Sandakada Pahana ( Moonstone)


Sandakada Pahana, also called Moonstone, is a semi-circular stone slab usually seen at the bottom of staircases of ancient religious places and any ancient royal palaces in Sri Lanka. It is a novel creation of ancient Sinhalese architecture. The Moonstone placed in the Mahasen’s Palace is the most elegant and best-preserved Moonstone found in Sri Lanka.

The symbols and their combination describes a tremendous religious meaning. Prof. Senarath Paranavithana introduced the widely trusted interpretation.

According to his statement,
The Moonstone means the cycle of Sansara.
The level symbolize worldly passions Thanha
The lotus represents the final achievement of Nirvana.
The elephant, bull, lion and horse represent birth, decay, disease and death.
The swans signify the distinction between good and evil.

Read More in Details

Evolution of Moonstone Design

The design of the moonstone has evolved, reflecting the creativity and craftsmanship of different historical periods. The most highly ornate moonstones, characterized by intricate carvings, are generally dated to the 8th-10th centuries, during the latter half of the Anuradhapura era. However, moonstones from the 18th century also showcase the latest changes in their design.

Semi-Circular Moonstones vs. Square Moonstones

Although the moonstone is typically semi-circular, there are instances where square or other-shaped moonstones can be found. It is believed that moonstones originated as blank square stones and later developed into their distinctive semi-circular shape. However, moonstones found in monasteries where forest-dwelling monks resided often maintained a blank semi-circular shape.

Carved Decorations on Moonstones

The elaborate carvings on moonstones reveal the artistic prowess of ancient artisans. In the wealthiest moonstones of the Anuradhapura era, the outer edge is adorned with a ring of flames, followed by a call depicting four types of animals – the elephant, the horse, the lion, and the bull – chasing each other. Some moonstones showcase these animals in their semi-circular band.

Further inside, a creeper with a wavy stem and foliage, known as "liyawela," encircles the moonstone. This is followed by a line of swans holding a twig of flowers and a leaf in their mouths. Next, a floral pattern emerges, culminating in a central lotus with petals encircling the semi-circle of the moonstone.

Interpretations of the Moonstone

Several interpretations have been proposed to unravel the symbolism embedded within the intricate carvings of the moonstone.

The symbolism of Animals on the Moonstone

The procession of animals depicted on the moonstone holds symbolic meaning. They represent the never-ending cycle of Sansara, the circle of life and death, with birth, decay, disease, and death intertwined in an eternal process. Having transcended this cycle, the Buddha is believed to be represented by the animals surrounding him.

While different opinions exist regarding which animal represents each stage, it is commonly suggested that the elephant symbolizes birth, the bull signifies decay, the lion represents disease, and the horse symbolizes death. These animals, chasing each other in a continuous circle, convey the idea of the infinity of life's struggles.

Outer Ring of Fire

The moonstone's outer ring of fire symbolises life's never-ending nature and the inherent suffering associated with worldly existence. It serves as a reminder to the devotee that realising this suffering is necessary to attain the ultimate goal, which is the same as that achieved by the Buddha.

Scroll of Leaves and Flowers

The band of elaborately decorated moonstones features an undulating scroll adorned with leaves and flowers. This creeper represents the desires of humans that lead to the perpetual cycle of existence.

Motif of Swans

The motif of swans holds special significance on some moonstones. This is because swans are believed to possess the ability to discern between good and evil. This symbolism implies leaving behind worldly desires and progressing to the next level.

The Lotus: Symbol of Nibbana

The lotus, occupying the central space within the moonstone, holds profound symbolism. Drawing from the study of Ananda Coomaraswamy's work on the meaning of the lotus as an icon in India and Sri Lanka, the lotus on the moonstone represents the ultimate bliss of "Nibbana," the state of the enlightenment sought by Buddhists.

Alternative Interpretation: A Floor Mat

D.T. Devendra presented an alternative interpretation of the moonstone design, considering it as nothing more than a floor mat. According to this perspective, the earliest moonstones were square and served the practical function of being a surface to wipe one's feet on. Using animals in the carvings was seen as purely decorative, lacking symbolic significance.

Influence and Changes Over Time

Throughout history, the moonstone and its carvings have been subject to influences and changes, reflecting the cultural shifts and interactions that shaped Sri Lanka's architectural landscape.

Hindu Influence: Omission of the Bull

During the Polonnaruwa era, the bull was omitted from the moonstone design, likely due to Hindu influence. The bull holds sacred significance in Hinduism, and its depiction on the moonstone may have been considered disrespectful. Consequently, the lion, often associated with the Sinhala race, was also removed from the moonstone and placed on the outer wall of the fence.

With their captivating beauty and profound meanings, moonstones continue to capture the imagination of those who visit ancient Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka, offering glimpses into the island's rich cultural heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is a moonstone in Buddhist architecture? A moonstone, also known as Sandakada Pahana, is a semi-circular stone structure found at the foot of a flight of steps in Buddhist buildings. It features intricate carvings symbolizing the cycle of life and death, desires, and the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

2. What do the animals on the moonstone represent? The procession of animals on the moonstone represents the never-ending cycle of life and death, known as Sansara. While opinions vary, the commonly accepted interpretation is that the elephant represents birth, the bull signifies decay, the lion represents disease, and the horse symbolizes death.

3. What is the significance of the lotus on the moonstone? The lotus, located at the centre of the moonstone, represents the ultimate bliss of "Nibbana," the state of enlightenment sought by Buddhists. It symbolizes transcendence beyond the cycle of worldly existence.

4. How has the moonstone design evolved? The moonstone design has changed throughout history. Influences from Hindu culture led to the omission of the bull, which holds sacred significance in Hinduism, during the Polonnaruwa era. The lion, associated with the Sinhala race, was also removed from the moonstone and placed on the outer wall of the fence.

5. What is the purpose of the moonstone in Buddhist architecture? The moonstone serves as a symbolic and decorative element in Buddhist architecture. It marks the entrance to sacred spaces, reminding devotees of worldly existence's inherent struggles and desires while pointing towards the path of enlightenment.



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