Ravishing Frescoes of Ceylon

If someone hears the name of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), he/she may probably remember either, a delicious cup of tea or wonderful world heritage – Sigiriya. Mesmerizing Sigiri frescoes are one of the reasons to enhance the value of this amazing fortress of King Kashyapa, who ruled in Anuradhapura era. But, if you visit a temple of the upcountry of Sri Lanka, you may see another type of frescoes, which are completely different from classical frescoes of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa eras. 

What are frescoes?

Frescoes are paintings directly applied on a wall, ceiling, or other permanent surfaces. Artists use mainly two techniques to draw frescoes; Buno Fresco (Italian for ‘true fresh’) and Fresco-secco. In Buno fresco technique, pigments are ground in water and applied on a wet, fresh, and thin lime mortar, while in fresco -secco technique, pigments are mixed with an organic binder before applying on a dry mortar. However, Buno fresco technique has more durability though the artist should draw quickly, without any mistake.

Pigments used to paint

You may not see the detailed picture of Ceylon frescoes at first sight as you will mesmerize from the beauty of that. Ancient Sri Lankan artists applied natural pigments to get an eye-catching color combination for his masterpieces. 

Red color → from “gurugal” (red ochre) or “sadalingum” (Cinnabar) with the extraction of “Rathmal” (Ixora coccinea) bark

Yellow color → from secretions of “Gokatu” (Tribulus terrestris)

White color → from “Makulu” clay

Blue color → from extraction of “Nilavariya” (Indigofera tinctoria) leaves

Black → from a burned mixture of koholle (dried milk extraction of jak), kekuna oil, hulmilla

Golden → from ground orpriment mineral

These pigments were dissolved in a gum of cashew plant.

Dazzling Frescoes of golden eras

Famous “Sigiri Apsara” (Sigiri maidens) frescoes were painted using the Buno fresco technique

Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms can be considered as golden eras of this country since most of Sri Lankan heritages are belonging to those epochs. Sigiri frescoes can be considered as an ideal artwork belongs to Anuradhapura era. Famous “Sigiri Apsara” (Sigiri maidens) frescoes were painted using the Buno fresco technique and some maidens have a golden color skin tone while others appear in bluish yellow (dark) color. “Guru” (red) color can be obtained in petals of flowers, some clothes, headdresses, and some jewelry. Fine outlines of these hypnotizing maiden figures’ were painted in black color and flowery decorated hair also seems in the same color.

Bluish-green color is the other dress cord of the maidens; leafy part of the flowers and some necklaces and small dotted parts of bangles also painted in these green pigments. According to Prof. Senarath Paranawithana, these mesmerizing maidens are indicting lightning (“Vijjulatha – light-skinned) and clouds (“Megalatha” – dark-skinned). But, H.C.P.Bell has stated that golden-colored ladies would-be wives of King Kashyapa and others would be their maids. However, some archeologists suspect these stunning maidens would be a goddess (“Apsara”) of heaven. 

Most of the frescoes in Ceylon can be observed on walls or ceiling of temples because the culture of this country enriches from Theravada Buddhism. Hence, there are other important frescoes that can be seen in “Thiwanka Pilima Geya” that belong to Polonnaruwa kingdom.  Two types of frescoes can be seen there; classical and Kandyan. According to Buddhism, Prince Siddhartha was a “bodhisattva” god in his last previous life. Other gods, who lived in heaven called “Thusithaya”, invited him to born in the human world to become Lord-Buddha.

That incident (Deva Aradhanaya) is beautifully expressed on a wall of “Thiwanka Pilimage” and to indicate “Bodhisattwa”, the artist has used golden color and other divine figures appear in dark colors as “Megalatha” in Sigiriya. Lord-Buddha’s journey of “Sankassapura” (“Sankassapura Wadamaweema”) is the other famous fresco of this temple. As mentioned above, some of Jathaka stories (Lord-Buddha’s previous life stories) painted in a Guru color background reminds Kandyan frescoes; hence, archeologists believe that these frescoes might probably paint in Kandyan epoch. 

Thivanka Pilimage

The building is about 133 feet long and 67 feet wide.

Thivanka pilimage, built by King Parakramabahu the Great of
the Polonnaruwa Kingdom between 1153 – 1186 AD

The Thivanka Pilimage (statue house) is the temple house of the Jethavanaramaya complex built by King Parakramabahu the Great of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom between 1153 – 1186 AD. This is also known as Uthuru Vehera. Like the Lankathilaka and Thuparamaya in Polonnaruwa, this temple is an idol house in the “Gedige” tradition. The 35 feet high Buddha statue here was known as the Thivanka Pilimage as it was built with three bends at the knees, hips, and shoulders. The building is about 133 feet long and 67 feet wide. It had an arched brick roof and is estimated to be about 55 feet high. The walls are about 7 to 12 feet thick. The construction of this building seems to have followed post-Pallava architecture. Senarath Paranavithana says that the architecture of this building is a natural development of the architecture of the Anuradhapura era itself. The exterior walls of the building are adorned with various carvings such as airplanes, two statues, dwarf statues, lion statues, swan statues, pillars, and Bodhisathwa. In the statue house, the upper floors were built with the help of stone pillars on the platform on either side.

Most of all, this temple is special because of the murals that can be seen there. In the Thivanka Pilimage, there are Jataka stories such as Sasa, Asankavathi, Mugapakkha, Maithri Bala, Wessanthara, Tundila, Vidura, Guttila, Chulla Paduma, Sama, Maha Sudassana, Kusa, Ummagga, various occasions of worshiping the Buddha, the worship of the four gods There were paintings such as ‘Arriving in Sankassa’.

Thivanka statue house painting, Polonnaruwa

Around 1215 Kalinga Magha invaded Polonnaruwa and ruled Polonnaruwa for about 21 years. During this time he was tempted to destroy many Buddhist temples. Accordingly, the Thivanka statue house and its paintings were destroyed. After the re-occupation of Polonnaruwa by King Parakrama II Bahu in 1236, he restored many of the temples that had been destroyed, including this Thivanka Geya.

Later the Sinhala kingdom migrated to the south and Polonnaruwa was deserted. This temple had been abandoned for about eight centuries and it had fallen into disrepair and even large trees had grown on it. The building was erected around 1885 by S.M Burroughs, then a civil servant. The statues of the statue have fallen into disrepair and the brightness of the paintings has largely diminished, but they have been preserved to some extent. Some of these paintings were painted in 1886 by an engineer in the Department of Public Works. Copied by a gentleman named Murray. Steps were taken to preserve these paintings around 1940. Therefore, it is said that these paintings have been extensively destroyed during the period of their discovery and preservation.

Graceful Kandyan frescoes

Kandy was the last kingdom of Sinhalese monarchy.

Temple of sacred tooth-relic

If you have visited the temple of sacred tooth-relic, you would see the stories (eg. Jathaka stories and historical stories), which created in-between two horizontal lines and traditional flowers like lotus, Pandanus, etc. filled the large empty spaces.  The Kandyan artist has applied “Makulu” clay on the mortar to get white color, and then painted these unique murals by using Fresco-secco is a technique. 

“Akanda Kathanaya” is one of the significant features of these Kandyan frescoes. That means Jathaka stories are painted in a zig-zag manner.  The figures of these graceful frescoes were drawn in guru color background and faces and legs were painted to a side (“Parshawa Darshi”). The Kandyan artist has prominently used white, yellow, black and guru colors are the pigments to enhance the ravishing nature of his masterpiece.

According to Mahavansa (the great chronicle of Sri Lanka), Kandy was the last kingdom of Sinhalese monarchy. Therefore, European invaders effected to alter the culture of Sri Lanka. The frescoes drawn at the end of the Kandyan era were composed of the figures of European style houses and dresses like frocks and trousers. If you visit the upcountry of Ceylon, you may find these breath-taking frescoes in many Raja Maha Viharas (ancient temples) including the temple of tooth relic, Degaldoruwa, Ridi Viharaya, etc

Figure 3: Frescoes of Degaldoruwa temple

Master Sarlis, Solias Mendis, and George Keyt were famous mural artists in the novel Sri Lanka (18th and19th centuries). You may find eye-catching frescoes of Sarlis Master at Maliga Kanda temple-Colombo, Yalagama Viharaya – Induruwa, Poojaramaya – Pohupitiya, frescoes of Solias Mendis at new Kelani temple, Ranasgalla temple, Polonnaruwa Sri Vijaya Viharaya and frescoes of George Keyt at Gothami temple-Borella respectively. 

Even though Sri Lanka is a small island of the Indian Ocean, it enriches with uncountable astonishing heritages. 


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fresco-secco
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fresco

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