Mahasena’s Palace and Moonstone

The structure’s name - Mahasena’s Palace, after the 3rd century ruler — is a misnomer. It is actually a monastic residential complex, one of the best preserved examples in Anuradhapura. The moonstone merits a prolonged look not only for the high quality of its relief work, but also for its profound symbolism.

Background

  • Built. Likely in the 7th-8th centuries.
  • Location. Across the street from Ratna Prasada on the western side of Abhayagiri monastery, on the northern edge of the ancient city. Toggle Map above.

Layout

Mahasena’s Palace is the premier extant example of the type of monastic residential complex that prevailed throughout most of Anuradhapura’s long history. The basic design was employed in nearly all of the city’s monasteries.

  • Quincunx arrangement. The platform, oriented to the cardinal directions, holds five resi­dential structures: the primary one at the center is surrounded by four smaller ones in the corners.
  • Central pasada. The central pasada (highlighted in green below) — rectangular in shape — was designed to accommodate the chief monks. Its entrance faces the monastery’s hub, the stupa; in this case, it faces south to Abhayagiri stupa (although, by compass, the stupa is southeast).
  • Corner kuti. The smaller kuti (highlighted in yellow below) — square in shape — are designed for regular monks. Their entrances face inward.

 

Moonstone

Sandakada pahana, also known as Moonstone, is a unique feature of the Sinhalese architecture of ancient Sri Lanka. It is an elaborately carved semi-circular stone slab, usually placed at the bottom of staircases and entrances. First seen in the latter stage of the Anuradhapura period, the sandakada pahana evolved through the Polonnaruwa, Gampola and Kandy period. According to historians, the sandakada pahana symbolises the cycle of Saṃsāra in Buddhism.

The pasada’s moonstone is the decorative highlight (red highlight in figure above). It is regarded as the most impressive example of this Sri Lankan trademark feature.

Design review

The moonstone’s design is unique to the Anuradhapura period. Its forms and symbols changed in subsequent capitals: Polonnaruwa and Kandy.

  • Semicircular lotus flower at center. A semicircular lotus flower sits at the center of the composition.
  • Inner ring: geese. Geese carrying flowers in their beaks make up an inner ring.
  • Outer ring: parade of symbolic animals. A parade of symbolic animals — elephants, horses, lions and bulls — occupies an outer ring. All of the animals, executed in deep relief, assume highly dynamic poses.
  • Vines with foliage. The lotus is separated from the inner ring by a thin vine, while the inner ring is separated from the outer one by a thicker vine.
  • Outer edge. The outer edge of the composition appears as flames or lotus petals.

Symbolism

Although there is much speculation over the associated symbolism, two interpretations stand out.

  • Path to enlightenment. According to this theory, the moonstone symbolizes the path to en­lightenment: the outer edge is the world in flames, full of suffering; the four parading animals convey the repetitive nature of earthly existence (samsara), cycling through birth, old age, illness and death; the thick outer vine is worldly attachments that need to be overcome; the geese are compassion and kindness that come with devotion to the Buddha’s teachings; the thinner inner vine signals progress in reducing attachments; and finally, at the center, the lo­tus is enlightenment itself. Note further that the animals move in a clockwise direction around the lotus, consistent with the path of ritual circumambulation.
  • Global welcome. Under this interpretation, the lotus maintains its association with enlight­enment. However, the parading animals — the mounts of the directional deities, dikpalas: el­ephants (east), horses (west), lions (north) and bulls (south) — signal that the faithful from the four corners of the globe are welcome to enter, symbolically embarking on the path to nirvana.
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