually dazzling entrance way to a scared space carved on a large (and deep slap of granite). The concentric layers symbolically progress inwards from outer states of consciousness to the final inner core of nirbana (nirvana). The elephants, horses, lions and bulls, marching across the outer layer are carved with startling likeness.

I appreciate this most famous moonstone but what I enjoy even more is wandering through the less visited parts of Anuradhapura and stumbling across neglected examples of this uniquely Sri Lankan art form. There are at least a dozen or more intricately carved moonstones lying in the shadows of more famous monuments. There are many more plain slab moonstones scattered across excavated sites and hidden amongst overgrowth sites. The Sri Maha Bodhi shrine has several large moonstones at its entranceways. Of course, further away the Vaṭadāge at Polonnaruwa has several outstanding  moonstones (see the March 2017 post).

The classic moonstone is almost never found without accompanying guard stones and balustrades (railings). The guard stones in Anuradhapura are most frequently a guardian male figure with a multi-headed cobra hood. He holds up a vessel (of scared water?) and a wisp while there are often small dwarf characters at his feet. In a few cases, the guard stones are dwarfs. The balustrades are ornate railings on the side of the steps. They usually depict a dragon or fierce creature who’s tongue rolls out to form the railing. Elephants are also depicted as the creature in some balustrades (as seen in Thanjavur).

Though my only claim of expertise is my curiosity in South Asia’s sacred architecture, I’m not aware of moonstone being used in ancient temple architecture in India. The moonstone appears to be a uniquely Sri Lankan art form. From the Amarāvatī pillars there are hints that ideas freely flowed across the shallow seas in the hundreds and thousands of years before the present time. These crosscurrents of people and sophisticated ideas being interchanged across the South Asian landscape reminds us that we still have a great deal to learn from the past.

A Note on the Photography in this Post

More than a century ago the pioneering photographer Joseph Lewton documented Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon’s)  cultural triangle with a large format, glass plate camera that needed its own darkroom on site. The sepia toned images that are left with us provide a stunning first view of sites before they were restored (see Ismeth Raheem’s publications below).

In between efforts to document landscapes and ecosystems in the Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot, I wanted to explore the island’s sacred sites and document theses scared spaces  with high resolution images. I originally photographed moonstones and elements of Sri Lanka’s scared architecture with medium format cameras using black & white film. This was not that long ago (2005-2010) and I developed the film and printed the images at home myself. About 12 years ago, the whole world of photography was undergoing a dramatic technological change and it became clear that digital imagery offered powerful tools that were superior to the film gear that I had available to me. Obtaining film and chemicals was difficult and the digital workflow could be done on a personal computer without a darkroom and wet chemicals. My work on the sacred sites has since evolved to utilize these digital tools but I still aspire to create images that do justice to the magnificent art and architecture of these sites

 

SACRED SPACES BLOG POSTS (CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER)

Lockwood, Ian. “Portrait & Panorama in Anuradhapura.”  Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2010. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part I).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part II).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2012. Web.

“            “In Hanuman’s Flight Path.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2013. Web.

“            “Elephanta: A Pilgrimage” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2014. Web.

“            “Early Pathways at Mihintale & Anuradhapura.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2014. Web.

“            “Glimpses of Polonnaruwa.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2017. Web.

SELECTED REFERENCES

“Amaravati Stupa.” Wikipedia. accessed 10 September 2020.  Web.

Daniel, Shannine. “The Moonstones Of Ancient Sri Lanka: Religion, Art, And Architecture.” Roar. 16 Feb 2018 Web.

Dhammika, Ven S. “Anuradhapura.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web.

Falconer, John and Ismeth Raheem. Regeneration: A Reprisal of Photography in Ceylon 1850-1900. London: The British Council, 2000. Print.

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Images of Ceylon. Web.

Moonstones, Guardstones, Balustrades of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Postal Service, 12 December 2012. Print.

Raheem, Ismeth. Archaeology and Photography: The Early Years 1868-1880. Colombo: The National Trust Sri Lanka, 2009. Print.

Shimanda, Akira and Michael Willis Ed. Amaravati: the Art of an Early Buddhist Monument in context. London: The British Museum, 2016. Web.

Stambler, Benita.  “Maintaining the Photographic Legacy of Ceylon.” Trans Asia Photography Review. Fall 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2020-09-14 at 9:16 pm

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