Nalanda Gedige – Matale
The architectural wonder, popularly known as the Nalanda Gedige, remains one of the mysteries in Sri Lankan archaeology. No one knows who constructed the monument and when. However, the archaeological remains at Nalanda reveal the story of a long lost bridge that once connected two ancient dynasties of South Asia. Ceylon Today takes you into a forgotten past of two dynasties and their alliance, which influenced two powerful kingdoms of their time. This is a voyage to Nalanda, the Abu Simbel of Sri Lanka.
Located in the Matale district, Nalanda is famous for its unique image house, known as a ‘Gedige’. The identity of this monument remains veiled. Although it is clear that it is a Buddhist monastery, the architectural style displays uncanny similarities to Mahabalipuram, South India. The other reason why Nalanda is famous is its location. It is believed that the image house is constructed at the centre of the island. Thirdly, this monument was threatened by the Mahaweli Development Project during the 1970s. Therefore, it was dismantled stone by stone and later reconstructed.
Historical Background of Nalanda Gedige
During the 8th to 10th centuries, marked by tumultuous transitions and the establishment of South Indian kingdoms, Nalanda Gedige emerged as an architectural masterpiece. The temple's construction coincided with the decline of the Sinhalese monarchy, and it is believed that Nalanda Gedige was an ambitious endeavour to blend Sinhalese cultures with external influences.
Architectural Features of Nalanda Gedige
Hindu Temple Design
Nalanda Gedige exhibits a distinct resemblance to Hindu temples, boasting a well-defined structure comprising a mandapa, an entrance hall with an originally roofed design, a short passage leading to a bare cello, and an ambulatory encircling the sacred centre. However, while Hindu design elements are prominent, the absence of Hindu deities within the temple sets Nalanda Gedige apart from traditional Hindu temples.
The architectural style of Nalanda Gedige reflects the influence of Dravidian architecture, particularly the Pallava style. Its richly decorated facade sections, meticulously reassembled in 1975, showcase the prevalent South Indian style of the time. Although the exact dating of these sections remains uncertain, experts believe they originated between the 8th and 11th centuries, offering glimpses into the temple's ancient past.
Mahayana Cult Influence
Scholars have postulated that Nalanda Gedige might have been dedicated to a Mahayana cult featuring pronounced Tantric learning. In addition, the temple's intriguing combination of architectural elements suggests a possible affiliation with Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, further deepening the enigma surrounding this ancient monument.
Sculptures and Statuettes within Nalanda Gedige
Hindu Deity Statuettes
While Hindu deities are absent from the main temple area, a limited number of original Hindu deity statuettes have been preserved within Nalanda Gedige. These exquisite artifacts provide glimpses into the historical connection between Hindu and Buddhist cultures during the temple's construction.
One of the noteworthy features of Nalanda Gedige is the presence of a statue depicting Kubera, the god of wealth. Located on the south side of the tympanum over the sanctuary, this unique representation of Kubera is exclusive to Sri Lanka, adding to the temple's cultural and religious significance.
South Indian Style Facade Sections
The laboriously reassembled facade sections of Nalanda Gedige predominantly showcase the South Indian style that flourished in Madras during the 7th century. Though challenging to date precisely, these intricate sections offer a glimpse into the temple's architectural origins and the cultural exchanges that shaped it.
Significance of Nalanda Gedige in Sri Lankan History
Fusion of Sinhalese Cultures
During cultural shifts and external influences, Nalanda Gedige emerged as a remarkable fusion of Sinhalese cultures. Its unique blend of architectural styles, evident in the ground plan, vestibule, and shrine, reflects a harmonious coexistence of different traditions, adding to its cultural and historical significance.
Unique Composite Styles of Architecture
Nalanda Gedige is the sole example discovered in Sri Lanka that showcases the judicious blending of composite architectural styles. Sinhalese, Tamilian and South Indian elements intricately interweave, resulting in a delightfully homogeneous edifice that captivates visitors with its classical charm.
Discovery and Restoration of Nalanda Gedige
The archaeological journey of Nalanda Gedige began in 1893 when the land was acquired around this secluded granite shrine. Efforts to uncover the temple's hidden glory continued, culminating in thorough excavation and clearing of jungle growth in the early 20th century. However, it wasn't until the 1980s, with the threat of inundation by the Bowatenne Tank waters, that the temple was dismantled and meticulously restored. The reconstructed temple now stands proudly beside the tank, accessible via a flower-edged causeway against a breathtaking backdrop of tree-clad hills.
The Curious Hybridization of Buddhist and Hindu Elements
Nalanda Gedige presents a beautiful amalgamation of Buddhist and Hindu architectural elements, evoking curiosity and wonder. The hall of waiting, known as mandapam, exhibits distinctly Hindu characteristics, while Tantric Buddhist carvings, reminiscent of the famous Khajuraho carvings in India, adorn the temple. Notably, a semi-circular niche in the southern section houses a high-relief statue of Kuvera, a representation unique to Sri Lanka.
Nalanda Gedige is a testament to Sri Lanka's ancient architectural grandeur, captivating visitors with its unique Hindu and Buddhist blend. This complete stone temple, designed with exquisite Dravidian architecture, bears witness to historical transformations and cultural exchanges. With its intricate sculptures, affluent facade sections, and fusion of architectural styles, Nalanda Gedige inspires awe and reverence among those who venture to its hallowed grounds.
1. Is Nalanda Gedige a Hindu temple or a Buddhist monastery? Nalanda Gedige showcases a blend of Hindu and Buddhist elements. While it features a Hindu temple design, including a mandapa and Hindu deity figurines, it is believed to have been used as a Buddhist monastery.
2. Can visitors see original Hindu deities within Nalanda Gedige? Although original Hindu deity statuettes exist within the temple, they are limited in number. Nevertheless, visitors can glimpse these artifacts that provide insights into the historical connections between Hinduism and Buddhism.
3. What is the historical significance of Nalanda Gedige? Nalanda Gedige holds historical importance as a fusion of Sinhalese cultures during cultural transitions. Its unique composite styles of architecture showcase the harmonious blending of different traditions.
4. When was Nalanda Gedige constructed? The construction of Nalanda Gedige took place between the 8th and 10th centuries. The exact dates remain uncertain, but the temple's architectural elements suggest origins within this time frame.
5. How was Nalanda Gedige discovered and restored? Nalanda Gedige was found in 1893, and subsequent archaeological efforts led to its excavation and clearing. In the 1980s, the temple underwent dismantling and restoration to safeguard it from the waters of the Bowatenne Tank.