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The Dwelling of the War God: the Art and Architecture of Embekke Devāle in Medieval and Early Modern Sri Lanka


Embekke devāle (house of god) is a Hindu temple dated to the fourteenth to eighteenth century of the Gampola and Kandy periods. Located in Embekke village in central Sri Lanka, the temple is dedicated to god Skandha, the god of war and victory. The central paradox of Embekke devāle is that it is a Hindu temple within a predominantly Sinhala Buddhist community with unusual woodcarvings in its Digg-ge (pillared hallway). The carvings are neither exclusively Hindu nor Buddhist and their purpose remains an ambiguity. By analyzing the historical shifts of the Gampola and Kandy periods, when the devāle was built and perhaps renovated, I propose that the fluidity of religious and social identities resulted in the eclectic collection of art and architecture in Embekke devāle and its contemporaneous temples, the Gadaladeniya and Lankātilaka temples. I also argue that rather than being an example of Sri Lankan art that lacks a prototype, the iconography of Embekke woodcarvings draws from designs and motifs that are prevalent within the broader scope of South Asian art. Instead of isolating the woodcarvings as a collection that is specific to Sri Lanka, I place Embekke devāle in a more cosmopolitan historical setting where exchange of art and iconography took place frequently between sites and kingdoms. I propose that the appropriation of the pillars from a royal audience hall into a Hindu shrine has re-articulated the Digg-ge’s architectural space; the variety of seemingly secular and non-secular mythical motifs in the woodcarvings create a visual transitionary point for the devotees as they move from the mundane to the sacred. Instead of compartmentalizing the historical narrative, I address the significant South Indian presence in Gampola and Kandy that is underscored by exchanges with South India and migrant artisans of the Viśvakarma caste. In conclusion, I argue that as a visual testament to the cultural syncretism during the diverse period between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, Embekke devāle along with its two neighboring temples reflects the continuation of both Sri Lankan and South Indian architectural designs in Medieval and Early Modern central Sri Lanka.

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