Tissamaharama (Sri Lanka): Unique plaque depicting a Universal Monarch


Impact of its iconography to early Sri Lankan art:

Senarat Paranavitana, then the Archaeological Commissioner of Sri Lanka, has suggested, "The evidence of the influence of Andhra art on that of early Ceylon is so overwhelming, that it may even be suggested that a branch of that school was established in Ceylon, and that the sculptures on the frontispieces of the ancient stupas are the work of that school". The carvings of stambhas (columns) erected at ayakas of the Abhayagiri Dagoba built by Vattagamani Abhaya (109 and 89-77 BCE), but with sculptures that can be dated to the second century CE, is one of the good examples to show the impact of the Andhra School over the early carvings of the Sri Lankan stupas. One of the steles of the west ayaka of the Abhayagiri Dagoba depicts a standing Cakravartin clad in royal garments making a gesture with a raised right hand (see plate 3). Out of seven treasures attributed to a universal monarch in the Buddhist literature, six are quite visible in spite of the bad state of conservation of the stambha. As in many Andhra sculptures, the king standing in the middle is dressed in smooth diaphanous garments and wears necklaces, bracelets, bangles, armlets, long earrings and an elaborate headdress. Taking the thunderbolt held in his upraised right hand and the elephant head jutting out from the border on the right side, some art historians were inclined to consider this figure Dhatastra or Indra. One has to bear in mind that Mandhatar is closely associated with Indra, the god of thunder and rain. As the story goes, Mandhatar, a human counterpart of Indra, the warrior-god, ruled together with Indra for an unimaginable period of time during which 36 Indras changed. However, the presence of the wheel, the gem to our right, the elephant and the horse to our left are closely associated with the figure of a Cakravartin. The woman and the child depicted in the lower panel may stand for the queen and the heir to the throne. Apart from the counselor, all the other treasures of the universal king are shown on these two reliefs.

The figures on a column at the northern frontispiece of Jetavanarama Dagaba in Anuradhapura built by the King Mahasen (circa 276-305 CE) clearly depict a universal monarch (see plate 4). The pious king stands in the middle of the upper register, facing the viewer with a raised right hand.
The uttariya is worn making a loop in front of the diaphanous paridhana belted around the waist with a girdle, leaving the chest bare. Still, he is richly dressed with lavish jewellery: a flat collar necklace, a long necklace made of multiple beads, bracelets, thick bangles, armlets, long earrings and a sophisticated headdress. Three of the seven treasures of the Cakravartin are also depicted: above, to the right, a gem and below, the foreparts of an elephant and a horse. The lavishly dressed and sumptuously bejewelled woman depicted at the lower register holding a bunch of lotuses could be the queen. Although all the seven treasures are not depicted, the image in the upper panel is no doubt a Cakravartin.

When compared to Andhra or Gandhara iconography, the reliefs under discussion in Sri Lanka depict isolated figures of universal monarchs taken out of the context of Buddhist stories. They are not in relationship with stories occurring during the lifetime of the historical Buddha, such as the story of the nun (bikshuni) Utpalavarna nor in relationship with his previous life stories (jatakas), such as the story of Mandhatar. It is said that a great crowd awaited Buddha Gautama descending from the Trayastrimsa (Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods) to Samkashya, having preached the abhidhamma. The nun (bikshuni) Utpalavarna who would have preferred to be the first to greet her Master used magical powers to take on the shape and appearance of a Cakravartin and was admitted with her chariot and troops into the foremost row. According to Monika Zin statistics show that in the Amaravati School the most frequently represented narrative is the story of King Mandhatar, which appears 47 times. In addition to these, there are 15 representations of the Cakravartin surrounded by his Seven Jewels.

The Cakravartin of the hitherto unpublished plaque from Tissamaharama and the ones from the Abhayagiri Dagoba and the Jetavanarama Dagoba, appear lost in context. These depictions are not a part of a story. As emphasized earlier, in the absence of sculpted narratives like those found in India, early Sri Lankan artwork, inspired from Andhra prototypes, at least at its inception, appear simply as decorative elements. On the contrary, the paintings from early periods vividly narrate stories based on Pali literature. These contrasts form another story to be developed in future studies. However, the earliest depiction of a Cakravartin with the all the seven treasures featured on this relief no doubt fills a gap in early Sri Lankan art.