Article by Hasini Haputhanthri. Photographs by Sujeewa de Silva.

Wrapped in the blue waves of the Indian Ocean, dangling off a mysterious subcontinent right on to the crossroads of the East and West, Sri Lanka has been since times immemorial a land of rendezvous. Those who found their way here from different directions, found love at first sight in the isle’s tropical splendor. Everyone was welcome to settle down; those who did built civilizations that flourished, or blended into the life of the land and its peoples. The two millennia of its recorded history confirm the island’s triumphs and tensions of the constant mingling of peoples, ideas and cultures.

Our ancestral artisans had an open heart; a spirited mind. They picked up the nuances of other cultures brought to our shores by sailors, traders and travelling scholars. Their imagination took wings with the stories from mystic lands, and thus a bevy of dwarfs inspired by Hindu mythology would emerge on a frontispiece to a Buddhist temple. Dragons and dancers, kneeling elephants and roaring lions whose similar depictions can be found in ancient Greece, Egypt, China, India and Arabia, would adorn a prayer-house built for a princess arriving from Madurai to become a queen. Much later, the colonial encounters would change not only our art and architecture but our names and habits we well.

Historical sites captured here survived the time’s turmoil to attest these myriad encounters, the fusion of cultures, the multiplicity of our heritage. This attempt cannot in totality capture the rich details of the island’s history, or histories. It can only present a glimpse into the creativity and depth we may need to discover. Hopefully, it will tantalise and tease you to probe into the minds of the ancestors who left us these clues on stone, to absorb their wisdom of living together; of celebrating diversity and dialogue; so that we can create a legacy the future generations would be proud to inherit. Indeed, the key to a harmonious future could be in this delicate chisel bringing together two or more cultures on a lithic surface: a perfect unison of cultures, artistic traditions, nature and human soul.

Gallery links:

Sanskrit Inscription, Jetavanarama Complex, Anuradhapura, c. 9th century AD

Nestorian Cross, Inner City, Anuradhapura c. 6th century AD

Ardhanari Nateshwar, Abhayagiriya Complex, Anuradhapura, 8th -9th centuries AD

Shiva Devala 01, Polonnaruwa, c. 13th century AD

The Divine Invitation, Thivanka Image House, Polonnaruwa, 12th century AD

Frontispiece (VahaIkada), Kantaka Chaitya, Mihintale, c. 3rd-4th century BC

Velaikkara Inscription, Atadage, Polonnnaruwa, 12th century AD

Bharatanatyam Dancers – Hetadage, Polonnaruwa, c. 11th century AD 

Erotic Carvings, Nalanda Image House, Nalanda, c. 7th – 10th century AD

Shivanataraja, Gadaladeniya Rock Temple, Pilimatalawa, 14th century AD

Meeran Jumma Mosque, Galle Fort, Last reconstruction in 1904

Stained Glass Window, St Paul’s Church, Kandy, 1848