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Manisha Gunawardena:  Moments of Transition

Manisha Gunawardena March 2003

Manisha was awarded the ANU Research Centre for Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) EASS Award 2002 and was invited to speak of her work by the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. This is the talk she gave.


Thank-you for the opportunity to speak about my work. I will start by giving a very brief outline of the historical periods and stages of development that Sri Lanka underwent so there is an understanding of the background the work is set in. The following describes brief periods in history where cultures were integrated and traditions evolved.

Historical Periods

Image of Gadaladeniya Temple
Gadaladeniya Temple

According to anthropology the history of man is divided into stages, such as hunting, pastoral, agricultural, commercial and industrial. Though such divisions do not give a sufficient outline of the development of Sri Lanka, segregations can be made. The early settlers of the vaddas in ancient Sri Lanka can be advocated to the hunting stage, as the Aryan settlers to the agricultural stage and the Portuguese and the Dutch as the commercial stage and the coming of the British as the industrial stage of development. However, this does not cover the whole of the development.

While the first of these stages remain true to its outline, the second stage branches out with the influence of Dravidian culture. The third stage then opens out with the introduction of Buddhism with the Asokan influence that became a major diversion in the course of history. The art of brick building and stone carving was widely spread along with the art of writing that was benefited by the teaching of Buddhism. And the creative arts in general became established as a depiction, direct in its reflection of the social culture of the people.

The fourth century further blossomed with new changes influenced through the movements that took place in India under the reign of the Gupta kings along with the influential contacts of Italy and China. Sculpture was revolutionized as styles and approach changed with Dravidian and Buddhist figurines occurring on the same plain, and the language of Pali was more widely spread that literary activities of the country was at a high.

Image of Lankathilaka Temple
Lankathilaka Temple
Close up image of Lankathilaka Temple
Lankathilaka Temple

A down trodden period came with the invasions and settlement of the Cholians from South India after those early flourishing periods only to be revived again by the reign of the Polonnaruva kings that gave way to further progress in the fields of architecture, sculpture, literature and agriculture. Henceforth the gradual decline of the independence of the Sri Lankan people began with the invasion to the north of the country by the South Indian Padyans, the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British. While the South Indian invaders have left their mark on Sri Lankan architecture and sculpture, the Portuguese introduced the Roman Catholic culture and the Dutch their system of law. With the introduction of the British administrative system, brought about by the Industrial civilization, Sri Lanka was able to unify the country and take rule into their own hand under a democratic form of government.

For the purpose of my study I have chosen to analyse times until the eighteenth century. I have used the art and architecture of these periods to study the growing culture of the people as the art became an established form of culture.

Cultural Evolution

Image of Emmbekke Temple
Emmbekke Temple

To give a brief description of the culture through art, Sri Lanka through time has witnessed the reign of many kings. All who belonged to different ethnic backgrounds during which different times continuously succeeded in integrating a complicated mass of diverse cultural elements into a single society that its perfect combination has created its own identity. In one aspect it can be argued that Sri Lankans retain an originality and uniqueness in a single identity, but in another aspect, because of its shared cultural elements, it loses its originality. For instance the moonstone carvings essentially seen on the entrance floor of many Buddhist religious places, characteristically Buddhist in itself show differences in the motifs between the pre Cholian and post Cholian invasions. Along with the lotus motifs that represents the Buddhist Deity the motif of the bull, which is the representation of the Hindu God, are seen in the post Cholian moonstone carvings. Multi-limb figurines, which aspire to mythological Hindu deities, are seen incorporated into the previously known Buddhist carvings. And most fascinating both Hindu and Buddhist temple grounds have been designed to be within close quarters and at times even incorporated to the one area.

Close up image of wood carvings, Emmbekke Temple
Wood carvings Emmbekke Temple
Close up image of wood carvings, Emmbekke Temple
Wood carvings Emmbekke Temple

Although key differences between cultures and traditions are separated some of the elements are intermingled in society, which the art clearly expresses. This I found to be most fascinating. Even though at present social clashes exist neither ethnic group of Sri Lankan Buddhists or Sri Lankan Hindus refrain from practising both cultural and religious beliefs.

To move on to the representation of the Lotus in regard to this cultural outline.


The significance of the lotus throughout the cultural history has been one of importance. Mainly linked with Buddhism, the natural attributes of the flower lend itself well as a symbolic representation of the philosophy. The highest symbolic denomination is represented through the pink lotus. Its significance relates to the enlightenment of Lord Buddha, thereby attaining the ultimate stage of existence of the mind, body and soul. The red lotus signifies compassion and passion while the white eight-petal lotus signifies the teachings of the eight fold path in Buddhism.

Image of lotus pond

In the natural context of growth the lotus is known as a water plant that survives in both stagnant and clear water. Its roots run deep, which enable it to sustain its growth in contradicting conditions that might be hazardous to other water plants. Its leaves and buds surface the depth of the water in order to flourish. The flower itself depending on the variety consists of a series of delicate petals. The blossom is light sensitive therefore consecutively opens and closes at dawn and dusk for a few days before it fade away.

Buddhism has chosen each one of these stages and a representative for its philosophy. The deep root that is embedded in the muddy soil as the darkness of ignorance, the growth through the depth of the water as the path toward love and compassion and the blossoming as the light truth of the dharma. Therefore it is seen as a signifier that encompasses the core of the philosophy, hence becoming the symbolization of the divinity himself.

Since 267 BC Sri Lanka art and culture has found its core in Buddhism. All cultural elements that have been depicted from this era onwards have its origins in Buddhism. The symbolization of the lotus appears around this time and continues its journey as a key witness of time. In the early periods its symbolization was of the deity, but through time it has gathered other meanings and representations, some of which are intelligence, beauty, purification, which also are symbolizations from the Hindu culture. The most interesting notion is that even though it gathers new elements of representation the original connotations of the Buddhist culture persist. Therefore the progression of the symbolization itself depicts the act of evolution from one representation to another whilst caring along some of its originality.

The significance of the lotus in the body of work I have presented has its connotations in its evolutionary depiction through time. The lotus still remains to be an important symbol while also being one of later acquired simpler meaning. The documentation of its symbolic representation through time itself, I find quite significant in relation to the cultural evolution of the Sri Lankan people. It is a symbol that has retained some of its original representations while acquiring ones of new. This I find to be the key aspect of the symbolization that I have made through the body of work that I have presented where some aspects of its symbolization remain stable while others evolve.

Form and Technique

The form that creates this body of work is derived from lotus petals. Initially, the forms are modeled on the computer software Form Z using Fibbonacci's mathematical sequence and the Golden Mean. Characteristically the nature of this numerology also referrers back to the petal formation of the actual lotus flower itself, thereby adding another dimension to the computer modeling process.

After a tedious process of computer modelling, the well-formed forms get transformed into actual objects of duro-polymer through rapid-prototyping. These become the models used to make negative plaster casts for ceramic slip casting, which is completed with porcelain slip. The forms engraved with the ancient script of Pali are dried in a prolonged process before firing to top temperature.

The use of the script in this body of work is a portrayal of the documentation of the ancient Sri Lankan culture, depicting its various stages and evolution. The engravings, scraped back and worked on the forms represent the aging process. In some instances it is worked back to the extent that is not that visible and even some times left blank to signify fragments of history that are yet to be uncovered and those that are left as blank spaces are the spaces representing the mystery that follows history. Furthermore, a motif of the lotus flower placed on some of the surfaces creates a layering of information seeking to represent the myriad of social changes in an ever-emerging culture.

Image of work by Manisha Gunawardena Image of work by Manisha Gunawardena Image of work by Manisha Gunawardena Image of work by Manisha Gunawardena