Ratna Prasada and Guardstone

This is the Chapter house of the Abhayagiri Vihara Complex built by King Kanitta Tissa (192-194 AD). Until recently this site was called the elephant stable due to the monolithic pillars on the site. The guard stone at the inner entrance to the building is one of the best examples of such carvings in the Anuradhapura Era.

Ratna prasada is a chapter house (uposathaghara), where monks met twice monthly — on the new and full moon — to recite the pratimoksa, a list of rules governing the behavior of Theravada Bud­dhist monks, and confess their failures in meeting this standard. Judging by the size of these struc­tures and their layouts, it is clear that they must have also served as temporary residences.

Layout

  • Entrance on east side. The structure’s primary entrance is on the east side.
  • Hypostyle hall. The assembly hall designed for the bimonthly congregations was filled with columns (most which have been destroyed) that supported the upper floors, which were con­structed of wood and have been lost.
  • Stairway. The large stairway to the upper floors was likely located in the southwest corner, in the L-shaped protrusion.
  • Monks’ cells. Sleeping cells likely lined the periphery of the structure.

Guardstone

Ratna Prasada is best known for its one remaining guardstone, the most exquisite example of this common decorative feature in Sri Lanka..

  • Nagaraja as symbol. The central figure is a serpent king (nagaraja), who functions as a guardian of the site (Fig. 38). However, we should consider why he might have assumed such a role. As discussed in the introductory section “Meet the Builders,” Sri Lanka was an agricul­ture-based society that relied, first and foremost, on the cultivation of rice. This necessarily afforded serpents — the inhabitants of the watery depths responsible for releasing waters nec­essary for successful harvests — a particularly important role in the Sri Lankan cosmological universe. The nagaraja, then, was a protector of the structure, but this no doubt stemmed from his pivotal role as lifeblood of Sri Lankan agriculture.
  • Nagaraja The nagaraja is identifiable as such by his conical crown that is framed by a seven-headed serpent. He holds symbols of agricultural abundance and prosperity: a water vessel and a vine, both with sprouting flowers. He assumes a dynamic posture, his body forming a pronounced bend, the heel of his foot raised, as if in movement; flowing garments reinforce the effect.
  • Makara arch. An elaborate arch rises over the nagaraja’s head: makaras — hybrid creatures symbolic of water and its importance to all living things — disgorge lions (symbols of the Sin­halese people), dwarfs (symbols of the joy and exuberance of life) and amorous couples (sym­bols of fecundity), all intimately tied to the regenerative powers of water.
  • Directional animal. As was typical, a directional animal — the mount of one of the direc­tional deities (dikpalas) kneels atop a column that rises on the outer edge of the guardstone: elephant (east), horse (west), lion (north) or bull (south). The animal served as a marker to visitors, advising them on which side of the structure they were entering; on this guardstone, the presence of an elephant signals, correctly, that we stand at the east entrance.
  • A dwarf (gana) occupies the bottom corner of the guardstone, pointing to the nagaraja and celebrating his presence (      ). Compositionally, he also serves to fill the space vacated by the serpent king due to his swaying posture.

Guardstone, east entrance (left side), Ratna Prasada

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