Among the earliest sculptural art are those which adorn the stelae of the Vahalkadas or frontispieces of the large size stupas of the early period.
Examples for these are found in places like Kantaka Cetiya at Mihintale, Dakkhina Stupa, Ruwanvalisaya, Mirisavatiya (now collapsed and re-built), Abhayagiriya and Jetavana Stupa at Anuradhapura.
The material used for these sculptures is limestone of a coarse-grained variety which is not very durable.
Stylistically these scuptures exhibit the influence of the sculptures of Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and Jaggayapeta, and belong to a period between the second and the fourth centuries.
However, the sculptures of the eastern and western Vahalkadas of the Kantaka Cetiya are different from the above both stylistically and in subject matter. The carvings on the stelate are in an archaic style which reminds us of the sculptures of Bharhut and Sanci.
The faces of the stelae are divided into a number of square panels by the bead and reel pattern, or by semi-circular lines. In the square panels are motifs such as the elephant, a decorated vase with leaves and flowers issuing from it, a peacock with young and a palmette design.
The Vahalkadas are of brick construction. However, the lower portion of the faces are of limestone. The stonework of the eastern and southern frontispieces are in a good state of preservation.
The Vahalkadas of Kantaka Cetiya are profusely ornamented. On the cornice below the topmost one is a frieze of ganas (the dwarfs) and on the one further below is a fieze of hamsas (geese). The brickwork above the facing contains arched niches between plasters.
In these niches were the images of deities made of stucco or terracotta. Some of these images are still seen in position though they are not well preserved. These and the whole structure of the Vahalkadas were originally painted.
The stelae at the Kantaka Cetiya are surmounted by figures of animals facing the four sides. The elephant faces the eastern side, while the lion, horse and the bull face and northern, western and southern sides respectively. These figures of animals are believed to symbolize the four quarters.
The friezes of ganas mentioned above are interesting from the religious point of view. Many of those figures are portrayed in varous attitudes.
Particularly interesting is an elephant headed Gana with tusk attended by other ganas. If this is considered to be the figure of Ganapati then, according to Alice Getty, it can be the oldest figure of this god ever discovered.
The relic casket of polished black earthenware which was discovered in the unknown Stupa at Mihintale is the oldest and also the most important specimen of ceramic art so far found in Sri Lanka. This casket, which is cylindrical in shape, is formed of three pieces. It is believed to be a relic casket brought to Sri Lanka from India in the 3rd or 2nd Century B.C.
The moonstones, balustrades, and guardstones that adorn the doorstep of ancient monastic buildings are important pieces of sculptural art. The examples of these at Mihintale belong to several stages of its evolution. These examples undoubtedly help us to understand the history of art in Sri Lanka.
The moonstone which is called Sandakada pahana in Sinhalese is a semi-circular slab of stone at the beginning of a flight of steps which lead to the ancient monuments and in particular to the religious buildings.
This sculptural element is also referred to as patika in Pali literature as well as in the Mahavamsa. The Samantapasadika explains the word patika by calling it a half moon shaped stone, the addha-canda-pasana which in Sinhala is called Sandakada pahana.
The two sides of the entrance to these religious or secular buildings were decorated with guardstones flanked by a pair of balustrades plain at the beginning but later decorated. The beginning of these so-called guardstones or muragal as they are known in Sinhala, was a pair of dressed rectangular slabs of stone with no sculptures on it.
The earliest of these were shaped archwise at the top and remained rectangular at the base both in plan and elevation. This was achieved by chiselling off the corners of the rectangular slab of stone. At the next stage of its development the shape at the top was made more elaborate by raising its centre smoothly to a point at the apex. The first attempt at decorating the guardstone is seen with the sculptural design of a purnaghata (Sinh: punkalasa) a full pot with lotus buds or flowers which symbolises prosperity.
It appears that this idea “arose out of the concept of placing a symbol of luck at the entrance to a building. In some instances a solid rock is cut into a form of a full pot and placed at the two sides of the entrances as a pot of plenty. Examples for these are seen at the site of the Indikatusaya monastery and in the full pot decorated slabs of stones at the monastic buildings near the beginning of the flight of steps to the Mihintale mountain.
The pair of balustrades that join the guardstones at the entrance were simple slabs of stone with no decoration at the start but later like the guardstones and the moonstones, became elaborate and decorative. Examples for this development also can be observed at Mihintale.
A complete Naga guardstone has seven cobra-hoods, the flowering spring, the pot of plenty and the dwarfs, and the naga king. The flowers of the sprig are stylized and those on the pot rise tier over tier. The arch above these figures is profusely sculptured with figures of double makara heads.
The Sinha Pokuna or the the Lion Pond is described as a handsome specimen of bold artistic work of its kind in granite to be found anywhere in the country. The water from the mountain is brought down to discharge through the open mouth of the standing lion. The faces of the pond above the lion figure are decorated with sculptures depicting dancers, musicians, elephants, lions and wrestlers, which are great works of artistic quality.