Pothgul Vehara Colossus: Certainly not an Agastya statue


By Bandu de Silva

Raja de Silva has written in a Sunday newspaper on the labelling of our Museum objects with particular reference to the Potugul Vehera Colossus. His observation that in academic debate, the last position stated on a subject has the weight of acceptance unless it is contradicted is quite correct. It was because of this that 15 years ago I researched into James Rutnam’s analysis of this subject published in 1979 and his conclusion that the "Polonnaruva Colossus" as he called it, was that of the sage Agastya, which was the last stated opinion on the subject. However, I did not publish my efforts despite the extensive research which went into it simply because I could not come out with an alternative proposals to any one of those which were on record at the time. All that I could then do was to pronounce that all theories were nothing but sheer speculation. Now I have misplaced my manuscript. As such, much of what I write here is from memory.

It is for the same reason that Raja de Silva stated that I reopen this subject because I find that James Rutnam’s views, however substantial the main argument was, and Raja de Silva’s supporting reasons for the Agastya theory are not convincing and cannot be left as the final word on this sculpture. In my view, both these scholars have left much unexamined. The Agastya theory is lop-sided. Besides, I have some ideas to share now for discussion, which I thought I should not keep to myself anymore.

I appreciated the scientific reason that James Rutnam finally used to argue the case. While dismissing other varying ideas expressed by learned scholars like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Senerath Paranavitana, H. P. Vogel and Claudius Seisteri, he rejected especially the ‘King-theory’ once favoured by Coomaraswamy and later emphasised by Paranavitana, who even went to the extent of pronouncing that the sculpture represented Parakramabahu I but later called it Vijayabahu I. As I recall, James Rutnam used, as his main evidence, a photograph of a statuette of ‘Bhatara-guru’ supplied to him by the Indonesian Embassy (Batara-guru is the name by which Agastya sculptures are sometimes referred to in South East Asia (Diskul).

This way of approaching the subject through iconographic comparison was better than the use of imagination and spurious arguments based on uncritical use of literature as Paranavitana did in citing the 7th Century Balaramayanaya to suggest that an Agastya cult had existed in the island before the Sinhalese were converted to Buddhism. Paranavitana did not bring that up in the study of the Polonnaruva sculpture but in his writing on God of Adams Peak. Even there, how uncritically he used that evidence of the poet citing Rama flying with Sita to Ayodhya from Lanka pointing to Adams Peak (?) as the place where the Rshi Agastya lived can be seen from the way he forgot or overlooked how in the Ramayana, from which all other versions were derived, Agastya’s abode was described as Dandaka forest south of Vindyas. Of course, there are other references to Agastya’s abodes according to other sources but none in Sri Lanka. The text quoted is directly related to the Ramayana story. Paranavitana may not have realised that he was even providing evidence to others to contradict his ‘king-theory’ one day and propaganda for eelam!

Iconographic Comparison

I am of the view that the identification of the Polonnaruva statue should be based on scientific considerations alone and nothing else. That is on consideration of iconographic features of the sculpture, with environmental considerations like the location and proximity to other important monuments, perhaps, providing a useful backdrop but not major arguments. This is the approach I would have expected of Raja de Silva, whose scientific writing on Sigiriya as a Mahayanic monastic complex, I appreciated and supported.

As I said earlier, though James Rutnam finally veered in the right direction, arguing through iconographic comparison, I found serious weaknesses on the iconographic foundation, on which his conclusion was based. The Indonesian statute of Batara-guru, which he compared with the Polonnaruva colossus (terminology ‘colossus’ is his own) is a minuscule one. One should therefore be extremely careful in drawing conclusions on that basis. More importantly that statute does not have some of the vital attributes found in the Polonnaruva colossus like holding an object in both hands. In fact, of the Indonesian statute both hands are missing! A good amount of imagination has gone into thinking that the missing hands, like those of the Polonnaruva statue, were held in the pose of holding an object!

The only complimentary feature I can recall in the Indonesian statute is the beard but that is not conclusive evidence. There is a wide difference in the poses of the two sculptures though Rutnam seemed to see similarities. The sculpture of the bearded Brahmin was very familiar to Buddhist artists as seen from Bharut and Gandhara sculpture. I think Siri Gunasinghe brought up the evidence of what he called ‘a bearded Siva’ from a Hindu group of sculpture found near Anuradhapura. So, the use of this single minuscule statute as evidence to support the Agastya theory is not very convincing.

What about the number of other Agastya statutes from South East Asia (see UNESCO: Dishkul ed)? They are all minuscule statutes and not colossi such as the Polonnaruva one. This contrast itself needs an explanation. Agastya was more a sea-farers’ votive object of worship. So the statutes were perhaps meant to be easily transported around. The location of the Polonnaruva colossus itself needs some comment in this connection. What is a seafarers’ idol doing on the shore of Topawewa? An imagined ocean? I remember James Rutnam offering an explanation. That was that the Polonnaruva statue was facing the south – the ocean! That looked like one from Paranavitana’s genre which he has been criticising!

The other feature is that Agastya was always represented iconographically as a pot belied dwarf without exception. Even the sculpture at the Tiruvandurai Siva temple, to which Raja de Silva has drawn attention, though significant as he says, is an exception to the iconographic principle generally followed, but according to my recollection of it, is very insignificant from an iconographic point of view. That is in the sense it is a minuscule Agastya statuette found not in the main temple but in one of its gopurams. (I repeat I am speaking from memory as I have misplaced my research paper done 15 years ago). This particular iconographic detail of the pot-belied dwarfish nature of Agastya sculptures is missing in both Rutnam’s and Raja de Silva’s discussions. This is another reason for my rejection of the Agastya theory from an iconographic comparison. Why take only a single example for comparison like the ‘Batara-guru’ from Indonesia leaving out other models which point to a not-so-pleasant faced and midget sized pot-bellied sage? Is it because they reflect a wide contrast to the colossus with well featured saintly face in a meditative posture as found at Polonnaruva? There has to be a balance in iconographic comparison. Citing a single, even that with incomplete details as James Rutnam has done or quoted as an exception to Silpa Sastras as Raja de Silva has done is not acceptable.

There are no iconographic features in the Polonnaruva sculpture, which can approximate with textual or other iconographic models of Agastya found elsewhere. These other minuscule sculptures do not point to a highly stylised and well-featured figure comparable to the Polonnaruva colossus but to a typical pot-bellied, dwarfish mendicant bearing no fine facial expressions or distinguishing bodily features except negative ones like the protruding belly. (A good example is the statute of ‘Batara- guru’ in the museum in Malaysia in UNESCO, Diskul, ed).

Secular sculpture in the round is very rare in Sri Lanka and this is one of these. Therefore, attention has to be paid to how it could have evolved. The popularly known Dutugemunu statue at Ruwnweliseya compound, which could be a misnomer has the routine characteristics of Bodhisatva figures of later times. So is the other such statue at Kirivehera at Kataragama. One could labour an argument to suggest certain features of the traditional Bodhisattva sculpture in Sri Lanka in the Polonnaruva sculpture but that would amount to exaggeration.

The sculptural model from Polonnaruva is neither an amateurish work nor the product of a gradually maturing school of sculptural tradition. It is a final product of a well established and competently refined school of sculptors. It could be the work of a tradition developed either in the island or outside. Where could one then find inspiration for an Agastya sculptural tradition? Certainly, not in Sri Lanka. There have been no Agastya sculptures here at any time. Not even in later times of Cola over-lordship of the 9th /10th centuries. There is also no continuing Agastya sculptural tradition of this patron saint of Tamils of South India comparable to Buddhist or other Hindu sculptural traditions. I cannot remember even Vogel, who was an authority on Indian sculpture pointing to the existence of such a tradition in India either. Even in South-East Asia, there was no Agastya sculptural tradition comparable to Siva or Buddha/Avalokitesvara tradition.

The head gear (Makuta) in the Polonnaruva statue itself is unusual for an Agastya statue despite the Indonesia statute having something like a Mukuta type headdress.

My view from an iconographic point of view is that undue emphasis has been placed on the Polonnaruva statue as one representing Agastya.

Non-scientific arguments

A great deal of non-scientific arguments has been brought into this discussion even by learned scholars. Some of them have been over-straining themselves to prove that there were Agastya, Kapila Muni, and Pulasti cults in Sri Lanka as an explanation of this sculpture. Why is this obsession whenever a non-religious (more secular looking sculpture) is discussed, of looking for cults which have no tradition in this country? This is while the overwhelming evidence points to the existence of Buddhist, especially, Mahayanic influenced sculpture. I referred to how spurious arguments like that adduced by Paranavitana in a completely different context (God of Adams Peak) using 7th century Balaramayana evidence of Agastya residing at Adam’s Peak(?) is now being recycled not only by Raja de Silva but also by eelamist propagandists. Perhaps, Paranavitana did not realise that his evidence would be used to contradict his ‘king- theory’ of the Polonnaruva statue and in the ethnic debate. This type of spurious arguments should be rejected outright.

The Silpa-Sasta evidence is useful but that should not bind or blind our study. There has to be an answer to the question why practically all representations of Agastya have followed the traditional iconographic specification given in Silpa-Sastras, especially, the ‘Visnudharmottara-purana.’ As I said, the only exception is a minuscule sculpture found in the gopuram of at the Tiruvandurai Siva temple quoted by Raja de Silva, which is very insignificant and should not be used to counter arguments proving the contrary.

The Object in the hands

The object held in the two hands is very crucial to the identification of the Polonnaruva statue. Two points of view have been proposed. One was the book theory; the other was the ‘yoke’ theory. The latter became the point of departure for Paranavitana who argued in support of the ‘king-theory’, which he later fortified with the evidence of the rope-like object held by the Panduvasnuwara statute. James Rutnam, too, seemed to depend on the hands held in this position of the Indonesian statute by imagining that its missing hands may support the idea of holding an object (a book?). Raja de Silva has not entered this argument presently but refers to Claudius Seisteri rejecting the Paranavitana thesis.

Others who have favoured the idea that the object in hand is a book (Ola) have tried to lend support to it by suggesting that the curve in the centre is due to the book sagging under its weight! This is spurious because Olas were all fortified with wooden or even metal supports on top and at the back and leaves were attached to them with strings. My view is that the downward bend of the object held in the hands is nothing more than a sculptural innovation by the meticulous sculptor to align with other salient linear features of the statue, especially, with its ‘Tivanka’ (three-bend) posture, not excluding the roundness of the belly and the curving moustache. If one insists, an alternative could be something like a parcel containing raiment (Civara = robes) which could bend in the middle but I would prefer to stick to the idea of sculptural embellishment.

The object in the two hands also differs from the way the book is represented normally in Agastya sculpture as well as in the sculptures of Siva and even in Bhairava (Kings) found in Java and other South East Asian lands. In these other sculptures, the book is held in a single hand in a raised position above a shoulder or close to the chest and it is a short in dimension where the leaves also could be easily discerned. Such details are not found in the object held by the Polonnaruva sculpture but on that account alone I would not reject the book theory.

The exponents of the book theory including Paranavitana have also overlooked the fact that there are Jain iconographic models carrying a bent object in hand, which has been described as a wand of flowers as in a garland. One such Jain statue is found in a museum in Washington. However, the object held in the hands of the Polonnaruva statue does not appear to be floral in nature but something solid and voluminous. It could give the idea that such objects as held in both hands could be some kind of offering. Such an idea seems also to be very tempting when examined against the holder’s disposition which is contemplative (meditative).

A Tentative Proposal


I would like to pose the question if the sculptors of the Mahayana school (producers of Bodhisatva and Big Budhha (Dai Butsu) statues from around the 7th century onwards have produced the Polonnaruva secular statue? It is difficult to come to such a conclusion. Just as one prefers to see a sage or a saintly king represented by the Polonnaruva sculpture, one could also imagine a Bodhisatva or even a king or other holy person who is seen engaged in offering /deep Buddhist meditation in the Polonnaruva statue. However, going by the traditional Bodhisatva sculpture in Sri Lanka it is difficult to see the iconographic transformation of the Bodhisatva figures which became far too stylised developing into an ornament free and more secular-looking figure.

There could also be objections to the idea of the Polonnaruva statue being that of a Bodhisattva on the ground that some of the details might not fit into a Bodhisattva model, especially, the details of the head gear (Makuta). Taken literally, there is an Indonesian touch in the headgear rather than Indian one. The head gear of Avalokitesvara as it became fully stylised in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, is taller, more barrel-shaped and has characteristic Dhyani Buddha figure in front; and a Stupa in the case of Maitriya Bodhisatva. A few Avalokitesvara statues have even three Dhyani Buddhas depicted in the Makuta and even four (Weligama Kushtaraja statue).

However, the sculptor disciplined to execute more-ornamental Bodhisatva figures and the simpler Buddha figures should have been capable of turning out a secular–looking model with bare torso. The details of the lower garment including the knot [cummer] band display characteristic features not far off from those in less stylised Bodhisattva figures. However, it seems to me that the search should go beyond the confines of Sri Lanka. The practice of sculpturing figures of royalty was popular in Sri Vijaya and also in Campa, some in the form of Bhairava. This is an aspect to be explored to see if local sculptors could have worked together with foreign sculptors at Polonnaruva to execute this sculpture.

There are two ideas which come to my mind now after further study of my work 15 years ago.


One is, leaving aside details whether or not the object in hand is a book or a yoke, or even a floral wand or raiment, concentrating purely on iconographic details of the sculpture, it is difficult to get over the impression that what is held in the hands is an object of offering. After perusing Mahayanic texts far more intensively in recent times, I am now inclined to think that a tentative basis for the identification of the statue could be established by observing the iconographic details of the meditative posture and the object in hand in the light of Mahayana texts as well as evidence of development of Mahayana ideals and sculptural representation in Sri Lanka that the sculpture could be related to a Mahayanic purpose.

From the Mahayana texts, the idea could be derived that a book held in the hands could very well be the Prjnaparamita Sutra, which became the principal object of worship, representing the ‘Dhammakaya’ concept. It was a principal object of worship in Sri Lanka when Mahayana was in ascendancy as was demonstrated by the find of Gold leaf text of the work offered to Jetavanarama Dagoba during excavations under the UNESCO project. This association of the sculpture with Mahayana Buddhist texts popular at the time seem to be more meaningful than resorting to stray references in Sanskrit texts of the 7th and 9th centuries which do not have a real but mythical relationship with the island.

In this case, the much esteemed Mahayana text could be an ideal one to be held in both hands in the statue by a Bodhisatva or even a saintly king or other holy person who is seen engaged in deep meditation.

The second proposal is an extension of the first. It is based on evidence of recorded dynastic history and is very much in line with Raja de Silva’s idea about the date of the sculpture which is the 8th and 9th century on the evidence of certain inscribed letters found behind the head gear of the statue (on the side according to Raja de Silva, who has examined it carefully). The period fits into that when the Big Buddha image cult (Dai-Butsu) and Avalokitesvara Image cult became popular in the country. This evidence could cancel the idea of the sculpture being that of a Polonnaruva ruler, e. g. Vijayabahu I, or Parakramabahu I but it need not cancel out the idea of any of the 8th/9th century rulers. There was no dearth of rulers who showed interest in or ruled from Polonnaruva in the 7th to 9th centuries.

There is a long list indeed like Aggabodhi III, Aggabodhi IV, (7th century). Aggabodhi VII (8th century), Mahinda II, (8th c), Udaya I, (8h century), and Sena I, (9h c). Sena I built the alms house besides the Topawewa, another alms hall and a hospital. The construction of Topavava itself is ascribed to king Upatissa I. (3/4th C). (Some of these rulers even removed the seat there and died there). The city was called Kandavurunuvara, the ‘Camp-city, at the beginning but became an alternative capital already in these times. Couldn’t the sage like sculpture then represent one of these early rulers? If one were looking for a specific identification, it would seem more appropriate to see in the pose of the sculpture which is one of offering raiment [to the Sangha] or offering the sacred Sutra text could be more appropriate to the ruler Sena I, who was the builder of alms houses and a hospital?

Why should one run after an Agastya, Kapila or Pulasti, who are unknown to the tradition of the island when the evidence of the Sage-king is staring at our face? Sculptural representation of kings as I said were quite popular in Sri Vijaya and Campa. The idea could have very well come from there. In the 17th century the Portuguese chronicler, Fernao Queyroz wrote that sepulchres of Sri Lankan kings were in Trincomalee and even Bhuvanekabahu VII’s mortal remains were taken there.

As for the description in the Central Cultural Fund pamphlet, it would be enough if the statue was referred to as a king or sage-king to avoid other controversial references.

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