Sigiriya: The Magic Mountain
by Manik Sandrasagra
This paper is a free borrowing of ideas; from Ananda Coomarswamy and Rene Guenon as explained to me over several years (1971 to 1984) by the late Swami Gauribala also known as German Swami.
Swami Gauribala spent over thirty years studying Sihagiri, as he preferred to call it. At that time nobody was really interested, in what they called his 'theories'. Ever since Sihagiri was made a world heritage site, I have often been approached for Swami's diaries and notebooks.
Not wanting to pander to the vanity of academics and researchers seeking fame, recognition and honour through their publications, I have on purpose withheld these valuable handwritten notebooks from public scrutiny.
Sacred is secret and Sihagiri does not need the patronage of academics or expensive publications for its continuity as a centre of initiation transcending the three worlds. As Swami once wrote to me, "The age-old mysteries and initiatic centres are still working and fully alive; the Guru-Shishya-Parampara still works inspite of all the corruptions and distortions of the anti-tradition".
Saving Sihagiri for posterity and examining the few clues that it may occasionally throw up may mean work for archaeologists and researchers for several years, however unless they understand what they are dealing with, they will remain ignorant as to its essence and function. To them Sihagiri will remain a spectacular monument.
This article carries extracts from Swami Gauribala's note-books. Swami wrote nothing original, everything quoted is either from Guenon, Coomaraswamy or some other sacred text..
"A son of two mothers,
The centre or fixed point is known symbolically to all traditional people everywhere as the 'pole' or 'axis' around which the world rotates. This idea has been depicted as a wheel in the Celtic, Chaldeon and Hindu traditions. The true significance of symbols like the Cross and the Swastika, seen worldwide from the far-east to the far-west is that they are intrinsically the 'Sign of the Pole'.
Centres rose in ancient times as a result of a science called sacred or sacerdotal geography through which precise laws determined the position of cities and temples. Between the foundation of a town and the development of a doctrine, or a new form of tradition arising through adaptation to conditions defined by the time and place, there was a certain relationship which resulted in the construction of the town symbolising the unfolding of the doctrine.
Naturally, the most meticulous precautions were taken when selecting the site of a town destined to become the metropolis or centre for a specified area of the world, so that the names of such towns merit careful study, as do the reported circumstances of their founding. Such centres existed in pre-Hellenic Crete, and it seems that there were several in Egypt, probably founded in successive epochs, like Memphis and Thebes.
The corresponding testimony of all traditions worldwide is that an archetypal 'Holy Land' does exist; that it is the prototype for all other 'Holy Lands', the spiritual centre to which all others are subordinate. The 'Holy Land' is also the 'Land of the Saints', the 'Land of the Blessed', the 'Land of the Living', and the 'Land of Immortality'.
The 'Holy Land' in the present age, it is believed is defended by guardians who keep it hidden from profane view, while ensuring nevertheless a certain exterior communication, which to all intents and purposes is inaccessible and invisible to all except those possessing the necessary qualifications for entry.
Similar traditions concerning the earthly paradise are also well known, although little mentioned in public. In Islamic esotericism the 'green island' (el jezirah el-Khadrah) and the 'white mountain' (el jbabal el abiod) are well known. In the American traditions, 'Aztlan' is symbolised by a white mountain, while in India, the 'white isle' (shweta dweepa) is regarded as the 'Abode of the Blessed', a name easily identifiable as the 'Land of the Living'.
The Celtic tradition describes a 'green isle' as being the 'Isle of Saints' or 'Isle of the Blessed', in which at the centre stands the 'White Mountain', with its summit purple, never submerged by any flood.1 This 'Mountain of the Sun' as it is also called, is the equivalent of Meru, also entitled 'White Mountain'. Meru is said to be encircled by a green belt, by the fact of it being situated in the middle of an ocean, and a triangle of light radiates at its peak.
Cosmas writing about Lanka from the reports of Sopater in 550 AD states as follows:
"The temples are numerous, and one in particular, situated on an eminence, is the great hyacinth2,as large as a pine-cone, the colour of fire, and flashing from a distance, especially when catching the beams of the sun - a matchless sight".
"There are two Kings ruling at opposite ends of the island, one of whom possesses the hyacinth and the other the district, in which are the port and the emporium".
Cosmas, and with the Chinese Hiuen Tsang, in the following century, a story emerges of a priceless red ruby which was fixed on the top of a pagoda in Central Lanka.
Hayton had also heard of the great red ruby: "The king of Celan hath the largest ruby in existence. When his coronation takes place this ruby is placed in his hand and he goes round the city on horse back holding it in his hand, and thenceforth all recognise and obey him as their king."
Odoric too speaks of the great ruby and Kublai Khan's endeavours to get it.
Ibn saw it in the possession of Ariya Chakravarti, a Tamil Chief ruling at Patlam.
Friar Jordanus speaks of two great rubies belonging to the King of Sylen, each so large that when grasped in the hand it projected a finger's breadth at either side.
The fame, at least of these survived to the 16th Century for Andrea Corsali (1515) says: "They tell that the king of the island possesses two rubies of colour so brilliant and vivid that they look like the flame of fire."
Sir Emerson Tennant, on the subject, quotes from a Chinese work a statement that early in the 14th Century the Emperor sent an officer to Ceylon to purchase a carbuncle of unusual lustre. This was fitted as a ball to the Emperor's cap; it was upwards of an ounce in weight and cost 100,000 strings of cash. Everytime a great levee was held at night the red lustre filled the palace, and hence it was designated the red palace illuminator."3
The other references to this spectacular ruby are those in the Travels of Sindbad the Sailor from the Arab epic work, Tales of Arabian Nights as well as the Travels of Marco Polo.
In and around 400AD Sihagiri was the centre of Sri Lankan culture and Kassapa was the king whose temple - palace was Sihagiri. Was then a red ruby on the summit of Sihagiri and was it a part of Kassapa's regalia ?
The colour red represents the sun and all war gods. It is the masculine, active principle; fire, the sun, royalty, love, joy, festivity, passion, ardour, energy, ferocity, sexual excitement and blood lust. Also, according to Albertus Magnus (ca 1200-1280) stones such as the Hyacinth has the special power to disperse poison in air and vapour.
There are also other symbols in ancient traditions which represent the 'centre of the world', one of the most remarkable and widely spread of which is that of Omphalos. In Greek the word signifies 'umbilical', which in a general sense describes everything that is central, and in particular the hub of a wheel. The Sanskrit 'nabhi' has the same connotations as do various words in the Germanic and Celtic languages derived from the same root, found in the forms 'nab' and 'nav'.
The Terrestrial Paradise possessed other names as well. It was called 'Paradesha' which in Sanskrit means the 'Supreme Country' which applies well to the spiritual centre par excellence, also called the 'Heart of the World'. It is from this word that the Chaldeons formed 'Pardes' and westerners 'Paradise'. The Persian Alborj and Monsalvat of the Western Grail legend, the Arab mountain Qaf and the Greek Olympus all have the same meaning.
It can be clearly seen from the above that the idea of a spiritual centre - an island containing a 'sacred mountain' which is also the axis mundi between heaven and earth is found in all traditions. For a while such a locality may have a tangible existence (even though not all 'holy lands' were islands) however, there is also a symbolic meaning.
Historical facts, especially those pertaining to sacred history, translate in their own ways truths of a higher order owing to the law of correspondence which is the foundation of symbolism, and which unites all the words in total and universal harmony.
Considering the above, let us turn to Sihagiri and Lanka. Was Sihagiri designed as a city or could it have been much more ? Should not the origin myths of Lanka be considered when interpreting such important sites? Is it possible to understand the mind of spiritual man from our own materialistic perspective? Is it not better to leave things as they are without destroying the evidence? At present excavations are taking place without any clear basis, turning a vital part of our heritage into a giant western style 'theme park'.
The very name Lanka means 'resplendent isle' and in myth and legend and according to the oral tradition, it is 'Dhammadeepa' the 'isle of the blessed', where truth reigns. Every name given to Lanka has also a similar quality. Lakdiva, Serendib, Pomparippuwa, Ranbima, Tambapani, Sinhale, Eelam, Ceylon all suggest the same quality. We therefore live in a land that has been considered blessed from time immemorial.
In the centre of Lanka, like its heart stands a massive rock monolith first called Sihagiri and later Sigiriya. The original name can be loosely translated as 'Remembrance Rock' and the latter as 'Lion Rock'. Around this rock, there are fourth century A.D. remnants of perhaps the most magnificent buildings Lanka can boast of.
AIthough now declared a 'World Heritage Site', the written history of Lanka hardly describes the place. Even the name is only mentioned in four places in the Culavamsa, yet this is perhaps the most extensive edifice in Lanka. It is not impossible that the whole history of Sihagiri would have been different if a layman and not a Buddhist monk had been the author of the Culavamsa, a written history of Lanka.
This is the observation made by Wilhelm Geiger, the translator in his introduction to Part I of the Culavamsa. Continuing, Geiger stated that "Not what is said but what is unsaid is the besetting difficulty of Sinhalese history". May I add that to a tantric siddha like Swami Gauribala, who understood the Mahayana doctrines very well, Sihagiri made complete sense, based on its design and context.
Was Sihagiri a symbol of the cosmos with seven levels representing the seven heavens of the planets? Was it a junction between heaven, earth and hell through which the axis mundi passes? Through contending viewpoints and perspectives in the oral and written history of Lanka a conflict emerged between orthodoxy and heterodox in relation to traditional kingship, where the ideal was divinity and the King was also its High Priest. This sense of divinity was linked to the idea of the King becoming Varuna, one of the ancient Indian gods.
"As god of living waters, fertility and justice, and as a great king, Varuna belongs almost entirely to a settled order of things, to a city state and peasant culture of immemorial antiquity.
On the dark chthonic side of things, with its seasonal festivals, ritual eroticism, and possibly human sacrifice, the whole complex of ideas connected with Varuna and Aditi, Gandharvas and Apsaraas, etc. points backward to a great culture evolved with the beginnings of agriculture, and flourishing from the Mediterranean to the Indus, rather than to the priestly invention of later warlike peoples, such as the Persian or Indian Aryans. Varuna and Aditi in many respects suggest Tammuz and Ishthar.
The ideal of Kingship embodied in the original conception of Varuna may be said to have persisted in Indian culture up to the present day; it is very evident in the person of Rama. (Varuna changing into Prajapati, Purusa or Brahman, and Narayana or Vishnu. In the same way a succession of designations of the Great Mother and Earth Goddess can be recognised in Aditi, Ida, Dhisana, Prakrti, Vak and Laksmi and Bhumi Devi.) The ideal king is a Dharmaraja, an incarnation of justice, and the fertility and prosperity of the country depend upon the King's virtue; the direct connection between justice and rainfall here involved is highly significant.
Most prominent in the personality of Varuna are his connection with the celestial (upper) waters, and with holy order (rta) physical and moral; his kingship and justice, and the fetters (pasa) with which he binds the sinner and controls the waters.
The description of Varuna in the Vishnudharmottara, III.52, though late, is not without interest and significance. He rides in a chariot drawn by seven hamsas, said to represent the Seven Seas, he has an umbrella of dominion, and is supported by a makara. He has somewhat of a hanging belly (a paunch (udara) for treasure); he is four-handed (a post-Vedic development), holding the lotus and fetter (pasa) in his right hands, conch and jewel-vessel (ratna-patra) in the left. His wife is Gauri (in the Ramayana, Gauri or Varuni), holding a blue lotus is her left hand. Attendants are Ganga on the right, holding a lotus and standing on a makara, and Yamuna on the left, holding a blue lotus and standing on a tortoise, said to represent time (kala).
It will be seen that Varuna's original character as a great king, dispenser of justice and punisher of sin, lord of rivers and increase, is well preserved, and that the concrete symbolism is consistently and satisfactorily explained."4
(The history of Kassapa 1, who is associated with the Sihagiri legend is told in Chapters 38 and 39 of the Mahavamsa (Chulavamsa I and II).
Kassapa, brought up under Mahayana influence (Madhyamika and Prajnaparamita - Nagarjuna Ariya- deva: Bienlu, 13) dreams to become a cakravartin and rule from the central Mount Kailasa. He sacrifices his father for the sake of his ideal and tries to realise his dream by building the temple-palace at Sihagiri. By sacrificing Dhatusena he takes revenge for the killing of his guru by his father. Kassapa thus.
Let us digress for a moment to study Kataragama in southern Lanka. Here an unseen King represented by the colour red, rules from a royal palace with 505 courtiers in attendance following rituals instituted over 2000 years ago. Here lies the secret of traditional kingship where 'nobody' was King and everybody equal. Fertility and continuity was the only reality. The visible King follows the divine original. As to what the divine design may be, it is left in the hands of the purohita, the royal priest.
In Lankan history in around the fourth century A.D., a conflict arose between King Dhatusena and his first-born son Kassapa. Dhatusena's ideal of kingship differed from that of Kassapa. Kassapa followed the old path of 'the tortoise' as symbolised in Kataragama, while Dhatusena was an adherent of a city culture based in Anuradhapura. Power was based on water and its use. The Kala Wewa was Dhatusena's 'Gam Udawa' and he paid a price for his reckless innovation.
Their conflict is a story of opposing viewpoints on what constitutes kingship, with Brahmins, Shamans and Priests on both sides fighting over definitions and ideals. Sihagiri was never the capital of Śrī Lanka. It was however, the symbol of Lankan kingship, with bringing rain in time being one of its main functions. It is also a mandala, wherein an ascent up to the summit was itself a ritual of purification. It was also the centre in which the 'Lion Race' preserved its temperament. Masada in Israel is an interesting parallel.
When our own researchers have eyes to see and ears to hear, perhaps then and only then will Sihagiri reveal itself once more. Until then, what is truly sacred will remain a secret, academics and researchers notwithstanding with perhaps the exception of Raja de Silva, a former Commissioner of Archaeology.
We conclude by quoting the New Testament. Consider and compare the story of Kassapa with Galatians IV 22-31.
"The two sons of Abraham: the one by a bondmaid, born after the flesh (like Moggalana),
The other born by a freewoman, born after the Spirit (like Kassapa). But as then, he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.
But if ye be led by the Spirit, ye are not under the Law".
"Sigiriya paintings and graffiti: What KNO Dharmadasa should know" by Raja de Silva