The Isurumuniya Stone Carvings

Art, we find, is the singular most critical thread connecting society and communities to their ancestors and their predecessors. It is the intersection between the past and the future, a record of events that occur across time and the medium that society and the people of society are guided by. From paintings that retell the story of the Last Supper or architecture reminiscent of conventional practices, music, manuscripts, literature that recount the First World War or romance and tragedy; history is seeped in the strands of artistic mediums. Ancient sculptures in particular, are archaeological treasures that are emblematic of the artists’ work of then, of the royal lifestyle and reminiscent of tales and folktales that are part of the nation’s identity. Sri Lanka is an island rich in archaeological sites especially those that showcase old historic sculptures, statues and monuments carved out of rock that still exist. The ‘Isurumuniya Temple’ is one that is yet contextually relevant for the four famous stone carvings. We trek back to the 6th Century to the time of King Devanampiya Tissa’s rule to explore the carvings and the temple and unveil its cultural significance in reflecting the multiplicity of Sri Lanka’s personality.

Situated in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the Temple is a site of much historical and religious importance. Constructed during the period of his rule, the temple was built as a monastic sanctuary for about 500 newly ordained monks as case studies show that there has been written history from over 5000 years. The Isurumuniya Temple is in located near the Tissa Weva as it intersects with Ranmasu Uyana, yet another significant heritage site we explored. Much like the Ranmasu Uyana, the Isurumuniya Temple had been covered by forest till the 19th century before it was rediscovered. Today, it is of much cultural importance and a popular tourist attraction mainly due to four stone carvings that can be found around the temple. 

The Elephant Pond is what first catches your eye upon entering the heritage site. A beautiful expanse of water lay at the entrance yet it is what’s above the pond of water that is mostly intriguing. Situated atop the pond are stone carvings of elephants that upon closer inspection seem to be playing with the water below it. It is an artistic sight that leaves much to the imagination and allows the onlooker to discern the level of creativity that sculptors of then may have had. A large rock rises above the pond and next to it are stone steps of which on either side lay guard stones. These guard stones as well, are reflective of the Sri Lankan identity, their pose and posture visible rampant around the city of Anuradhapura and its temples. Some studies note the difference in presentation and associate its technique to having had two different sculptors who utilized varied techniques over a period of time.

The second of the four famous stone carvings that exist around this sanctuary is that of the enigmatic Man and the Horse-Head. The man’s posture takes on that of a King’s and his arm stretches down as it bends at the knee. A horse’s head appears from within the cave wall. The figure who sits in this regal position is noted to be that of the God of Rain and archaeologists have assumed that this location was used by the King to perform rituals to Paranjaya, the God of Rain. The third curious carving on site is the stone sculpture of the Royal Family. Five figures are sculpted into the rock, one of whom is believed to be King Dutugemunu himself. The tale follows that the carving captures the moment when he visited his son Saliya and Ashokamala in attempt to take them back to the palace.

Thus, the fourth carving is of most intrigue and one that has garnered the greatest attention is that of Prince Saliya and the lady he loved. Ashokamala is believed to have been of lower caste and Prince Saliya is noted to have given up his position to be with her. The stone carving is magnetic; the intricate details by which the man and woman are sculpted are said to be of 6th Century Gupta style carving. The ‘Isurumuniya Lovers’ as the story goes displays the woman raising her finger as a symbol of her coyness. Although this story is widely known, no record of these stories exist and an alternate legend follows. The carving is also dissected to be that of Hindu God Shiva and Goddess Parvati.

Where do these stories come from? And how do these stories end? How much of these tales are representative of the Sri Lankan identity and what do they teach us? Artworks and old designs connect us to the past and allow the nation to retain its inherent personality. The further we descend, the more the need to seek these answers arise and it is in these carvings we find the answers of Anuradhapura and that of the Isuruminiya Temple. Romantic endeavours and religious rituals, the royal and regal lifestyle and what existed before, each of these carvings are significant to comprehending and envisioning the life of our ancestors and written history guides us to carry on and preserve these traditions. Art, we find, is the nexus to this understanding and these sculptures show us a fragment of Sri Lanka’s heritage. 

Are you part of an organization looking to promote cultural diversity? We will be happy show you the scope of Sri Lanka's finest Modern & Contemporary artists through our services and counsel in the form of talks a dynamic presentations and inventive engagements. For more details, call us on +94772305054 /+ 94114545355or email us on  

18th November, 2021 Visual Art | Tours