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
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
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.
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.