Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara: A Masterpiece of Sinhalese Sculpture

Sanjeewani Upaka Widyarathne from the Colombo National Museum, Sri Lanka (ITP Fellow 2019) shares her #MuseumPassion.

Mahayana Buddhism was spread across Sri Lanka in the late Anuradhapura period. Mahayana Bodhisattava statues, which were found in Sri Lanka, were made out from bronze, metal, stone and ivory.

The National Museum of Sri Lanka is in possession of 13 Bodhisattva images and three Bodhisattva heads – listed below – which are exhibited in three galleries.

  • Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva image from Veheragala, Anurahapura – (9th century CE)
  • Vajradharma Lokeshvara image from Thiriyaya – (9-10th century CE)
  • Vajrapani Bodhisattva image from Kurunegala – (9th century CE)
  • Three Bodhisattva images from Thiriyaya
  • Maitreya Bodhisattva image – (9th century CE)  
  • Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara image – (9th century CE)
  • Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara image – (9th century CE)
  • Bodhisattva image from Giridara, Gampaha  – (7th century CE)
  • Maitreya Bodhisattva image from Thuparama, Anuradhapura – (12th century CE)
  • Seated Tara image from Thalampitiya, Kurunegala – (9-10th century CE)
  • Mala Tara image (Tara holding a garland) from Mannar – (10th century CE)
  • Decorative frieze of Bodhisattva Maitreya -(7-9th century CE)
  • Seated Maitraya Bodhisattva image (18th century CE)
  • Standing Bodhisattva image – (7-9th century CE)
  • Three Bodhisattva heads – (7-9th century CE)

Apart from the above objects there is also a replica of the well-known Tara figure which is currently exhibited in the British Museum,

Among the objects at the National Museum the most significant is Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, which belongs to the 9th century CE. It was found in 1968 in a Buddhist temple in Veheragala, located 25 km from the sacred city Anuradhapura, which was the first capital of Sri Lanka. The statue is made of gilt bronze – solid cast – and the height is 49.8 cm. It is solidly cast into the “Lalitasana” and “Rajalilasana” (royal ease) seating position. Further, the right hand displays the “katakahasta mudra”.

The Bodhisattva’s hair is in loose locks and depicts an elaborately plaited “jatamakuta” (headdress) inserted with precious stones and has a Dhyani Buddha symbol on it. The perfectly modelled body looks graceful and it well dressed in simple ascetic attire. The eyes are made out with precious stones.

The masterpiece of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara reflects a compassionate nature and it is unique in all Buddhist art traditions around the world.