The sculptural evolution of Sri Lankan guardstone
Ancient Sri Lankan artists took particular care to add unique
embellishments to the entrance of religious buildings or palaces so that
it conveyed a broader meaning. By this, the artist presumably intended
to heighten the attractiveness of the place and to convey a deeper
message or a truth.
The entrance to the ancient buildings especially included elegantly
sculptured Koravak Gala, a flight of stairs, the guardstone and the
moonstone an excellent piece of sculpture ever to have been produced by
the Sri Lankan artist.
The traditional entrance to any edifice or religious building is
characterised by twin guardstones that stand on either side of the
moonstone (Sandakada Pahana) and in front of the Koravak Gala. The
visitors to the place catch a glimpse of the guardstone that stand
before them inspiring a certain mysterious awe and respect. The
guardstone is a stone slab that is curved at the top and is generally
called Mura Gala by archaeologists.
Symbol of prosperity
Though the guardstone originally carried a plain surface, it
subsequently came to be decorated with different symbols, figures, and
carvings. In the initial stage, the guardstone was a mere stone slab and
was meant to be starting point for the Koravak Gala (the dragon's
figure). The guardstones at Wessagiriya, Mihintale and Somawathi
Chaithya are the best examples for the initial plain guardstone.
In the next stage of development, the guardstone emerged as a major
work of art with its own identity.
During this phase of development, the guardstone had the figure of
coconut flowers on a pot (Pun Kalasa) which is considered the sole
symbol of prosperity from ancient times. The Buddhist culture strongly
claims that the full pot is the mark of fertility, wealth and
prosperity. Therefore, the artist has duly infused the concept of
prosperity into the guardstone and thereby ascribed prosperity to the
It is however, to be inferred that there was a practice of keeping a
big ground pot of coconut flavers on either side of the main entrance to
an important building. Later, the artist may have carved out the figure
on the gaurdstones to symbolise the solemnity, prosperity and depth of
the place the visitor is entering. The guardstones with the pot of
coconut flowers are found in Isurumuniya and Welgam Vihara of Periyam
Kulama. Here the sculptor has been excessively careful to project the
minute details of the coconut flowers and the artistic shape of the pot
D.T. Devendra is of the view that the guardstones depicting the
figure of pot of coconut flowers (found in Tissamaharama) belongs to the
first century AD. On another guardstone, the Pun Kalasa has been carved
out to stand on a lotus. Therefore, the scholars and archaeologists such
as D.T. Devendra and Dr. Charles Godakumbure stress that the Pun Kalasa
(Pot of coconut flowers) has been specially introduced by the artist to
signify prosperity, wealth and a fertility.
Figures of dwarfs
The Sri Lankan guardstone reflects centuries of development. The
sculptor has been successful in carving out figures of gods or sentry on
guardstones. Some legends connected with the temples say that some
figures carved were so realistic that the people entering the temples
stood transfixed at the real-life figures of handsome men on
In this phase of development, we see that the sculptor has introduced
figures of Bahiravas (dwarfs) and figures of Yakshas. The gaurdstone
depicts two dwarfs, the servants of 'Kuvera' who is considered the god
of wealth. According to the epics written by Kalidasa, the two dwarfs
(who are the bodyguards of Kuvera) were called 'Sanka' and 'Padma'. The
dwarfs were believed to safeguard the wealth and the place and were the
sole protectors of everything entrusted to them.
In literature, the dwarfs are described to be the protectors of the
earth, especially the guardians of a treasure kept by a king. They are
further described as a group of Yakshas who are to be satisfied by
animal sacrifices. They are characterised by a pot belly, brawny,
heavy-set limbs, and a bold head with piercing eyes showing resolution
protecting their charge.
The dwarfs on the guardstones are seen wearing ear-rings, a necklace
and a thick thread across their bellies. Dr. Charles Godakumbura
concludes that the shaft held by them might be a chain of coins. From
200 AD up to the end of Anuradhapura epoch, the Sri Lankan sculptor has
exploited the figure of dwarf for his architectural works. The best
archetype for the guardstone with dwarfs is that found in Tholuvila and
its is datable to at least seventh century AD.
The dwarf on the guardstone found in the palace of King Wijayabahu in
Anuradhapura, is represented in a highly artistic style. The half-closed
lips express a smile and the pendular earrings, the thread that runs
across the neck and the belly, the bracelets are all carved in a
realistic way. The hands of the two dwarfs rest on their belies and they
are holding a chain of coins. Most of the guardstones represent the
dwarfs as extraordinarily short and strong. Thus, he guardstone brings
to light a strong belief in ancient Sri Lanka that the Bhairavas
(dwarfs) protected wealth and treasure stored in any place in their
Commenting on the group of Bahiravas illustrated in the Thivanka
Pilimage of Polonnaruwa, H.C.P. Bell says.
"These small men smiling in extreme happiness are packing along the
foundation of the Pilimage. They seem to number at least two hundred and
fifty. They are playing, eating and are engaged in all types of
merry-making. I think nowhere are people more playful than these small
men and women...."
We see that the figure of Naga (Cobra) is beginning to dominate the
guardstone after the tradition of carving dwarf figures. In the first
stage, the figure of cobra with a series of hoods was carved along with
dwarfs. The replacement of dwarfs with the figures of Naga (Cobra) on
guardstones was the indirect outcome of the influences of Nagas as a
major tribe in early history of Sri Lanka.
However, the figure of Cobra was a sacred symbol in Buddhist culture
in Sri Lanka. The guardstones found in Minneriya and Mihintale feature
figures of cobra with many hoods.
The most advanced phase in the development of the guardstone is the
sculptured sentry with a cobra in his hands.
The handsome sentry is holding a cobra in his hands and is wearing a
crown-like things decorated throughout. He is giving his full weight to
his right foot and there is a lot of rhythm in his poise.
The dwarfs who were the dominant figures in the first guardstones are
now at the foot of the figure of the sentry (probably a prince). The Pun
Kalasa now rests on his right hand.
The Naga Sentry is a matchless artistic creation by Sri Lankan