Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Kitsch Devils at Wewurukannala Buddhist Temple

A couple of kilometres off the main road in the southern Sri Lankan town of Dikwella stands the Buddhist temple of Wewerukannala. It's not really signposted and as it's both off the old main road (and now kilometres off the new motorway), it gets precious few visitors. That said it's one of the most interesting of all the Buddhist temples on the island because of its collection of gruesome statues and cartoon illustrations.
The main rooms contain a reclining and a sitting Buddha. Both are about 30 feet high and quite impressive in their own right, perched on shoulder high platforms and surrounded by dozens of smaller (and lesser) statues all garishly painted. But round the back and underneath the huge 30 metre high seated Buddha lies a fabulously kitsch chamber of Buddhist horrors. The large room and underground tunnel is packed full of statues and cartoons depicting the punishments you are likely to get if you sin.
All possible sins are described in the illustrations - with the relevant punishment drawn in striking clarity underneath. Some are illustrated in the form of gruesome life-size statues. Most involve some type of extreme pain: stabbing, flaying, cutting or just  burning on a fire. Though the explanations are in Sinhalese (and therefore lost on me), it's obvious that even the most simple misdemeanour requires the full force of the law. Even looking at another woman, married or not, seems to warrant losing a limb (with no anaesthetic of course) at the very least. It's enough to give kids nightmares!

Here's the devil king issuing judgements on the poor unfortunate sinners. The crimes are depicted in cartoons under which the relevant punishments are illustrated in graphic detail. There's no sign of home detention or hours of social work. Everything involves stabbing, cutting, skewering or some other form of intense pain.
As with most portrait photography, one of the best ways to approach the subject is to use a shallow depth of field.
In this case I used an EF85mm f1.8 lens which isolated the statues from the very busy backgrounds nicely.
Shooting at such an extreme wide aperture means you have to be very careful that the 'right' part of the subject is focused on (normally the eyes) otherwise the effect is lost.
Not much maintenance is done here - note the insect nests in the devil's teeth and ear!
Probably being punished for uttering non-Buddhist comments.
Hopefully this fate befalls politicians.
Seems like an apt punishment for telling porkies...
The front part of Wewurukannala temple is almost normal, with a range if brightly painted Buddhist statues and some nice murals in the background.
A reclining Buddha in the same hall with quite a beautiful mural immediately behind.
Close up of one of the lesser statuettes showing amazing detail.
Most temple interiors are poorly lit so you have to shoot at very high ISO settings (1600 - 3200). Here the light from the front door boosted the illumination allowing me to shoot at ISO 640.
On a small camera high ISO can mean quite noisy or grainy results.
Most temples here are OK with tripods, but failing that, I have found a monopod to be incredibly handy to stabilise shots while keeping the ISO low.
Another statue detail of a male character who is not Sinhalese but probably a trader.
Another demonic close-up...
This is a gruesome penalty; being sawn in half with a hand-operated bow saw - and it looks so easy!
As if 30 or so statues aren't enough to ram home the "You must behave yourself..." mantra, Wewurukannala also features around 100 illustrations like this capturing all the other things you can get into trouble for.
None of the outcomes are covered by Medicare.

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