Angkor Wat Painting – Monks

My partner and I visited Angkor Wat in November of 2001. We followed Dawn Rooney’s book for six days, visiting numerous wats. We’d go out with a driver early in the morning and come back for lunch, relax for a couple of hours and then head back out later in the afternoon and stay out until just before it got dark.

At the time I had a small 35mm film camera that I bought in the Singapore airport of all places, on the way in. I didn’t want to have to carry around my “large” Pentax K1000. In retrospect, I wish I had brought that lovely little camera along with me. It’s just a beautiful, tiny camera compared to today’s DSLRs. A couple of years ago I bought my first micro 4/3 camera, the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and it’s about the same size as my Pentax and I absolutely love it. Of course, now the EM-1 is out and I have to decide when it’s time to upgrade. I don’t think I’m quite ready yet.

But I digress! This is the first post I’ve added here since 2009. I can’t believe that it’s been 5 years. To begin this and future posts, I am beginning an Angkor Wat series of digital paintings from select photos taken on that trip in 2001. The painting I just completed is of a couple of young monks sitting together on the 2nd floor of the main Angkor Wat complex. I took the picture when we came back a second time in the early morning before the crowds came. I understand that’s hardly possible anymore. It felt so magical to be there and witness the early morning activities of the monks and nuns who seemed to be living there.

Angkor Wat - Monks

Angkor Wat is the mausoleum and temple for King Suryavarmin II built in the early 10th century. It is considered to be the largest religious complex in the world and was originally built as a temple to Vishnu.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Dalada Maligawa

Buddha Image, Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka

Sacred Tooth Drummers, Sri Lanka

Temple of the Sacred Tooth is the holiest Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. The temple is located within the old Palace complex. When we visited, we needed to go through a rigorous security checkpoint due to the bombing by the Tamil Tigers on January 25, 1998. Once again we were also treated to a guide who took us through the complex, explaining the rooms, history, customs and best place to stand to get a picture of the tooth casket as the door was opened briefly to allow devotees to see the casket.

Hemamala, Sri Lanka

The belief since ancient times that the protector of the tooth also holds the right to govern the country has made for some colorful history involving kings, wars, and a exciting tale of how the last king of India, Guhasiva, employed his daughter, Hemamala, to secretly transport the tooth to Sri Lanka in her hair. She was accompanied by her husband, Danta, both dressed as pilgrims on a long adventurous voyage filled with miraculous events attributed to the tooth, bringing them safely to Sri Lankan capital Anuradhapura. The tooth eventually made it to its present location in the mid 16th century after being transported between kings and protected by monks. If you are interested in reading the story in more detail, visit this link on Wikipedia.

Temple of the Tooth drummers, Sri Lanka

When we arrived, our driver introduced us to our guide at the far end of the sidewalk leading to the palace complex. We passed several statues, one of them being a large statue of Hemamala and Danta as we walked to the building. After being searched, and leaving our shoes and shopping bags, we entered the complex. Our guide took us through the main hall where drummers were playing under overhanging tusks, then upstairs into the sanctuary where the tooth is kept.

Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka

When we got there we wanted only to experience being there with no talking. We stood in line with dozens of Sri Lankans waiting to walk past the door when the monk opened it revealing the outermost gem encrusted gold casket containing the tooth. We waited about a half hour, all the while watching people make offerings of fragrant flowers, including tuberose and frangipani along a long table directly opposite the door and gated area.

Women with babies were let into the gated area, about 8 foot square, enclosed by elegantly carved timber railings. It’s important for mothers to bring their babies to the temple of the tooth before they are a year and a half old to be presented to the Buddha.

Temple of the Tooth library manuscript, Sri Lanka

After this we toured the library housing a very old Buddhist manuscript, and finally a large main worship hall which was recently constructed. The walls were lined with numbered paintings telling the story of the movement of the tooth leading up to its current home.

All in all a very memorable visit.

Watch my slideshow for more pictures!

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

In 1978, UNESCO approved a project to safeguard the centuries of cultural achievements of six exceptional sites in Sri Lanka. They called the sites, bounded by Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the Cultural Triangle.

When South Indian invaders sacked the early capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second medieval capital of Sri Lanka, from the 11th century to the end of the early part of the 13th century. The early history of Polonnaruwa, before it became the capital, is a story of reservoirs.

Being located in the dry zone, water was a much needed commodity and no city could ever be built without it. Once the reservoirs were built in the 4th century AD, agriculture took hold and Polonnaruwa became a flourishing city. From around the 7th century the royalty from the then capital Anuradhapura built their residences here on this thriving ancient highway.

On our second day in Sri Lanka, we visited the ruins of Polonnaruwa. When we arrived, our driver, Aslam, introduced us to our hand-picked guide, Nihal, a young man extremely knowledgeable about the ancient cities.

He took us through the museum first, especially explaining about the different buildings that existed and why shown by models. The wood structure has completely burned up, lost in the 13th century after the South Indians invaded during a time of weak kingship. In a period of 50 or so years prior to this there were 20 kings.

Once we were finished getting an education in the museum, we spent about 2 hours walking through the ruins, in astonishingly good shape considering their age. Visit Wikepedia for a more complete chronology and history of Polonnaruwa..

According to the UNESCO publication, The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, published in 1993,

The Buddhist monasteries of Polonnaruva provide the best surviving examples of image shrines, stupas, chapter houses, hospitals and ponds. Three colossal brick-build shrinds: the Thuparama, Lankatilaka and Tivamkapatimaghara, throw much light on teh vaulted viharas (gedige) type described in commentaries from the thirteenth century.

Tooth Relic Shrine of Nissankammala, 12th century
This is a picture of the at least 10 foot standing Buddha off in the distance on the first floor. The Tooth Relic was enshrined on the second floor.

Tooth Relic at Nissankamalla

Vatadage or Circular Stupa House, 12th century
The conical timber roof was lost to fire in the 13th century, but the stone and brick remain giving testament to the lives of the people who lived and worshipped in this ancient city.

Vatadage Buddha image Vatadage Circular Shrine

Lankatilaka Image House, 12th century
LankatilakaOriginally brick vaulted with stucco exterior. Pilgrims walked up one side of the shrine’s wall (on a narrow staircase (shown on the left), and down the other wall on an even narrower stairway (shown on the right) so they never had their back to the Buddha.

Lankatilaka Stairway Up Lankatilaka Stairway Down

Krivehera or Milk Stupa, 12th century
While the paintings have long since vanished on this stupa, much of the plaster they were painted on remains, which is a feat unto itself.

Krivehera, Sri Lanka

Gal Vihara
This is the “Northern Monastery” founded by one of the great kings, Pakramabahu I and is the most celebrated site at Polonnaruwa. Scanning this colossal trio from left to right we have the sitting Buddha, the standing Buddha and the reclining Buddha. The hands crossed on the chest of the standing Buddha are mired in a bit of controversy, but my UNESCO book says that this “probably” represents the second week after Enlightenment.

Gal Vihara Sitting Buddha Gal Vihara Standing Buddha
Gal Vihara Reclining Buddha

Please feel free to enjoy this slideshow (with descriptions when you click on the picture) of photos I took during my 2 hour tour of these ancient ruins.

Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka

The Golden Mountain Temple

Dambulla Cave Temples Exterior

We arrived at the Dambulla Cave Temples in the late afternoon. Our driver, Aslam, introduced us to our guide, a middle aged wiry Sri Lankan, who we quickly learned possessed a passionate wealth of knowledge about Buddhism and the Cave Temples.

Meditating Buddha in Cave 1I had my camera and tripod because I wanted to get good pictures of the amazing Buddhist artwork in the caves. I had no idea we were also going to learn so much from our guide. He was insistent, as most great teachers are, that I pay full attention to him before shooting photographs. I was happy to oblige.

Dambulla Cave Temples is one of the largest cave temple complexes in SE Asia. It is also well visited as a pilgrimage site. In one cave our guide asked, “why do you think there are so many Buddhas side by side lining the walls of this cave?” Being the clueless, non-Buddhist Westerner that I am, I wondered the same thing! It’s very simple. This is so that there are plenty of Buddhas for the pilgrims to pray to. While it was nice to be there when it wasn’t very crowded, being witness to hundreds of pilgrims would have been an amazing experience.

Seated Buddhas Meditation under Naga

Our guide spoke emphatically of Buddhism being a philosophy rather than a religion with the most important message being the teaching of meditation or “no mind.” Everywhere in the caves are Buddha images in meditation. I felt at peace just being in the presence of such quiet meditative wisdom (or non-wisdom). Not only that, but the artistry on the walls and ceilings of the caves was captivating. All of my senses were alive with the wonder of it all.

Background and History

The cave temples, otherwise known as the Golden Mountain Temple, are located in central Sri Lanka. According to UNESCO, around the 3rd century BC, this area became the location for the largest Buddhist monastic settlements on the island of Sri Lanka.

There are 5 caves with the Maharaja Vihara being the oldest and most architecturally significant. A vihara was an early Sanskrit word for Buddhist dwelling, which took on greater meaning as time went on. Caves 1, 2 and 4 where built in the 1st century BC. The 3rd cave was built during the reign of Kirti Srirajasimha, the King of Kandy, in the 18th century and the 5th is the newest, repainted in 1915.

Cave 5In this picture in cave 5, you can see that the paint is peeling. This is due to the use of chemical rather than natural paint pigments, which have proven to be less resilient. Also the later cave statues were created using plaster vs. stone in the older caves.

Nirvana and parinirvana were major elements in each cave temple, as I’ll demonstrate in pictures that follow. The following attributes of parinirvana were explained by our guide. The picture on the left illustrates the feet of the Buddha in parinirvana. The feet are are exactly one above the other in the nirvana pose. The picture on the right shows the flame above the Buddha’s head in nirvana. This is missing in parinirvana.

Parinirvana Feet Nirvana Flame

Characteristics of Parinirvana
1. Eyes are half closed vs. open
2. No flame above the head
3. Open palm
4. Empty (flat) stomach
5. Feet slightly apart

Painted Buddha
Cave 4: Photography was banned for a time in recent history because a tourist sat on a Buddha statue to have her picture taken. You can see in this picture that this Buddha is more brightly painted than any other in this room. If you visit these sites, you must be respectful.The rule in the cave temples is that while you can take photos of the Buddhas, you cannot take photos of people. This prevents people from taking disrespectful photos of themselves or others with the Buddhas.

What follows is a slide show of some of the photos I took while climbing the stairs to the caves and inside all five caves. If you click on any picture, you will get a description of it. The Dambulla Cave temples are a magnificent artistic tribute to the Kandyan artists of the late 18th century, who brought the walls to vibrant life, especially in Maharaja Vihara or Cave 2, the largest of the cave temples. However, some of the surviving art goes back much earlier and has survived amazingly well.