Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At the feet of the Buddha

Gal Vihara, Sri Lanka
Visited 1992 and 2005

2,400 years after the Buddha achieved nirvana, I sat facing his reclining figure, drinking in the sense of peace and serenity I felt. Ahhh.

Throughout this, my third trip to Sri Lanka, I had been waiting for this moment. I had visited Gal Vihara once before, on my first trip 13 years before this, and had never forgotten the sense of wonder, of awe, of peace and pure joy I felt simply by looking upon the beautiful, larger-than-life statues of the Buddha.

The 4 Buddha statues, each carved out of a single piece of granite, were part of a monastery built in the 12th century during the reign of the great King Parakramabahu.

These statues are all that remain of the vihara (monastery) at one end of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They are enough. Between them, they depict the Buddha seated, standing and reclining; meditative, sorrowful and serene.

As I approached the site (with my husband), we first came to a large seated Buddha in meditative pose. Beyond words. When we were finally able to tear ourselves away, we moved on to a smaller meditative Buddha, also seated, in an enclosure, a cave-like space in the rocks. Somehow this statue does not seem to belong to the rest of the group. Nevertheless, the carving is very fine. Because the enclosure is glassed in, it is harder to actually “sit with the Buddha” here.

Next, we came to a huge standing statue with a beautifully carved but sorrowful expression. With the hands crossed across the chest, the whole image expresses sorrow felt deeply but expressed quietly. Some believe this is a statue of Buddha’s disciple Ananda (ironically the name means bliss), grieving over the passing of the Buddha, who reclines next to it in the nirvana pose. Most modern historians, however, discount this theory. They believe the standing figure, like the other 3, is of the Buddha himself.

The standing figure towers above one at 7 metres (23 feet). The reclining Buddha next to it measures 14 metres (46 feet). This, to me, is the most beautiful of the carvings. Perhaps it helps that the prone figure is all at eye level – you can walk the length of the carving, seeing all of the Buddha up close. The face is gentle, calm, serene… beautiful… And more -- once again, beyond words.

The attention to detail in this carving is truly amazing. Every fold in the Buddha’s robes is lovingly carved. So is the design in the pillow under his head, including a wheel symbol on the visible side. And the pillow is shows a slight depression, made by the weight of the Buddha’s head.

My husband and I spent hours at Gal Vihara, in particular before the first (large) meditative Buddha and the reclinging figure. I marvelled at the love and devotion of those who carved these figures out of the rock. I communed with the Buddha – or so I thought anyway – and meditated under his guidance.

As we sat before the reclining figure, a group of novice monks came laughing over the rock behind. At another time, I was joined by a few monkeys, who watched the Buddha from the edge of that same rock.

I wondered if we all enjoyed the same sense of serenity emanating from the Buddha, or from his statue.

See related older post from one of my other blogs: In the shadow of the Buddha.

1 comment:

  1. These images are amazing. You are fortunate to have been able to see them first hand. Thank you for sharing them.