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Story of Frescoes: A Glimpse of Sri Lankan Magnificent Wall Paintings

Sri Lanka is well-known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean. It is not only the endless ocean belonged to this beautiful tropical island, but a proud history which runs back more than 30,000 years with its precious heritage and culture. Sri Lankan arts and crafts are influenced of its long lasting Buddhist traditions which are represented in many artistic forms such as painting, sculpture, architecture, and so on.

Wall painting, it is the most familiar term to many ears than frescoes and also known as tempera paintings, says a lot about the extraordinary craftsmanship which had with our excellent artists. On one hand it is a reason to wonder about this unusual talent which they had and on the other hand it is another reason to wonder in another way, why is present young generation not aware of these gifts from our older generations.


It is explicable that arrival of Vijaya had made some kind of an influence to Sri Lankan culture and civilization, though there is no surviving example or literary evidence at any kind of art during that period. The Great Chronicle, Mahawamsa, describes very well, when Mahinda Thera introduced the Buddhism to Sri Lanka, it laid the foundation for a unique civilization in the island. Mahinda Thera was the son of the emperor Asoka, of India, during the reigns of King Devanampiyatissa. Mahinda Thera had invited his sister, Sangamiththa, to establish women monks’ society ‘Bhikshuni Sashanaya’ in Sri Lanka. Sangamiththa had brought eighteen varieties of artisans with her arrival to the island. It is believed that first specialist of painting had come to the island with Sangamiththa’s arrival as the painting was one of sixty four arts and sciences practiced in ancient India.


This is all about ancient Ceylon. Heading to the nearest book shop and picking up most expensive colors and brushes was not allowed for this period. Those unique techniques, color pigments and tools are the most interesting and valuable share of this entire analysis. These high artistic value frescoes have been created using raw materials found in the environment.

  1. Color pigments and preparations

The long and careful grinding was the most important thing to make excellent colors. This work used to get done almost a month before from the painting begun. The color sources were mixed with water and grounded using a stone mortar until it became fine and smooth. To make them more useful the pigments were mixed with gum of the wood apple tree, and water before applying on the surface.

  • White – prepared using hydrous magnesite (makul mati) found in a cave called “makul gallena” at Vatekgama.
  • Red – This was prepared using sadilingam or cinnabar, which couldn’t found in Sri Lanka and therefore, it had been imported.
  • Yellow – This was extracted from Gokatu (Garcinia Morella)
  • Black – preparation was done using jack milk, kekunu oil (Canarium zeylanicum), and rosin. The ingredients were ground together and mixed with shreds of cotton cloth. Then put into an earthen pot and set over a fire. Kept an overturned second pot on the first and oily soot was deposited on it which were collected for black color.
  • Blue – this very rarely seen color was created from the leaves of Indigo plant.
  1. Tools

It is clear that as same as the present day, early painters also had used brushes which were purposely different to each.

  • Brushes used to color small spaces were made out of cats’ or squirrels’ hair. They were small in size and delicate.
  • Larger brushes were made out of roots of vatakeyiya (a species of pandanus)
  • Long stiff brushes made out of awns of the “teli tana” grass (Aristicla adscensionis) which were used to draw fine lines
  1. Surface preparation

The painting was commenced upon the magnesite layer of the wall which made the surface pure white. Before the painting commencement, a layer of Kaolin was applied on the wall surface, which made it smooth and then a coat of magnasite.

  1. Drawing Course

The very first step of drawing was sketching using a fine brush and black paint. While leaving the figures white, the background was filled with pink. Then the figures was filed with yellow and outlined with red. The next was to fill the background in pink again until the final became frequently red. The feature details on the figures were done in red and finally outlined with a firm line in black. The reason for using black to outline was to harmonize the strong reds and yellows and also to reduce their extreme brilliancy.

Surviving Examples

Following are some examples of this dying heritage.

1. Degaldoruwa Paintings

These highly valued paintings which have been surviving for more than two centuries were done by the renowned artist monk Devaragampola Silvatanne unnanse. Majority of these paintings hold jataka stories such as vessantara jataka, sutasoma jataka, silava jataka and also Mara yuddha.

Gadaladeniya Ancient Temple, Kandy

2. Ridi Viharaya Paintings

Built by King Dutugamunu in 2nd Century BCE, this temple holds many marvelous paintings. Some of them seem not to be completed, but those sketches are still visible.

Paintings in Ridi Viharaya Temple
3. Kelaniya Vihara Paintings

You can observe excellent paintings of an incredible artist Soliyas Mendis when you visit Kelaniya Temple. These paintings also, like every other else, are about Jataka Stories and other life events of Lord Buddha.

Kelaniya Temple Wall Painting
4. Sigiriya Frescoes

Built by King Kashyapa in 5th century, this archeological site has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Firmly drawn young and old female figures, called Sigiri Apsaravo (Sigiri Damsels) could be found half way up in the lion rock. According to the archeological researches this was once a 450 feet in length and 130 feet in height with around 500 damsels. By the present day, you and I are lucky to see only 21 damsels of them which have been survived.

Sigiriya Wall Paintings

This is just a drop in the sea. There are lots of things we should know about our culture and also there are lots of things we should do to preserve our culture. And it is our responsibility to protect all these gifts from our older generation for future generations.

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  1. Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. 1956. Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, 2nd ed. New York:Pantheon Books INC
  2. De Silva, T. U. 1940. Parani Sinhala Chithra: Sarasili Mosthara, Colombo:Dinamina


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