The future of the past
The murals of the temple at Degaldoruwa reveal
an interesting stage
in the development of Kandyan art
Story and pix by W. A. Mahil
I reached the temple at 11 in the morning, following the tumultuous journey on
the severely damaged roads on the outskirts of Lewelle in Dumbara valley in the
three-wheeler I had hired in Kandy 20 minutes before.
The noise of the three-wheeler engine bounced back at me from the walls of the
shuttered houses on either side of the road. The three-wheeler turned into a
sandy road, ahead, at the end of the road in the morning sunlight, I saw the
outline of a white building with arched-doors and a tall bellfry standing
alongside the building – the entrance to one of Sri Lanka’s finest examples of
Kandyan murals, the Degaldoruwa Temple.
Suddenly, I heard the sound of children, being a Sunday, dhamma school was being
conducted in the temple. Children of many ages clad in white attire gathered
around Buddhist monks under trees, at the shrine room and some children sat on
the ground of avasa ge (monk’s living house). They don’t have a proper place to
hold dhamma school at the temple.
I removed my shoes and put them in back of the three-wheeler and then entered
the temple compound and saw the white-washed stupa of the temple through the
foliage in the hillock. Waiting a few minutes in the office room, I met the
chief monk and obtained permission to take photographs without using the flash
directly on the murals.
The Degaldoruwa Temple has been built into the base of a rock, which is cut into
two chambers. The first is a drumming hall built with wooden columns and there
is a colorful makara thorana, intricately carved out of wood that stands at the
entrance to the cave.
Inside the cave is a large recumbent Buddha statue and two small standing and
seated Buddha statues on either side of the recumbent statue. The ceiling of the
rock and walls contain some of the gems of pictorial compositions in the story
of Sinhala art.
The murals at Degaldoruwa Temple are considered as some of the finest examples
of art of the Kandyan kingdom. Religion is the theme of Kandyan murals and the
method adopted is continuous narration of the subject for the education of the
people. The murals date back to the 18th Century.
The most famous subject of narratives in mural art stick to re-telling epics
like the Vessanthara Jathakaya and Suthasoma Jathakaya. Other themes include
depictions of various incidents of the Buddha’s life.
The Degaldoruwa rock cave temple was built under the patronage of King Keerthi
Sri Rajasinghe in 1771. Degaldoruwa paintings can be considered to be the most
magnificent examples of Kandyan style – they are priceless historical documents
which cannot be reproduced under modern conditions.
An un-ordained monk, Devaragampola Silwattenne was regarded as a best painter of
that time and he had been commissioned to paint the murals at Degaldoruwa. He
was assisted by other artists such as Nilagama Patabenda and Koswatte
The biggest and probably the most interesting mural in the rock ceiling is the
one depicting the mara yuddaya (demons in battle). The most striking features in
this painting are the maraya with five faces leading the battle with elephants
and the mara warriors with guns and arrows in their hands.
Also impressive is the beautiful figure of the polomahikanthawa (earth woman)
holding a pot painted just below the painting of the Buddha.
Today, some paintings on the ceiling and walls of the main chamber are
dilapidated and ruined. Some have faded. However, a section of the ceiling
murals seem to be well protected. Presently, most of the paintings and the
buildings of the temple are being conserved under a programme implemented by the
Central Cultural Fund.
The Degaldoruwa rock cave temple is testimony to yet another treasure trove of
the Kandyan kingdom. The murals are however in a sad state. There is a strong
need for bodies like the CCF or Archaeology Department to step in and conserve
the remains before all is lost.