Sigiriya, the lion rock
This a account of our visit to Sigiruya in Sri Lanka in 2004
Traveling to Serendip was a long nurtured dream. Working as we were then at the Manipal College of Medical Sciences in Pokhara, Nepal, we had a large number of Sri Lankan students, many of whom had often invited us to visit their country. Once, returning from a vacation, a group of them brought a huge collection of travel literature for us. As a seasoned traveler knows, reading about a place and planning the trip is half the fun and we spent many happy hours in the Emerald Isle, albeit that of our imagination.
But when the opportunity came it was unexpected. Susmita was going to Sri Lanka: she had been invited to address the Annual Conference of the College of Anesthesiologists. Would I also like to come? You bet I would! The trip however would last only three days, so Colombo, Kandy, Sigiriya and Dambulla would be our destinations this time. The beaches of the Deep South and the National Parks of the East Coast, not to speak of Anuradhapura and Adam’s Peak would have to await another for another day.
The story today is that of Sigiriya. Little known in India, this ancient archeological site lays claim, In Sir Arthur C Clark’s words to be the eighth wonder of the world. Declared a world heritage site in 1982, it lies 90 odd kilometers North of Kandy and is part of the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. The journey is out of the world. The highway leaves Kandy over the Mahawadi River. There had been a three month drought that year, but the river was full and well it might be because all around it lay dense greenery and forests. The narrow highway is fairly busy. In about two hours time we drove past Dambulla and on to Sigiriya.
Sigiriya is a rock fortress. In the middle of the forest, suddenly a rock is seen looming, more than 200 meters high. On this rock, in the 5th century AD, King Kashyap built a palace and laid out gardens at its base. Legend says that it was inhabited even earlier- Ravana it is said had his palace atop this rock. Long lost to human memory it was rediscovered by 19th century British archeologists.
King Kashyap overthrew his father in 473AD.The story goes that this cruel king in association with his cousin Migora walled up his father alive so that he starved to death. The cause of this regicide is said to be the fact that Kashyap was the son of King Dhatusena by a concubine and therefore ineligible to succeed to the throne. During this palace coup his half brother Mogglana, who was the crown prince fled across the Palk Straits to India, swearing revenge.
Kashyap was to rule but never in peace. Throughout his 18 year reign, he feared an invasion from Moggalena and to protect himself from this anticipated attack, he built himself a fortress on this rock. His winter palace he built atop the rock where a two storied building was built with all comforts, including a huge throne and a series of bathing pools for his harem. It is obvious that whatever his other faults, Kashyap was a giant builder. It must have been difficult 1500 years ago to transport building material to this spot. The bricks, timber and other building material had to be then dragged up the rock to build was must have been a dream pavilion.
Kashyap was also fond of the Arts. About halfway up the rock, in a gallery cut from the rock, he commissioned a series of frescoes. Considered to be the only ancient nonreligious paintings in Sri Lanka, these paintings rival the Ajanta paintings in their colour and artistry. Beautiful women, often bare breasted, resplendent with jewellery still speak of the magnificent craftsmen who painted them. Alas only 22 paintings remain, a large number were vandalized, with tar in 1967.
Adjacent to this ancient art gallery is a wall, the Mirror Wall. This wall built by the same craftsmen was coated with a mirror smooth glaze where one can still see one’s reflection. This is itself remarkable, but even more so is the fact that this wall was defaced by graffiti – but over a thousand years ago. The graffiti inscribed here between 600 and 1000 AD have been the subject of intensive study by archeologists and scholars of the Sinhalese language as they bear evidence to the development of the language and script of the island nation. About 100 have been deciphered and they speak of universal emotions. One graffiti read ‘the ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon me. As I see the resplendent ladies, heaven appears to be not as good”.Mmmmm!
We reached Sigiriya at about 11 AM in the morning and the three month drought seemed was ending. Coming from Pokhara, the “Cherrapunji of Nepal” it was no wonder that rain gods followed us to the hills of Sri Lanka. The admission tickets are costly, 15 US dollars a person, 1440 Sri Lankan or around 770 Indian Rupees. We tried to ask for a SAARC rate, but there was nothing doing! English speaking guides come at 10 US Dollars. We managed to get Sunil for 8 dollars, probably because his English was not one of the best. (He was, However, well up on Bollywood movies! Inevitably!)
The gardens surround the rock. They are also ringed by a huge moat which goes round the entire perimeter. King Kashyap had the moats filled with crocodiles and there were just three entrances, a South, North and East entrance. As we crossed the moat, the gardens were upon us. These are probably the oldest landscaped gardens of the world. One section of the gardens has been excavated and it is possible to visualize the tanks, covered drains and fountains. There were three distinct forms of garden; water gardens, caves and boulder gardens. A little imagination can easily populate these gardens with trees flowers, birds and dancing girls as they were in those days.
We crossed the gardens in a light drizzle. The rock itself was sheathed with clouds which parted briefly to show tiny ant like figures toiling halfway up the rock. Sunil showed us a pool , where the king used to bathe. At the base of the mountain are some more caves. These caves also had frescoes, some of which still exist. Most however were erased by the Buddhist monks who took over the area after the fall of Kashyap. No doubt, the bare breasted women were unsuitable illustrations for a monastic refuge!
We sweated up the rock. Steps, some ancient, some built fairly recently (In 1934!). At places modern steel stairways have been placed and one such stairway leads to the fresco gallery. The colours are magnificent and the artwork really outstanding. We then crossed the mirror wall and examined the graffiti. Still seen clearly in the glaze are words written by a tourist like me, but more than a thousand years ago. The handwriting was excellent, unlike the” Roma Loves Sekhar” types we see today cluttering up innumerable Indian monuments.
Beyond the wall lies a platform. At the base of the platform are the enormous lion paws between which we have to pass to reach the summit. In Kashyap’s time, the path lead inside the lion’s mouth to the upper reaches. However the rest of the lion has disappeared and only the paws remain to tell us of its magnificence. This lion it was that named the rock Sigiriya: the lion rock. A stiff climb later and we were at the summit. Here the four acre area was covered by palaces, today only the foundations remain. On three sides, even today are the dense forests and it was here on a stone throne that still exists that Kashyap sat, watching the dancing girls perform in a series of terraced gardens below.
Kashyap’s story however does not have a happy ending. 18 years after he sat on the throne, his half brother came across the jungles with a huge army of elephants to claim his kingdom. Kashyap was trapped in a swamp during the epic battle that followed and his troops crossed over to the other side (as all sensible troops in the subcontinent always did as soon as they knew which way the wind was blowing) and Kashyap committed suicide.
Later the fortress was the refuge of Buddhist monks who contemplated Nirvana in the same caves that had once housed Kashyap’s soldiers. Gradually however the site was abandoned and after the 14th century it was a distant military outpost of the Kingdom of Kandy. Even later, the jungle took over and the site was, as I have already mentioned rediscovered by British archeologists chief of whom was H C P Bell. One recent study has claimed that the area has been under almost continuous occupation for 20, 000 years which leads one to wonder if there might be something in the Ravana’s place story after all!
Coming down, Sunil pointed out other places where the king used to hold court, relax with friends, and dispense justice. The rain had stopped and a cool breeze transformed the ruins to the king’s pleasure gardens once more. Down the rock our car awaited. 3 hours later we were in Colombo.