Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Irrigation Tank Iconography at the Mulkirigala Temple in Tangalle and an unexpected Buddhist step tank

The beautiful vertiginous Mulkirigala Temple is one of a series of Kandyan rock temples built during medieval times in central and southern Sri Lanka. The temple complex comprises several cave chambers that are dominated by huge reclining Buddha statues and exuberant, fanciful sculptures and paintings. The adjacent terraced grounds are marked by assorted dagobas, in which various relics of the Buddha are said to reside. 

The goal of this short essay is to illustrate some of the decorative features that may be directly or indirectly interpretable as illustrations of irrigation tanks. Much of the Sri Lankan landscape is dominated by some 30,000 human-built ecosystems that focus on the "tanks" (so named by Portuguese cartographers of the 16th century). The tanks are actually bodies of water ranging from less than an acre to several square miles. They were traditionally used to irrigate the rice crops of Dry Zone Sri Lanka and continue to be used for this and other purposes. 

During the Kandyan period many or most of the tanks in parts of Sri Lanka were in disuse. However as I have noted in a previous post,  Coomaraswamy elucidated a Kandyan design template that may reflect a longstanding cultural understanding of tank anatomy and function that reaches back over 2000 years. So it is with avid interest that I offer these tank images from the Mulkirigala Temple. 

The first series of images here very clearly depict a tank ecosystem with its floating loud gardens and adjacent vegetation. Fanciful additions like cavorting maidens and spillways that are depicted by spitting elephants add to the charm of this memorable cave painting, as alive today as when it was painted during the 18th century. 

That the Buddha is seated on its shores lends an aura of peaceful holiness to the scene. 

Less obvious but to my mind, equally convincing are these "palmettes," overseen here by a pair of bodhisattvas. 

Of you'll bear with me you may see the the "flames" as spilling waters. The midpoint of the shield could represent a sluice gate, and the frothing bubbles at the right and left of each shield representing spillways on either side of the bund. Visions of abundance, stylized and tinged with decorative religiosity. 

In May when I came to study tank ecosystems in the Dry Zone of the North Central Province my guide Amara mentioned that the bund (dam) of the tanks stretch across the water like a pair of open arms. This compelling image influenced my thinking about tanks, first in the strange, anti-intuitive observation that the bunds lie concave against the waters, inviting pressure to build up against the tank in a potentially destructive way. This led to a whole cascade of questions about water circulation in the tank and tank structure that I am still exploring. Perhaps some key to the question lies in the possibility that tanks were not only personified but perhaps modeled after human anatomy. 

Finally, the bund-like curve over the pink-winged dagoba of this image suggests the connection between flowing water, life, agricultural and natural abundance, and the religiousity of this country that ties them all together. 

A final surprise of the day, which was cloaked in an atmospheric shadow of rain, was the step tank Janet pointed out to me high on one of the terraces. This cultural relict from south India, which we observed in abundance in kovils around the Jaffna Peninsula, was a reminder here in the far south of Sri Lanka of the intertwinings and borrowings between Buddhism and Hinduism. 

It pointed out again to me the richness of culture here, as lush as the vegetation that covers this dazzling island. 

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