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

Osmund Bopearachchi (UC Berkeley-CNRS Paris)

Source - http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=158584

1585846479uniqueThe present article is based on a unique plaque depicting a Universal Monarch - Cakravartin in Sanskrit, cakravartin in Pali and Sakvithi in Sinhalese - found accidently in Tissamaharama, now conserved in the head office of the Department of Archaeology, Colombo (see plate 1). I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Prof. Senarath Disanayaka, Director General of Archaeology, for authorising me to publish it. Before discussing the importance of this relief in understanding the early forms of Sri Lankan art, let me narrate briefly the story of its discovery. Mr. K. Lahiru Sampath, from Tissamaharama found this sculpture in early 2016, in the irrigation canal carrying water from the Tissa Reservoir to the paddy-fields in the vicinity of the Tissamaharama Rajamahavihara. The canal runs along the Tissa-Akurugoda Road between the two ancient sites of Tissamaharama stupa and Sandagiri Dagoba. The precise place of its discovery, according to Ms. Rathubambarandage Nirosha kanthi, Curator of the Yatala Archaeological Museum, is about 100m from the junction of Rubberwatta Road and Tissa-Akurugoda Road, towards Tissamaharama Rajamahavihara. The villager who found it at the depth of the dried-out canal, seeing its unusual iconography and understanding its archaeological importance, donated it to the chief monk of the Yatala Rajamahaviharya. Through the intervention of Ms. Wasanthi Alahakoon, Regional Office, Department of Archaeology in Galle, the plaque was given to the head Office of the Department of Archaeology in Colombo on the 5th of February 2016. On the 7th of July 2016, on the day of the annual celebrations of archaeology (Puravidya Dinaya), the Department of Archaeology officially honoured Mr. K. Lahiru Sampath for his contribution.


The plaque depicts a Universal Monarch, considered an ideal universal king, who reigns ethically and compassionately over the entire world. In a Buddhist context, Cakra-vartin means the one who turns the Dharmacakra, or Wheel of the Dharma. The central figure with the raised right arm is no doubt a universal monarch, since he is shown with all the seven treasures that a Cakravartin should posses. The concept of Cakravartin, the universal monarch with Seven Jewels, as correctly argued by Monika Zin, is a frequent topic in Buddhist literature: Mahasudassanasutta (Dighanikaya XVII); Brahmayusutta (Majjhimanikaya 9 l); Mahapadanasutta (Dighanikaya XIV); Lakkhanasutta (Dighanikaya XXX); Cakkavattisihanadasutta (Dighanikaya XXVI); and Cakkavatisutta (Samyuttanikaya XLYL.5.2), to name only canonical Pali texts. In the Cakkavattisihanadasutta (The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel), in the Dighanikaya, the Buddha defines the seven treasures possessed by a wheel-turning monarch as: the Wheel Treasure, the Elephant Treasure, the Horse treasure, the Jewel Treasure, the Woman Treasure, the Householder Treasure, and the Counsellor Treasure. In Buddhist literature, the notion of a ‘Wheel-Turner,’ or Cakravartin, applies to the Buddha himself. For example, in the Lalitavistara Sutra, when the sage Asita came to see the newly born prince Siddhartha in the royal palace of Kapilavastu, he looked at the Bodhisattva, and saw that his body was wonderfully adorned with the thirty-two marks and eighty signs of a great being predicted to either subdue and conquer the entire world and its oceans without using force or weapons or to leave his home and go forth as a homeless monk and a Tathāgata, a completely perfect Buddha. He further says that if the Bodhisattva remains at home, he will be a Dharma king, possessing the seven jewels: the wheel, the elephant, the horse, the mani stone, the queen, the chancellor and the counselor. Likewise, the present plaque depicts the universal monarch with all the seven treasures. The Cakravartin stands in the middle, wearing an upper garment (uttarīya) over an under garment (paridhāna) belted with a cord around the waist, imitating most probably a fine silk fabric, wrapped around the left shoulder and arm leaving most of the torso exposed. His majesty is emphasized by the highly elaborated jatamukuta (headdress) with a crest in the middle and rich jewellery: long earrings, bracelets and a flat collar necklace. He raises his right hand executing the gesture of making the coins (wealth) to drop from the sky. Although the coins are not depicted clearly, the famous relief of the Cakravartin from Jaggayyapeta stupa in Andhra Pradesh, shows very clearly square coins resembling closely punch-marked coins. Once the identity of the principal figure is established, it is easy to interpret the other characters and symbols depicted on this hitherto unpublished plaque. To our right, at the upper extremity, is a forepart of elephant and to its right, and close to the head of the universal king, is a head of a horse. The unusual symbol between the head and raised right arm of the monarch is the wheel treasure. The symbol at the upper extremity to our left, taking the form of a conch (shankha), is the gem. Among the three standing human figures, the one to our right holding a water pot and wearing a lavish jatamukuta and rich jewellery is the householder treasure or the son of the monarch and heir to the throne.

Dressed in sumptuous garments, wearing long earrings and a sophisticated headdress, and holding most probably a lotus (symbol of purity), the queen (or the woman treasure) is shown standing between the heir to the throne and the Cakravartin. The figure standing to our left, richly dressed with fine jewellery and garments, with arms crossed over the chest, is the Counsellor. This plaque thus depicts the universal monarch with all the seven treasures. Though there are sculptures attempting to depict the Cakravartin in early Sri Lankan art, to my knowledge, this the only ancient sculpture so far attested to in the island showing this ideal universal king with all the seven symbols. We shall come back to this point a little later.

Origin of the plaque:

This unique and unpublished relief is of late Andhra style of Nagarjunakonda and can be dated to the third or fourth century CE. It is sculpted using a hard limestone characteristic of the Andhra region. The composition and style of the images and symbols remind us of the late Nagurjanakonda sculptures depicting the same theme. Among them, the most evocative is the long relief depicting the story of the Cakravartin named Mandhatar, born with seven treasures capable of generating miraculous rains of coins, grains or cloths to nourish his subjects (see plate 2). On this slab, all the seven treasures are shown along with the universal monarch standing facing the viewer with a raised right hand.

Archaeological evidence, along with epigraphic and literary sources, attest to the intense interactions between the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and those of the same faith in the Krishna Valley in Andhra during the early centuries of the Common Era. It is also well-known that Buddhist art in Sri Lanka, apart from rare exceptions, is deprived of bas-reliefs or rock cut images depicting the life of the historical Buddha. Most of the portable slabs found in the island were executed in the Krishna Valley in Andhra Pradesh and were imported to Sri Lanka. Two panels found in 1894 in Bodhighara in a paddy field about a mile from Anuradhapura depicting the dream of Mahamaya and the interpretation of the dream, now exhibited in the Colombo National Museum, were certainly executed in India, as proven by their prototypes in Andhra art.

Many fragments and intact slabs found in Bodhighara south of the Jetavana Stupa in Anuradhapura, unearthed during excavations conducted by the Cultural Triangle in November 1986, are made of Andhra hard limestone, and belong stylistically to the Nagarjunakona School. The fact that most of these portable plaques were found in the Bodhighara is to be noted. Even though the sculpture under discussion was not found in an archaeological context, one has to bear in mind that the place of its discovery was not very far from the Bodhighara at Sandgiriyi Dagoba.

Apart from Anuradhapura, several sculptures imported from Andhra were found in recent years in ancient Ruhuna. It was also at Tissamaharama that a Buddha statue made of Andhra hard limestone was found accidentally on private land belonging to Mr. Rathubambarandage Piyasena. Today this statue is erected in the image house close to Sandagiri Dagoba. The slab depicting the renunciation of Prince Siddhartha, now in the Gririhandu-Vihara in Ambalantota, was executed in Andhra limestone and is of the later Nagarjunakona style. Another frieze executed in the lower Krishna Valley depicting the story of Prince Nanda and Janapada Kalyani was found in Tissamaharama. The present slab depicting a universal monarch is one more sculpture from ancient Ruhuna.

The Great Stupas of Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta and Nagarjunakona symbolise the political and economic supremacy of the ruling dynasties in Andhra Pradesh during the Satavahana and Ishvaku periods. The high period of Amaravati coincides with the arrival of Satavahana kings and the establishment of their capital at Dharanikota on the right bank of the Krishna River. The vast majority of the sculptures from these sites date from this period. It is likely that during the first half of the second century CE, during the reign of Vasishtihputra Pulumavi, the first Satavahana ruler of the region, the Great Stupa was built. Amaravati has yielded inscriptions belonging to Vasishtihputra Pulumavi, Sivamaka Sada and Gautamiputra Yajna Satakarni. At the time of the downfall of the Satavahana Dynasty, circa 225 CE, the Ikshvakus, under the rule of Vasishtihputra Chamtamula I, the founder of the Ikshvaku Dynasty, seem to have gained an independent ruling status and established their capital in Vijayapuri on the right bank of the Krishna River at Nagajunakonda. More than thirty Buddhist establishments were discovered there. The rule of the Ikshvakus came to an end circa 325 CE with the reign of Vasishtihputra Rudrapurusadatta. The two major phases of Buddhist sculptures in Andhra, early and later, belong to the periods of these two dynasties: Satavahanas and Ikshvakus.

There would have been a powerful religious motivation on the part of the local Buddhist population that drove the construction of these Buddhist monuments in Krishna Valley. The enormous amount of resources needed to build these gigantic monuments would have come from devout nobles and traders of Buddhist faith who were well established in Dharanikota. Their wealth came from the flourishing inland and international trade centres in the ports of Dharanikota and other trade stations of the Andhradesa on the rivers and along the coast. It is important to underline that during the immediate centuries before and during the Common Era, Buddhism was the dominant religion of South India, especially in Andhra Pradesh. One of the Buddhist groups for which we have clear evidence at Nagarjunakona is the Theravadins from Sri Lanka who have been referred to as the Theravadins of the Mahavihara. Another Buddhist sect from Sri Lanka lived at the Chula Dhamma Giri Vihara in Nagarjunakona.

Being an island situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean at the intersection of many maritime routes, Sri Lanka played an important role in international trade. Epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological discoveries in Sri Lanka and South India have added to the growing body of evidence attesting to the close cultural, social, religious and commercial ties between Sri Lanka and Andhra-Tamilnadu from the early historical period. Underwater excavations of the Godavaya shipwreck, close to Ambalantota near the southern coast of Sri Lanka and dating back to the second century BCE, were conducted by the American Universities Texas A&M and the University of California, Berkeley, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka. These excavations have already revolutionised our knowledge of the history of maritime trade in South Asia, particularly between India and Sri Lanka. Thus the reliefs sculpted in Andhradesa using the hard limestone of the region were taken to Ruhuna by pious traders, pilgrims and monks disembarking at ancient seaports like Godavaya and Kirinda.