Polonnaruwa Vatadage

The Quadrangle initially the location for housing the most sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha is dominated by the magnificent Vatadage (circular relic house), arguably the most beautiful building in Sri Lanka. Built by Parakramabahu, it was later embellished by the crafty Nissankamalla, who placed an inscription on the upper terrace claiming credit for the whole building. The entire outer structure is a fantastic riot of artistry, with almost every surface carved in a melee of decoration without parallel in the rest of Polonnaruwa, or indeed anywhere else on the island.

The outer wall sports friezes of lions and dwarfs, and is topped by an unusually designed stone wall decorated with an abstract lotus design. Four sets of steps lead to the upper  terrace, each one a little masterpiece, decorated with dwarfs, lions and makaras, as well as magnificently carved nagaraja guardstones and some of the finest moonstones in Sri Lanka — the main entrance is particularly ornate. The remains of further pillars and carved capitals which would once have supported the now vanished roof lie scattered about the upper terrace.

From the upper terrace, steps lead through four entrances, aligned to the cardinal points and each presided over by a seated Buddha, to the eroded remains of the central brick dagoba in which the Tooth Relic may have been enshrined – strangely enough, this inner sanctum is virtually unadorned, in striking contrast to the remainder of the building.

 

Background

Built. Built originally under Parakramabahu I (n53-1186) and restored under Nissanka Malla (1187-1196). Vatadage likely served as a tooth relic shrine, the second of three built in the Quadrangle. If so, from a design perspective, it marks a bold departure from the more conventional structures used by Parakramabahu’s predecessor (Vijayabahu I’s Atadage) and successor (Nissanka Malla’s Hatadage).
Location. Southeast quadrant of the Quadrangle, near the entrance.

 

Layout and appearance

Layout of the Vatadage

 

Vatadage showcases many of the same features that we saw at Anuradhapura’s Thuparama, only refined to an even higher standard.

Overall round plan. One of Vatadage’s distinctive features is the use of a round platform, mirroring the shape of the stupa at the center, a sharp break from the square platforms of non-enclosed stupas ( g. 8r ).
North entrance. Stairs on the north side grant access to the first of two elevated platforms. Once up, the sanctum at the center is accessible from four entrances on the cardinal points. The decoration on these entrances — moonstones, guardstones and dancing dwarfs on the risers — is of especially high quality (Fig. 87 and Fig. 88). A more detailed discussion follows.
Small stupa at center. A small, low stupa — with a diameter of less than 9 meters/30 feet — occupies the absolute center of the sanctum (Fig. 87; green highlights in Fig. 88). Its harmika and chattra spire have been destroyed and only a broken anda survives; its base has two moldings rather than the typical three. If Vatadage was indeed designed as a tooth shrine, the stupa would have held the relic.
Buddhas. Of the sixteen pedestals that surround the stupa, the four on the cardinal points hold seated Buddha images (Fig. 87 and Fig. 88). A more detailed discussion follows.
Tall enclosure wall around sanctum. A tall brick wall — 15 meters/50 feet in height and nearly perfectly preserved — surrounds the sanctum (Fig. 87; dark blue highlights in Fig. 88). The inner face was originally covered with stucco and painted in bright colors. Just outside the wall is a stone railing decorated with a repetitive pattern of four-petal flowers (Fig. 87; light blue highlights in Fig. 88).
Roof no longer extant. As with all of the country’s vatadages, the roof — originally made of wood and likely consisting of two tiered levels — is lost. It was supported by the concentric rows of stone columns that encircle the structure. In Fig. 89, we have created a cross-section model that illustrates how the wooden roof might have originally been designed.

 

 

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