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Religious frescoes in Sri Lanka.

Exploring the past in Sri Lanka

The ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’ is an island of striking natural beauty with a documented history of over 3,000 years; from the time of the ancient Silk Road to World War II. Sri Lanka is specially known for its Buddhist heritage, and it was on the island that the first known writings of Buddha were composed. But the archaeology of human occupation on the island goes back many, many thousands of years to early Homo sapiens.

Archaeological and Historical Sites


The Samadhi Statue of  Buddha in a postures of seated meditation. According to Buddhist teachings the sacred City of Anuradhapura was founded in the fourth century BC around the ‘tree of enlightenment’ – grown from a cutting of the Buddha’s fig tree. For some 1,300 years Anuradhapura was the political and religious capital of the Sinhalese civilization. During this time many splendid religious monuments, including stupas and palaces were built. The ancient city is still sacred to Buddhists, and is surrounded by numerous monasteries. [UNESCO Website]

Avukana Buddha statue

The 12 metre statue amongst the remains of its shrine.At twelve metres high with a delicately carved closely worn robe, this statue of Buddha is generally accepted to be one of Sri Lanka’s finest. The statue is not far from the village of Avukana, from which it takes its name. It was carved out of a large granite outcrop in the fifth century. It is not entirely free standing, there is a strip of rock at the back that joins the statue to the original parent rock. The statue stands on a lotus-shaped pedestal, and was once part of a shrine built of brick and stone – remains of which can still be seen today.

Dambulla Cave Temple

A statue of a reclining Buddha in the Dambulla Cave Temple.The cave temple complex at Dambulla is widely thought to be one of the finest examples of religious art in South-East Asia. Five sanctuaries make up the Buddhist monastery, that is by far the largest and best-preserved ancient cave-temple complex in all of Sri Lanka. Although Dambulla is still a functioning religious centre, tourists are nonetheless able to visit the caves to witness the extraordinary mural and the 157 religious statues a variety of poses – the largest being 15 metres long. [UNESCO website]


Temple of the Tooth RelicA picturesque modern city that was the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. As the capital Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic – which houses the relic of the Tooth of Buddha. Since ancient times, it was believed that whoever has the relic also holds political power. Today ceremonies are still held at the Temple, three times a day – at dawn, midday and in the evening. Also in Kandy is the National Museum, with exhibits from the ancient Kandy and the British Colonial period. [UNESCO website]


The Kiri Vihara at Polonnaruwa The ancient site of Polonnaruwa was a capital city for different civilisations between the 8th to the 12th century. From the 8th century until the sack of Anuradhapura, the site was a temporary royal residence after which it became a capital city. During this time a number of Brahmanic monuments, including Temples to Shiva, have been excavated. The beautifully laid out garden-city we see today, and stunning examples of Sinhalese art, dates to the 12th century. Photograph © Bernard Gagnon [UNESCO website]


Two of many painted female figures. Sigiriya was a 5th century capital city, that still has remains of many extraordinary features. These include the city’s defensive moats and fortifications, expansive and elaborately landscaped gardens, and a monastery. A two-hundred metre high rock that stands out from these ruins is, however, undoubtedly the star attraction. The flat-topped, granite outcrop has the remains of a royal palace, while one of the rock shelters has exquisite frescoes of female figures, often referred to as ‘the Maidens of the Clouds’ … read more.