“Unique plaque depicting a Universal Monarch from Tissamaharama”
January 10, 2017, 9:10 pm
By Osmund Bopearachchi
(UC Berkeley-CNRS Paris)
The present article is based on a unique plaque depicting a Universal Monarch – Cakravartin in Sanskrit, cakravartin in Pali and Sakvithi in Sinhalese – found accidently in Tissamaharama, now conserved in the head office of the Department of Archaeology, Colombo (see plate 1). I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Prof. Senarath Disanayaka, Director General of Archaeology, for authorising me to publish it. Before discussing the importance of this relief in understanding the early forms of Sri Lankan art, let me narrate briefly the story of its discovery. Mr. K. Lahiru Sampath, from Tissamaharama found this sculpture in early 2016, in the irrigation canal carrying water from the Tissa Reservoir to the paddy-fields in the vicinity of the Tissamaharama Rajamahavihara. The canal runs along the Tissa-Akurugoda Road between the two ancient sites of Tissamaharama stupa and Sandagiri Dagoba. The precise place of its discovery, according to Ms. Rathubambarandage Nirosha kanthi, Curator of the Yatala Archaeological Museum, is about 100m from the junction of Rubberwatta Road and Tissa-Akurugoda Road, towards Tissamaharama Rajamahavihara. The villager who found it at the depth of the dried-out canal, seeing its unusual iconography and understanding its archaeological importance, donated it to the chief monk of the Yatala Rajamahaviharya. Through the intervention of Ms. Wasanthi Alahakoon, Regional Office, Department of Archaeology in Galle, the plaque was given to the head Office of the Department of Archaeology in Colombo on the 5th of February 2016. On the 7th of July 2016, on the day of the annual celebrations of archaeology (Puravidya Dinaya), the Department of Archaeology officially honoured Mr. K. Lahiru Sampath for his contribution.
The plaque depicts a Universal Monarch, considered an ideal universal king, who reigns ethically and compassionately over the entire world. In a Buddhist context, Cakra-vartin means the one who turns the Dharmacakra, or Wheel of the Dharma. The central figure with the raised right arm is no doubt a universal monarch, since he is shown with all the seven treasures that a Cakravartin should posses. The concept of Cakravartin, the universal monarch with Seven Jewels, as correctly argued by Monika Zin, is a frequent topic in Buddhist literature: Mahasudassanasutta (Dighanikaya XVII); Brahmayusutta (Majjhimanikaya 9 l); Mahapadanasutta (Dighanikaya XIV); Lakkhanasutta (Dighanikaya XXX); Cakkavattisihanadasutta (Dighanikaya XXVI); and Cakkavatisutta (Samyuttanikaya XLYL.5.2), to name only canonical Pali texts. In the Cakkavattisihanadasutta (The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel), in the Dighanikaya, the Buddha defines the seven treasures possessed by a wheel-turning monarch as: the Wheel Treasure, the Elephant Treasure, the Horse treasure, the Jewel Treasure, the Woman Treasure, the Householder Treasure, and the Counsellor Treasure. In Buddhist literature, the notion of a ‘Wheel-Turner,’ or Cakravartin, applies to the Buddha himself. For example, in the Lalitavistara Sutra,
when the sage Asita came to see the newly born prince Siddhartha in the royal palace of Kapilavastu, he looked at the Bodhisattva, and saw that his body was wonderfully adorned with the thirty-two marks and eighty signs of a great being predicted to either subdue and conquer the entire world and its oceans without using force or weapons or to leave his home and go forth as a homeless monk and a Tathāgata, a completely perfect Buddha. He further says that if the Bodhisattva remains at home, he will be a Dharma king, possessing the seven jewels: the wheel, the elephant, the horse, the mani stone, the queen, the chancellor and the counselor. Likewise, the present plaque depicts the universal monarch with all the seven treasures. The Cakravartin stands in the middle, wearing an upper garment (uttarīya) over an under garment (paridhāna) belted with a cord around the waist, imitating most probably a fine silk fabric, wrapped around the left shoulder and arm leaving most of the torso exposed. His majesty is emphasized by the highly elaborated jatamukuta (headdress) with a crest in the middle and rich jewellery: long earrings, bracelets and a flat collar necklace. He raises his right hand executing the gesture of making the coins (wealth) to drop from the sky. Although the coins are not depicted clearly, the famous relief of the Cakravartin from Jaggayyapeta stupa in Andhra Pradesh, shows very clearly square coins resembling closely punch-marked coins. Once the identity of the principal figure is established, it is easy to interpret the other characters and symbols depicted on this hitherto unpublished plaque. To our right, at the upper extremity, is a forepart of elephant and to its right, and close to the head of the universal king, is a head of a horse. The unusual symbol between the head and raised right arm of the monarch is the wheel treasure. The symbol at the upper extremity to our left, taking the form of a conch (shankha), is the gem. Among the three standing human figures, the one to our right holding a water pot and wearing a lavish jatamukuta and rich jewellery is the householder treasure or the son of the monarch and heir to the throne.
Dressed in sumptuous garments, wearing long earrings and a sophisticated headdress, and holding most probably a lotus (symbol of purity), the queen (or the woman treasure) is shown standing between the heir to the throne and the Cakravartin. The figure standing to our left, richly dressed with fine jewellery and garments, with arms crossed over the chest, is the Counsellor. This plaque thus depicts the universal monarch with all the seven treasures. Though there are sculptures attempting to depict the Cakravartin in early Sri Lankan art, to my knowledge, this the only ancient sculpture so far attested to in the island showing this ideal universal king with all the seven symbols. We shall come back to this point a little later. Continue reading