The Stone Buddha Statues at the Gal Viharaya, in Polonnaruwa
The Stone Buddha Statues at the Gal Viharaya, in Polonnaruwa

Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean pearl is a paradise with natural charms. But that is not the only reason why millions of tourists visit Sri Lanka. Many arrive at this island because it holds magnificent and unique cultural values ​​and religious values as well. However, among the significant religious and cultural attractions, Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya plays an important role in shaping Sri Lankan culture, religion, art, and architecture. Hence, we thought of focusing this read on this wonderful Sri Lankan treasure. Continue reading to get to know about the Gal Viharaya in detail!

What is Gal Viharaya?

Gal Vihara is a Buddhist temple in Polonnaruwa, that had come up during the reign of King Parakrabahu. History reveals that Parakramabahu I held a monastery to purify the Buddhist priesthood. Indeed, Gal Viharaya was the center of it.

It is a cave complex and was famous as the “Northern Temple” as well. The main cave of this temple is about 27 meters in length and 10 meters in height at the center and it slopes towards the ends. Besides, the main feature of Gal Vihara is the four images of the Buddha that have been carved on a single, large granite rock face.

Statues at Gal Viharaya

Statues at Gal Viharaya are evidence of the best rock carving and sculpting arts of the ancient Sinhalese. Thus, there is no denying that these painters had great talent and expertise in stone sculpture. These statues at Gal Vihara that brought a high level of the audience are as follows.

  • Seated Image
  • Vidyadara Guha Image
  • Standing Image
  • Reclining Image

All these statues hold significant characteristics that make them different from the style of the Buddha statues that belong to the Anuradhapura kingdom. One of the most notable changes is the wide forehead on the face of these statues. Further, the robe of the Lord Buddha is engraved with two parallel lines on these statues. However, on the statues that belong to the Anuradhapura era, there is one line to indicate this.

Besides, the rock of this place has been cut to about 15 feet deep to form a surface that allows for sculptures. And yes, it is the only example in a country where a natural rock has been excavated to such an extent for a purpose as such. So, all these features together, make Gal Viharaya one of the most celebrated and visited temples in Polonnaruwa.

1. Seated Image

The seated image at Gal Viharaya is a large statue and is 15 feet long by 2.5 inches. Further, it features the posture of Dhyana Mudra of Lord Buddha. The chair-like surface of this statue has carvings in the form of a lotus flower. Moreover, its base contains decorations with carved figures of flowers and lions. Also, the statue is on a carved throne, adorned with Makara statues.

Apart from that, there are four small statues inside the small rooms around it. This is a rare feature in the ancient Sinhalese image, and it may be the result of Mahayana influence. The image of Vijjadhara Guha depicts a common meditation ritual, called Samadhi Mudra or Dhyani Mudra, with both hands placed on the thigh, right hand, and fingers fully extended. The flame over the Buddha’s head that we can see here is the Siraspata, and history reveals that it signifies the enlightenment of Lord Buddha. All these wonderful features of this statue make it a highlight among the sculptures that belong to the Buddhist culture.

2. Vidyadhara Guha

This is a small sculpture measuring only 15 feet by 7 inches but resembles its larger neighbor statue. However, it is found inside an artificial cave named Vidyadhara Guha, and thus, it has got this name. The cave was created by carving 4.5 feet into the rock, leaving four square pillars 26 feet wide and 12 to 9 feet high.

The base of the lotus-shaped chair of the Buddha image here is decorated with lion designs. The throne and the parachute are engraved on the back of it, and are much more intricate than the giant statue. Also, the Prabhamandala, or Halo, is engraved on the back of the statue’s head, which sits between two idols with four arms. According to the first commissioner of the Department of Archaeology – archeologist H. C. P. Bell, the god on the right side is Brahma, and the god on the left side is Vishnu.

3. Standing Image

The Standing statue of the Buddha here has been the subject of many discussions among scholars and lovers of Sri Lankan history. The erection of a statue standing with the hands folded on the breast has caused controversy over the identity of the image, and this was a reason why this statue became a focal point for several discussions.

The statue stands on the head of a great Buddha statue that lies next to it. Hence, early archaeologists believed that the statue belonged to Ananda, the principal follower of Buddha, who mourned the death of the Buddha. However, some believe that this statue once stood in a separate temple chamber, separated by a brick wall, and thus, it has nothing to do with the Buddha statue that lies next to it. Although the brick walls of the three caves are not there anymore, the foundations are still visible. Therefore, this point also seems to be acceptable as we study the significance of these statues.

Besides, there are several opinions that oppose the fact that this statue signified Ananda Thero. They are as follows.

  • The right-hand strands of hair are there only in the images of the Buddha and not in the images of his disciples at that time.
  • Buddhist artists have never given the Lotus Throne or Padmasana to the students of Buddha, which are visible here.
  • Extended ears are visible in this statue. Of all the statues of the Buddha, his disciples, and the gods, only images of the Buddha have long ears.

Even though there are controversial ideas about who this image shows, we can clearly state that this is also a great work of the ancient Sri Lankan sculptures that amazed many!

 4. Reclining Image

The Reclining Buddha statue is the largest Buddha statue in the Gal Vihara premises. Besides, it is one of the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

It depicts the Parinirvana of the Buddha. Lying on his right side with his right arm supporting the head over the bolster, his left arm lies next to the body and thigh. The palm of the right hand and the soles of the feet have more than one lotus flower engraved on them. It is about 14 m in height. Despite its enormous size, the statue carries a high degree of kindness and serenity, and that is indeed a significant feature of it.

Charles Godakumbure, a former Sri Lankan archeological commissioner, said the foundation on which the Buddha laid his head was so well carved that it looked more like a pillow stuffed with cotton than on a rock carved. Also, the left foot of the image is slightly retracted to show that the image shows that the Buddha has attained Parinirvana, and does not simply lie on the ground. Unlike other statues, the sitting statue has no ornamented base and rests on a bare rock set up. On the wall behind the statue, several stone foundations are visible, and the remains of two stone pillars suggest that its now-defunct statue had a wooden roof.

How To Reach The Gal Viharaya In Polonnaruwa?

There are so many ways to reach Gal Viharaya from any point in Sri Lanka. However, as long as you reach the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, arriving at this sacred location is never a hard task. The distance to Gal Viharaya from Polonnaruwa city is about 4.8 km. Once you reach Polonnaruwa, all you have to do is to head northwest on the A11  toward Janapada Mawatha, and then follow along the road until you reach Gallambarawa road. 

Besides, the following sections brief you about the distance from various cities to Polonnaruwa, and the route you can use to reach this ancient town.

  • From Colombo: It is a 6-hour journey from Colombo to Gal Viharaya via Ambepussa, Kurunegala, Trincomalee Hwy. The distance of this journey would be around 225 kilometers. The cheapest way to get from Colombo to Polonnaruwa is by train which costs around SLR 1200 – SLR 1700.
  • From Kandy or Jaffna: Using the Kandy/Jaffna highway is the best way to arrive at Polonnaruwa from Kandy or Jaffna. The trip would take around 3.30 hours from Kandy and 5.30 hours from Jaffna.
  • From Anuradhapura: It is a 2-hour journey from Anuradhapura to Gal Viharaya via the A11 route.

Public transportation is available to reach Polonnaruwa from any corner of the island. However, if you do not prefer using public transportation, you can even use a taxi service. Please note that using private transportation or taxi services would cost you more, and the prices may be different depending on the service providers.

Things to Know Before Visiting Gal Viharaya

As you might already know, Sri Lanka is a country that has a significant bond with cultural values. Hence you have to follow some practices when visiting a religious or a cultural attraction. Doing so will help you blend with the atmosphere out there. So, it is better to know these facts before you arrive at Gal Viharaya as well.

  • Religious places in Sri Lanka hold a calm and peaceful environment. Thus, it is better to talk calmly when you are within the premises.
  • It is better to dress in a light-color dress that covers your body, at least from your shoulders to your knees, when you are entering a religious place. However, make sure that you take a shawl with you. If so, you can cover your body when you visit such a sacred place.
  • Do not wear any dresses that contain religious figures or slogans. Also, make sure to cover your tattoos if you have anything that disregards any religion.

Apart from that, there are a few things for you to remember when traveling in this ancient town as well. As you might already know, Polonnaruwa is usually dry and hot. Therefore, it is essential to have sun prevention accessories. Also, don’t forget socks! Since you need to remove your shoes when entering a religious site, wearing socks would help you to walk on the ground, especially when it is hot in the afternoon hours.

The Bottom Line

Each day on the island promises new insights, discoveries, and long-term memories. And why not? Each place and every smile has a story to tell. So, if you are looking for the hidden cultural and religious significance of Sri Lanka, here is the best option. Visit Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya! It is such a place that represents the religious significance of images and teaches you the history of pride and the cultural fantasy of Sri Lanka. Happy and Safe Travelling!