There has been a great deal of confusion over Isurumuniya, now famed for its unique artworks and the hydraulic engineering of some of the main landmarks of this complex. It was built as part of the building complex in the Maha Meghavarna Park, the first official center of the Theravada fraternity. It was also the first open park in the country, and the temple here was once known as Meghagiri, or “Cloud Mountain.” The Meghagiri Vihara thus once belonged to the enormous sprawl of the famous Abhayagiri monastic complex although the name “Isurumuniya” itself is more of a modern term and is used for the current monastery rather than for the older one. The older version of the term, Issaramana, appears many times to refer to both monastic complexes.

This latter monastery was called Vessagiri, after the trading caste, the vaishyas or vessas and is made up of a small rocky outcrop and an extensive complex of buildings surrounding the actual monastery.  There are caves here, and five hundred-which is a general term in ancient literature for a large number-traders lived here in these caves after their ordination. It is in truth, south of the actual place called Isurumuniya today, the Meghagiri Vihara as per the literature of the time. The reason for this confusion was a mere case of mixing up names.

The same happened with Abhayagiriya and Jetavanaramaya, two stupas made of brick and remarkably similar to the casual observer. The name of Meghagiri comes from being situated in the Maha Meghavanna Park itself. Some inscriptions from the latter half of the 5th century AD and the early Middle Ages attest to two separate Meghagiris, one in the north and another in the south of the park, which adds to the confusion. Also at one point Vessagiriya was referred to as Kassapagiri or Bo Upulvan Kasubgiri Vihara, after the 5th Century monarch Kasyapa but was then changed, rather ostensibly and most annoyingly, to Isurumuniya after observers confused the two places.

A very famous figure is that of a seated man and the head of a horse behind him. There are many interpretations of this carving, which is cut into a rock-face and now looks rather faded. The man is not muscular, instead having the androgynous features referred to divine figures in art of the time. Thus Prof. Paranavitana asserted that it is meant to represent the rain god Parjanya. The horse represents Agni in his interpretations, and the carvings of elephants supposedly represent clouds. It was, in fact, believed to have been an altar to the rain god at one time.

Another idea tells us that it is a stylized depiction of a warrior and his steed. Yet another incredible piece of art is the pair known as the “Isurumuniya Lovers”, dating back to the 6th Century. As its name suggests, it is a part of a slab with the figures of a man and woman. There have been many interpretations of this carving. One belief asserts that it is Dutugemunu’s son, Prince Saliya, famous for having given up the throne for an outcaste girl named Asokamala. Another idea adds that it is Shiva and Parvati. Yet another suggests that they represent King Kuvera Vaisravana and his consort Queen Kuni. Kuvera is said to be the half-brother and predecessor of Ravana of the Ramayana, often deified as the god of wealth and prosperity but depicted as a stout-bodied and dark-skinned Rakshasa. It might be an ethnic trait of this now-extinct race that was equated with demons by the Vedic cultures of India.

Whoever they are, the artwork belongs to the Gupta School of art. However we have no idea who created this sculpture and it might not represent anything more than a slightly stylized portrait of two real people of the time. The man wears a sword across his back, as is denoted by the end of a hilt and he might either be a soldier or a nobleman. He is bare-chested but for a long thread passing over his shoulder and tight drapery, draped in a manner of a pair of tight shorts.

The woman is seated on the man’s right leg and her legs are held tightly against each other. Both have hand gestures, or mudras as we see in a number of other artworks of the time. She wears a semi-transparent ankle-length draped skirt that falls gracefully over her legs and her upper body is left unclothed, probably a norm at the time. Both wear jewelry, and hers is much more elaborate, with a girdle around her waist and a piece passing in between her breasts. Dating back to the 8th Century is another stylized depiction said to show King Dutugemunu sitting in court, although this is hard to pin down, as most of the male and female figures of the era are quite stylized anyway. It is incredibly detailed, dating back to the 8th Century AD and done in the Gupta art style. The king is fanned by an attendant with a fly-whisk and he takes center stage, wearing a tall crown. There is a long thread passing over his shoulder and his legs are left bared and rather at odds with the rest of his body.

While it is not part of the Meghagiri complex, the park known as Ranmasu Uyana was a very important landmark all on its own. The Ranmasu Uyana, or “Gold Fish Park”-not for the species of fish called a goldfish- was a complex of parks and ponds, with summer houses and extensive gardens sponsored by King Vasabha of the 2nd Century AD. He was a known patron of hydraulic engineers and it is perhaps only fitting that he created a pond here.

In fact, he diverted the water of the Tisa Reservoir-Tisaveva-into the park’s plumbing system to create a supply of water for the baths and the lotus ponds found in the hinterland, and finally to the rice paddies surrounding the Vessagiri region.

The large baths at the gardens are incredibly well preserved, with steps leading into the pond if one desired a swim. There is also a changing room, a rectangular building opposite to it, also in impressive condition. The secondary pond in the Ranmasu Uyana complex is rather rectangular in its entirety, at about 24x12 feet in area, while the primary pond is squarer in shape, about 20 feet at ground level. There is even a shower system here, and stone couches on which bathers reclined while jets of water gushed out of holes in the rock.

Written by Vasika Udurawane for

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