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Sinhala artists of Kandyan era


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By Rajendra Bandara - Saturday Magazine Island Mar 23 2002

On the advice of Rev. Welivita Sangaraja Saranankara, King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe rebuilt and renovated hundreds of Buddhist temples which were destroyed by invaders or abandoned. For the restoration works, the King employed traditional Sinhala artists who were scattered throughout the country. These artists belonged to the artist caste called "Hiththaru". This caste is also known as ‘Acharis’, ‘Nawandanna’, ‘Galladdo’, or ‘Gurunnanses’. In the Kandyan region they are regarded as high caste people, second only to the Govi caste.

Members of this caste use surnames "Naide" for males and "Nachchire" for females. Most of the names are of Indian origin as some craftsmen and artists migrated to Sri Lanka recently. "Naide" is similar to the Telengu word ‘Naidu’ used in ‘Andra Pradesh’ in Southern India. Females of this caste are allowed to wear Kandyan ‘Osariya’ as a special priviledge.

There were different schools of artists or generations, called "Paramparawa". "Nilagama paramparawa" (school) is one of the most famous tradition. The well-known Dambulla rock temple was built by the "Acharis" of Nilagama tradition. The Head Craftsman or the Artist is called "Mulachari". Under a Mulachari several assistants were employed.

Rev. Dewaragampola Silwaththena was a Buddhist Bhikku turned artist who painted the murals at "Ridivihara" and "Degaldoruwa". Rev. Wettewe and Rev. Katuwana were the other monks who painted temple murals in this period. Dingiran Appu of Ahangama and Welitara Heenappu were famous artists in the Matara area. One still finds traditional artists in this area with family names of Devendra and Devasurendra.

Deldeniye Siththara Naide, Bodhinarayana Chithracharige Kapuru Naide, Wijayapala Muhandiram Neththa Naide and Hiriyale Naide were also famous traditional artists at that time.

Devendra Mulachari was the Head Craftsman of the King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, the last King of Sinhale. He was the creator of Paththiruppuwa of Sri Dalada Maligawa and the beautiful Kandy Lake. The descendents of this Mulachari are still found in the Kandy area and they are using the family name "Rankoth Vibhushana Gedera".

After the completion of a Temple or a Devale the artists were given titles and gifts including lands. Some artists were given "Nalalpata" (Jewelled ornament worn on the forehead) with a special title in appreciation of their skill. Some were elevated to the high caste by a proclamation made by the King.

It is mentioned in the "Dambulla Gal Sannasa" (Rockedict) that King Wimaldharmasuriya II, upon the occasion of fixing a bell on the rock in front of Raja Mahawihara at Dambulla, the craftsmen were rewarded with one amuna of paddy land (aprox. 2 acres) and 200 fanams.

After the advent of western art, the Kandiyan art trdition was ignored and neglected. Descendents of the Kandiyan artists are no more interested in preserving this unique style of painting.