Though you can find many guides and websites claiming superlatives, the well-preserved Aukana Buddha Statue is neither the tallest nor the biggest rock-cut sculpture, since the largest rock-cut Buddha statues are in China and Sri Lanka’s ancient Buduruwagala Buddha statue is taller and the modern rock-cut sculpture of Rambodagalla is much bigger. Nevertheless, with regards to the sheer size the Aukana Buddha is undoubtedly the most significant and impressive rock sculpture from the Anuradhapura period.
Description of the gigantic rock-cut Sculpture of Aukana
Concerning volume, the Aukana statue is actually the largest of the ancient Buddhist sculptures on the island, since the Buduruwagala Buddha is not as wide and as deep, and the bigger Rambodagalla Buddha is very new. The Aukana Buddha statue measures 3 metres (10 feet) across the shoulders and is 11.8 metres (39 feet) tall, rising above a decorated lotus plinth (Padmasana), which is also cut from the rock. The total height above ground level is almost 14 metres (46 feet). Originally, the Aukana Buddha statue had been placed within a large image, of which foundation walls still remain.
The splendour of the Aukana is not only its size but all the more its beauty and its technical perfection. Locals say, that on a rainy day droplets of water falling off the tip of the Buddha's nose hit the ground exactly between the toes, proving the accuracy of the sculptor. The Aukana Buddha is a masterpiece of fine arts, too. Particularly the robe is noteworthy. Its delicate carving reveals the underlying form of the Buddha’s body. As in the case of many other Buddha statues, the body seems to be neither male nor female. In accordance with the South Indian Amaravati style, the robe in single groves is draped over the left shoulder to fall over the left shoulder up to the ankle, whereas the right shoulder is left bare. From the Buddha’s curled hair there sprouts the flame called Siraspata signifying supreme enlightenment. The Aukana Buddha Statue shows an otherwise rarely seen gesture called Asisa Mudra (Ashisha Mudra), which is indicating both blessing and pointing in a direction. Asisa Mudra is only shown by standing Buddha statues. Most of the Buddhas in Asisa Mudra are from Sri Lanka, this gesture is not found in Northern India or other parts of Asia. But some examples of Asisa Mudra are known from South India’s Amaravati art, too.
Name "Aukana" - and Best Time to visit
The best time of the day to view this statue is dawn, when the rays of the morning sun pick out the gracefully carved robe. It is often claimed that “Aukana” means “sun eating” in Sinhalese language. There are many different transliterations of the Sinhala term in English. In books and on maps you will find spellings such as Avukana, Awkana, Aukene. The correct pronunciation is stressing the first syllable, which sounds like "ou" in "loud", not like "au" in "laud". the two other "a"s in "Aukana" are pronounced more like short "e"s than "a"s, altogether the name sounds like "Ow-kene".
Debated Dating of the Aukana Buddha
The construction of the immense Aukana statue is often ascribed to the reign King Dhatusena in the second half of the 5th century C.E., because he was actually the builder of the nearby great reservoir called Kalawewa. Even the current wikipedia article (retrieved 24.11.2022) attributes the statue to the 5th century. The main reference for ascribing the giant Buddha statue of Aukana to King Dhatusena is verse 38.66 of the Mahavamsa, belonging to the second part (also called Chulavamsa) of Sri Lanka’s most important ancient chronicle. The verse mentions that Dhatusena added Bodhisattva statues to the Kalasela Buddha statue. “Kalasela” means „black stone“. There is no indication that this term refers to the Aukana Buddha. Neither is the granite of the Aukana Buddha dark, quite the opposite, nor does the chronicle state that the “Kalasela” statue is large or situated in in front of a rock or a standing image at all. And if the Mahavamsa should be taken literally, Dhatusena did not order the construction of this “Kalasela” statue but donated additional statues of Bodhsattvas to accompany it. Stylistically, the Aukana Buddha, like most Buddha statues in Sri Lanka, is influenced by the South Indian Amaravati art. The heydeys of Amravati are even earlier than Dhatusena’s reign, but the Amaravati style of Buddhist art continued to develop in the periods of Pallava and Chola hegemony in Southern India. The style of the Aukana Buddha seems to be that of the late Anuradhapura time. For stylistical reasons, it seems more likely, that the Aukana statue is a work of art from the ninth century or one century earlier or later. In this case, it would be contemporary to other giant Buddha sculptures in the south of Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, the outstanding achievement of religious art called Aukana Buddha today is not mentioned in the ancient chronicles. This irritating fact may be explained by the assumption, that the magnificent statue was a creation of a rivalling faction within the Buddhist community, ignored by the chroniclers who belonged to the strict Theravada tradition of Anuradhapura’s Mahavihara order. The dating to the late Anuradhapura period could be confirmed by an inscription on a granite slab at the northern wall of the shrine, which found and deciphered in 1952. This inscription is dated to the late 8th century.
Aukana is situated 180 km northeast of Colombo and 50 km south of Anuradhapura