Sangha and architecture in ancient Sri Lanka
In ancient Sri Lanka, the Sangha were closely associated with Buddhist architecture. Gamini Wijesuriya says the monks advised the architects when monasteries were built and in this manner had a hand in the monastery architecture. Mahavamsa says that the monks had stopped Dutugenumu from building too large a stupa, and got him to reduce the size.
This shows that the monks definitely knew something about building. Monks had also taken the initiative in getting temples built. Dambulla rock inscription (2nd century) states that Sedadeva thera had built the Chatavana temple.
Monks were in charge of the maintenance of monastery buildings. They needed to know about building for that as well. Walpola Rahula says that monks were summoned to personally make repairs to the roof of the chetiya or to thatch the roof of the image house and Uposatha house. Some monasteries had a permanent staff of craftsmen for renovation work. Monks had to explain the Shilpa Sastra text to these craftsmen. The stone cutters and carpenters at Abhayagiri were given a specific time period within which they had to complete their work. They lost their allotments if they failed to complete the work on time. The monks would have had to decide on the length of time the craftsmen needed.
One unexpected finding about the Sangha therefore is their intimate knowledge of building and architecture. I found that this was amply demonstrated in the Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa author, who was a monk, writes knowledgeably about building. The religious buildings erected by the Sinhala kings are described from the perspective of architect and builder. We are told that the hall at Mirisavati Vehera was 'so planned that stakes were set even in the water of the Abhaya tank'.
Mahavamsa says that Kanittha tissa did away with the boundary wall of Mahavihara, and replaced it with a row of cells. He moved another wall of the Mahavihara to a side and created a road leading to the Dhakkina Vihara. He added a refectory to the Dhakkina Vihara and provided a mantling to the thupa. Mahadathika Mahanaga 'made a building firm' then set up entrances which had been 'well planned by artists'. Jettatissa rebuilt Lohapasada up to seven stories.
Mahavamsa has six chapters dealing with buildings. They describe the construction of Mirisaveti, Lohapasada and Ruvanvelisaya (Mahathupa). These chapters indicate an interest in architecture and familiarity with building matters. The section on Lohapasada starts with design. The Lohapasada was modelled on a Vimana which was found in the abode of the gods. This Vimana was twelve yojanas high, and forty-eight yojanas round. It had nine storeys, with jutting window-chambers and balustrades adorned with little bells. The building had four-sided rooms, gleaming with light. A drawing was made of this in red arsenic upon a linen cloth and handed over to the king.
The Lohapasada plan was based on this drawing. Lohapasada, we are told, had four sides, measuring hundred cubits on each side. It had nine storeys with a hundred window chambers in each storey. There were well arranged chambers inside. The balustrades of the projecting windows (vedika) were of coral, with gem studded lotus flowers and rows of little silver bells. The pasada was covered with plates of copper, hence its name.
Mahavamsa records important stages in building. The setting out of the Ruvanvelisaya is described. The importance of a sound foundation is discussed. The Mahavamsa author points out that there are right and wrong ways of setting a firm foundation. He describes the composition and setting up of the foundation of the Mahathupa, using clipped, precise language, unlike the poetic style use elsewhere. The foundation had several layers of material consisting of stone, clay, bricks, cement, kuruvinda, iron, marumba and mountain crystal. A sheet of copper and a sheet of silver along with Kapita resin dissolved in Kurumba water and arsenic dissolved in sesamum oil was placed on top of these layers.
The sites from which material for the Mahathupa foundation were obtained are described giving emphasis to geographical position. The gold came from a plain covering sixteen karisas of land, situated in a north easterly direction form Anuradhapura, at a distance of three yojanas. The plain had nuggets of gold which were at least of a finger's measure. Some nuggets measured a span. Copper appeared on the east on the bank of a river at distance of seven yojanas. Silver appeared at the Ambatthakola cave, eight yojanas away in the South. This is the site of the present day Ridi Vihara.
The Mahavamsa author is aware of the various practical issues connected with constructing a new building. There is a description of how the king selected a contractor for the Mahathupa from the master builders available. He looked at their offers. The ones who were going to use more than one amuna of sand were rejected and the one who said he would 'pound the sand in a mortar, and then when it is sifted, have it crushed in the mill. I will thus use only one amuna of sand' was given the job.
The need for materials of good quality was mentioned. Fine clay was sought and obtained for the butter clay which was used as cement. Quality control was recorded. Two monks had tried, on two separate occasions, to introduce bricks made of impure clay when the Mahathupa was under construction. These attempts were detected and there was uproar on both occasions. Specifications are given. The silver sheet used for the Mahathupa foundation was seven inches thick. The fat coloured stones were eighty cubits in length, eight inches thick and as bright as the sun. Pastes applied were eight fingers and four fingers thick. Quantities were noted. Ten kotis of bricks were used for the flower terraces of Ruvanvelisaya. The time taken to build was also recorded. Mirisaveti took three years to build.
The workers on the construction site were not forgotten. The Mahavamsa repeatedly states that wages were paid and essential items, such as clothes, food and drink were given free on the construction sites. When the Lohapasada was built, King Dutugemunu commanded that eight hundred thousand gold pieces be placed at each of the four gates, as well as a thousand bundles of garments, and several pitchers filled with ball-sugar, oil, sugar dust, and honey. He announced that no work would be done without reward. He had the work done by the labourers appraised and wages given to them. Workers on the Mahathupa were paid in cash. A hundred thousand Kahapanas were set aside for this. The Mahavamsa author was utterly cost conscious. The first thing given about a building is its cost. The author reported that Lanjatissa built three stone terraces spending three hundred thousand pieces of money. Lanjatissa had spent another hundred thousand for Chetiya Vihara.' Jettatissa renovated the Lohapasa so that "it was now worth a lot of money. Jetthtissa then gifted it a jewel worth sixty thousand. Dutugemunu had given gifts to the Bodhi tree spending a hundred thousand pieces of money."
Everything in a building was costed. Thrones whenever mentioned were declared to be worth a koti each. A pasada in one of the buildings was reckoned at thirty kotis. The bundles of pearl strings on the four corners of a canopy were each worth nine hundred thousand pieces of money.' Mahavamsa describes the Lohapasada complex in detail.
He speaks of the main hall with its ivory throne and white parasol decorated in coral and silver. He concludes by saying "palace, parasol, throne and pavilion were beyond price.' Architect Shereen Amendra found that the Mahathupa (Ruvanvelisaya) as described in the Mahavamsa had a 'curious design and construction'. She noted that the materials used for its foundation were not found in any other stupa, nor did any other stupa record such a diverse array of materials. She identified the materials described and looked at their properties.The materials listed included borax, phosphorus, quartz, sapphires, copper, and silver. These are used today in electronics. Quartz has semi-conductor properties. Sapphire is considered an excellent electrical insulator. Copper and silver are used as electric conductors.
She suggests that the ancients knew that lightening was an electrical phenomenon. She conjectures that the pinnacle design, with its upakila was intended to harvest the electrical charges from the clouds. She conjectures that this would have acted on the base layer and the relic chamber and that this buried technology was used for some unknown purpose. The 'sparkling zigzag lines' mentioned may have been real sparks or discharges of electricity. She is definite that the Ruvanvelisaya as described in the Mahavamsa is far beyond that of a reliquary or a monument.
The writings of Shereen Amendra, A. S. Hettiarachchi, Walpola Rahula and Gamini Wijesuriya were used for this essay.