Gal Viharaya

Polonnaruwa Gal Vihara
Gal Viharaya (ancient name Uttararamaya) is a Buddhist temple located in the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. The temple was built by King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.).

The site mainly consists of four rock-cut Buddhist sculptures, viz: a standing statue, a reclining statue, and two meditating statues. Three of them are of colossal size and lie open to the sky while the fourth statue which is of moderate size, lies sheltered in an excavated cave. Also, an inscription including the Sangha amendments is found inscribed on the rock surface between the standing statue and the cave shrine known as Nisinna-patima Lena. All the monuments are carved on a rock boulder lying southwest to northeast (Fernando, 1960).

The statues are well known among the locals as well as foreigners because of their unique and exquisite workmanship.

Gal Viharaya
The site has been identified as the Uttararamaya built by King Parakramabahu the Great. It is located to the north of the city and hence it is suggested that this temple was called at the ancient time Uttararamaya, the northern monastery (Wickaramsinghe, 1990).

The chronicle, Culawamsa reveals that King Parakramabahu the Great had constructed three caves named Vijjadhara Guha (the cave of the spirit of knowledge), Nisinna-patima Lena (the cave of the sitting image), and Nipanna-patima Guha (the cave of the sleeping image) by digging the rock by employing the skilled workmen (Fernando, 1960; Prematilleke, 1966; Wickaramsinghe, 1990; Wickremasinghe, 1928). It records the first and last caves as Guha (meaning: caves) and the second one as a Lena (also means cave). By considering the way the words are used in the chronicle, scholars such as Rev. Baddegama Wimalawansa and Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe have identified that the monument which has been carved at the extreme left of the rock boulder as the Vijjadara Guha, to the right of it as the Nisinna-patima Lena and the monument at the extreme right as the Nipanna-patima Guha (Wickaramsinghe, 1990).

In ancient times, all these caves are believed to be repleted with paintings, sculptures, and carvings. The remaining brick foundations indicate that each statue was in separate shrine rooms made of bricks. 

The capital of Sri Lanka was shifted from Polonnaruwa to Dambadeniya in the 13th century, and after that these monuments were forgotten until the beginning of the 19th century. The statues came to the notice of Englishmen during British rule (Wickaramsinghe, 1990).

Vijjadhara Guha
Meditating Buddha, Vijjadhara Guha
Vijjadhara Guha is the cave located at the extreme left of the rock boulder (Wikramagamage, 2004). A large meditating Buddha statue 16 feet 3 inches (4.98 m) tall surrounded by four other small Buddha figures is found here (Chutiwongs et al., 2007). The main Buddha is on the ground floor of a three-storied building while the other four Buddhas are in small chambers on the second and third floors (Wikramagamage, 2004).

The statue is in the Dhyana Mudra and seated on a Vajrasana (Fernando, 1960). The robe worn has left the right shoulder bare and its edge pleats fall over the left shoulder and the chest. The pleats of the robe are indicated in the characteristic double groove method adopted by Polonnaruwa artists (Chutiwongs et al., 2007). The base of the seat is adorned with figures of flowers and lions. Three crossbars are visible on the middle background of the image and their terminals are ending with Makara (dragon) heads (Fernando, 1960). Each of the Makara heads carries lions in their mouths (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Wikramagamage, 2004). The top of the seat is arch-shaped and ornamented with open lotuses. Behind the Buddha's head is a beautiful halo. 
The statue has been carved out of the living rock and a brick-built image house was built in front housing the image but only its ruined foundation remains.

Nisinna-patima Lena
Meditating Buddha, Nisinna-patima LenaTo the right of the Vijjadhara Guha is another seated Buddha image carved in an excavated cave known as Nisinna-patima Lena. The image is about 4 feet 7 inches (1.4 m) tall (excluding the seat) and has been carved out of the living rock (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Devendra, 1956; Ray, 1960).

The Buddha is in the Dhyana Mudra and accompanied by two standing figures bearing chowries. Figures of Brahma and Visnu are also on either side of the head of the Buddha (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Fernando, 1960). Above the Buddha's head is a Chatra (umbrella) of which the underside is visible. The base of the seat of Buddha is adorned with figures of flowers and lions. The remaining evidence indicates that the canopy, as well as the stone walls of the cave, were repleted with paintings. However, presently, only two strips of paintings are found on the two sides of the entrance of the cave (Wickaramsinghe, 1990).

Nisinna-patima Lena is incorrectly called by many as the Vijjadhara cave (Wickaramsinghe, 1990).

Gal Vihara paintings
The paintings found in the Nisinna-patima Lena belong to the Pallava-Sri Lanka style (Wickaramsinghe, 1990). According to the opinion of Nanda Wickramasinghe, the paintings at Gal Viharaya as well as Thivanka Pilimage can easily be compared with the South Indian paintings found at Sittannavasal in Pudukottai and Patamalai in Arcot South District (Wickaramsinghe, 1990).

Standing image
Standing Buddha, Gal Vihara
The standing statue at Gal Viharaya is of great iconographic interest in having the hands placed across the chest (Chutiwongs et al., 2007). It is said to be not in the original plan of King Parakramabahu the Great and therefore, could be executed by someone else during the same period (Wikramagamage, 2004).

The statue is 22 feet 9 inches (6.92 m) tall (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Devendra, 1956). It has been carved out of the living rock in high relief and is standing on a lotus base (Prematilleke, 1966). The left leg is slightly bent at the knee and the outstretched neck show features similar to the statue at Tivanka Pilimage (Chutiwongs et al., 2007). The hands are crossed on the breast and fingers are lightly resting on the mid-upper arms (Devendra, 1956). The body including the left shoulder is covered with the robe but leaves the right shoulder bare. Hair is arranged in curly knots. The posture of the hands is unusual.

According to popular tradition, this is a statue of Ananda Thera, the attendant disciple of the Buddha (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Devendra, 1956). But according to another popular opinion, this is a standing statue depicting the Buddha (Prematilleke, 1966).
Paranavitana believes that the posture of this statue represents the Buddha in Para-dukkha-dukkhita mudra: The Buddha who is sorrowing for the sorrows of others (Prematilleke, 1966; Ray, 1960). By providing evidence from the Kandyan Era temple paintings, scholars have suggested that this position of hands could represent the Buddha performing the Animisalochana-puja (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Prematilleke, 1966). According to Wikramagamage, there are five suggestions about the posture of this statue, viz: Para-dukkha-dukkhita, Animisalochana, Swastika, Ratanaghara, and Avadhana (Wikramagamage, 2004).

Several statues and paintings with a similar posture have been found from other sites in Sri Lanka, such as from Na-Maluwa in Ritigala (North-Central Province), Yatala Vehera in Tissamaharama (Southern Province), Dambulla, Medawala, Gangarama, Lankatilaka, Bambaragala, Hindagala in Central Province, and Yapahuwa, Toragalla in North Western Province (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Devendra, 1956; Prematilleke, 1966; Ray, 1960).

Nipanna-patima Guha
Next to the standing statue, on the right, is 46 feet 4 inches (14.1 m) long (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Devendra, 1956) reclining statue depicting the sleeping Buddha (Wikramagamage, 2004). However, another opinion suggests that this statue depicts the Parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha (Chutiwongs et al., 2007). According to that opinion, the standing statue nearby represents a disciple of Buddha, probably Ananda, who is grieving at the demise of his master (Chutiwongs et al., 2007; Prematilleke, 1966). If it is true, the standing statue should be included in the same shrine with the reclining Buddha, but old brick wall basements remaining today suggest that these two statues were in separate shrine rooms.

Therefore, this reclining image is definitely called by many a Nipanna (recumbent) statue (Devendra, 1956). Prof. Chandra Wikramagamage is also of the opinion that this statue depicts the sleeping posture of Buddha.
Two statues are in two different caves and the standing statue has been identified as that of the Buddha with a smile on his lips. The reason for drawing back one leg was to avoid the pain caused by the ankle-bones coming into contact and undoubtedly that must have been the pose that the Buddha adopted whenever he slept. He must have kept the leg in the same position even on the day he passed away so that cannot be taken as a characteristic feature of the parinibbana. This is the sleeping posture of the Buddha, one of the three postures of the Buddha popular in Sri Lanka.
Citation: Wikramagamage, 2004. p.223.
The Buddha lies on his right with his head resting on the palm of the right hand kept on the bolster pillow. The face is round and the Usnisha is shown on the head. The robe pleats are shown in the characteristic double groove method adopted by Polonnaruwa artists (Chutiwongs et al., 2007). This image probably shows the culminating point of early classical of such images at Tantirimale and Attaragallava (Chutiwongs et al., 2007).
The sleeping Buddha statue The sleeping Buddha statue .
An inscription known as Katikavata of King Parakramabahu the great is found on the rock face between the standing statue and the cave shrine. It contains the details of the reformation of the Sasana and the code of discipline enforced on the monks. 

  • Polonnaruwa Gal Vihara Ordinance

    Reign: Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.)
    Period: 12th century A.D.
    Script: Medieval Sinhala
    Language: Medieval Sinhala
    Transcript: Apa Budun kalpa catasahasradhika ca(tu)r asamkhya .......>>
    Translation: Our Buddha having fulfilled the exercise of all the thirty .......>>

    Content: Records about an ordinance for the guidance of Buddhist clergy. It has been drafted after a convocation, headed by Maha Kassapa Thera of Udumbaragiri monastery (present Dimbulagala), with the agreement of assembled Sangha.
    Reference: Wickremasinghe,1928

The inscription contains 51 lines and its content is divided into two parts: the first part is about the historical introduction and the latter part is about the disciplinary injunctions (Wickremasinghe,1928). It reveals some names of the Buddhist monks involved in the ordinance. Maha Kassapa Thera of Udumbaragiri, Nanapala Thera from Anuradhapura, Nagundapalliya Thera, Moggallana Thera, and Nanda Thera of Selantarayatana are some of the names found in the inscription (Wickremasinghe,1928).

A protected site
The Gal Viharaya located in the Sri Nissankamallapura village in the Divisional Secretary’s Division, Thamankaduwa is an archaeological protected site, declared by a government gazette notification published on 4 June 2004.

Katikavata of King Parakramabahu Gal Vihara paintings
1) Gal Viharaya polonnoruwa 2017-10-17 (2) by Z thomas is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
2) Sri Lanka Photo054 by Psychoslave is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

1) Chutiwongs, N.; Prematilleke, L.; Silva, R., 2007. Sri Lanka Murthi: Buddha (Sri Lanka Sculpture: Buddha). Central Cultural Fund. Ministry of Cultural Affairs. pp.66-67,96-97,98-99,108-109.
2) Devendra, D.T., 1956. An unusual hand position in Ceylon statuary. Artibus Asiae, 19(2), pp.126-136.
3) Fernando, P.E.E., 1960. Tantric Influence on the Sculptures at Gal Vihara, Polonnaruva. University of Ceylon Review, 18(1), pp.50-66.
4) Prematilleke, L., 1966. The identity and significance of the standing figure at the Gal-vihāra, Polonnaruva, Ceylon. Artibus Asiae, 28(1), pp.61-66.
5) Ray, H. C. (Editor in Chief), 1960. University of Ceylon: History of Ceylon (Vol 1, part II). Ceylon University Press. pp.604-605.
6) The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. No: 1344. 4 June 2004. p.15.
7) Wikramagamage, C., 2004. Heritage of Rajarata: Major natural, cultural and historic sites: Colombo. Central Bank of Sri Lanka. pp.220-225.
8) Wickremasinghe, D. M. D. Z., 1928. Epigraphia Zeylanica: Being lithic and other inscriptions of Ceylon (Vol, II). Published for the government of Ceylon by Humphrey Milford. pp.256-283.
9) Wickaramsinghe, N., 1990. (Editor in chief: Wijesekara, N.) Section II: Mural paintings: 900 A.D.-1200 A.D.. Archaeological Department Centenary (1890-1990): Commemorative series: Volume V: Painting. Commissioner of Archaeology. pp.61-63.

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This page was last updated on 14 November 2022

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