Sri Lanka is one of the few countries with ancient colossal Buddha statues cut from the rock. Not surprisingly, the first rock-cut Buddha statues were created in India, namely at Buddhist cave temples such as World Heritage Site Ajanta. There are hundreds more of those rock-cut Buddhist cave temples in the India, most of them in the state of Maharashtra.
Rock-cut and other Buddha statues of the ancient kingdoms in Andhra Pradesh in southern India definitely influenced the Buddhist styles in Sri Lanka. Two examples of rock-cut Buddhas in southern India are the Bojjannakonda and Lingalakonda sites near Sankaram. However, colossal Buddha statues of 8 m height or more were not created in those Indian regions.
It is not quite sure which colossal Buddha image is the first one. The almost 10 m high Chamba statue in Mulbekh near Kargil in Ladakh, now belonging to India, is often ascribed to the Kushana kingdom which fostered Buddhism in north-western parts of the subcontinent in the 1st century A.D., there are some Karosthi inscriptions nearby indicating that this was a place of worship already in the Kushan period. But it seems more likely that the Chamba statue, a relief depicting the future Buddha Maitreya was created in the 8th century, after monastic Buddhist traditions had been introduced into Ladakh in the 7th century. There are no stylistic similarities between the Chamba statue in Mulbekh and the Gandhara art of the Kushan empire.
However, there must have been a colossal Buddha image from an early period in Ladakh, namely in Darel. It is mentioned be the Chinese pilgrim Faxian, who travelled to India and Sri Lanka in the early 5th century and described an impressive statue of 25 m height. But it was not rock-cut but made of wood, it doesn’t exist any more.
Most probably, the famous Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistand, 2001 destroyed by the Taliban, are not only the largest standing Buddhas at all but also the earliest ones. They were created in the 6th century. Bamiyan had been a Buddhist monastery since the 2nd century A.D.
By the way, if you are looking for world records, always start searching in China. China has the most rock-cut Buddha statues and the largest ones, too. The sitting Buddha of Leshan, though not as impressive as the Bamiyan statues once were, is even higher, namely 71 metres. There is no doubt that Chinese Buddhist art was inspired by Buddhist sites along the silk roads, such as Bamiyan.
Many pocket guides will tell you, that Sri Lanka’s most colossal (though not the highest) rock-cut Buddha statue is from the fifth century, created by King Dhatusena. But there is little evidence for this claim. The only reason to attribute this to Dhatusena is that he definitely created the tank called Kalawewa not far from the place of the Aukana Buddha.
It is much more likely that the Aukana Buddha is from the late Anuradhapura period (8th to 10th century) or even later. The nearby Sasseruwa Buddha and the Dowa and Buduruwagala Buddha statues in the south are approximately from the same period. Sri Lanka’s most famous rock-cut Buddha statues, impressive because of their sheer beauty, are the sitting, standing and reclining Buddha statues of Polonnaruwa’s Gal Vihara. It is not quite sure whether they are from the Polonnaruwa period or earlier. Usually, Sri Lanka`s other giant standing Buddhas are attributed to the Anuradhapura period and all three huge monolithic reclining Buddhas (Polonnaruwa, Tantirimale and Bakamuna) are said to be from the Polonnaruwa period.
We will describe Sri Lanka’s amazing rock-cut Buddhas in a series of blog articles in March.
But sure, you want to know already now where to find Sri Lanka’s largest rock-cut Buddha giant. There are three different answers to this question:
1. As already mentioned, Sri Lanka’s most voluminous Buddha statue is that of Aukana. It is 12 m high.
2. Sri Lanka’s tallest historical Buddha image is the central standing Buddha in Buduruwagala. But it is more a relief than a three-dimensional statue.
3. Sri Lanka’s highest rock-cut Buddha statue reaches more than 20 metres. It can be seen near Kurunegala. It has been created in the 21st century and was finalized in 2013 by the Indian sculptor Muthu Muthiah Sthapathi, a Tamil Hindu from China. His helpers were from southern India, too.
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