Guardstones (Mura Gal)
The guardstones or "muragal" were one of an association of three aspects of sculpture that adorned the entrance to buildings in ancient times, the other two being the moonstone (Sandakada Pahana) and balustrade (Korawak Gala) .
The guardstones, which provided a support to the heavy stone balustrade, were plain in the beginning. Later they came to be sculptured with symbols significant of prosperity and protection.
There were three major stages of development. It was the custom on important occasions for pots of water with flowers (usually of the coconut palm) and budded twigs to be placed in front of a building.
Known as the punkalasa the local equivalent of the western cornucopia - this symbol, incised on the guardstone, was the first stage of development.
Examples of carved punkalasa guardstones may be seen in the archaeological museum in Anuradhapura. The "pots of plenty" in these specimens are placed on a lotus - moulded pedestal.
In the second stage we get dwarf figures taking the place of the punkalasa. Local tradition knowns them as Bahirawa. They represent two "yaksas" employed to protect the wealth of God Kuvera, which is supposed to be stored in the ocean.
By name Padma and Sankha, they are distinguished by their headdresses, a lotus in the former and a conch in the latter. They are depicted as pot-bellied persons wearing a loin cloth and holding a string of coins.
The cobra was considered the guardian of water and treasure. Zoomorphic sculptures of multi headed cobras have been found at the sluices of reservoirs, and at the four corners of relic chambers enshrined in "dagabas"
The concept of protection could have arisen out of popular belief that when people die they are reincarnated as cobras to protect the treasures they had buried in their previous lives.
This idea of protection could have been incorporated in the third and final stage of development not as a zoomorphic symbol, but as an anthropomorphic one of a cobra-king or naga-raja.
The naga-raja is gracefully carved to indicate movement and poise. In one hand he holds the pot of plenty (punkalasa) and in the other a sprouting branch complete with leaves, buds and flowers.
The body is princely dressed and ornamented. Around the head is a five-hooded, seven-hooded and occasionally a nine-headed cobra hood.
This indicates that the naga-raja has taken the place of the bahirawa as a guardian of wealth and harbinger of prosperity. Sankha and Padma have been diminished to two minorfigures or gana at the feet of the naga-raja. There may be one or two gana on the guardstones.
The very best naga-raja guardstones may be seen at the Ratanaprasada in Anuradhapura and the Vatadage in Polonnaruwa. In the Polonnaruwa guardstone there are two gana and only one at the Ratanaprasada. The headdress and ornaments of the naga-raja figures have been exquisitely moulded.
In the Ratnaprasada guardstone, the arch above the figure is also profusely carved. There is a double "makara" head at the apex, and a "makara" head at each end of the base of the arch. Lions and dancing human forms spill out of the mouths of the "makara".
BY DERRICK Schokman
The Nagas in Sinhala sculpture - Sunday Observer - 30 March 2003
March 25, 2007