Exploring the Tivanka Image House in Polonnaruwa

The serenity of the Gal Vihara Buddhas is best experienced at dusk, when the setting sun throws a spirited glow on the gigantic granite statues. By six o’clock, the sunlight is lifted like a curtain and the night settles in the folds of the carvings. The local devotees stream in with their offerings of flowers and incense, lighting up small clay lamps, adding to the ambience and pushing back the tourists, literally. I have witnessed ceremonial Thevava drumming a couple of times. A picture postcard moment indeed. A visitor walks away with a sense of awe at the omnipresence of Buddhism, continued down the centuries as a living practice. So, it has been, of course – there is no denying that Buddhism is inextricable from the island’s legacy. However, a stroll through the Polonnaruwa archaeological site can expand that picture postcard view of Polonnaruwa and Sri Lanka’s past in general, to include other narratives of equal importance and beauty.

Today, the Gal Vihara Buddhas epitomize Polonnaruwa and its past to the outside world, but is only a part of Polonnaruwa’s long and absorbing tale of confluence. Over 15 Hindu shrines dedicated to Siva, Vishnu, Ganesha and Kali are scattered across the archaeological complex, some of which have yielded bronzes of unparalleled beauty. These shrines are attributed to the South Indian Côlas, who ruled the northern part of the island in the 11th century CE and made Polonnaruwa one of their regional capitals of their medieval empire whose influence spread as far as Java.

A veritable collection of bronzes cast by local artists probably trained in South Indian ateliers, displayed today at the Colombo National Museum and the Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum, attest that our ancient artists drew inspiration from far and wide. This openness has led to a confluence of art, architecture and above all, spirit, that gives Polonnaruwa a sense of a sanctuary. This integration is not merely seen in the different types of buildings, shrines and stupas, that nestle cosily with each other in the inner city, but at a much deeper level. 

For example, let’s turn to the Tivanka Image House, one of my favourite ruins of Polonnaruwa which is a few steps away from Gal Vihara. 

Sum up the Tivanka Image House in one word? I would pick the word ‘Romantic’. In terms of imagination, exoticism and ambience, it is a location of deeply-felt emotion. In ‘The Roack and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka’, archaeologist Senake Bandaranayake observed that Tivanka, is the sole surviving example of an ancient building that retains at least some elements of its wall paintings in their original form and disposition, in Polonnaruwa and therefore possibly the best examples of medieval paintings.

I suggest you savour the Tivanka Image House with every step you take in its direction. Though now covered with a protective roof, one can still imagine the ruins emerging out of the jungle, as it was once discovered by the colonial explorers.

Though the temple itself was known earlier, the murals were re-discovered by S. M. Burrows in 1885. Tunnelling along the inner walls, he uncovered “two large panels profusely covered with paintings in very fair preservation.” The paintings captivate him and he exalts, figures and faces are excellently painted and full of life and there is one female face constantly recurring, which may be justly thought beautiful.

Unfortunately, Burrow’s tunnelling not only revealed the painting but also exposed them to the elements. When H. C. P. Bell arrived to excavate the site 15 years later in 1909 he found that many of the paintings “had faded beyond recognition. Bell explored the entire interior of the temple, painstakingly documented the murals, and had them copied for the National Museum.

Architecturally, Tivanka is a feast of detail, inside-out. The exterior facades are clouded with Vimana decorations, depictions of heavenly abodes, a common feature found in Hindu and South Indian temple architecture. Make no mistake, from the very outset you know you are approaching a sacred space. Give your rationality a rest, and approach it with your senses.

Vimana decoration on the exterior of the Tivanka Image House, Polonnaruwa Archaeological Site

Though weathered since the 12th century, you can still observe partial depictions of celestial beings painted on the surviving exterior plaster, which means the original building would not have looked the monochromatic reddish brown of the exposed brick we see today. However, what grabs the visitors is the ring of merry dwarfs, each and every one of them with distinct features, character and mood.  

An image house, as one could guess, houses an image of religious nature. That is the easier part to figure out. Architecturally though, Tivanka can confuse you as to what image it might entomb. From the exterior, the character is not prominently Buddhist, if one is used to the gigantic yet minimalist architectural forms of Buddhist stupas from Anuradhapura. Consider Rankoth Vehera, found within the Polonnaruwa complex, hailed as the veritable twin of Ruwanweli Seya in Anuradhapura – simple, solid, and imposing in its geometry. Like the pyramids, what impresses is the purity and simplicity of its hemispherical form and gigantic scale.  

Tivanka by far plays a different tune. Much more intimate in its presence, it weaves together a complex of spaces into a compound of sacred Hindu architecture: Consider its five distinct but interrelated spaces – the porch or the entrance hall, the vestibule, the side entrance, the entresol or the antechamber, and the sanctum. Surprisingly, it is not a Hindu temple, and entombs a gigantic statue of the Buddha. It can make us wonder why and who categorized or labelled the island’s artistic legacy, and its past, as Hindu or Buddhist, Sinhala or Tamil. Perhaps the frames of reference we use to categorize and name archaeological features today are not entirely congruent when applied to the past.

Like in a modern-day museum, the inner walls of Tivanka are covered with paintings. In the entrance and the vestibule, the walls are divided horizontally into three or four registers, depicting Jataka Stories from the Buddhist cannon, celebrating the previous lives of the Buddha in human and animal form. The Jataka (Pali for ‘birth’) Tales are commonly depicted throughout the Buddhist world, connecting Sri Lanka to the art of India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and beyond. Many Jatakas have parallels in Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra, the Puranas and even Aesop fables. 

One might wonder not only of the variety of content offered through the tales, but also of the stylistic variety. Many commenters have pointed out the ‘folk’ or the ‘popular’ style of these Jataka panels but according to Bandaranayake, “in fact, what we have are several styles or sub styles which still display the individualized and realistic treatment of figures and objects, rather than the stylization of the post-classic style of the late-period murals.

[Insert Photos of Cullapaduma Jataka, with woman carrying the disabled thief on her back]

They say God is in the detail. If one has the patience to delve into the Jataka Stories, one would be surprised. They can be packed with action, violence, love, and betrayal than any television series that grabs your attention today. Consider my favourite Cullapaduma Jataka, for instance. To cut a long story short, the Buddha is Prince Paduma in this tale, exiled along with his six brothers and their wives by their father, the king, since he fears that his sons may kill him before his time. The exiled princes and their wives begin an arduous journey through a dessert. To survive the deadly tract, they decide to kill their wives one by one.

So the brothers kill a wife each day and divide her into equal portions. Every time Paduma receives his portion, he saves half of it. When the day came for his wife to be killed, he brings forth the saved portions, and asks his brothers to spare his wife a day more. That night, Paduma escapes with his wife and flees in the opposite direction towards the Ganges. When the wife complains that she was thirsty, he slits his own ankle to give her his blood to drink. When she complains that she cannot walk anymore, he carries her on his back. Finally, out of their brothers’ reach, the couple settles down by the banks of the Ganges in a small hut. One day, a thief whose ears, nose, hands, and feet were cut off as punishment floats down the river. Paduma saves him and tends to his wounds to their hut. The wife, angry at first, gradually begin to fancy the disfigured man. Eventually, she tricks Paduma to join her at the top of a cliff and pushes him over. Then, with her invalid lover upon her back she walks from door to door, begging for their survival for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, Paduma miraculously survives the fall from the cliff. He returns to his kingdom after his father’s death and is crowned as king. The scene on the walls of Tivanka depicts the moment when the three are re-united. The wife is carrying the thief on her shoulders and is facing King Paduma. In an act of mercy, he spares her life but banishes them from the kingdom after naming her sins. 

Let’s not forget that in the 11th century AD, these paintings are the closest you would get to visual entertainment. Albeit its cautionary tone, its strong sense of morality, it does not sensor emotion or human condition. Although you are in a sacred space, you are human, and so was the Buddha, in all his human incarnations. The registers depict a sequence of incidents, scene by scene, a story board for the retelling of tales one would have known through oral tradition. Imagine yourself in the 11th century AD, walking into the Tivanka, and seeing the scenes that were only alive in your imagination, given colour and form. Perhaps you are there with an elder, who might reveal to you and unknown detail, either depicted or not depicted in the register.  

As one walks further in, to the entresol, the compositions grow larger in size and the subject matter changes. We are leaving behind the world of mortals which we encountered in the entrance and vestibule, where Buddha was depicted as another mortal, only beginning to understand the trials and tribulations of being a Bodhisattva (an aspirant of Buddhahood). In the entresol section, we encounter him among the divine. Knowing the time has arrived, the gods and deities are besieging the Bodhisattva to be reborn as a human in order to attain Buddhahood.

Many scholars have celebrated the Divine Invitation as the highpoint of medieval classical painting, exhibiting grandeur, elegance and almost baroque opulence. Yellow, green, and red hues dominate the colour palette with well-defined outer lines tracing the intricate details of an eye brow, a delicate mudra (hand-gesture), elaborate headgear or breast plates, recalling the world-famous murals of the Ajanta Caves in India.  No doubt, the art of Polonnaruwa is the art of the elite. Classical in character and dignified in form, these splendid figures can make you forget for a moment that you are in a sacred space.  

One must take time to absorb these paintings. Your eyes need to adjust to the dim light, to start noticing the details of the ancient paintings.

As you pass through the realm of the divine, you see the colossal brick statue of the Buddha emerging from the mystery of the sanctum. At the inner-most sanctum of the temple, a place you only arrive at after walking through the worlds of mortals and the divine, you face the Buddha as himself, in serene transcendence. The statue is leaner than most Buddha statues and its unusual pose has given some scholars the ground to question whether it is a Buddha statue after all. Could it be for instance, the statue of Avalokitheshawara, the Bodhisattva par excellence in Mahayana Buddhism, figures of whom are found elsewhere in Polonnaruwa. Definite identification remains elusive as the 21-foot statue is today without its head. The temple derives its name from this form. Tivanka, meaning thrice bent, is an unusual pose for the Buddha, mostly reserved for female figure carvings for heightened sensuality.

In Tivanka however, one breaks the rules effortlessly and in turn, is treated to masterpieces. The temple is the museum. Art reigns sacred. Embedded in the architecture of (what we might call) Hindu is in fact the Buddhist. It is a place that makes me question the categories and labels I have been taught in my history lessons in school. Not only does it blur the lines of Hinduism and Buddhism as we know it, but Tivanka also adds a third dimension to Buddhist thought, through its architectural depth and artistic legacy. It sheds new light on what could be considered sacred, profane, and local and in the process emerges as a magnificent testimony to the confluence of this island and its history.

Needless to say that Polonnaruwa is much more than the Tivanka Image House. In fact, many visitors turn back after the Gal Vihara, never even making it to Tivanka, which is at the very end of the well-beaten path. It is the very last stop of the archaeological trail, reserved perhaps only for those who seek. But for those who do, those with time and patience, those who revel in detail and those who return, the Tivanka Image House undeniably offers more.