The Isipathanaramaya murals

The Isipathanaramaya is a Theravada Buddhist temple in a prosperous early 20th century suburb of the Sri Lankan capital city, Colombo. It was commissioned in 1916, by Colombo merchant D.D. Pedris to commemorate the death of his 26-year-old son Henry, executed by the British colonial government for the alleged crime of inciting crowds during the communal riots of 1915. The temple’s leafy grounds seem far removed from the memories of violent race riots and vengeful governments. But what was most striking to this visitor were the murals found in the temple’s image house.

The work of Maligawage Sarlis, the murals are exuberant, theatrical recastings of the traditional subjects of Buddhist temple art, in a vivid realist style. Painted in 1920-21 they are an expression of a particular moment in an Asian modernity, speaking to and for ideas of Buddhist revivalism and Sinhalese nationalism, under the patronage of a Colombo bourgeoisie, under the influence of new technologies for image production (lithographic prints chiefly). They were also products of a new type of creator, the professional artist, a celebrity and named author of images. Sarlis was one of the first of these sorts of artists in Sri Lanka, working also as a graphic designer, book and magazine illustrator, and set designer.

This mural style was all the rage in the early years of the century and Sarlis and his peers won dozens of commissions. Many of the temples remain today. But critical and art historical opinion was not kind to this hybrid style. Most interesting perhaps are the objections of elite critics who cringed at what they saw as inadequate, naive imitations of Western art. They looked deeper in the past, at Sri Lanka’s older mural art, to find resources that could challenge Western aesthetics and art modernisms on what they felt to be more equal terms. Here one inevitably encounters the Anglo-Ceylonese critic Ananda Coomaraswamy. He promoted Indian and Sri Lankan art through a deep familiarity with Western art modernism, and he did have influence in the West, through his writings, his institutional affiliations and his friendships and collaboration with people like Eric Gill. He hated the work of the popular realist muralists.

In repainting viharas nowadays the chief errors lie in the bad colours used; ill-judged attempts at the introduction of perspective; careless and ignorant, nay often irreverent work, and the introduction of unsuitable objects; …the beautifully conventionalized and restful traditional style is abandoned in favour of a weak and ineffective realism, so that the inside of vihara whose walls were once covered with worthy and decorative paintings are now as much like an ill drawn Christian Christmas card as anything.

Yes, OK, you see what he means. But in the context of contemporary tastes, I fear Coomaraswamy seems a stuck-up gatekeeper, snobbish and blind to the verve and energy of the works he attacks. Of course one can get all caught up in trying to make excuses for these murals’ use of the conventions of Edwardian painting and illustration, but I’d prefer to look at two other aspects of the work.

First of all, however one might judge the exaggerated perspective and sometimes clumsy handling of figures, I think one has to acknowledge that the decorative aspects of the murals are spectacular. The floral garlands and bouquets of the ceilings, the haloes and aureoles of the bodhisattvas, the modelling and colouring of these seems perfectly appropriate to their function of energising surfaces and spaces and bringing us an apparition of the Tusita Heaven. To me this work rivals the garlands and classical fantasies of the Villa Farnesina.

Another of the most striking aspects of the decoration of the temple is the relationship between the painted sculptures and their backdrops. Painting on the figures is hardly subtle, quite solid and direct (no modelling required) but in the Isipathanamaya these figures are often placed against backgrounds executed in a more academic realist style, all soft airs and brown sauces. The contrast is precisely that of actors on stage in front of their painted backdrops. T Sanathanan’s PhD thesis on visual art in colonial Colombo links this effect directly to Sardis’ work as a set designer, and cites the influence of Parsi theatre and its painted backdrops on the visuality expressed in these temples.

What a strange and rich combination, and how appropriate to use the visual conventions of the theatre to both present glorious energetic form and suggest its ultimate quality as illusion.

One final note: the 18th, 19th and 20th century murals in the temple-monasteries of Sri Lanka tell a fascinating story of modernities in Asian art. What a contrast to the gargantuan effort of my good friends and colleagues in the National Gallery of Singapore, attempting to tell similar stories through painting and sculpture in a museum context.

Further reading:
Senake Bandaranayake, The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka
Colombo: Lake House Bookshop,1986

Ananda Coomarswamy, “An Open Letter to the Kandyan Chiefs”, Kandy: Industrial School, 1905.

T. Sanathanan, Modernity, Class Identity and the Visual Art in Colonial Colombo, c. 1815-1955, a PhD submitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of Arts and Aesthetics, 2010. See

For more images of the temple, including the main Buddha images (which I was too shy to photograph) See Dominic Sansoni’s reportage.