Pam, this blog post is for you!

Here is a very short and simple introduction to Buddhist art in Sri Lanka combined with my pictures from different locations and drawings.


The stupa or dagoba is the most universal Buddhist architectural symbol. As Buddhist theology developed , so the elements of the stupa acquired more elaborate symbolic meanings.

At the simplest level the stupa serves to recall the memory of the Buddha’s passing into nirvana. If you imagine the typical statue of the Buddha, you can see his body shape in the stupa. The stupa is a living presence of the Buddha.


A more elaborate explanation describes the stupa in cosmological terms: the main dome (anda) is said to represent Mount Meru, the sacred peak that lies at the centre of the Buddhist universe, while the spire symbolizes the axis mundi, or cosmic pillar, connecting the earth and heaven and leading upwards out of the world towards nirvana.

The three rings at the base of the stupa symbolize the three refuges: Buddha, Dharma (his teachings) and Sangha (the community of monks), the jewel on top of the spire symbolizes wisdom, enlightenment.

Bell-shaped stupas became popular in the nineteenth century, the ancient ones in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were hemispherical, bubble-shaped.


The stupas are not empty inside, you cannot enter them. Their main purpose is to hold relics, in harmika, the square relic chamber right above the dome.

The bases of stairways and other entrances into temples are often flanked by guardstones, showing low-relief carvings of protective nagarajas or snake kings, who are believed to ward off malign influences:


Elephants at the base of the stupa: in Buddhist mythology, the elephants hold up the earth:


Many Buddhist shrines and alms boxes are set up next to busy roadsides. Passing drivers will stop and offer a few coins in the hope of a safe journey:


Often, the entrance to the temple complex is through a dragon arch where two creatures called makaras and a dragon mouth protect the place from evil spirits. The arch is called: makara torana:


Makara is a mythical sea-creature from the Hindu culture. Many elements of Hindu culture exist in Buddhist art in Sri Lanka.

Makara toranas are also located above the Buddha’s head in some temples:


The concept of Makara Torana gave the shape to a typical arch in Sri Lankan art:



We remember that the three elements of a Buddhist temple are the stupa, the statue of the Buddha and the Bo-tree in a special enclosure:


The Buddha’s images are highly stylized. The intention is to show his transcendental superhuman nature. The ushnisha is the protuberance on top of the Buddha’s head, symbolic of his superior mental powers. The holes in his elongated earlobes symbolize his noble origin, he was a prince. A small circle of hair between his eyebrows (urna) symbolizes a third eye, the ability to see the divine world. His eyes have the form of lotus petals.


The Buddha’s figures are shown in one of the canonical poses called mudras. The dhayana mudra is the meditation pose:


The vitarka and dharmachakra mudras are the ‘explanation’ and the ‘turning of the wheel’ poses. This mudra is said to convince listeners to the truth of dharma, the Buddha’s teachings.


Notice that the Buddha’s index finger touches his thumb to form a circle, symbol of the wheel of dharma, his teachings.

See how the Buddha is presented in their iconography:


The Buddha’s statues or images can be found everywhere, this one is in a small store:


The offering of a coconut oil lamp is an important Buddhist ritual, followed by a wish or a prayer. The Buddha is regarded as the light of the three worlds, the ‘dispeller’ of darkness and ignorance.


Also the lotus flower is a very important symbol in the Buddhist tradition:


Source: Gavin Thomas, The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka

Insight Guides, Sri Lanka, Ed. Sarah Clark. Authors: Malgorzata Anczewska and Gavin Thomas.



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  1. Thank you Joanne. A really interesting post givign me some understnding of Buddist architecture and ionography. I really don’t know a lot about Buddism but have a great respect for the philosophy. God bless you.

    1. My pleasure Pam, I know you would be interested in this kind of information. Thank you for your interest and support.

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