Kolkata 2011 – Abstract O. Bopearachchi


CNRS, UMR 8546, Paris

Diffusion of Mahayanist Images and Implantation of Port at River Mouths in Ancient Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka played an important role in the long distance maritime trade as a result of its central position in the Indian Ocean. The most important characteristic of all the ancient ports around the island is their geographical situation at the estuaries of rivers. The location of emporia along rivers must have facilitated transactions with the interior regions. Archaeological data obtained from excavations and surface explorations provide much needed evidence for the « international » contacts established between the Western and the South Asian traders on the regional trade network between South India and Sri Lanka.

The present author has discussed elsewhere that the earliest Buddha images and some portable marble reliefs depicting various Buddhist themes found in Sri Lanka were originally executed in Amaravati-Nagarjunakonda and were brought to the island by pious traders or pilgrims as offerings. It was during this period when the South Indian traders were playing the intermediary role between Roman traders and Sri Lankans that they came from Andhra and Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in search of merchandise. When Mahayanism reached its apogee in Sri Lanka around the eight century CE, new forms of artistic expressions began develop very particularly on the coastal range around the island. Avalokitesvara, the most venerated Bodhisattva in South and South-East Asia was reputed for healing the sick and saving mariners from shipwreck. A Sanskrit inscription from Tiriyai engraved in Grantha script, refers to merchant mariners from Tamil Nadu who endowed this Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara and his consort Tara. In ancient Sri Lanka, Buddhist art undergo drastic changes as the focus of trade changes one horizon to the other. In many cases, even without precise textual evidence, artistic expressions show the affects of different cultures.

In short, the emergence of new iconography has to be considered as a main source of information when writing the historical diversity of different cultures. An attempt is made in this paper to study the Mahayanist Images erected in the sanctuaries built either at the river mouths facing the sea or inland along the navigable rivers.