About 5km south of Wellawaya, a side road branches west off the Tissa road to the beautiful, 1000-year-old, rock-cut Buddha figures of Buduruwagala. Surrounded by smaller carved figures, the gigantic standing Buddha (at 15m, it is the tallest on the island) in the centre still bears traces of its original stuccoed robe, and a long streak of orange suggests it was once brightly painted.
The Central Figures
The central of the three figures to the Buddha’s right is thought to be the Mahayana Buddhist figure Avalokiteśvara (the bodhisattva of compassion). To the left of this white-painted figure is a female figure thought to be his consort, Tara. Local legend says the third figure represents Prince Sudhana.
The Other Figures
Of the three figures on the Buddha’s left-hand side, the crowned figure at the centre of the group is thought to be Maitreya, the future Buddha. To his left stands Vajrapani, who holds a vajra (an hourglass-shaped thunderbolt symbol) – an unusual example of the Tantric side of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The figure to the left may be either Vishnu or Sahampath Brahma. Several of the figures hold up their right hands with two fingers bent down to the palm – a beckoning gesture.
The name Buduruwagala is derived from the words for Buddha (Budu), images (ruva) and stone (gala). The figures are thought to date from around the 10th century and belong to the Mahayana Buddhist school, which enjoyed a brief heyday in Sri Lanka during this time.
An ancient stupa has recently been uncovered halfway along the road from the junction to the carvings.
You may be joined by a guide, who will expect a tip. A three-wheeler from Wellawaya costs about Rs 500 return. Some people walk from the junction of the main road, which is very pleasant but also long and very hot. The route crosses a series of delicate lakes. Keep an eye out for local birdlife, including many egrets and herons.