Isurumuniya (Sri Lanka): Sculpture of Man and Horse

Kalakeerthi Edwin Ariyadasa

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The Man and Horse Sculpture at Isurumuniya

Archaeology, takes on the guise of a way of life, in a country with a history dating back to the far past. In such territories treasures exist both beneath and above the earth, challenging and delighting archaeologists, for whom the past is perpetually present.

When we are born in a land scintillatingly rich in culture, we invariably inherit a vast treasure of variegated traditions.

As eras age, the history of these multi-faceted cultures, begins to recede irrevocably into the dim past. In this inescapable natural process, we, the moderns - the contemporaries - who have become the current legatees of these sumptuous traditions, ‘inherit’, as a matter of course, a whole series of puzzles, enigmas, riddles and mysteries.

Long centuries separate us from these ancients, who authored or originated our cultural traditions. This distance in time, makes it difficult or at times, just impossible - for us to understand the real significance of certain entities, that our ancestors built, conceptualized or established.

As a logical outcome of this state of affairs, our past has endowed upon us, a whole plethora of unsolved cultural ‘mysteries’ to unravel which, much time and effort have to be invested.


The tireless endeavours of the Archaeological Savant Prof. Senarath Paranavitana, have succeeded in bringing to light, some of the more troubling ‘mysteries’ from our past, that had continued to baffle generations.

Blessed with the felicitous skill to ‘scan’ the past as effortlessly as one would read the daily paper, Prof. Senarath Paranavitana, was able to see through some of the toughest riddles, our abundant past could yield.

But, some of these enigmas defied even his undaunting genius - or else some of his interpretations were, at times, not accepted universally.

Among some of the more prominent riddles of Sri Lankan culture, that still remain unresolved, are the ‘Mystery’ of the Sigiri Apsaras and the identity of the ‘Man and the Horse’, in the well-known sculpture at Isuruminiya.


Way back in 1971, in a series of articles I contributed to the Observer, the Daily News and some Sinhala publications, I identified the ‘Lovers’ at Isurumuniya. In a closely argued presentation, I recognised the ‘Lovers’ as ‘Shiva and Parvathi’.

This led to a long and sustained debate, and I must modestly state, that my view was widely upheld. And, the Lovers at Isurumuniya are ‘Shiva and Parvathi'.

In the current article, I once again return to Isurumuniya. After prolonged research, I have been able to identify the ‘Man and the Horse’, in the Isurumuniya Sculpture. My finding, I am sure, will lead to concerned debate and sustained expression of views.

Man and Horse

But, I am equally certain, that my ‘discovery’, will receive an encouraging acceptance.

The work of art we focus, on, is a sculpture, done on the front surface of the boulder, which functions as a wall to contain the pond below. The figures of elephants at water sports are sculpted on the rock-wall.

As art experts observe, the sculpture, could date back to the early days of Anuradhapura Kingdom.

The sculptural refinement of the work, pre-eminently deserves the epithet ‘exquisite'. Its stylistic subtleties unerringly point to the flowering of an advanced tradition. Framed within an artificially hewn stone-recess, two figures occupy the rock-space - a man and a horse's head.

The intriguing riddle that has voyaged down the long corridors of time, to puzzle us-the moderns-is, who are these two-Man and Horse?

Before I present my unravelling of the ‘mystery’, what is logically correct, is to look at some of the solutions advanced, over time, by a whole range of persons.

Some years ago, a critic put forward the amusing theory, that the sculpture depicts a ‘horse-trader'. We need not delve deep into this suggestion, simply because, such a dignified personality, surveying the captial city, can in no way be a mere ‘horse-trader.’

Prof. Senarath Paranavitana had surmised, that the ‘Man’ was ‘Parjanya, - the Rain-God, and the horse was ‘Agni’ (fire).

The learned scholar has been impressed by the nobility and the dignity of the individual depicted in the sculpture.

But, since iconographic details do not conform to divinity, this view was not widely accepted.

Even if it were assumed that the Rain-God was, portrayed in human form, the interpretation seemed far-fetched.

Expressing his view about the issue, Dr. William Kohn introduced the interpretation that the ‘Man’ was Sage Kapila.

The intense military and aggressive visage of the ‘Man’, does not quite reflect the subdued, spiritual demeanour of the Great Sage. In consequence, the ‘Sage Kapila’ version was set aside.

Now, we are back to square one. If so, who are these two - the Man and the Horse?

Let us carefully scrutinise the two figures. The man is well-built. He wears a helmet. Ornaments adorn his body and his ears. He is seated in highly dignified ease, in the iconographic posture of royal style and guise (Rajalilasana). He gazes steadily and with evident pride and confidence, right ahead at the capital city - Anuradhapura.

The garment that decks his lower body, covers his thighs. The garments reflect, high military attire. His total dress magnificently befits a Commander-in-Chief or a ruler-may even be Commander-in-Chief- cum-ruler.

In his ‘Research Essay’ titled ‘Art of Isurumuniya’, Dr. Chandra Wickrema Gamage, approaches quite close to the final identification of the Man and the Horse.

But, he does not take the last logical leap to arrive at the right conclusion that is in keeping with the initial steps he takes in his essay. Let us take a very close view of the steps that lead to the final conclusion. He is a crowned dignitary, in the attire of a Commander-in-Chief. He proudly surveys the then modern capital city ‘Anuradhapura'.

The crowning touch is presented by the horse's head. This dignified man, has the horse's rein tied to his upper arm-as is clearly depicted in the sculpture.

Iconographic feature

Dr. Chandra Wickrema Gamage is perhaps the only observer who has so carefully noted this unique iconographic feature. In my experience, there is no other sculptural portrayal of a royally seated figure, who has his upper arm tied to his horse's rein.

The noose that ties the mare’s rein to the king’s upper arm is lax, because it could be some kind of thread or a leather thong. It is interesting to observe the rigidity of the metal bangles worn by the king around his wrist. They are not lax at all in contrast to the rein of the mare. Mahawansa specifically records that the mare was captured by Prince Pandukabhaya with a noose.

Where do all these unmistakably point to? Of course, invariably to the greatest commander and king of the Early Anuradhapura period, who after defeating all his enemies fully and totally, built the new city of Anuradhapura.

Dr. Wilhelm Geiger, in his Appendix C to the English translation of Mahavira, traces, in admiration, the progress of Pandukabhaya's campaign.

Mahavamsa authors contribute a long chapter, to describe in detail the emergence of King Pandukabhaya.

When these preliminaries are introduced, the ‘Horse’ is quite easy. Mahavamsa, is eloquent about Pandukabhaya's mare Cetiya.

A former she-devil (Yakkhini) this mare Cetiya, guided Pandukabhaya to utter and total victory. Mahavamsa goes on to say, after his coronation, King Pandukabhaya, sheltered her in the palace premises. After her passing away, the king made her a cult figure. That is how you find the ‘Man’, keeping the horse tied to his upper arm in this famous sculpture.

Therefore, there is no hesitation whatsoever, that the ‘Man’ in the Isurumuniya sculpture is King Pandukabhaya himself. And of course, the Horse is ‘Cetiya’ the king's life-long protector and unswerving companion in all his conquests.

The riddle is solved

In the Man and Horse Sculpture at Isurumuniya, the man without any doubt is King Pandukabhaya, gazing proudly over the city he built. And the horse, once again is Cetiya - the she-devil, who sustained the king in the guise of Cetiya the mare.

Pandukabhaya, in a manner of speaking, started his battles even before he was born. His ten uncles were ready to kill him the moment he was born. But he escaped. In a war continued over a period of 37 years he relentlessly battled his uncles. Pandukabhaya did away with eight of his ten uncles. The two left alive were friendly to him. As epic poet John Milton’s lines state, Pandukabhaya was propelled by ‘an unconquerable will and study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield’.

Achieving absolute victory he discarded Upatissa Gama- the seat of government favoured by his uncles. In a massive city- building effort, he brought into being his magnificent capital Anuradhapura and became the first king of Sri Lanka to rule from that urban centre.

Mahavamsa is effusive in its elaborate description of King Pandukabhaya’s Anuradhapura.

Pandukabhaya was a proud victor- absolute ruler and the architect of neatly laid-out capital city.

The sculpture, ‘Man and Horse’, depicts conqueror King Pandukabhaya surveying his capital with immense pride, with mare Cetiya who was faithful to him throughout his troubled years, by his side.

King Pandukabhaya lived lives for 107 years. He ruled the land for seven decades.

The puzzle is solved. The Man and the Horse in the Isurumuniya sculpture are King Pandukabhaya and his mare Cetiya.