As Sri Lankans, we are fortunate to have a cultural heritage that goes back more than two thousand years. This legacy was given to us by our kings, monks, scholars, artists and the general public. It is our duty to identify this heritage and preserve it for future generations. Let us now look at the Isurumuni Rajamaha Viharaya in Anuradhapura, one of the most valuable historical sites in Sri Lanka. Whether you are visiting this place as a pilgrim or on an educational tour, it is up to you to identify the religious value as well as the historical value of this place.
Today there are two parts to the city of Anuradhapura. One of them is the “Sacred City”.The other is the “new city”.All the places of worship like temples are located in Sacred City. Atamasthana and Isurumuniya are located in this sacred city.Isurumuniya is on the Anuradhapura-Kurunegala road.It is located below the Tissa tank bund on the southern border of Anuradhapura. Nearby is the wedding garden called ‘Ranmasu Uyana’ and the ancient Tapo forest called ‘Vessagiriya’.In the past Vessagiriya also belonged to Isurumuniya.
Isurumuniya does not belong to the Atamasthana. This is due to some administrative reasons taken earlier. One reason for this may be that Isurumuniya later moved away from the Theravada lineage of the Maha Vihara to the Mahayana lineage.
Isurumuniya Raja Maha Viharaya
Today this temple is called “Isurumuni Raja Maha Viharaya”, “Isurumuni Raja Maha Vehera” or “Isurumuniya”.In the Pali chronicle Mahavamsa, this is referred to as “Issarasamanaka” and “Issarasamana”.This temple is also known as “Issarasamanarama”, “Issarasamana Vihara”.Inscriptions from the 1st century have the name “Isiramana” written on them. In the Pali commentary Samantha Pasadika, is referred to as “Issaranimmana”.This temple is also known as “Kasungiri Vehera”.It is mentioned in the book “Commentary on the Mahabodhivansa Granthipada” by Ven. Welivitiya Panditha Soratha Thero on page 252 of the book “Sri Sumangala Dictionary” written by him.Later, Isurumuniya was also known as “Kassapa Giri”and “Kasub Giri”.The Pali word Kassapa and the Sanskrit word Kashyapa refer to King Kashyapa. The temple got the name “Kasub” because King Kasyapa I restored the temple.
There was a problem when King Kasyapa went to present this temple to the Theravada monks and it was because King Kasyapa was the assassin who killed his father. Therefore, the Maha Vihara Thero was reluctant to accept the temple. But the king wanted to offer the temple he had renovated to the Maha Vihara itself. The Mahavamsa states that the king had devised a plan and offered this temple to the Maha Vihara.
Who built a temple at Isurumuniya? Why? The answer to both these questions is found in the Mahavamsa. The establishment of the Isurumuni Vihara is the sixth devotional service performed by King Devanampiyatissa. According to it, King Devanampiyatissa built the Isurumuni Vihara to accommodate 500 affluent children who came to see Mahinda Thero.
Old Cave Temple
There are many places to visit when visiting Isurumuni Vihara. Two of them are the “temples”.Out of these, the main place is the small temple above the pond. This little temple is the first thing one sees from a distance. This temple is also known as the ‘Cave Temple’ as it is located inside a cave.
The pond below this temple was called “Mihindu Pokuna”.You have to climb a flight of stairs to reach this temple. It is said that the entrance to this and the accompanying dragon pandal and the Buddha statue are made of the same stone.
In fact, there are two dragon pandals in this shrine. One is with the entrance and the other is behind the Buddha statue. The carvings of the dragon pandal at the entrance appear to ornament dating back to the Anuradhapura period. Dragon statues are carved on the two pillars on either side of the pandal. The dragon is upside down, with its head turned. It has a dwarf on its back. The dwarf extends one arm downwards. At the top of the pandal, two dragon mouths are carved so that they are facing each other.
Another dragon pandal is located above the back of the Buddha statue. Even in a Buddhist house that is being built today, it is like a dragon pandal on the door. So why this dragon? The “dragon” is not a real animal. It is an imaginary animal. This animal was created by assembling the organs of several animals. It has a hoof-like elephant, legs like a lion, ears like a pig, a trunk like a shark, and eyes like an ape. There are two possible reasons for this. One is for the protection of the Buddha’s house. The other one is Pilgrims also enter to create the impression of being in a “timeless world.”(The “dragon” is considered a symbol of time.)
This Buddha statue is carved in a sitting posture. The statue is whitewashed and painted. It is not clear whether it is a brick statue or a stone statue. However, some believe that this is the first stone statue of the Buddha in Sri Lanka.
The Bo tree at Isurumuni Vihara is located above the pond on the right side of the pond. So you have to go around the pond to get there. There are many leaves spread out on all sides, so the bo tree looks very beautiful in the distance. It is generally accepted that this tree was planted here by King Devanampiyatissa. This is a sapling from the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
The Isurumuniya Dagoba is located on a rock. This dagoba is small but looks beautiful in the distance. It is said that the sacred relics are treasured in this dagoba. The location of this dagoba can be reached from both sides. One of the roads is on the side of the new temple. You can worship this dagoba by climbing a few stairs between several rocks. According to Ven. Chandananda Thero, the height of the stupa is 25 feet, the circumference is 75 feet, the courtyard is 30 feet long and 29 feet wide. The other road leading to this dagoba is in the direction of the Bo tree.
You have to climb a flight of stairs to reach the old cave temple. At the bottom of the stairs is an old moonstone. The moonstone is a stone carving. This is called the moon because it looks like a half-moon. It has several circular rows. The moonstone of Isurumuniya is now well worn and some of its images are not very clear.
At the foot of the steps leading to the temple are two other carved stones on either side of the moonstone and in the middle. These stones are called watchtowers. A watchtower is a carved pillar set up to guard a temple. On these pillars are carved images of gatekeepers. Although this watchtower is used to guard the temple, the guardian here is a cobra king. The cobra kings in these 2 watchtowers are not the same.
The cobra king is the king of cobras. Who are the nagas? The word naga has several meanings. In one sense, “naga” refers to a species of snake or reptile. The Sinhalese call such animals snakes. There is a world that belongs to these snakes. That is what the cobra world is called. The king there is the “Infinite” cobra king. In other words, “cobra” refers to a human species. They too had Kings. Some were in Nagadeepa. Some were in Kelaniya.
The mayor of these watchtowers is wearing a crown. There are 7 cobra foams around the top of the crown. Carrying two objects in both hands. One object is a Punkalasa with a wreath. The other object is a tree stump. Depending on which side they stand on, the side of the watchtower will vary.
The cobra king on our right is holding the Punkalasa with his right hand. He is holding a vine in his left hand. The cobra king on the left is holding a tree vine with his right hand and the Punkalasa with his left hand. The body of the Naga king is adorned with jewels. There is a lot of jewellery around the waist. Both feet are adorned with moths. The cobra king is standing, bent to one side and bent over. The number of foams at the top of the head is an odd number, such as three, five, seven or nine. There are two dwarfs on either side of the foot. There is a different watchtower near the entrance to the other temple than these two watchtowers. There is no cobra king in it. There is only one Punkalasa. There are several types of flowers in Punkalasa.
Man and Horse
On the right side of the ancient cave temple, near the roof, there is a man and a horse’s head carved in stone. Whose human form is this? Why a horse here? No one knows exactly anything about this. The reason is that nothing is written there. Even so, owning one is still beyond the reach of the average person. That is, the man is seated in the posture of “Maharaja Leela”.Here is the style. The right leg is raised and the right arm is held above the knee. The left hand is held heavy on the floor. Our sculptor thinks that he is seated either as a king or as a god. Who is this man sitting in Maharaja Leela? Many people speculate about it in different ways. Due to this many opinions have been published about it.
- Soldier and Horse
Henry Parker, an English civil servant and writer, says that here is a soldier and his horse. He says that this soldier looks like he is getting off his horse and resting. (Further details are contained in the book “Ancient Ceylon”, written by him in 1909.)
- Kapila Sprinkler
Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy is of the opinion that this is sage Kapila who appears in Hindu mythology. (Further details are given in his article “figures of Kapila at Isurumuniya Vihara, Anuradhapura” written in the sixth issue of “Spolia Zeylanica” magazine in 1910.) Vincent Smith, an English art critic, fully agrees with Coomaraswamy. (Further details are contained in the book, “A History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon”, written by him in 1911).
Professor Vogel thinks this is not a sprinkler. He points out that the way this man sits is not suitable for an ascetic or a meditating ascetic. (Further details are given in the book “Buddhist Art in India, Ceylon and java”, written by him in 1936.) Dr D.T.Devendra, an author of the Buddhist Encyclopedia, is of the opinion that here is Alexander the Great, the Greek king, and his beloved horse “Bucephalus”.(Further details are given in his book “Classical Sinhala Sculpture”.)
Elephants in the Pond
There is a pond on the right side of the stairs leading to the ancient cave temple. On the rock at the left end of that pond, several elephant images have been carved. When the pond is full of water, it looks like the elephants are enjoying the water. They lift their trunks and splash water. The images of elephants here actually belong to two parts. On the left side of the rock is a large two elephants, and two calves. The image of one puppy has largely faded, so some have not noticed that there is a puppy there. On the rock to the right is a bathing elephant. His legs are submerged in ponds.
These elephant images are very similar to the ones carved in the “Ranmasu Uyana”.Perhaps the sculptor who carved these images was the only one. Why are there images of bathing elephants here? That may indicate that the elephants are happy. Why are elephants happy? It may have been raining and the pond was overflowing. This temple was formerly known as “Meghagiriya”. “Megha” means rain cloud. This is where God invited the rain to fall. The elephants must have bathed happily because God had rained. There are also lotus flowers in the pond.
The most valuable work of art in Isurumuni is the carving known as the “Isurumuni couple”.This is a world-famous carving. It is very clear that the man and the woman here are a couple. They both have a youthful look. The woman sits on the man’s left thigh. The man has a sword behind his right shoulder. His upper body is not covered by clothing but his lower body is covered by clothing. And through his upper body, a rope looks like a thread. It’s like a thread worn by a Brahmin. His right hand is engraved with some kind of seal. The woman’s hair region is well tied. Her lower body is covered with a veil around her eyes. Her body weight is placed on the seat in her left hand. Her right hand is engraved with some kind of seal. Both of them are wearing jewellery.
No one knows exactly who these two are. Archaeologists and art critics differ on this point. There are currently 4 opinions on this.
- Saliya – Ashokamala
- Shiva – Parvati
- Manjushri – Shakthi
- Soldier – Wife
Isurumuni Royal Family
One of the carvings on display at the Isurumuni Museum is a wonderful carving that reveals one moment in a story. Five people will be involved in the event. In the middle is a king or a nobleman. He has two on his right hand and two on his left. The king is in a slightly higher seat than the others. He also sits in a strange style. His left hand is on the lap of a woman sitting to his left. He raises his right hand and seems to be trying to explain something. And the fingers of his hand are sealed with something. He has a crown on his head, a necklace around his neck, a string from his shoulder down, an anklet, and three or four waistbands. The upper body is not closed. The lower part is covered with a duvet.
The look on his face is sublime. From the dress and appearance, it is clear that this is a king. This is further evidenced by the people sitting around him. The woman on the back of the right side, swaying in the wind. In front of her is a young man with both hands on his chest. He is sitting with his right leg extended. His head also has a helmet like a crown. He also wears jewellery such as necklaces and bangles. To the left of the king is a woman. She has jewellery on her head, neck, and hands. A special feature here is that she holds the king’s left hand with her own hands. She has a troubled look on her face.
The museum exhibits a number of carvings depicting certain individuals inside a frame-like valve. All of these carvings look like parts on the towers of the same building. They are also surrounded by vines pattern. Inside this shell are both males and females. The man in one of the male figures is holding his right hand folded in the middle. His hand also shows some seal. His left arm is bent and leaning against something. The feet are placed on the right side. In another, there is a man with his left hand raised. His legs are bent at the sides, and his right arm is extended and held above the knee. His left hand also shows a seal. In another is a beautiful young woman. Her head is bent to the left. The legs are extended to the left side and the left hand is held on the left leg. Her hand also shows some seal. She is holding her right hand on the floor.
- Apsara Carving
The female figure is sculpted with her right hand resting on the floor and her left hand lifting something. This image is said to reflect an “apsara”.”Apsaras” refer to a species of deity that roams the water or clouds. According to Sanskrit mythology, the Apsaras were the wives of the Gandharva gods. Since the apsaras like water, it is believed that this apsara carving was originally located near the pond in the Ranmasu garden. The presence of a pandal-like vine around the image reveals that the craving was attached to a wall somewhere.
- Mermaid Carving
There are three in this carving. As two in front and one behind. This shows that they belong to the “mermaid” species. A mermaid is an animal that combines the appearance of a human with the appearance of an animal. Often the upper body is like a human and the lower body is like an animal. That animal could be a bird or a fish. In front of this carving are a male mermaid and a female mermaid. Their lower parts look like a bird. The male mermaid here has a stick-like object in his hand. When you look at it and the way he holds it, it looks like a musical instrument.
- Kuvera Carving
Another important carving among the museum is the carving with three figures.This is known as “Kuvera Sankha Padma”.This is also a faith that has joined Buddhist literature from the Hindu faith. All three images look like dwarf images. One of these images represents the god “Kuvera”.According to Hindu mythology, “Kuvera” means the lord of wealth. This god has two bodyguards. They are called “Sankha” and “Padma”.Although these two are difficult to identify in this carving, they are very easy to identify in other carvings. That is, Sankha has a hook on the top of his head. The Padma has a lotus flower on his head.
- Carving of Idols
It is said that a male figure represents a god. The image was carved inside a pandal. Here the left hand is leaned on the floor and the right hand is extended and held above the knee. There is an opinion that Prince Saliya is in this carving.
When you enter the Isurumuni Vihara, there is a “Magul Uyana” on the right side. If you go to the far right corner of the existing car park, you can enter this park by a footpath that falls from there. Alternatively, you can enter this garden even if you come down along the bank of Tissa Lake. This is called the “Magul Uyana” because it is the king’s garden. This is called the “Ranmasu Uyana” because there were goldfish in a pond here.
This garden was created for the king to have fun. Suitable ponds, palaces and sheds have been built here. Two nearby ponds can be seen here today. On one side of the pond are six figures of bathing elephants carved into the rocks. There are three images on each side.
Isurumuniya is located below the Tissa Reservoir. This lake was built by King Devanampiyatissa. The water of this lake comes from “Jaya Ganga” or “Yoda Ela”. The river flows from Kalawewa. It is said that when the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi branch was brought to Anuradhapura, it was first deposited in the Tissa Lake. Even today, Buddhists believe that the gold leaf of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi does not fall to the ground, but floats in the wind and falls into the Tissa Lake. Although there are many lakes in Anuradhapura, the water for the rituals held in the upper courtyard to get rain during the dry season is obtained from the Tissa lake.
About a mile south of Isurumuni Vihara, you will find another important place to visit. That is Vessagiriya. It is located at the top of Kurunegala road. But archaeologists believe that this is also part of Isurumuniya. This is due to the fact that Isurumuniya has been mentioned in two recent inscriptions found at Vessagiriya. According to the Mahavamsa, this is the place where 500 Vaishyas came to Arahant Mahinda and were ordained. Today the Vessagiri mountain range is important because of the inscriptions carved in its caves. These letters are written under the ditch of the cave. These drips are drilled to stop rainwater from flowing into the cave. It is said that there are about 23 caves here. These articles are written in the oldest Sinhala letters. That is, from the “Brahmi script.”