The high quality of Sinhalese architecture and sculpture continued when Polonnaruwa became the capital of Sri Lanka after Anuradhapura. In fact, some of the religious monuments were more impressive than those in Anuradhapura.
The Sandakada pahana or the moonstone is a unique feature in Sinhalese architecture. Though described as the moonstone because of its shape and design, it is really a semi-circular stone doorstep set up at the entrance to a stupa or vihara. The best examples are the ones preserved in Anuradhapura. Altogether six have been identified. The ones in Polonnaruwa (one pictured on this page) are not so exquisite though basically, the same features can be seen.
Describing the moonstones found in Anuradhapura as “masterpieces in the sculptor’s art”, renowned archaeologist Professor Senerath Paranavitana describes the general characteristics in the design ornamenting a moonstone thus: “A conventional half-lotus in the centre enclosed by concentric bands which, proceeding outwards, are decorated respectively with a procession of geese, an intricate foliage design, a procession of the four beasts – elephant, lion, horse and bull, racing each other – and an outermost band of stylized flames. The various elements of the design are skillfully integrated into a very effective whole. The motifs which constitute the design are symbolic.”
He sees a difference in the moonstones in Polonnaruwa. Instead of a single band of the four beasts, each animal, except the bull, has its own row in the ones at Polonnaruwa. The absence of the bull is because of Hindu influence. The bull is held in veneration by the Hindus and would not want to be trampled each time one went over the moonstone. The best example in Polonnaruwa is the moonstone at the northern entrance to the upper terrace of the Vatadage. It is finely executed, says Professor Paranavitana.
As for the animals depicted on the moonstone, each is of symbolic significance to denote four aspects of life. The elephant represents birth while the bull is indicative of decay. The lion represents disease and the horse is a symbol of death. The geese have been interpreted as representing the distinction between good and bad. Some interpret the moonstone as being symbolic of surpassing worldly temptations and reaching the ultimate goal of ‘nibbana’.
The lotus petal also forms a key feature in most moonstones. The lotus is regarded as a sacred flower by the Buddhists. The lotus figures prominently in Buddhist art and architecture. It is also mentioned at important events in the life of the Buddha. Seven lotuses sprang into bloom at the feet of Prince Siddartha, no sooner he was born and took the first steps of his life.
The ‘mura gala’ or guard stone is another major feature at the entrance to stupas and other religious buildings. Elaborate carvings are a feature of these guard stones. Generally, two guard stones have been erected on either side of the entrance, just beyond the moonstone.
Polonnaruwa is the most important of Sri Lanka’s early capitals. The shifting of the capital was mainly due to Tamil invasions. Being of a much later date, the ruins are better preserved there. Polonnaruwa is closely associated with the famous king, Parakramabahu the Great, who ascended the throne in 1153 A.D.
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