The Kandyan king, Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1780) was a great patron of the arts. It was during his time that some of the best paintings in upcountry temples were created. Among them, the Degaldoruva Raja Maha Vihara paintings stand out. Degaldoruva is just a few miles away from Kandy close to Kundasale and is well worth a visit to get an idea of the Kandyan style of paintings. Incidentally, the temples which received the patronage of the king came to be known as ?Raja Maha Viharas? and to this day they are identified as such. So when you next see a name board of a temple with the wording ?Raja Maha Vihara?, that means the king had given lands and other valuables to that temple.
While the Degaldoruva paintings were started by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, the king had died before they were completed. It was during the reign of his younger brother, King Rajadhi Rajasinghe, who succeeded him, that they were completed. After the work was done, the king had handed it over to Moratota Dhammarakhkhita Nayaka Thera, who was his teacher. Popularly known as Moratota Hamuduruwo, he was a very learned monk.
Four ?Sittara? painters are credited with the Degaldoruva paintings. Among them, Devendra Mulachari is regarded as the leader. Devaragampola Silvattenne Unnanase was the best known out of them. ?Silvat Unananses? were those who had become monks but not received higher ordination or ?upasampada?. In addition to Degaldoruva, he has also drawn the paintings at Ridi Vihara. Hiriyale Naide and Nilagama Patabendi are the other two painters.
Critics regard Degalduruva paintings as ones with great beauty and charm. The decorative paintings also indicate the customs, manners and social conditions of the time. Elephants are gaily decorated, the uniforms of attendants are clearly shown and the insignia of royalty well depicted.
Four Jataka tales are seen in the ?budu-ge?, the image house. These are portrayed as continuous stories. When the devotee walks from one end to the other, the story unfolds from beginning to end. Vessantara Jataka, Sattubhatta Jataka, Sutasoma Jataka and Mahaseelava Jataka are the four stories of the Bodhisatva which are depicted at Degaldoruva.
A feature of the paintings is that the figures, whether they be humans, animals, trees or any other, generally are of a uniform size. Another feature is that the back view of human figures are not shown. It is always the front view or the side view that the devotee sees. The trees take a stylised form where a tree is shown with branches and leaves spread on either side. A stream can be identified by a few fish swimming and some floral decorations. The prominent colours used are red and green. Colours were made from the bark of trees found in the village.
Apart from the Jataka tales, the life of the Buddha is also painted. The ?Mara Yudde? - the war with Mara - is one of the most prominent paintings at Degaldoruva. There are several features of the Mara depicted here. The Mara has five faces. The forces of Mara carry guns similar to the ones used by the Sinhalese and considered superior to the ones used by the Portuguese, who occupied the maritime provinces in the 16th century. These have been delicately portrayed.
While the Degaldoruva paintings are some of the finest portraying folk tradition, they also depict the clothes the people wore and the houses they lived in. The clothes show a distinct difference between what was worn by people in the low country and those worn by upcountry people. Inside the houses, the furniture is also shown. Thus these paintings are important in studying the social conditions in the 18th century.