Ven. Kalyanitissa Thero, the incumbent of the Kataluwa Temple, invited Noëlla Roos, Rachel Dieraert and Eddy Roos, as well as two Sri Lankan assistants, Dominick Kanapathy and Champi Kalapathi, to paint the ”Nawamusisea Giniwella Purana”. The walls of the temple were supposed to be decorated with Buddhist murals but had been bare for at least three years. Prior to this, there were paintings from the 1930s, but these were in such poor condition that the Department of Archaeology could not restore them. A Sri Lankan muralist, Walter Kulasooriya, had prepared the walls for acrylic painting, but could not actually do the painting himself. They were granted permission to take over the job by Mr. Kulasooriya, with his valuable assistance and knowledge.

Financial assistance was sought, and obtained, from the Netherlands Embassy in Colombo. This final report is meant to give an overview of the proceedings and the results of the project.

The Information Needed

When we started with this unique project it was not clear how long it would take, what the difficulties would be and what the final outcome would look like. Quite some time was spent on research and proper preparation: making small sketches and calculating the composition with the help of the Golden Mean formula
The Golden Mean needed to be utilized, as perspective and anatomy are important concepts of the western renaissance art that we wanted to blend with the splendid decorative values of Kandyan art. Furthermore, we needed to work with the local community to collect important information; this also helped to create a collaborative relationship. Some of the people who made the project a success are mentioned below:

Mr Cyril Kulapathi, traditional temple painter and Sri Lanka’s most famous restorer of murals, gave us important information about the measurements of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and depictions of Buddha, both important elements in the murals. For us this was interesting, since the measurements he gave were suitable for flat, decorative abstractions only. Hence, we had to translate these into perspective using the rules of the Golden Mean.

Monk M. Kalyanitissa Nayaka Maho Thero gave us a great deal of input regarding what he would like to see on the walls. He explained many details about the life of Buddha and the symbols commonly associated with Buddhism. However, maybe the most beautiful and valuable experiences with Mr. Kalyanitissa were our lunches together, when we were able to discuss various issues which he translated for us into Buddhist stories, which were a great inspiration for painting the murals.

Indura, the teacher of a dance group from Galle, checked all the dancers painted on the wall to ascertain whether the position of the hands, legs, feet etc. were correct. Sometimes we had to deviate from the original dance positions, but only if this was necessary for the overall composition. Most of the painted dancers, however, are directly taken from the Kandy dances. Indura taught us a lot about the meanings of the different animals in Buddhism, and how they are represented in the dances.

As well as these three inspiring teachers many others shared their knowledge and expertise with us. We learnt about their musical instruments, their beautiful low country clothing and dances, the differences in food, traditions, and lifestyles. We tried to give all these elements a place in the murals of the temple. We worked with more than 70 peoples and all are depicted in the mural.
The two mural topics together with Ven. Kalyanitissa are:

  • The Arrival of the Sacred Tooth Relic
  • The Donation of the Bodhi Tree by Ashoka to Princess Sanghamitta

Portraits of traditional Kandy dancers are painted (like a perahera or procession) around the depictions of these stories.

portraits of traditional kandy dancers noella rose

The Process

After the information collection and sketching stage were complete we worked for three months with dancers, models and musicians. In total, more than 70 people acted as models for the murals, primarily from the local neighbourhood but also dancers from the school of Kandy dance in Galle, students from Dissanayake (Colombo) and Low-Country dancers from Ahangama. Many different local musicians played for us while sitting as models in full traditional costumes.

The paintings had to be culturally sensitive, but with a strong sense of western renaissance-style, thus creating a completely new and original concept. To achieve this, the Golden Mean was introduced as a guideline for the composition of the murals. This means that besides paint, brushes, paper and charcoal, a calculator was an indispensable tool.

For us, the work was intense. In the morning we drew the dancers and in the afternoon they got a place on the wall in the form of a painting. The next morning it was time to check, re-do, change and then draw again and paint. It was all -consuming and constant work, often while surrounded by lots of people.

kataluwa temple noella rose

Making plans was difficult because people came when they could or wanted to. This meant we sometimes had to work very quickly: the depiction of the female monk bringing the sacred Bodhi tree was a visitor to the temple, perfectly on time but completely coincidental.

The responses to the murals were overwhelmingly positive: The people from the villages were very supportive and enthusiastic, also because they recognised their brothers, sisters, other relatives or friends in the murals. Many artists came to see us while we were painting. The most exciting reaction we got was from Mr S.P. Charles (curator at the National Museum and the key person at the Department of Cultural Affairs) who supported us in applying to get the murals protected by the

Department of Archaeology.

On the other hand, we also received some criticism from a monk in Colombo, who accused us of being “Dutch colonists” who were desecrating the Buddhist temple. We replied by letter and invited him to have a look at the temple again once it was finished.

The project took a month longer than anticipated, primarily because of external factors (models not showing up, a leaking roof, difficulty in finding the correct materials etc.), but also because of our own professional curiosity: after careful study, we wanted more, better and smaller (more proportionate) murals.
The excellent co-operation and support we received from so many different people during all stages of the project made it a great success.

kataluwa temple noella roos dancers

The Outcome

We achieved our desired outcome: 110 square meters of wall painted with 140 figures and many Buddhist symbols, completely composed using the Golden Mean and with the support of the temple clergy and local population.

The re-creation of the Buddhist temple’s religious paintings (murals) was the result of a joint effort by three Dutch artists, two Sri Lankan artists, Buddhists monks, Kandyan and Low-Country dancers. It must be said that we were very satisfied with the final murals even though there were still some small “finishing touches” to be applied to the paintings. We were also pleased that we gained the support of the local population for the paintings. Also, the project received media attention and was on national television three times.

kataluwa temple noella roos drawing

The Follow Up

Since the murals need ample time to dry (anything between a couple of months and a year, depending on the weather, the walls and the humidity inside the temple), they have not yet been properly protected by means of varnishing.

Furthermore, a request was sent to the Department of Cultural Affairs to declare the murals “national heritage”, and hence protect them. At the same time the request also stated that the temple badly needs restoration and redecoration. These requests are supported by the above mentioned Mr Charles.

(Note: the above report was written before the destruction of the mural by vandalism)

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