There are two reasons why the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya is venerated by devout Buddhists. Firstly of course, it is one of ‘Solosmathana’ (the 16 places believed to have been visited by the Buddha). Secondly, the frescoes painted by Soliyas Mendis. In terms of religious importance to the faithful, it is second only to the Dalada Maligawa. In aesthetic terms it surpasses Sigiriya, according to certain critics.
During the colonial period, urban and mostly anglicized critics ridiculed temples for being crude and without depth. They were full of praise for the Greco-Roman traditions and the European church paintings. In the Sinhala tradition, painters and sculptors drew heavily from the Jathaka stories and wanted to depict ‘hell’ and it’s many miseries. They use hard colors for effect. It was against this backdrop that Soliyas Mendis strived to develop the genre of temple paintings that was in concert with local cultural sensibilities.
He was born in Madampe, Chilaw to a farming family on June 7, 1896. His father, Walimuni Sirinelis Mendis, was an ayurvedic physician, and his mother, Nissanka Shiro Mendis, was a housewife. His father wanted the son to become a physician like him and sent young Soliyas to learn medicine under the Veda Haamuduruwo of Mawila Purana Viharaya. This was even as he attended the Nattandiya Vidyarathna Pirivena for his formal education, which was at the time headed by Ven Kiriwaththuduwe Pannasara Thera.
Soliyas was not a good student. He was not keen on his formal studies or ayurveda, but instead spent a lot of time watching the workmen at the temple, especially the painters and sculptors. The Loku Hamuduruwo advised him to first learn a trade, but Soliyas would not listen. Later he would sculpt an image of the Maithri Bodisattva at the Mawila temple, where, according to critics, the garments, sandals, ornaments and crown were exquisitely crafted. His fame spread far and wide very quickly. He was invited to Polonnaruwa, Udubaddawa, Malwana and Giriulla to paint frescoes in the image houses as well as caves.
He was traditional in that his paintings followed themes and dwelled on subjects that were common to temples all over the island. Things changed as he delved deeper into Buddhist literature and history. This fascination naturally impacted his art. All restrictions, known and unknown, that had bound his creativity disappeared. The knowledge gained was instrumental in cultivating in him a desire that complemented his ability to develop a grand painting tradition.
Among those who appreciated his talent were DC Wijewardena, DR Wijewardena and Helena Wijewardena also known as Sedawatte Lamathaeni. They helped him financially to study painting in India where he was able to familiarize himself with the traditions of Ellora and Ajanatha. Interestingly, he never took notes, but everything he saw and heard were etched in his mind. This entire transformation, it is said, took place between 1912 and 1930. Critics likened him more to a saint or prophet than a mere painter. Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe described him as a ‘light person who did heavy work’ [nr jevla l, ieye,a¨ ñksfila] or ‘a simple man whose work was complex and highly enlightened’.
Thereafter he abandoned the traditional fascination with heaven and hell, the Jathaka stories ,etc., and focused on the Buddhist history of Lanka. The European invasions and the vandalization of the Kelaniya Viharaya, the history of the Kandyan Period, the arrival of the Sacred Tooth Relic and a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi, the story of Vihara Maha Devi and the visits to the island of the Buddha (to Nagadipa, Mahiyangana and Kelaniya), and the Chulodara-Mahodara spat were the depictions that were highly acclaimed. In addition, his depictions of the Nelum, Manel and Kadupul flowers, buds and leaves, children and swans were particularly delightful.
On one occasion an Indian painter by the name of Nandalal Bose arrived in the island. He was brought down to paint frescoes at Kelaniya. Apparently, he had come across one of Soliyas’ paintings. He is reported to have said that this kind of holy place is best serviced by the highly accomplished art of a painter like Soliyas Mendis and left.
When the Sigiri frescoes were defaced, an Italian painter by the name of Luciano Marenzi was brought down to salvage the priceless and historical paintings. He had first gone to meet Soliyas Mendis to seek advice. He had found a man in an amude, busy adding fertilizer to a grove of coconut trees. He had asked the man, ‘Can you take me to the world famous Soliyas Mendis?’ The man had said ‘Give me a minute’ and gone into the house. The same man had reappeared a few minutes later in sarong and a banian, simply saying ‘I am Soliyas Mendis’. The Italian had been amazed by his humility. Soliyas’ advice was duly obtained.
It had taken Soliyas 18 years to paint the ceilings and walls of the new buildings at Kelaniya, often spending several hours on his back on a scaffolding, mixing colors and with delicate and fine strokes laying out his considerable creativity.
He had his own color mixing techniques. He would travel far and wide to collect soil samples, even from deep wells as per the advice of Bose who cautioned him against taking soil from the surface for pigment-making purposes. He collected makulu, a unique clay, which is mostly found in abandoned wells and mines, and used for coloring. These he found in Dodanduwa and Mathurata. Another type of clay, hiriyal, he had found in a place called Dunumali close to Attanagalle. The color blue was found in Nilagama Kanda (literally, the blue-mountain). The dark kalu-anduna he collected from remote villages.
Soliyas Mendis had been very fond of all animals. The egg-white he needed for his colors he had to collect by walking all over the Pettah, picking only those eggs that were already broken. Other colors were obtained from crushing various kinds of leaves.
He is said to have been inspired by the Amaravati artists in the matter of filling space in grand paintings. He did this in ways that complemented the main elements rather than distract and detract from them as had been the case in earlier times.
His long and illustrious association with the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara ended in sad circumstances. The trustees of the Viharaya or the Dayaka Ssabha had decided that the space behind the main Buddha statue should show the Himalayas. They decided that Soliyas was not suited for the job and had got down other artists. They would be forced to paint over some of Soliyas’ work. The artists had duly informed the master who had said ‘uf.a w;ska ks¾udKh l, lsis fohla ulkak nE’ ta ish,a, uf.a orefjda’ (I will not have anything I have painted erased, for they are all my children). He left before he had completed what he planned to do.
He didn’t paint thereafter, but he designed the grandstand used for the Independence Ceremony of 1948, using local traditions and traditional motifs. In 1952, he designed the Sri Lankan stall of the Colombo Plan exhibition. He also designed the magul poruwa of JR Jayewardene, a construction that is now used at Kelaniya to hold the relics.
This exceptional artist and human being lived a simple life. He went about in a bicycle. He was known to cycle to the township of Mahawewa, Chilaw and come back with a loaf of bread and a Dinamina paper. He also bought a strip of dried fish to cook and feed his pet dogs.
The house and property he owned, 80 acres in extent, he donated to an orphanage for disabled children, Mahawewa Siviraja Abaadhitha Anatha Lama Nivasaya, which is now administered by the Bauddha Maha Sammelanaya. He was single. There was no electricity in his large house. He lived a simple life. Loved children and animals. Was not a burden to anyone. Enriched the land of his birth, venerated with heart, mind and with all his skill the faith he subscribed to. Soliyas Mendis died forty years ago almost to the day, on September 1, 1975, in a nursing home in Mahawewa.
The now popular song of Sunil Edirisinghe “fï ;rï ishque,so l¿ .,a” (Can granite be so smooth?) written by Rajee Wasantha Welgama perhaps captures best the entirety of Soliyas Mendis, his work, his philosophy and his being.