© 2023 Dr Margaret Sheppard

Deities Hierarchy Ceremonies Sakra Guardians Twelve Deities


Vishnu  or Upulvan  as he is known in Sri Lanka, is one of the Four Guardian Deities of Sri Lanka and he is believed to be the guardian of Buddhist philosophy and protector of Buddhism in Sri Lanka..

His name Uppalavanna, means the colour of the blue water lily and he is depicted in images with a blue body. Sakka, the Lord of the Deities is reputed to have entrusted him with guardianship of Sri Lanka  and Buddha’s sacred teachings at the request of Lord Buddha himself, before Lord Buddha passed away from earthly existence. Uppulvan then arrived on theisland to carry out his mission.

There is a major shrine to him at Dondra Temple in the South where the annual Esala (July) Perahera is held in his honour - see section on Peraheras

Entrance to Dondra Temple. Crowds gathered for July Perahera procession in honour of Upulvan/Vishnu.

Temple image  of Upulvan/Vishnu in his role of guardian of Buddhist sacred teachings

Legend relates that Upulvan/Vishnu  has been reincarnated nine times. During each of these lives he performed heroic acts  such as restoring the over-lordship of Earth to the Deities and generally freeing the Earth from Evil. The legends relate that during his  eighth re-incarnation as  Rama, he killed the demon King Ravana, who had abducted his beautiful wife Sita, carrying her to Sri Lanka. In this he was helped by the  evil King Ravana’s brother Vibhisana, who shocked by his brother’s wicked actions, especially the kidnapping of Sita, left Sri Lanka to join Rama’s army.

Vibhisana  was able to reveal not only Ravana’s military  tactics to Rama and also the secret that would enable Rama to overcome the immortality of the evil King Ravana in the final battle. -  Ravana’s could only be killed by drying the store of the “nectar of immortality” that he carried in his stomach .

Following the death of his evil brother Upulvan was then appointed the King of Lanka.

Apart from being depicted with a blue body, typically  (especially in Hindu Temples and Shrines) he is shown with four arms. His hands holding four objects in them which represent  four of the main aspects for which he is responsible::

    The conch which produces the sound 'Om', denoting the sound of creation

    A discus: symbolises the mind

    The lotus flower: an example of glorious existence and liberation

    The mace: representing mental and physical strength

He is usually shown either standing upright on a lotus flower  his wife Lakshmi (Sita is a reincarnation of Lakshmi)  often nearby, or resting on the coils of a large snake with Laksmi massaging his feet. The Milky Ocean surrounds them.   He rides on the King of Birds, Garuda, who is an eagle.)

Another legend relates  how the Deities became immortal by finally defeating  the demons who had taken over the universe.

Vishnu/Upulvan advised the other Deities to churn the Milky Ocean in order to recover important lost treasures including the elixir of immortality and the beautiful Deity, Laksmi who was to become his wife and the Deity of success and wealth.

As the Deities would not be able to churn the Milky Ocean alone, Vishnu/Upulvan made a deal with the demons that if they would assist with the churning they could have a share of the lost treasures. As one of these was the elixir of immortality, they agreed to help the Deities.

Vishnu/Upulvan’s plan was to use Mount Madura as the churning stick and the giant serpent Vesuki, as the rope to turn it. The “rope” was secured around the mountain and Vishnu/Upulvan organised the demons to pull on Vasuki’s head - he was spitting dangerously - and the Deities pulled on the tail. The two sides pulled on Vasuki alternately rotating the mountain in the Milky Ocean.

They churned and churned but faced many more problems. The mountain began to sink into the soft, sandy sea bed. Vishnu/Upulvan re-incarnated as a turtle and supported the mountain on his back. The churning continue for a thousand years before any treasures floated to the surface.

When the elixir of immortality finally rose to the surface, the demons rushed to grab it. Vishnu/Upulvan quickly transformed himself into a beautiful woman. The demons were dazzled by her beauty failed to notice that Vishnu/Upulvan had substituted the elixir of immortality for strong alcohol whilst at the same time returning the elixir to the Deities.

Lakshmi then rose up in the ocean. She was standing on a lotus flower. The Deities were all arrayed before her but she  chose Vishnu/Upulvan as the most worthy to be her eternal companion and they have been together ever since.

 Please note here are related only  very briefly some of the legends concerning this Deity. There is a wealth of much more detailed information on Internet and  references to useful texts.

Image outside Shrine dedicated to Kataragama in Hill Country. Here seen riding on Garuda - the Eagle

Pilgrims visiting a Shrine within a Munneswaram Temple, Chilaw District, to make offerings.

Note the image of a reclining Vishnu, the snakes and his wife massaging his feet.