Solias Mendis, a great Buddhist artist

Many of you will have seen some of the paintings by the great Sri Lankan Buddhist artist, Solias Mendis. One of the most famous is the image of Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta arriving in Sri Lanka with the Bodhi tree sapling, greeting by King Devanampiyatissa.

Sanghamitta arriving in Sri Lanka

I included this image, with a substantial discussion of the symbolism, in my White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes. Recently, I chatted about Mendis with Rane Ranatunga, and he kindly sent me a couple of short articles, which I thought I’d share with you. Solias Mendis was an exceptional artist, whose work is superbly crafted and creative. I hope to see it in its proper context when I visit Sri Lanka in December. Meanwhile, we shall have to be content with a few digital images. You can see more on this site.


Soliyas Mendis (1896–1975)

Artist Soliyas Mendis, renowned the world over for his murals in the Kelaniya temple in the suburbs of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, was a self-taught painter. Hailing from a rural village, he was an extraordinary man who shunned any form of publicity and concentrated on doing his task in a quiet way.

When authorities of the Kelaniya temple sought the advice of the famed Indian painter Nandalal Bose, he visited the temple and seeing what Soliyas Mendis was doing, had no hesitation is advising that Mendis should be permitted to continue with the paintings in his own inimitable style. Bose admired Mendis’ work and gave him a few tips to improve his style. Bose advised him that the colour of the paint to be used for a particular mural should be prepared from the clay of the same shade. He then travelled many a distance looking for the clay bearing the particular colours he needed. He succeeded in his effort and soon realised that using such clay resulted in the colour lasting for a great length of time without any discolouring.

Soliyas Mendis, who had a passion for painting from his young days, tried his hand at a few village temples and was happy with his effort It was when he was doing the paintings at a temple closer to Kelaniya that the trustees of the temple were impressed and invited him to do the paintings. He the studied the style of art used during the period of the last kings who reigned from Sri Lanka’s hill capital, Kandy (the rest of the country was then under the British) commonly referred to as the Kandyan style. He closely studied the costumes and other traditions of that era.

A bachelor he had few wants in life. He did not look for material comforts or personal glory. He led a simple life and donated his land, house and even the small car he used for use as an orphanage. He used a bicycle after selling his car.



Soliyas Mendis: From ‘Among Those Present’ (1962)

When renowned Sri Lankan journalist D B Dhanapala selected 22 Sri Lankans who had made a name for themselves in numerous fields, for his book, ‘Among Those Present’ (1962), Soliyas Mendis was one of them. Referring to the ceremony of the offering the new wing built at the Kelaniya temple to the Maha Sangha, he wrote:

“….There was one man to whom nobody paid any attention. He paid attention to everybody by observing and making mental notes of this scene of consecration. For he had to paint it on the bare walls of the new section of the shrine which had been gifted to the Sasana.

He had already finished the sculpture work round the new shrine, having created three friezes of dwarfs, sacred geese and elephants, without repeating once any one pose and having endowed the outer walls with nine abodes of the gods above the friezes.

Now, the bare walls alone had to be painted. And he was all set for the task.

If genius means untutored, natural, instinctive but extraordinary talent, imaginative or inventive, modern Ceylon has produced at least one real genius.

He is Walimuni Soliyas Mendis, the man who painted the frescoes in the new wing of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare.
Born a peasant, bred a peasant, Mendis never had any professional technical training of any sort. He was the son of a village Ayurvedic physician. But Ayurveda proved a bitter pill to him that he refused to swallow. He preferred to do quick drawings for the delight and amusement for his friends studying in the Pirivena where he had his higher education.

Later, he was interested in painting frescoes on temple walls in his areas round about Negombo. Paint seemed to be mixed with his blood. The frescoes just flowed from his brush according to the traditions.

The late D C Wijewardane who was in charge of the execution of the work in the new section of the Kelaniya Temple went in search of this remarkable man to his home. He found him not only a good painter but also a great student of history.
Wijewardena sent Soliyas Mendis on a study tour to Ajanta, Ellora and Bagh caves to see for himself what the old Buddhist artists had painted. He came back inspired and fired by the masterpieces in these Buddhist caves. But he had made no notes, copied no pictures, taken no photographs.

Out of these masterpieces of the past in India, out of the extant ancient frescoes in Ceylon, out of his own imagination and out of the historical traditions of the Sinhalese, Soliyas Mendis re-created in modern Ceylon something of his own on the walls of Kelaniya for nearly twenty years.

These pictures painted at Kelaniya may be considered the best work done in Ceylon since the Polonnaruwa period (12th century AC) , if not Sigiriya (5th cen AC).

….When Mendis had finished all but the last fresco in the Kelaniya Temple, for some mysterious reason, he was requested not to proceed with the work. The last fresco was to be the biggest, the best, as the background to the new seated Buddha of granite in the innermost shrine room, the Hall of Perfumes. A white wandering artist of a very mediocre type was brought in to paint this last bit of bare wall. How out of place, out of time with the rest of the paintings, this last bit of work is apparent to anybody who visits the Kelaniya Temple.

Showing the Himalayas with a wealth of an alien kind of blue and white the picture is a cultural hammer blow to good taste and appropriateness of things.

This barbaric treatment of a man who had dedicated his life to a mission of art at what may be considered not very attractive rates left a very bad taste in the mouth.

Mendis, in unexpected disgust, gave up for ever painting and retired to his village to live once again the life of a farmer. He had bought a small coconut estate out of the money he had been paid for his work. Here he built a house and gifted both estate and house as an orphanage to the nation.

A simple peasant, Mendis is. But he is the only genius we have produced who could not only create something new of his own but who could also give away in a spirit of self-sacrifice all that he had made in the attempt.

19 thoughts on “Solias Mendis, a great Buddhist artist

  1. Is anyone else having a problem viewing the images after the first one? It’s the only one I can see.

    Also, I ordered and paid for a copy of White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes a few months ago, but never received it.

    • Is anyone else having a problem viewing the images after the first one? It’s the only one I can see.

      They work fine for me. Otherwise you can follow the link.

      Also, I ordered and paid for a copy of White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes a few months ago, but never received it.

      That’s bad, my apologies. I will look into this and get back to you.

    • Selling and shopping :-) “monks, monks…” *headshake* “and their costumers” shameful… and on the other side playing Robin Hood by making something that is not ones own to “public domain” …
      So what about the pictures? I have read that they are owned by Lakpura Travels. Of cause, Sri Lankan people do not much care about such and so will also not know about eventually misuse.
      Just to get sure, that nobody eventually making a copy of the picture and use it further would make a eventually similar fault.

      Stealing does not seem to be a cardinal fault for monks today any more. So its easy seen as a not so good sample and need some clearance.

    • Just to clarify, Johann, my books are available on Lulu.com, which does not charge any royalties, but has a minimum fee for printing and postage. I do this only because it is a convenient way to make the Dhamma available. I don’t make any money out of it. My books are all available to download for free, and can be printed and distributed without limitations.

    • And resold. Poor people that they need to charge money for a Dhamma gift. Maybe you should donate them some money. I am sure lulu came and asked: “Dear Venerable, we like to resell your books.” Or does this shop and undertaking just work on wish?

      Nice that everybody is free to take.

      But actually I was asking, if those pictures are under “Public domain” and free to take not to be taken with having maybe taken what has not left behind yet.

    • Maybe you like to write a book about the relation of taking what is not given and the environmental impacts of it, measured on the Dhamma-Business and Entertainment industry.
      I am sure that would be a nice huge forest for some meditation retreats. But better write a book first and make it printable on demand.

    • Johann,

      You clearly have a very strongly held point of view and a lot to say about it. Please consider starting a blog where you can present your ideas and sincere concerns about Buddhist practitioners in the 21st century in a positive and constructive way.

      When you come to internet sites like this one that are run by others with their own views and concerns, you are a contributor to the blogosphere. What you are expressing may be valid and sincere, but expressing it in the way that you’re doing at this blog is called “trolling.” Typically, moderators would not allow you to engage in trolling at their sites because it appears to be intended to denigrate other readers who write comments on posts and to express disdain for the author of the posts.

      Please consider reducing your apparently disdainful comments at this site to a minimum and writing about your ideas and concerns in a more positive and constructive way at a more appropriate forum.

    • Brc,

      Could you already manage a to get your book? Hopefully you will write us some feedback about it. Some may still be in doubt if they should invest or not. That would be more than useful to keep the good wheel turning.

      I will try my best to make all as good as possible positive for you and other, so that wholesome topics might be not disturbed by such adhammic cross-questions and off-topics. I am really interested if the printed pictures would look as nice as the blogged.

      Its really important to get other known a little in discussions and trading with each other and that requires even a long time and much attentive observation.

      Maybe I consider to less…or the wrong thoughts. I will give it a thought.

  2. Many thanks for an inspiring post. If there is an opportunity, we would very much like to offer you hospitality when you visit Kandy in December .

    In the Dhamma,
    Visakha and Ken

    • Hi Visakha and Ken,

      Thanks so much, that’s very kind. I’d love to meet you and see the work you’re doing. I’ll email you with the contacts for the organizers and we’ll see what we can do.

    • Amazing! I wish I was allowed to see it. Sounds classic: an English Pali professor having to find the Pali word for “tea”! I’ll email Prof Gombrich and see whether we can get hold of the Pali text.

    • Outstanding sample how people make business with Dhamma, yes. This Gombrich is really worthy for unnoble prize with this deed.
      Not to speak that “monks” appreciate such. Attached to sensuality is attached to sensuality.

    • Friend Johann, there are better things to do in the internet than criticizing others in one way or another…may you be well and happy.

  3. A met(t)a quote, maybe general related to the Topic:

    Two kinds of people: those who listen attentively and critically to the Dhamma, and those who listen uncritically to other teachings.

    Ukkacita Sutta: Bombast

    “Monks, there are these two assemblies. Which two? The assembly trained in bombast and not in cross-questioning, and the assembly trained in cross-questioning and not in bombast.

    “And which is the assembly trained in bombast and not in cross-questioning?

    “There is the case where in any assembly when the discourses of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are recited, the monks don’t listen, don’t lend ear, don’t set their hearts on knowing them; don’t regard them as worth grasping or mastering. But when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, artful in sound, artful in expression, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited, they listen, they lend ear, they set their hearts on knowing them; they regard them as worth grasping & mastering. Yet when they have mastered that Dhamma, they don’t cross-question one another about it, don’t dissect: ‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They don’t make open what isn’t open, don’t make plain what isn’t plain, don’t dispel doubt on its various doubtful points. This is called an assembly trained in bombast, not in cross-questioning.

    “And which is the assembly trained in cross-questioning and not in bombast?

    “There is the case where in any assembly when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, artful in sound, artful in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited, the monks don’t listen, don’t lend ear, don’t set their hearts on knowing them; don’t regard them as worth grasping or mastering. But when the discourses of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are recited, they listen, they lend ear, they set their hearts on knowing them; they regard them as worth grasping & mastering. And when they have mastered that Dhamma, they cross-question one another about it and dissect it: ‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They make open what isn’t open, make plain what isn’t plain, dispel doubt on its various doubtful points. This is called an assembly trained in cross-questioning and not in bombast.”

  4. Yes – sexual discrimination and/or sexual exploitation of women always seems to be of the most boring, ordinary, banal and prolific in the “creative industries” music and the arts.

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