Gal Vihara: A Masterful Sculpture of Buddha in the Rock

Gal Vihara: A Masterful Sculpture of Buddha in the Rock
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Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, is a paradise of natural beauty. But it is not just for its natural charms that millions of tourists visit Sri Lanka. Many come to this island for its rich cultural and religious heritage. Among the many significant religious and cultural attractions in Sri Lanka, the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa is one of the most important. This ancient temple complex has played a major role in shaping Sri Lankan culture, religion, art, and architecture.

What is Gal Vihara ?

Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara is a Buddhist temple complex in Polonnaruwa that was built during the reign of King Parakramabahu I. It was the center of a monastery that the king established to purify the Buddhist priesthood.

The complex is a cave temple, also known as the “Northern Temple.” The main cave is about 27 meters long and 10 meters high at its center, sloping towards the ends. The main feature of Gal Vihara is the four statues of the Buddha that have been carved into a single, large granite rock face.

Statues at Gal Vihara

The statues at Gal Vihara are a testament to the ancient Sinhalese people’s mastery of rock carving and sculpting. The artists who created these statues were clearly highly skilled and talented.

The four statues at Gal Vihara are:

  • The Seated Image
  • The Vidyadhara Guha Image
  • The Standing Image
  • The Reclining Image

These statues have several distinguishing characteristics that set them apart from the Buddha statues of the Anuradhapura era. One of the most noticeable differences is the wider foreheads of the Gal Vihara statues. Additionally, the robes of the Buddha on these statues are carved with two parallel lines, while the Anuradhapura statues only have one line.

The rock at Gal Vihara was also excavated to a depth of 15 feet to create a surface suitable for carving the statues. This is the only example in Sri Lanka of a natural rock being excavated to such an extent for this purpose.

Together, these features make Gal Vihara one of the most celebrated and visited temples in Polonnaruwa.

Seated Image

Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa
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The seated image at Gal Vihara is a large statue, measuring 15 feet long and 2.5 inches wide. It is carved in the pose of Dhyana Mudra, or the “Meditation Pose,” of the Buddha. The chair-like surface of the statue is carved with lotus flowers, and its base is decorated with carved figures of flowers and lions. The statue sits on a carved throne adorned with Makara statues, which are mythical sea creatures.

In addition to the main statue, there are four smaller statues located in small rooms around it. This is a rare feature in ancient Sinhalese art, and it may be the result of Mahayana influence. The image in the Vijjadhara Guha cave depicts the Buddha in the Samadhi Mudra, or “Deep Meditation Pose,” with both hands placed on his thighs and his fingers extended. The flame above the Buddha’s head is called the Siraspata, and it symbolizes his enlightenment.

All of these features make the seated image at Gal Vihara a masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture. It is a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings and his journey to enlightenment.

Vidyadhara Guha

Vidyadhara Guha, Gal Vihara

The Vidyadhara Guha Buddha statue is a small sculpture, measuring only 15 feet by 7 inches. It is located inside an artificial cave, which was created by carving 4.5 feet into the rock. The cave has four square pillars and is 26 feet wide and 12 to 9 feet high.

The base of the lotus-shaped seat of the Buddha image is decorated with lion designs. The throne and the parasol are carved on the back of the statue, and are more elaborate than the larger statue. The Prabhamandala, or halo, is also carved on the back of the statue’s head.

Between the Buddha’s head and the halo are two idols with four arms. According to H.C.P. Bell, the first commissioner of the Department of Archaeology, the god on the right side is Brahma, and the god on the left side is Vishnu.

Standing Image

Standing Image in Gal Vihara
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The standing statue of the Buddha at Gal Vihara has been the subject of much debate among scholars and historians. The statue’s pose, with its hands folded on its chest, has led to speculation about its identity. Some believe that it is a depiction of Ananda, the Buddha’s principal disciple, who is said to have mourned the Buddha’s death. Others believe that the statue once stood in a separate temple chamber, and that it is not related to the reclining Buddha statue next to it.

There are several arguments against the theory that the statue is a depiction of Ananda. First, the right-hand strands of hair are only found in images of the Buddha, not in images of his disciples. Second, Buddhist artists have never depicted the Buddha’s disciples sitting on a lotus throne, as this statue is. Third, the statue has long ears, which are a characteristic of images of the Buddha, but not of his disciples.

While the identity of the statue remains a mystery, there is no doubt that it is a masterpiece of ancient Sri Lankan sculpture. The statue’s grace and beauty have captured the imagination of visitors for centuries.

Reclining Image

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The Reclining Buddha statue is the largest Buddha statue in the Gal Vihara complex, and one of the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia. It is 14 meters (46 feet) long and depicts the Parinirvana of the Buddha, or his death. The statue is carved out of a single rock, and the Buddha is shown lying on his right side with his right arm supporting his head on a bolster. His left arm lies along his body and thigh. The soles of the feet and the palm of the right hand are decorated with lotus flowers.

Despite its enormous size, the statue conveys a great sense of peace and tranquility. Charles Godakumbure, a former Sri Lankan archaeological commissioner, noted that the foundation on which the Buddha’s head rests is so well-carved that it looks like a cotton pillow rather than a rock. The left foot of the statue is also slightly retracted, which indicates that the Buddha has attained Parinirvana, or final Nirvana.

Unlike other statues in the complex, the Reclining Buddha does not have an ornate base. It rests on a bare rock that has been set up. On the wall behind the statue, several stone foundations are visible, and the remains of two stone pillars suggest that the statue once had a wooden roof.

The Reclining Buddha statue is a masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture and a testament to the artistic and spiritual traditions of Sri Lanka. It is a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists from all over the world.

How To Reach The Gal Vihara In Polonnaruwa?

How To Reach The Gal Vihara In Polonnaruwa?

There are many ways to get to Gal Vihara from any point in Sri Lanka. However, the easiest way is to get to the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, from where Gal Vihara is only 4.8 kilometers away. Once you reach Polonnaruwa, take the A11 road northwest towards Janapada Mawatha and follow it until you reach Gallambarawa road.

Here are the distances and routes from different cities to Polonnaruwa:

  • From Colombo: It is a 6-hour journey via Ambepussa, Kurunegala, and Trincomalee Highway. The distance is about 225 kilometers. The cheapest way to get from Colombo to Polonnaruwa is by train, with tickets costing between 1200 and 1700 LKR.
  • From Kandy or Jaffna: The best way to get to Polonnaruwa from Kandy or Jaffna is via the Kandy/Jaffna highway. The journey takes around 3.5 hours from Kandy and 5.5 hours from Jaffna.
  • From Anuradhapura: It is a 2-hour journey from Anuradhapura to Gal Vihara via the A11 route.

Public transportation is available to reach Polonnaruwa from all over the island. However, you can also take a taxi if you prefer. Please note that private transportation or taxi services will cost more, and the prices may vary depending on the service provider.

The Best Time to Visit Gal Vihara

The Best Time to Visit Gal Vihara
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The best time to visit Gal Vihara is during the dry season, which runs from December to April. During this time, the weather is mild and sunny, making it a pleasant time to explore the site. The crowds are also smaller during this time.

If you are visiting during the wet season, from May to November, be prepared for rain. The rain can make the ground slippery, so it is important to wear shoes with good traction. The crowds are also larger during this time.

Here are some other things to consider when choosing the best time to visit Gal Vihara:

  • The time of day: The site is open from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm. The early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit, as the crowds are smaller and the light is more beautiful.
  • The day of the week: The site is less crowded on weekdays than on weekends.
  • The time of year: The site is more crowded during school holidays and public holidays.

Related reading: Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka: A Guide to Planning Your Trip

Things to Know Before Visiting Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara: A Masterful Sculpture of Buddha in the Rock

Sri Lanka is a country with a strong cultural heritage. When visiting a religious or cultural attraction, it is important to be respectful of the local customs and traditions. Here are some tips for visiting Gal Vihara:

  • Be mindful of your noise level. Religious places are meant to be a place of peace and tranquility, so it is important to keep your voice down.
  • Dress modestly. This means covering your shoulders and knees. If you are not wearing appropriate clothing, you may be asked to borrow a shawl or sarong.
  • Do not wear clothing that contains religious symbols or slogans. This is considered disrespectful.
  • Cover any tattoos that you may have. This is also considered disrespectful.
  • Remove your shoes before entering the temple. This is a sign of respect.
  • Be aware of the hot weather. Polonnaruwa is a dry and hot town, so it is important to wear sunscreen and bring a hat.
  • Bring socks with you. You will need to remove your shoes before entering the temple, and socks will help to protect your feet from the hot ground.

FAQs

What is Gal Vihara?

Gal Vihara is a Buddhist rock temple complex located in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. It is famous for its four colossal statues of the Buddha carved out of a single rock.

When was Gal Vihara built?

Gal Vihara was built in the 12th century during the reign of King Parakramabahu I.

What is the opening hours of Gal Vihara?

Gal Vihara is open from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm.

What is the dress code for Gal Vihara?

It is important to dress modestly when visiting Gal Vihara. This means covering your shoulders and knees. You should also avoid wearing clothing that contains religious symbols or slogans.

What are the dos and don’ts of Gal Vihara?

Do be respectful of the religious site.
Do dress modestly.
Do remove your shoes before entering the temple.
Do not take photos of the Buddha statue from the front.
Do not eat or drink inside the temple.
Do not smoke inside the temple.

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