Ian Lockwood


Archive for the ‘Sacred Spaces’ Category

Moonstone Wanderings in Anuradhapura

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Moonstone in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura. A mosaic of several images.

In the waning days of the summer holidays I took a short pilgrimage to Anuradhapura where its ruins, old stones and living traditions drew me back. My days previous to this outing had been spent with friends and our daughter Amy looking for wildlife in Wilpattu National Park. The road to Anuradhapura  was a relatively short detour and helped me complete a summer of Sri Lankan dry zone exploration.

It was the summer of the pandemic and the sacred city was relatively empty-perfect for some solitary explorations and wandering with my camera. Our family has visited several times during our stay in Sri Lanka (see my October 2014 post). Half a century before our time, my father Merrick recalls visiting Anuradhapura on the journey from Colombo to Jaffna. In the 1940s and 50s when they visited, there large areas were overgrown and unexcavated. The town itself had a relatively small population and was not an urban center. The irrigation reservoirs (tanks or wewas) were being restored and rich agricultural areas revived. Now, in 2020 after 72 years of independence and more than a decade after the end of the civil war, Anuradhapura has a new town while its sacred precinct has been preserved for its historical and religious significance.


Panels from the Amarāvatī Stupa housed in the Chennai (Madras) Museum. These 2nd/ and 3rd Century BCE Buddhist limestone carvings were once part of a large complex that was abandoned and only rediscovered in the early 19th Century. Most of the pieces of surviving art are located at the British Museum in London and the Government (Madras) Museum in Chennai. They are exquisite works of art. The stylistic similarity between Sri Lanka’s moonstones and the semi-circular parts of the vertical columns that encircled the stupa (dagoba) are uncanny.

Echoes from Amarāvatī

Two years ago, while preparing the Hills of Murugan exhibition in Chennai, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Madras Museum, now renamed the Government Museum, Chennai. This repository has priceless collections of ancient Indian heritage and art. The gallery of bronzes is, perhaps, the most famous space but the museum also hosts a gallery dedicated to the once colossal Buddhist stupa at Amarāvatī. This site on the banks of the Krishna river in Guntur district was an early center of Buddhist learning and worship. Its story is well known: from being one of the earliest stupas/dagobas (3rd-2nd  Century BCE) to being abandoned and then broken up for construction material before being rediscovered by Colin Mackenzie in the early 19th Century. Amarāvatī’s most valuable limestone carvings now sit in two museums: the British Museum in London and the Madras Museum in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai.

There was a great deal to appreciate and observe in the museum. In fact far too much for a single visit. One thing that struck me were the semicircular designs carved in relief that are found at the bottom of the columns below a set of discs or wheels (see image below). These columns originally provided a circular protective wall around the stupa. The wheel or dharmachakra, of course, is an important Buddhist, Hindu and Jain symbol associated with the cyclical nature of life. Some of the images in the gallery have intricate scenes from the Buddha’s life (these are mostly encased in glass that make them difficult to photograph). The majority of disks/wheels (or “lotus medallions”) are relatively plain with concentric patterns radiating out from the center. Some of these would have been a part of a “crossbar” that linked pillars together (see Akira Shimanda’s articles below). James Fergusson and James Burgess refer to these objects as “disks” decorating ornamental pillars (in Sanchi) in their book The Cave Temples of India (1890). In the Madras Museum there are dozens of wheels/discs that seem largely decorative. Some are parts of pillars while others are solid pieces of limestone carved to be a piece of a complex puzzle. However at the bottom of several pillars is a semicircular relief that looks like a proto-moonstone propped upwards. I’m not sure to what extent this striking similarity has been investigated but I assume that others have noticed it before. Amarāvatī’s stupa predates the estimated dates of Anuradhapura moonstones by nearly a millennium and in their day there would have been considerable interaction between these two important Buddhist centers.


Moonstone mirror study in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura.

Anuradhapura’s Moonstone Gardens

Back in Anuradhapura this summer, I marveled at the connections between Buddhist sites across South Asia. The most famous moonstone (or Sandakada pahana as moonstones are known in Sinhala) in Anuradhapura is located in a complex to the west of the colossal Abhayagiri Stupa. Like all moonstones, it provides an ornate and visually dazzling entrance way to a scared space carved on a large (and deep slap of granite). The concentric layers symbolically progress inwards from outer states of consciousness to the final inner core of nirbana (nirvana). The elephants, horses, lions and bulls, marching across the outer layer are carved with startling likeness.

I appreciate this most famous moonstone but what I enjoy even more is wandering through the less visited parts of Anuradhapura and stumbling across neglected examples of this uniquely Sri Lankan art form. There are at least a dozen or more intricately carved moonstones lying in the shadows of more famous monuments. There are many more plain slab moonstones scattered across excavated sites and hidden amongst overgrowth sites. The Sri Maha Bodhi shrine has several large moonstones at its entranceways. Of course, further away the Vaṭadāge at Polonnaruwa has several outstanding  moonstones (see the March 2017 post).

The classic moonstone is almost never found without accompanying guard stones and balustrades (railings). The guard stones in Anuradhapura are most frequently a guardian male figure with a multi-headed cobra hood. He holds up a vessel (of scared water?) and a wisp while there are often small dwarf characters at his feet. In a few cases, the guard stones are dwarfs. The balustrades are ornate railings on the side of the steps. They usually depict a dragon or fierce creature who’s tongue rolls out to form the railing. Elephants are also depicted as the creature in some balustrades (as seen in Thanjavur).

Though my only claim of expertise is my curiosity in South Asia’s sacred architecture, I’m not aware of moonstone being used in ancient temple architecture in India. The moonstone appears to be a uniquely Sri Lankan art form. From the Amarāvatī pillars there are hints that ideas freely flowed across the shallow seas in the hundreds and thousands of years before the present time. These crosscurrents of people and sophisticated ideas being interchanged across the South Asian landscape reminds us that we still have a great deal to learn from the past.

A Note on the Photography in this Post

More than a century ago the pioneering photographer Joseph Lewton documented Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon’s)  cultural triangle with a large format, glass plate camera that needed its own darkroom on site. The sepia toned images that are left with us provide a stunning first view of sites before they were restored (see Ismeth Raheem’s publications below).

In between efforts to document landscapes and ecosystems in the Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot, I wanted to explore the island’s sacred sites and document theses scared spaces  with high resolution images. I originally photographed moonstones and elements of Sri Lanka’s scared architecture with medium format cameras using black & white film. This was not that long ago (2005-2010) and I developed the film and printed the images at home myself. About 12 years ago, the whole world of photography was undergoing a dramatic technological change and it became clear that digital imagery offered powerful tools that were superior to the film gear that I had available to me. Obtaining film and chemicals was difficult and the digital workflow could be done on a personal computer without a darkroom and wet chemicals. My work on the sacred sites has since evolved to utilize these digital tools but I still aspire to create images that do justice to the magnificent art and architecture of these sites



Lockwood, Ian. “Portrait & Panorama in Anuradhapura.”  Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2010. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part I).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part II).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2012. Web.

“            “In Hanuman’s Flight Path.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2013. Web.

“            “Elephanta: A Pilgrimage” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2014. Web.

“            “Early Pathways at Mihintale & Anuradhapura.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2014. Web.

“            “Glimpses of Polonnaruwa.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2017. Web.


“Amaravati Stupa.” Wikipedia. accessed 10 September 2020.  Web.

Daniel, Shannine. “The Moonstones Of Ancient Sri Lanka: Religion, Art, And Architecture.” Roar. 16 Feb 2018 Web.

Dhammika, Ven S. “Anuradhapura.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web.

Falconer, John and Ismeth Raheem. Regeneration: A Reprisal of Photography in Ceylon 1850-1900. London: The British Council, 2000. Print.

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Images of Ceylon. Web.

Moonstones, Guardstones, Balustrades of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Postal Service, 12 December 2012. Print.

Raheem, Ismeth. Archaeology and Photography: The Early Years 1868-1880. Colombo: The National Trust Sri Lanka, 2009. Print.

Shimanda, Akira and Michael Willis Ed. Amaravati: the Art of an Early Buddhist Monument in context. London: The British Museum, 2016. Web.

Stambler, Benita.  “Maintaining the Photographic Legacy of Ceylon.” Trans Asia Photography Review. Fall 2013. Web.

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2020-09-14 at 9:16 pm

Mannar: Far Corner of Sri Lanka

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Baobab on the north shore of Mannar.

Off the Grid (OTG), OSC’s outdoor and adventure club explores different corners of Sri Lanka seeking adventure, new destinations and fresh opportunities to learn from our host country. In October we took a three-day visit to the island of Mannar on Sri Lanka’s west coast. The low lying, bone-dry island is steeped in myth but distant from the well-worn tourist track of most visitors. Mannar is most often visited by birdwatchers looking for flamingos and wintering birds (see my post from March 2017). On this trip, OTG was looking for opportunities to build a relationship with a local NGO engaged in mangrove and coral reef conservation.

We originally had a large group signed up but, in the end, only three students joined the trip. Theo from DP2, Madeleine from DP1 and MYP3 student Lenny. Kamilla Sahideen, the other OTG faculty leader, joined us and we were driven by Anthony who is fluent in three languages and one of the best drivers that the school hires. The Recycling & Sustainability service group (represented by Lenny and myself) and Reefkeepers (represented by Madeleine) were particularly interested in how a small community was dealing with solid waste management and coral reef conservation.


Tantirimale Buddha.

Getting to Mannar was a significant part of the adventure and we had stops at Negombo, Tantirimale, Madhu, and Vankalai sanctuary on the way up. On the island we had an opportunity to visit the historic fort, the grave site of Adam & Eve, Talaimannar pier and the last point of land before Adams bridge. Each of these places is interesting in their own way-for me it was the living mythology of the location that stood out. In Mannar we stayed at the Four Tees guest house, a place well known to birders. They have reasonable rates and the owner Laurence is friendly, hospitable and surely one of the most knowledgeable hoteliers on the island. Our meals were simple (but scrumptious) and mostly taken at Mannar’s City Hotel and other road- side eating joints. Out visit coincided with the onset of the North East (Winter) monsoon and the showers that we experienced were beginning to fill up tanks and ponds that are dry for most of the year. In this arid, near desert part of the island, the relief for people and wildlife was palatable.


In Vidataltivu

The focus of our trip was to spend time in a small village, Vidataltivu, located off of the Mannar-Jaffna road. Vidataltivu’s location in an area once trapped in the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE is still haunting. Many of its buildings, built with generous quantities of cement in an art deco style during the 1960s, lie abandoned and empty. There are signs of normalcy returning in the active fishing harbor but the town seems far short of full recovery. The Vidataltivu Ecotourism Society (VETS) is a small organization that was started to help protect the area’s mangroves, sea grass beds and coral reefs from unsustainable fishing practices. They are composed of a handful of young people who have worked with their neighbors to protect the area. UNDP has helped to support their efforts and worked with the community in fixing up the fishing harbor’s docks, providing VETS with a boat and sponsoring various capacity building exercise. Santhiapillai Augustine was out contact from UNDP who helped try to line up the permissions. Edison, one of their leaders now works with the DCW while working on a graduate degree in Ruhuna University and worked to help facilitate our visit.

Because this was formerly in territory controlled by the LTTE there is a strong SL Navy presence in Vidataltivu. Their base at the edge of the Vidataltivu harbor blends in with the surroundings and it is a non-threatening arrangement from the point of view of a visitor. The harbor is active with fishing boats who specialize in catching crabs just off shore. However, the Navy’s concerns about security have made it very difficult for tourists to take short rides into the water from the harbor. The jurisdiction of the coastal area has recently been transferred to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). I had worked in the weeks before our trip to get the necessary permissions and we came with written permission to conduct a study tour from the DWC. We thought that our group might be allowed to visit both the mangrove and the coral reef. In the end, we were only able to see the mangrove and will have to wait to visit the reef on a future visit.

Our trip was much too short but it did allow for us to get a sense of Mannar, Vidataltivu and the surrounding area. In general, I think all of us were impressed with the serene beauty of the low lying island, the palmyra trees, lagoons and infinite horizons. People were friendly and gracious in our interactions. We were, however, dismayed to observe large quantities of plastic waste on the roadsides, lagoons and beaches: it is clear that issues of non-biodegradable solid domestic waste pose a serious challenge for the citizens of Mannar. Some of this waste may be coming over the sea but most of the waste that we saw (broken buckets, plastic bags, shoes, wrappers and water bottles) that was on roadsides and near to Mannar’s human settlements. It is of course a problem felt at a national and global scale and Mannar is not alone in this challenge. On the positive side, I was happy that Laurence the proprietor of Four Tees welcomed us and then politely reminded us not to bring any plastic whatsoever into his premise.

As we were heading back to Colombo we stopped by the Mannar salterns and were treated to a sighting of the Greater flamingos-about 60 of them who are apparently resident all year long.  OTG looks forward to returning to Mannar to build on the relationships that were started on this visit.

Greater flamingos taking flight near Mannar town. These are apparently a resident group of about 60 individuals.


Google My Maps showing trip route and significant points.



Gnanam, Amrith. Discover Mannar Sri Lanka. Colombo: Palmyrah House, 2017. Print.

Glimpses of Polonnaruwa

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Polonnaruwa Vatadage as seen from the west side in late afternoon light. (October 2016)

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa offers visitors glimpses into Sri Lanka’s rich lithic history. Set alongside the large man-made tank Parakrama Samudra in the north Central part of the island, Polonnaruwa is one of the great ancient cities of Sri Lanka. King Parakramabahu (1123-1186) is thought to have been responsible for much of the enormous sculptures, temples, dagobas, palaces and other buildings that were once part of a thriving cosmopolitan city.  After upheaval and invasion the city was abandoned in 1293. Nature took over and it was not until the 19th Century that the Polonnaruwa’s sublime treasures and architecture were revealed by the nascent Ceylon Department of Archeology.Joseph Lawton, a British photographer based in Kandy in the mid to late 19th Century, documented Polonnaruwa before it was being excavated and restored to what we now appreciate (see the album of his images courtesy of the Victoria a& Albert Museum below).

Our family has visited Polonnaruwa on several different occasions. On our first visit in January 2006 I used medium format cameras and black & white film to photograph the notable points of interest. In October 2016 we made a short visit to the area as we explored major site and places off the beaten track in the Cultural Triangle. Reflecting the change in technology my 2016 images were all taken with a DSLR camera and phone. While the restoration activity of several site at Polonnaruwa is of a high caliber it has also involved the controversial erection of steel roofing over key monuments, notably the Gal Vihara. These structures change the ambiance and impose a modern veneer on the original rock cut carvings.

Reflection of the Polonnaruwa lion at the king’s council chambers.

Seated Buddha at Gal Vihara (“stone shrine”); rightly considered to be one the finest examples of Buddhist rock sculptures. (October 2016).

Gale Vihara cave Buddha. Study from two slits in the bars with an 85 mm lens. October 2016.

The colossal recumbent Buddha hewn from the granite bedrock in the 9th Century CE at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa. See Joseph Lawton’s image from 1870 to get a sense for the original setting prior to it being protected by scaffolding.(October 2016).

Mirror study of the Polonnaruwa Vatadage moonstone facing north. (October 2016)

Study of Polonnaruwa Vatadage (south) guard stone in evening light.

Vatadage at Medirigiriya, as seen from the south side. This stunning archeological monument and site of spiritual importance is slightly off the beaten track in the Polonnaruwa vicinity. It dates back to  the 7th Century CE.


“Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2012. Web.

“Early Pathways at Mihintale & Anuradhapura.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2014. Web.

“Elephanta: A Pilgrimage” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2014. Web.

“In Hanuman’s Flight Path.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2013. Web.

 “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part I).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

 “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part II).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.



Dhammika, Ven S. “Gal Vihara.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web.

Dhammika, Ven S. “Polonnaruwa.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web.

Falconer, John and Ismeth Raheem. Regeneration: A Reprisal of Photography in Ceylon 1850-1900. London: The British Council, 2000. Print.

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Images of Ceylon. Web.

Lankapura: Historic Images of Ceylon. Web.

Neranjana, Gunetilleka et al. Sigiriya and Beyond. Back of Beyond Sigiriya: Colombo, 2016. Print.

Raheem, Ismeth. Archaeology and Photography: The Early Years 1868-1880. Colombo: The National Trust Sri Lanka, 2009. Print.

Stambler, Benita. “Maintaining the Photographic Legacy of Ceylon.” Trans Asia Photography Review. Fall 2013. Web.

Victoria & Albert Museum. Joseph Lawton’s Polonnaruwa Images from 1870. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2017-03-30 at 8:10 pm

Early Pathways at Mihintale & Anuradhapura

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Steps at Mihintale

Steps at Mihintale

The sacred site of Mihintale has immense significance in the narrative of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It was here in the 2nd Century BCE that the Indian emperor Ashoka’s son Mihinda is thought to have taught Buddhist dhamma to King Devanampiyatissa, the ruling Sinhalese monarch. After many years of reading about Mihintale and visiting nearby sites I finally had a chance to make my own first pilgrimage with my family.

Mihintale lies within sight and only 8 kilometers east of the massive dagobas and ruins of historic Anuradhapura. It sits on and amongst a boulder-studded, forest-encased hillock. From a distance the gleaming white dagobas- especially the large Mahaseya – are visible emerging from the canopy. The forest is dry mixed evergreen and is a reason in itself to take the time to visit the area. The architecture of the sacred sites is infused amongst the caves, boulders and forests of the hills. We had journeyed up Sri Lanka’s west coast on a mid term break looking to explore coastal sites, Wilpattu’s protected areas and then some of the sacred sites in the northern part of the Cultural Triangle. The pictures from this post highlight some of the sublime sites in both Mihintale and Anuradhapura. As with most of my work these days, they were shot digitally and then processed into black & white back at home. They join a growing body of work on sacred spaces in Sri Lanka and southern India that I am working to prepare for exhibition.

Elephanst carved in schists surrounding the  Kantaka Chetiya

Elephants carved in stone surrounding the Kantaka Chetiya


Scenes of and from Aradhana Gala (Invitation Rock) where Mahinda preached his first sermon.

Mihintale pan

Aradhana Gala looking south. Ritigala is the distant hill in the clouds (to the south-east) in  the left corner.

Mahaseya study in positive and negative.

Mahaseya Dagoba study in positive and negative.

Thuparama and Jetavana Dagobas in Anuradhapura.

Thuparama and Jetavana Dagobas in Anuradhapura.

Abhayagiri moonstone details and neighboring lion guard stone.

Abhayagiri moonstone details and neighboring lion guard stone.

Mirror study of the Abhayagiri moonstone.

Mirror study of the Abhayagiri moonstone.



Dhammika, Ven S. “Mihintale.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. 2004. Web. October 2014.

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print. This book encapsulates the lithic saga of the island…a wonderful resource and especially as we stayed at the principal author’s son’s Back of Beyond guesthouse in Anuradhapura.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Old Path White Clouds. New Delhi: Full Circle, 1991. Print. A classic retelling of the Buddha’s life that helps one understand the threads of the teaching in the historical sites of Sri Lanka.

Three Blind Men. Sri Lanka – Mihintale & Kaludiya Pokuna. Web. Check out these stunning photographs and albums of the area by my friends Dominic Sansoni and Sebastian Posingis.



Written by ianlockwood

2014-10-28 at 4:31 pm

Elephanta: A Pilgrimage

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Mahesh Murti in Elephanta. Taken at ground level with a Canon G11 and edited with Photoshop Plugins from Nik Software.

Mahesh Murti (Trimurti) in Elephanta: a sublime and colossal example of6th-8th Century Hindu cave architecture in western India. Taken with a Canon G12 and edited with Photoshop Plugins from Nik Software.

In the last week of February I had the opportunity to participate in the bi-annual ASB Unplugged, a series of technology-oriented workshops and talks aimed at international educators. The visits to Mumbai, after a long nine-year gap, offered a chance to reconnect with cultural aspects of the Sahyadris (northern Western Ghats) and explore paradigm shifts in the way we use technology in schools.

Before the conference began one of my Sri Lankan colleagues and I took a day trip into the city to revisit Elephanta Island. This is a special, albeit popular, place that most good tourists visiting Mumbai see. I got to know Elephanta in 2001 when I spent a month in Mumbai exhibiting my Western Ghats Portrait and Panorama exhibition. These 6th Century temples are some of the most exquisite examples of cave-excavated sacred spaces and are on par with the more extensive Ajanta and Elora caves in central Maharashtra. The Elephanta cave temples are mostly dedicated to Shiva and are of the Gupta-Chalukyan art style (Harle 124). I’ve been intrigued with these cave temples and others in the nearby hills near Lonavala and Pune because of their cultural connection to the physical geography of the Western Ghats. The rock that the temples are cut from is basalt, associated with the Deccan Traps (see H.C Sheth’s scholarly article link below for a fascinating exploration of volcanism in the Deccan). Their estimated date of roughly 65 million years makes them relatively young when compared to the pre-Cambrian horsts of the Southern Western Ghats ranges.

The caves are set into a wooded hillside that overlooks Bombay harbor (see linked Landsat map in next post for location). Being caves with deep recesses they have subdued, exquisite lighting conditions that help create an ethereal experience for pilgrims and visitors. For photographers it is a challenge to do justice to the interior spaces and carvings without using artificial lighting. On my visit in 2001 I had used a Mamiya 6 medium format 6cm x 6cm film camera to try to document the Elephanta caves. Remembering back, it was a somewhat frustrating photographic experience since I had not been allowed to use my tripod by the ever-vigilant Archeological Survey of India guards. Thus I was forced to shoot hand held using a strobe to light up the deities. This time, I was travelling light and armed only with a small Cannon G12. The versatility of digital cameras is something that I appreciate though I really would like to return with a tripod and higher end DSLR. The pictures here are the result of the latest hand held experiments using the G12.

Mahesh Murti composite panoramic image.

Mahesh Murti composite panoramic image.

Nagaraja at west entrance to Elephanta caves...a series of view including one showing Portuguese (?) graffiti from the distant past.

Nagaraja at west entrance to Elephanta caves…a series of view including one showing Portuguese (?) graffiti from the distant past.

Dvarapalas (guard figures) at Elephanta with Siva (Andhakasura Vadh) in the back lett.

Dvarapalas (guard figures) at Elephanta with Siva (Andhakasura Vadh) in the back left.


Harle, J.C. The Art &  Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Sheth, H.C. “Plume-related regional pre-volcanic uplift in the Deccan Traps: Absence of evidence, evidence of absence.” MantlePlumes. August 2006. Web and PDF.

Sahyadris: A Photographic Gallery. See High Range Photography.

Written by ianlockwood

2014-03-06 at 3:37 pm

Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone

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Thiray Vadatage south gate

Thirayai Vatadage south gate

During the Week Without Walls trip that was highlighted and mapped in the previous post our small group explored the rich links between historical sites and their dry zone ecology in the central and north-eastern part of Sri Lanka. Notably we spent time at the Ritigala Hermitage (now part of the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve), Medirigiriya, Thiriyai and Pidruangala. All of these sites have important historical links but, either through design or the passage of time, have fused together with their natural surroundings. The vegetation of Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone is categorized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as “Sri Lanka Dry Zone Evergreen Forest” (code IM0212). In its undisturbed examples it is composed of dense thicket of trees, shrubs and lianas adapted to a long season of no rain with a short period of rain during the North-East monsoon. The canopy height is never as high as the evergreen rainforests found in the wet zone but I have been awed by the numerous examples of large dry-zone species that we encountered. Sri Lanka’s dry zone has interesting similarities to the dry forest eco-region of the area to the east of the southern Western Ghats (code IM0204). Our group had an introduction to this eco-region with a night walk at the Popham Arboreum on our first night. We encountered a gray slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus), several sleeping birds and later a large Indian rock python (Python molurus) crossing the road. The group walked -not exactly soundlessly- amongst the regenerated forest that is now a living example of what ecological restoration can achieve in the eco-region. I would definitely like to bring another group of ecologists back for a daytime visit and study.

In the subsequent days we visited the archeological sites in the Sigiriya-Trinco area. This is what makes up the series of images in this post. For what is surely the best visual overview of Sri Lanka’s archeological treasures, Studio Times’ Stones of Eloquence is a must-have resource. It has chapters on all of the significant historical sites in Sri Lanka with a focus on the country’s rich Buddhist history. The book was produced by Studio Times in 2008 with major contribution for Nihal Fernando, Anu Weeriyasuiya, Christopher Silva and others. The connection between these authors and Back of Beyond is not a coincidence and many of our site choices on this Week Without Walls were inspired by this publication. Nihal Fernando is one of Sri Lanka’s preeminent photographer and his use of Black & White imagery to present these sacred sites is inspirational.

Steps & guardstones at Thiriyai... a collection of angles and views.

Steps & guardstones at Thiriyai… a collection of angles and views.

New bridge near Thiriyai (looking south).

New bridge near Thiriyai (looking south). Road access to many areas in the north and east has been significantly improved in the years after the Tsunami and end of the conflict.

Steps amidst dry evergreen forest at Thiriyai. This is a sublime, little visited Buddhist sanctuary with interesting historical links to the Tamil communities  that live in the area.

Steps amidst dry evergreen forest at Thiriyai. This is a sublime, little visited Buddhist sanctuary with interesting historical links to the Tamil communities that live in the area.

Seated Buddha amidst forest and gardens at Medirigiriya.

Seated Buddha amidst forest and gardens at Medirigiriya.

Thiriyai south guardstone.

Thiriyai south guardstone.

Medirigiriya Vadatage Buddha

Medirigiriya Vatadage Buddha

Medirigiriya details

Medirigiriya details

Medirigiriya Vadatage from the west.

Medirigiriya Vatadage from the west.


Dammika, Ven. S. Sacred Island: A Buddhist’s Pilgrims’ Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web. 7 February 2014

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Lankapura  http://lankapura.com/ (a good site for historical images & maps  of Sri Lanka)

Raheem, Ismeeth. Archaeology & Photography – the early years 1868 -1880. Colombo: The National Trust of Sri Lanka, 2010. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2014-02-16 at 4:08 pm

Explorations in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone

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Sigiriya from the south as seen from Pidruangala on a damp, monsoon-soaked morning.

Sigiriya from the south as seen from Pidruangala on a damp, monsoon-soaked morning.

In the last week of January OSC’s students and teachers fanned out across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka to learn outside to the traditional classroom walls. The focus of these trips was varied and encompassed a number of curricular goals, outdoor experiences, service opportunities and explorations of our host nation. There were a wide variety of transport methods: buses, vans, a flight north and even bicycles. Students explored ruins of past civilizations, surveyed coral life underwater, slept in tree houses, helped out in Tsunami-affected communities, sampled bird populations in a rainforest, tweeted about Jaffna’s recovery, abseiled off of waterfalls and much more. The outcome of students and teachers electrified by their learning was clear for all to see at the conclusion of the trips and has been evident as we reflect back on the experiences and learning.

This year aside from coordinating the program I led a small group of students on what I called an exploration of Sri Lanka’s dry zone ecosystems. I was supported by Marlene Fert and we had eleven Grade 10 & 11 students on the trip. My idea was to expose the group to sites that blend culture, history and ecology off the beaten tourist track. We were based in the shadow of the rock fortress at Sigiriya and port town of Trincomalee. Originally we had planned to visit Pigeon Island, but the stirred up seas from the tail end of the North East monsoon made this impossible. My family and I had made two trips in preparation for this study trip (see blog posts from April 2013 and October 2013) and I wanted to was provide a similar, yet climatically different WWW experience to the Sinharaja WWW trip. Ironically we experienced a good deal of rain in the dry zone, but never enough to negatively affect our plans.

Scenes from the dry zone int he wet season...Dehigaha Ela and Pidrangla

Scenes from the dry zone int he wet season…Dehigaha Ela and Pidrangla

Back of Beyond’s properties at Dehigaha Ela and Pidruangala provided the perfect place to be based at. They are both situated in serene dry zone mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, they have super staff that provide a home-away-from-home atmosphere, the accommodation (some in trees or caves) is beautifully earthy and there is (thankfully) only intermittent cellphone connectivity! While there we took a day trip to Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve and a night walk in the Popham Arboretum. In Ritigala we explored the ruins of monastic communities and other evidence of past civilizations.

Biodiveristy, both livging and dead, see on our visit.

Biodiveristy, both living and dead, seen on our visit.

A highlight was visiting two archeological sites that both host important Buddhist vadatages (relic houses) and other significant sacred ruins. Medirigiriya is an impressive site with nearly two thousands years of recorded history. It sits off the main Habarana- Polonnaruwa road and is free of tourists. North of Trincomalee is the ancient Jaffna kingdom port of Thiriyai with a very old and important Buddhist vadatage set on a low hillock amidst mixed evergreen and deciduous dry zone forests. Thiriyai was apparently it is the “Thalakori in the 2nd century AD map of Ptolemy” (Wikipedia). Images from these sites will be highlighted in an album in the next post.

WWW Dry Zone Explorations map #1 (with edits)

WWW Dry Zone Explorations map #1 (with edits)

Here is the poster (below)  that I put together for the WWW exhibition held on 20th February 2014. The Landsat imagery is much more recent (from the week after the trips came back).

WWW Exhibition Poster (originally  A1 size with 300 DPI)/ Reduced to 72 dpi here.

WWW Exhibition Poster (originally A1 size with 300 DPI)/ Reduced to 72 dpi here.



Dammika, Ven. S. Sacred Island: A Buddhist’s Pilgrims’ Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web. 7 February 2014 (see Medirigiriya  Thiriyai)

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Lankapura  http://lankapura.com/ (a good site for historical images & maps  of Sri Lanka)

Raheem, Ismeeth. Archaeology & Photography – the early years 1868 -1880. Colombo: The National Trust of Sri Lanka, 2010. Print.

In Hanuman’s Flight Path

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Rtitgala pathway.

Ritigala pathway.

Amongst the many stories and tradition of South Asia, no myth pervades the imagination in quite the way that the Ramayana does. This epic tale of heroes, villains, deceit and loyalty is set amongst an ancient India that encompasses much of the subcontinent’s diverse physical geography. The epic is more than a series of stories and subplots with complex characters and is also regarded as scripture by many devout Hindus. Its popularity spread where ancient Indians traded and today the Ramayana is still an important cultural element in South East Asia as well as locations that Indians migrated to during the colonial and modern period.

Here in Sri Lanka, the island is remembered as “Lanka” the home of the demon king Ravana and a setting for numerous events in the Ramayana chronicle. I was first exposed to the Ramayana to it in my early high school years when we read the entire book as part of Sally Noorullah’s brilliant South Asian Studies (SAS) class at AIS/Dhaka. At the that time, it was the hero’s tale that gripped my imagination. In more recent years I have become intrigued with the fascinating links between the Ramayana story and the linked biogeography of Sri Lanka, the Western Ghats and the Himalaya.

In the epic tradition, towards the end of the story Laxamana, the brother of Rama, is gravely injured in a battle with Ravana. Rama asks Hanuman to fly to the Himalaya’s to gather and retrieve sanjavani, a life-giving medicinal herb that will cure Laxamana. Blessed with special flight powers, Hanuman leaps across peninsular India’s vast forested lowlands and river valleys to find the magic mountain in the mighty, snow-capped Himalaya. He successfully finds the mountain but is mystified by the abundance of different plants growing on it. So, in an ingenious master stoke that only a monkey god can perform, he carries the whole mountain southwards. Hanuman arrives in time and Laxamana is cured. The battle is won, a complex series of plots is drawn to a close, Sita is reunited with Rama and good triumphs over evil.

A lesser-known part of the story is that as Hanuman flew southwards bits and pieces of the mountain are believed to have fallen off. Today, there are dozens of sacred groves and forests hillock along the Western Ghats and in Sri Lanka that host sites where these chunks of “Hanuman’s mountain” were reported to have fallen to earth. They host vegetation and life forms with a unique Himalayan affiliation, which is where the myth and biogeography come together.

Sri Lanka hosts several scared groves with mythical links to Hanuman and his amazing flight to the Himalaya and back. The remote forest monastery of Ritigala, just north of Sigiriya, is one of the important sites. In fact it is believed that an exposed boulder that crowns Ritigala’s densely forested slopes is where Hanuman leapt away on the start of his flight to the Himalaya. Ritigala is composed of an assemblage of mountains that rise above the plains and host a small but significant patch of forest. Although it is located in the “dry zone” of Sri Lanka the mountain has its own microclimate and there are a variety of vegetation types on it. In the coming months I am preparing a learning experience for OSC students that will explore the dry zone forests and marine systems of the east coast. One of our days will be spent exploring Ritigala. In order to get a better sense of the area and make plans for our upcoming trip my family and I had a chance to visit Ritigala earlier this month. The pictures in the post were mostly taken on this trip.

Hanuman carrying the mountian of medicainal herbs from the HImalays to the shores of Lanka to help cure the gravely injured brother of Rama, Laxaman. This is a popular scence painted on transport vehicles and walls across India.

Hanuman carrying the mountain of medicinal herbs from the Himalayas to the shores of Lanka to help cure the gravely injured brother of Rama, Laxaman. This is a popular scene painted on transport vehicles and walls across India. This image was taken on the Tamil Nadu plains near Tirunelveli in 2010.

Ritigala seen from the south east approach. The upper areas are a "stick nature reserve" and are out of bounds for visitors.

Ritigala seen from the south east approach. The upper areas are a “strict nature reserve” and are out of bounds for visitors.

Ritgala pathway, step detial and pooci.

Ritigala pathway, step detail and poochi.


More Ritigala images: a mix of crumbling granite steps taken over by the forest, the “library”-certainly our favorite place- and a sign warning visitors of elephants in the area (both wild and from a nearby elephant orphanage).

Further Information on Ritigala & the Ramayana

See Sebastian Posingis’ 2011 blog post for sublime images depicting Ritigala.

National Geographic Traveller (India) featured Ritigala on the cover (taken by Nirvair Singh Rai as part of a photographic competition aired on Nat. Geo TV)  June 2013

 Thelka has just published a book excerpt and article by Devdutt Pattanaik on his writing of the Ramayana.

“The unique mountain ranges in Sri Lanka.” Sunday Times. 8 January 2012. Web. 28 October 2013.

Wijesekera, Lawanya. “Ritigala, evergreen misty mountain once an austere Buddhist monastery.” Sunday Times.  13 November 2011. Web. 28 October 2013.

Written by ianlockwood

2013-10-28 at 4:56 pm

Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part II)

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Thanjavur’s Brihadishwara temple in evening light, seen from the south-east.

The Brihadishwara (also spelt as Brihadishvara)temple in Thanjavur represents the pinnacle of Chola architecture and glory. It was built by Rajaraja I (985-1014 CE) at a time when the empire covered most of southern India and Sri Lanka and even included colonies in what is now Indonesia. I was interested to look for linkages with the interaction with Sir Lanka having seen evidence of both the art and wrath of the Cholas in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.

Parvati, consort to Shiva, in the Bronze museum in the Thanjavur Art Gallery as well as the north side entrance of the Brihadishwara temple.

Dvarpalas (guardians)  at Thanjavur’s awe-inspiring Brihadishwara temple flanking one of the large bronze Natraj statues from the Bronze museum in the Thanjavur Art Gallery.

Elephants in life and stone balustrades at Thanjavur’s Brihadishwara temple.

Composite image of Thanjavur’s Brihadishwara temple seen from the south-east.

Thanjavur’s Brihadishwara temple seen from the south-east (black & white version).


Written by ianlockwood

2011-07-21 at 4:05 am

Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part I)

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Gopuram and tanka at the Sabhanayaka Natraja Kovil, Chidambaram

“The journey is the destination” and this summer after flying into India from Colombo we moved slowly from Chennai southwards to the hills.  Starting in Egmore we took a rented vehicle and were able to visit Mamallapuram, Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Gangkondacholapuram, Tranquebar, Swamimalai and finally Tanjavur before ending up in the cool heights of the Palani Hills. The images in this post were taken during this visit using a digital SLR and then reworked and polished using Adobe Photoshop with plugins from Nik Silver Efex. It marks the first time that I have not shot a major trip on film.

Gangaikondacholapuram, South-east corner view with Nandi bull.

Gangaikondacholapuram, North-West corner view

Gangaikondacholapuram was a highlight of the temple visit. Many years ago a friend had suggested that I not miss the temple if I was interested in south Indian temple architecture.  Built by Rajendra I (1014-42 CE) the architecture represents the peak of the Chola period. The temple is a slightly smaller replica of the big temple in Thanjavur. But it was the location, lost in an under populated and ignored corner of the district that made it an unforgettable delight to visit on our way to Tranquebar. The Rough Guide appropriately describes it as “amongst the most remarkable archeological sites of South India, outshone only by Thanjavur and devoid of visitors most of the time, which gives it a memorably forlorn feel.”

Shiva and Parvati panel on north entrance of Gangaikondacholapuram's central gopuram.

Earlier we had made a brief stop at the Croc Bank and Mamallapuram on our way south. The Croc Bank remains one of the best educational opportunities for patents that want to imbibe natural history and a love for reptiles in their children. We look forward to Lenny and Amy attending summer camp here in a few years. Mamallapuram, of course is an old favorite haunt thanks to my uncle Michael’s interest in the Pallavas and their ancient port that was based next to where the shore temple now stands. It is also a great place for kids to explore and climb exquisite rock.

Muggers (Crocodylus palustris) basking at the Madras Crocodile Bank.

Lenny, & Amy exploring Tiger caves just north of the shore temples at Mamallapuram.

Two panels from Mamallapuram’s caves: (Left) Trivikrama panel depicting Vishnu as a eight armed giant warrior transformed from a dwarf. (Right) Mahishamardini panel showing Durga vanquishing the buffalo demon Mahisha.

No visit to Mamallapuram is complete without a filter coffee and dosa at Mamalla Bhavan. The manger graciously put up with our kids and my camera.

The Great Penance (Descent of the Ganga) panel at Mamallapuram, an outstanding Pallava edifice carved onto a granite face near to the bus stand.

Written by ianlockwood

2011-07-20 at 7:23 pm

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