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Old Makara Thorana gets new lease of life

Have you ever wondered while entering an ancient Buddhist shrine what does the Makara Thorana that adorn the entrance to it means? From where had the Sri Lankan artists got this unusual mythical animal figure with either protruding tongue or elephant trunk like upper lip? What does it symbolise?

Many people take it just as a traditional decorative archway. Yet there is an interesting cultural history behind it which goes back even to pre-Buddhist times in India. And its symbolism and association with Hinduism has been interpreted by many scholars and art critics in various ways.

However, ever since it was adopted by Sri Lankan Buddhists it has become a familiar feature in Buddhist shrines. So the knowledgeable incumbent Bhikkhus of ancient Buddhist temples take an active interest in preserving the Makara Thoranas in the shrine rooms of their temples.

Blissfulness

The chief incumbent of Gothamarama of Wakwella, Galle has assigned artist Kalasuri Dr. Jayasiri Semage the restoration of discoloured and slowly deteriorating ancient Makara Thorana at the temple. Semage said the Makara Thorana at Wakwella temple is representative of traditional stylistic technique of sculpturing and symbolism transmitted through generations of temple artists till the British era from the Polonnaruwa period.

With his deep knowledge and long experience in the traditional Buddhist art, he will endeavour to bring back the original glory to the historical thorana along with its accompanied guard stones, lion sculptures, floral motifs and creeper patterns from faded and decaying state. However, he would experiment substituting acrylic and modern oil paints instead of traditional dorana oil treatment.

Makara Thorana in Buddhist art is considered as symbolising majesty and blissfulness. There are classic Makara Thorana at Dambulla Cave Temple, Tooth Relic Temple and Ridee Vihara. They are placed not only at the entrance but also behind the Buddha images providing frame-like background.

It is a kind of archway depicting a mythical animal called Makara sitting face to face either side with tongue like projections emanating from their mouths joining to from a keertimukha (the 'face of glory') at the centre.

The most important aspect in Makara Thorana is the figure of the mythical animal known as Makara. Scholars think this mythical animal figure has evolved from the crocodile figure which was found in Vedic mythology as the vehicle of God Varuna. In some places Ganga (the goddess of river Ganges) is also depicted riding a Makara. As Varuna and Ganga are gods associated with water, Makara seems to be a water animal.

Mythical animal

Linguistically Makara derives from Magara, an ancient Indian term for crocodile. In Hindu temples Varuna is depicted as a white god sitting on Makara. It also forms insignia of love god Kamadeva, who is, for this reason, called Makaradhvaja. Even though Grunwedel has taught Makara to be a sea elephant (Buddhist Art of India p.59) Vogal affirms strongly that there cannot be any shadow of doubt that it is a crocodile. (The relations between the Art of India and Java pp 20-29) Most of the early Makara figures show four legs, even though most of others show two legs only.

We may safely assume that the beginning of the mythical animal Makara was artists' imagination from the basic shape of crocodile and it had morphed through several transformations. Most Makara figures in India are generally depicted with frontal part looking like crocodile, elephant, stag or deer and the hind part an aquatic animal like fish.

In some cases hind side was made to look like the tail of a peacock. In some Indian art books makaras are described as having the head of a crocodile, the horns of a goad, the body of an antelope or deer, a curved tail like that of a snake with the head of a fish and feet like those of a panther or a god, with two horns on the forehead, its side and bloated belly covered with leopard like spots.

Makaras are depicted both at Buddhist shrines and Hindu temples in India. At the entry points of Buddhist places such as Lomas Rshi Cave, Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati many Makara figures are found. According to Raghavan, makara embodies in its combination the fundamental symbolism of traditional psychology. It also symbolises the five elements.

Creations

Sri Lankan artists have generously used Makara symbol in their Thoranas and balustrades, seat-backs of the Buddha and many decorative creations. In Sinhala Buddhist art the Makara figure was made up of body parts of many animals such as the trunk of the elephant, jaws of the crocodile, ears of the mouse or ape, extruding teeth of wild swine, the tail plume of the peacock and feet of the lion.

Rajavaliya (v.192) describes the mythical animal in the following terms: "The Makara has the front of an elephant, the feet of a lion, ear of a pig, the body of a fish. It has teeth turned inside and eyes of Hanuman and a nice tail."

Sri Lanka is not the only country where Buddhists have adopted Makara symbolism. Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, China and Indonesia have also depicted Makara in many decorative contexts. Dr. Semage has personally studied most of these places and different motifs derived of Makara during his study tours and work assignments in India, Malaysia and Japan.

In addition his long familiarity with Buddhist art has made him eminently qualified to handle a sensitive task like restoration of the historical Makara Thorana at Wakwella ancient temple.

Experiment

Semage's first experiment with Buddhist art was a painting depicting the life of the Buddha which won him the Island best prize in 1959. Encouraged by that initial success he ventured into the more difficult task of creating Vesak pandols, which culminated in getting him the prestigious opportunity of creating Vesak pandols at Prime Minister's and President's official residences for several years.

He even installed an impressive pandol of Buddhist genre at Fukuoka Asia-Pacific Exhibition in Japan in 1995. People's Bank Head Quarters also has a beautiful shrine created by Jayasiri Semage.

His eminence in Buddhist art has made Buddhist prelates, Sri Lanka and abroad, commission him for painting Shrine halls of various magnitudes in their temple premises. The huge two storeyed Shrine hall at Mangala Vihara, Singapore is one such impressive example.

The Sri Lanka Vihara at Lumbini, Nepal is another significant milestone in his painting pilgrimage. Locally he has painted shrine rooms at Priyarathnaramaya, Dehiwala and Bodhirajarama, Boralasgamuva.

It is with many years of experience that Dr. Semage is venturing the restoration of Makara Thorana at Wakwella ancient temple. After that he will repaint the entire shrine room there.

 

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