The area northwest of Dambulla, en route to Anuradhapura, conceals the little-visited Namal Uyana Conservation Forest plus two of the island’s finest ancient Buddhas, at Aukana and Sasseruwa, all three of which can be easily combined into a rewarding short day-trip if you have your own vehicle.
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AukanaThe village of AUKANA is home to a magnificent 12m-high standing Buddha, one of the defining images of Sri Lankan art and religion. The statue stands close to the vast Kala Wewa tank, created by the unfortunate King Dhatusena in the fifth century, though the Buddha itself is likely to date from some three or four centuries later, contemporaneous with the images at Buduruwagala, Maligawila and Polonnaruwa’s Gal Vihara and Lankatilaka. The brief craze for such monumental devotional statues may have been the result of Indian Mahayana influence, with its emphasis on the Buddha’s superhuman, transcendental powers.
Aukana means “sun-eating”, and dawn, when the low light brings out the fine detail of the east-facing statue, is the best time to visit (if you can organize a car and driver for such an early hour). The statue is in the unusual (for Sri Lanka) asisa mudra, the blessing position, with the right hand turned sideways to the viewer, as though on the point of delivering a swift karate chop. The figure is carved in the round, just connected at the back to the rock from which it’s cut, though the lotus plinth it stands on is made from a separate piece of rock. The walls at the foot of the statue would originally have enclosed a vaulted image chamber.
SasseruwaThe remote and little-visited Sasseruwa Buddha (also known as the Reswehera Buddha) is a standing Buddha almost as high as the one in Aukana, though apparently uncompleted. The figure is in the abhaya mudra (“Have No Fear” pose) and, as at Aukana, originally stood inside its own image house, as shown by the holes for beams cut into the rock around it. The statue was once part of a monastery which tradition claims was established by Vattagamini Abhaya, who found refuge here during his period in hiding from Tamil invaders. Remains of the monastic complex surround the statue, including a pair of cave temples, one with a large reclining Buddha and another with Kandyan-era paintings and further Buddha images.
A tale of two Buddhas
A tale of two Buddhas
Two legends connect the Sasseruwa and Aukana Buddhas. The first, and more prosaic, says that cracks (which can be seen in the torso) started appearing during construction of the Sasseruwa Buddha, and that it was therefore abandoned, with a new statue being created at Aukana. A second and more poetic legend relates that the two Buddhas were carved at the same time in competition between a master and his student. The master’s Aukana Buddha was finished first and the frustrated student, realizing his own limitations, abandoned the Sasseruwa image in disappointment. A third, and perhaps more convincing, theory has it that the two statues were created at completely separate times, with the Sasseruwa image dating from the third century AD and reflecting the Greek-influenced Gandharan style of sculpture, which originated in present-day Afghanistan and provided a model for Buddha images across South Asia – certainly the Sasseruwa Buddha’s ungainly square head and rather heavy features are in striking contrast to the chiselled elegance of the Aukana image.