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Sunday, 12 June 2016

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Kottimbulwala cave temple - Buddha's life story in murals


The view of the drip-ledged rock cave temple of Kottimbulwala

Driving past the picturesque countryside along undulating narrow country roads in Balangoda one can see numerous historic temples, but there are several lesser known temples which are unique in their own way. Recently I went in search of the Kottimbulwala cave temple, which is considered to be one of the foremost cave temples with unique ancient paintings.

After travelling about 15 kilometres on Pallebedda - Balangoda road taking the turn to the right at Weligepola town and proceeding a further seven kilometres on the desolate Kottimbulwala road, we reached the Kottimbulwala cave temple complex. A gravel road turned inwards leading to the modern temple (Avasa Ge) and the Kottimbulwala cave temple.

We stopped our vehicle at the bottom of a rocky outcrop and we first went into the modern temple (Avasa Ge). The ancient cave shrine was situated high on the face of the rock. A steep flight of steps through the trees leads towards the cave shrine and an overhanging rock has been converted into the cave temple.

Below the drip-ledged cave some interesting modern paintings can be seen on the outer side of the plastered wall between the brow of the rock and the tiled roof. This tiled roof and beautiful work of lactic wall give a more airy appearance to the cave shrine. The main cave has been divided into three compartments housing three shrine rooms in different periods of time.


History

The Kottimbulwala cave temple, with a history dating back to the days of King Valagamba in the 9th century BC, is considered to be one of the foremost cave temples with ancient murals. The temple had been renovated by several later Kings right up to the reign of the Kandyan Kings in the c18th and 19th centuries.

The rock cave temple contains unique and rare Kandyan period murals on the rock. The main rock cave is 120 ft in length and has a width of 25 ft. There are three caves in the same rock with murals in different styles and colours.

One of the main attractions in the Kottimbulwala cave temple is the image-house inside a drip-ledged cave with classical paintings. The smallest cave in the same rock at the extreme corner was the oldest part of the cave with its ceiling covered with ancient paintings belonging to 9th century BC of Anuradhapura period. It contains murals fairly different from those of the main cave.

The Sama Jathaka story is illustrated on the whole ceiling and the walls. The paintings in this cave are believed to be the oldest. They comprise several colours and different styles with more white in background. These paintings are similar to the paintings in the temples in the Southern coastal belt. Although the paintings in the temples in the coastal belt have been drawn in panels, the paintings in the Kottimbulwala are not in panels. They are entirely different from Kandyan style. The ceiling of the cave is also adorned with beautiful lotus petals in full bloom.


Kandyan

In the same cave a seated Buddha images with an enchanting Makara Thorana was built in a miniature shrine room. Most of the paintings here are very simple and the background is kept blank in white. There is a Buddha statue which was carved of wood which has now decayed and placed in the corner of this shrine.

The middle compartment contains a huge recumbent Buddha statue and the ceiling and the walls too are covered with paintings belonging to the Kandyan period. We were told that the paintings in this shrine were more advanced when compared with the paintings in the old shrine. Looking at the paintings in this shrine we realised that the artists have used mostly two colours - red and white to illustrate the stories.

The third part of the cave also houses several Buddha statues and paintings which belong to modern times. Most of the paintings were done on the wooden ceiling illustrating Jathaka stories and the walls depicted deities. The paintings have been done using an array of vibrant colours.

The stamps issued by the Postal Department in Vesak season over the years carried the paintings from temples in numerous parts of the country. The stamps help to create awareness on temples which had beautiful works of art by ancient painters. Considering the antiquity of paintings, in 1992 some of the paintings found on the ceiling of the old shrine of Kottimbulwala cave temple were used to illustrate the postage stamps.


The paintings belonging to Kandyan period in the ceiling of middle shrine


The oldest paintings of the temple which illustrate the Sama Jathakaya

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