11 September 2012


‘Ridi Vihare, or ‘The Silver Vihare’, has its origin during the early days of Buddhism in Sri Lanka,   Heir to a tradition which dates back to the early Anuradhapura period, its beginnings are shrouded in myth and legend.  Over the centuries the vihare has become a veritable treasure trove of Sinhala art: oainting, architecture, sculpture, ivory carving and metalwork.  This work traces the art and history of the temple from the 2nd Century BCE to 1815 CE.’ 

The above is part of a general description on the inside of the dust cover of ‘Ridi Vihare: the flowering of Kandyan Art’ by SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, a narrative decorated by photographs from Studio Times, illustrations by Saroja Dharmadasa, and plans and drawings by Ineke Pitts and Kapila Ariyanada.

It is apt, considering the moment of narration, the first years of the 21st Century, that the author has framed this history with an observation by Ananda Coomaraswamy:

In the words of Blake,
When nations grow old,
The Arts grow cold,
And commerce settles on every tree.
In such a grim fashion has commerce settled in the East.

Indeed, we live in times when commerce has captured tradition and much else besides, what with organ-trade and the trading of polluting-rights.  It has come to a point where all nations, old and new, have commerce-laden trees.  It took time with us, but we’ve learned fast, it seems.  The intrinsic worth of anything, be it artifact of pageant, exorcism or ritual, giving (dana) or devotion, has given way to commercial potential.  King Market rules, decides and dispenses. 

And so, we name and attach price-tag, forgetting often that certain things resist valuation and categorization.  Therefore we find that value-attachment is reduced to the quantifiable and the play of demand and supply.   It is in this context that one has is stopped-in-track by the amazing disclaimer: ‘No one who has worked on this book has asked for or received payment of any kind; all royalties have been donated by the author to the Ridi Vihara’.  That’s giving. Truly.

As great a gift is the book itself.  It is a scholarly study of a kind one does not associate with the dust, foreboding, pedantic and exclusive typical of history books.  Sure, throw in a lot of pictures and you get enough color to drive out the dismal and turn out a page-turner.  These are often better ‘histories’ than some texts which do not reach scholarly benchmarks in terms of standards and sweep  but still see mediocrity getting doctorate and professorship, one must acknowledge.  They also tend to be less ideology-burdened than much of the ‘history’ that is churned out by quacks masquerading as historians.  Even if all this weren’t true, as far as the ordinary (i.e. non-academic) reader is concerned, they are far more readable narratives. 

‘Ridi Vihare’ is not a collection of pictures with captions empowered by exceptional talent at turning a phrase, though.  Here the illustrations and photographs enhance rather than gloss over text, excuse poor scholarship or boost marketability, which is common in picture-history books.  It is not just because the subject is both history in general as well as the appreciation of art-evolution, which naturally make illustration-insertion sensible.  Tammita-Delgoda’s exercise is more wholesome and appreciative of a range of influencing strands that saw the Ridi Vihare move from what it was to what it is. 

It is the historian in him that locates Ridi Vihare in historical context, across the centuries, as well as in the fascinating narrative of temple art, in particular the rock and cave wall painting that our ancients have so generously endowed over the centuries.  It is the embeddedness of an author in his society and as part product of transformations over time that gives body to the narrative.  Such conscious ‘affinity’ would scar objective gaze over the subject, one might argue, but then again it is also true that the neutral gazer is inescapably bound by his/her own locations and histories.  There is always indulgence even though the indulgent might protest innocence.  What is perhaps the more sensible and all things considered, the more scientific, approach would be to resist both grip and discard, and seek ‘caress’ in the appreciation of what is before the scholar’s gaze.  That would be a kind of Buddhist Historiography or let’s say ‘Buddhistic’ historiography.  ‘Ridi Vihare’ has that tender, touching-but-not-touching touch in narrative. 

Tammita-Delgoda offers a careful and exhaustive study of the ‘Ridi Vihare’ complex, i.e. the several caves as well as the structures built on two rocky hills, in the village of Ridigama in the Kurunegala District.    The work introduces to us a comparatively poorly studied temple (of the hundreds of temples that warrant study, one might add) with an excellent foreword about Kandyan art and scholarship related to it. 

The archival research has clearly been exhaustive.  The author must have spent countless hours pouring over all chronicles to seek out references and use these to trace the relevant history.  He tells us multiple stories, some of the folk tradition included by the Mahawamsa chronicler (who appears to have understood the legitimacy of folk narratives long before Gayatri Spivak and others coined the term ‘Subaltern Studies’) as well as the hard-evidence stories.  He gives name and date, details that are so important to those who believe history is a pure science and for others who, even though they are not as fixated, nevertheless like to know who did what and where. 

So we are taken from the 2nd Century through the many upheavals after the European invaders set foot here to the time of the Kandyan kings.  Woven in is the long and complex conflict between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism, which although portrayed as a bitter political duel, nevertheless demonstrated contestations framed by an agreement to coexist and focus on ideological push and pull.  The tenuous relations between king and Buddhist Order, or Sangha, is similarly referenced to give a fuller picture on the historical canvass. 

The political ups and down naturally left traces on all things, culture included.  Temple renovation is then a part of that story. Patronage too inscribed signature.  Tammita-Delgoda takes us along these sub-plots, interjecting tastefully and appropriately the relevant ideological and philosophical underpinnings.  

‘Ridi Vihare’ then, is not just a description of some monastic or religious complex, but a window on the political changes that took place, changes which are one way or another marked on the narrative of the site. 

From here he proceeds to dissect.  The chapter, appropriately titled ‘Anatomy of a Temple’, is largely descriptive.  The attention to detail is noteworthy.  Each key element of the complex has been subject to a thorough examination and full documentation.  It show not just an enumerators fascination but an art students natural tendency for comparison and contrast.  

Paintings have warranted separate explication, and fittingly too, considering their historical and artistic worth.  Tammita-Delgoda, in delving into this element, tells us about that time and how the politics of that time impacted the fascinating and yet simple paintings which reflected both period as well as general philosophy-driven ways of the Sinhala people.  He has brought in his deep understanding of Buddhist art as well as Buddhist philosophical tenets to enrich the narration of history. 

‘Ridi Vihare’ is unique.  It is not unrelated to the other examples of exceptional Buddhist art.  This book points to the work that needs to be done to document the undocumented, mis-documented and the semi-documented.  Tammita-Delgoda’s pains also indicate a new way of writing history, a manner that makes it accessible to the common reader.  There are, after all so many more ‘vihares’ some made of silver, metaphorically speaking, and some not, but all replete with countless lines, curves and textures that help us rediscover who we are, where we came from and perhaps show us where we ought to go and how we can get there.  That ‘pointing’, so to speak, deserves applause.  But then again, the exercise and the excavator here, by proclamation, have said ‘thank you, no’.  That’s in line with belief system embedded in the artifacts that were examined.  Makes sense.  

[Published in the 'UNDO' Section of 'The Nation', September 9, 2012]