Ranmasu Uyana

The copper-coloured sands and pearl-shaped island of Sri Lanka is and has always been, irrefutably rich in culture. Governed by diverse communities and undergone countless reigns from Kings and countries, we find the remnants of significant historical events in scriptures and architecture, works of art and literature. As we explore the spaces of architectural significance and cultural landscapes, we find a striking expanse of stone carvings and rock partitions, an ancient garden and peculiar speculations that have attracted many a historian and archaeologists. The ‘Ranmasu Uyana’, translated to ‘The Royal Goldfish Park’ is located in the district of Anuradhapura in North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Situated between the famous Tissa Wewa and the Isurumuniya Temple of the eminent stone carvings, the ‘Ranmasu Uyana’ is celebrated for both its astounding and ingenious construction and the tales that follow the history of its existence.

Spanning upto forty acres of land, the royal gardens are a lush reminder of the ancient gardens that people of royalty maintained under the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa during the third century BC. The architecture and structure of this particular garden is notable for its blueprint of ancient Sri Lankan gardens from the pre-Christian era. As well as being a royal garden, Ranmasu Uyana was also a bathing complex; the architecture of bathing pools and complexes in areas of parks and gardens were very closely associated and have been one of the important elements of the cultural lifestyle. But it is the noteworthy architecture and engineering by which the construction was designed that makes the royal garden distinct in its creation. While the south end of the Park now exists mostly in ruins and remnants, it is noted that the foundational structure retains its original compositions. Ranmasu Uyana is a collection of natural boulders and caves, pavilions and pools and over time, began to be shadowed by vines and shrubbery, a jungle of trees and ponds before it was rediscovered by British civil servant and the first Commissioner of Archaeology in Ceylon, Harry Charles Purvis Bell in 1901. But perhaps it is the Stargate structure of the Park that has garnered the most interest for its architecture and the fables that follow its legacy.

In an article by Demi Perera on BBC, a quote by Professor Raj Somadeva, a senior professor of archaeology at the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka states in reference to the iconic carvings on the in Ranmasu Uyana, ‘Ranmasu Uyana was used for a prolonged period in history. The second major developmental phase seems to have begun in the 7th century CE. During that period, several new buildings were added to the earlier garden layout. The chart could be a work of this period, but it’s impossible to know because its existence, function or anything related to it is not mentioned in any historic records, which were meticulously kept by Buddhist monks.’ Dubbed the ‘Sakwala Chakraya’, which translates to ‘Universe Cycle’ is a 1.8m shallow carving engraved onto a low rock surface and resembles a map of sorts. Opposite the carving resides four sculpted seats, further adding to the peculiarity of the concept of the carving.

Although there’s much to be known about the engraving and its function, what it means and symbolizes, it is noted that they do not showcase much resemblance to the other carvings of the Anuradhapura era, from the 3rd to the 10th Century AD, nor does it display any likeness to those religious carvings from the period of the Sandakada Pahana. As seen in the sketch, the carving comprises seven rings divided by parallel vertical and horizontal lines. H. C. P. Bell, in his report of the Ranmasu Uyana, notes from his learnings of the religion that the inscription depicts, "an old-time cosmographical chart illustrating in naivest simplicity the Buddhistic notions of the universe." While several conspiracy theories exist pertaining to the meaning and significance of the carvings, some of them recognize it as an early world map, with evidence backed by studies from Somadeva and Bell. Another professor from the University of Moratuwa, Shereen Almendra observes that it could be a plan of Sigiriya.

While many a theory exists to explain the intriguing drawing carved onto the rocks of the Royal Park, the landscape itself draws on an old tale that follows Prince Saliya, son of King Dutugemunu and his affair with Asokomala, a girl noted to have been below his rank. The tale, if known to be true could be indicative of the period in which the Park was built. From its intricate and ingenious channel systems and skilful engineering, Ranmasu Uyana is a space that is of much historic evidence, narrating tales of then and showcasing symbolic carvings. In a History Review, Israeli historian Alon Confino refers to the concept of culture as one that ‘has become for historians a compass of sort that governs questions of interpretation, explanation, and method.’ Art, culture and heritage have indisputably been ubiquitous mediums that have been used to navigate landscapes of identity and origin throughout time, facilitated through probing questions, and critical interpretations. The applied art of architecture as a tangible part of cultural heritage then alludes to creating discourse about the culture reflected by a society and from our observations and studies of the Ranmasu Uyana, the analysis of the architecture and witnessing of curious symbols, we find potent influence in the society of now and may facilitate the society and communities of the future.  

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18th October, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings