The lyrical, hallucinatory novel Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje is a gripping exploration of life during Sri Lanka’s long civil war. It’s rich with intimate details that tell a larger story, including the tradition of the painters known as artificers.
In Buddhist practice, the eyes of a Buddha statue are painted last — and the artist may not gaze into the eyes of the Buddha while he paints. The power of the just-opened eye would be too much for a mortal to bear. So, in a display of otherworldly dexterity and artistry, the artificer paints over his shoulder, using only the reflection in a mirror — and, perhaps, divine intervention — as a guide for his brush.
This excerpt from Anil’s Ghost (recommended in the Sri Lanka episode of our podcast) describes the ritual:
There is a ceremony to prepare the artificer during the night before he paints. You realize, he is brought in only to paint the eyes on the Buddha image. The eyes must be painted in the morning at five. The hour the Buddha attained enlightenment. The ceremonies therefore begin the night before, with recitations and decorations in the temples. Without the eyes there is not just blindness, there is nothing. There is no existence. The artificer brings to life sight and truth and presence. Later he will be honoured with gifts. Lands or oxen. He enters the temple doors. He is dressed like a prince, with jewellery, a sword at his waist, lace over his head. He moves forward accompanied by a second man, who carries brushes, black paint and a metal mirror._
He climbs a ladder in front of the statue. The man with him climbs too. This has taken place for centuries, you realize, there are records of this since the ninth century. The painter dips a brush into the paint and turns his back to the statue, so it looks as if he is about to be enfolded in the great arms. The paint is wet on the brush. The other man, facing him, holds up the mirror, and the artificer puts the brush over his shoulder and paints in the eyes without looking directly at the face. He uses just the reflection to guide him — so only the mirror receives the direct image of the glance being created. No human eye can meet the Buddha’s during the process of creation. Around him the mantras continue. May thou become possessed of the fruits of deeds…. May there be an increase on earth and length of days… Hail, eyes!_
His work can take an hour or less than a minute, depending on the essential state of the artist. He never looks at the eyes directly. He can only see the gaze in the mirror._
Poet Oliver Rice was American, born in Missouri, near the old stomping grounds of Mark Twain. But he traveled the world, taking an active interest in other languages and cultures. He brings the gift of an outsider’s perspective to this poem, published in 2004, during the civil war that began in 1983. His words transport us to Sri Lanka with poignant details, capturing the contradictions between the island’s striking beauty and ruthless politics.
the coasts of mangrove, lagoon, river delta.
exactly at the hour of Buddha’s enlightenment.
the prawn sellers are out.
where they dig on their knees.
the ritual mirror he bears.
the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
of the struggle for independence.
who otherwise keeps records for the tax collector.
the fish drying on the beach.
grounds where they were surreptitiously buried.
whereupon it is transformed into the god.
Someone wails behind the rusty bars of a window.
debris from the bombing of a casino.
This is the artist being led away blindfolded.
A dog fight breaks out in the schoolyard.
Oliver Rice (1921-2016) grew up in rural Missouri and served as a US Navy pilot during WWII. He earned a doctorate in literature and was an accomplished pianist. While living and working in Singapore, he co-translated a volume of modern Malay verse, the first translation of Malay poets for an English-speaking audience. During his lifetime, he published 700 poems in publications around the world, including his collection On Consenting to be Man and US Poet Laureate Billy Collin’s anthology 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. Oliver Rice won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
The Buddha above is found at Gal Vihara (‘rock monastery’), a collection of 12th-century stone statues of Buddha in the Sri Lankan city of Polonnaruwa. Carved into the face of a large rock of granite gneiss, the four statues — the large seated figure above, another smaller seated figure, a standing figure (that’s maybe not Buddha after all), and a reclining figure — are thought to represent the different stages of the Buddha’s life.
Top image courtesy of Sean Hsu/Shutterstock.
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