Maligawila Buddha Statue, Ancient Sri Lankan Art and Devotion

The Buddhist Channel, 20 June 2024

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The Maligawila Buddha statue, standing majestically in Sri Lanka's Moneragala District, is a symbol of ancient Buddhist artistry and religious devotion.

Carved from a single limestone rock in the 7th century by Prince Aggabodhi, this statue is not only the tallest free-standing ancient Buddha figure in Sri Lanka but also a testament to the enduring legacy of Buddhist culture in the region. The statue's journey from its creation to its restoration in the 20th century highlights the dedication of those who sought to preserve and honor this cultural treasure.

Historical Significance and Construction

The Maligawila Buddha statue was commissioned by Prince Aggabodhi, the ruler of Ruhuna, during the 7th century. According to the ancient chronicle Chulavamsa, the statue was part of a larger religious complex that included the Pathma Vihara temple. The statue, carved from a single limestone block, stands at an impressive height of 37 feet 10 inches (11.53 meters), making it the tallest ancient free-standing Buddha statue in Sri Lanka.

Artistic Features

The statue is an exemplary representation of ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist sculpture, showcasing the asisa mudra, a variation of the Abhaya mudra. This mudra symbolizes protection, reassurance, and the dispelling of fear. The Buddha is depicted clutching his robe at the left shoulder, with his right hand raised to the shoulder level, a posture that conveys serenity and spiritual assurance. The statue's design bears a close resemblance to the Avukana Buddha statue, another significant example of standing Buddha images from ancient Sri Lanka.

Surrounding the statue are ruins indicating the presence of an image house that once protected this sacred figure. The structure, measuring about 80 feet in length and breadth with 4-foot-thick walls, would have been approximately 65 feet high, further emphasizing the importance of the site in ancient times.

Discovery and Restoration

The statue's rediscovery in 1951 marked the beginning of a significant restoration journey. By then, the statue had fallen from its pedestal and was broken into several pieces, largely due to damage inflicted by treasure hunters around 1948. Initial attempts to restore the statue in 1974 were unsuccessful, but a renewed effort in 1980 under President Ranasinghe Premadasa's direction finally saw the statue re-erected.

The restoration was a meticulous process, involving the repair of several damaged pieces, including the right hand, face, and feet. The restoration effort was spearheaded by Lankem Ceylon PLC, with chief technical advisor Mr. Kirthi Samarasuriya developing an epoxy adhesive to chemically bond the statue's pieces. The successful re-erection of the statue was carried out by Mr. Gemunu Silva of the State Engineering Corporation and Mr. H.A. Wijegunawardhana, Chief Engineer of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. This monumental task underscored the dedication and technical prowess of those involved.

Cultural and Religious Impact

Today, the Maligawila Buddha statue stands as a prominent pilgrimage site, attracting thousands of devotees and tourists each year. Its towering presence and historical significance continue to inspire awe and reverence, making it a vital part of Sri Lanka's cultural and religious landscape. Pilgrims visit the site to pay homage and seek spiritual solace, reflecting the enduring impact of Buddhism on the region's culture and history.

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