The Sacred Secrets of Sigiriya:
Mysteries of the Sigiriya Rock

By Chitra Weerasinghe

The dying embers of my adventurous spirit were rekindled recently when I attended a two-day Forum on the ‘Mysteries of the Sigiriya Rock' — chaired by a panel of eminent speakers — followed by a guided tour of this 600 ft high, irregularly shaped rock, perched in the midst of a surrounding plain in the Matale district and designated to the Cultural Triangle — a 163 km drive from Colombo.

Could I refrain from accepting an invitation to such an educative event with a visit to this 5th century awe-inspiring Rock Fortress in the Sky comprising a Fresco Gallery, a Lion Stairway, Water Gardens, Graffiti and the Rock Palace on its summit? And built by the cruel parricide King Kasyapa who ruled there for 18 years until he, fearing an invasion by his brother Mogallana and believing to be alone in battle, slew himself and which rock I had climbed many, many years ago when I was in school?

No. I could not. For my desire of climbing Sigiriya once again and refreshing my memory on the many changes this Rock and its vicinity are believed to have undergone over the years, were greater than my fear of collapsing on the way up.

Having arrived at Hotel Sigiriya, I gathered that Srilal Miththapala, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Serendib Leisure (the hotel's management company) was, together with its Chairman Asker S. Moosajee and Managing Director Abbas Esually — making a valiant effort at promoting Sri Lanka as one of the most beautiful and historically rich countries of the world. They were all, in the throes of re-positioning this hotel as one that would assist in delivering "culture and nature at leisure" to the many tourists and Sri Lankans who trekked their way to the Rock Fortress.

They were also making this hotel more environment friendly by recycling waste material, using glass bottles instead of plastic and the management of waste water. Apart from all that, they were enlightening the hotel staff on the many indigenous and migrant birds found there in that Dry Zone — and of which there are said to be 160 species. And training them too, to be bird experts so that they could be of assistance to the tourists who opt to participate in the hotel's bird watching trails.

Incidentally, Hotel Sigiriya has been classified by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka as one of the first ‘Bird Friendly Hotels' in this country.

As for the Forum, it was most enlightening.

Moderated by a former Warden of Wild Life and Director of Sri Lanka's Zoo, Lyn de Alwis, it had speakers of the caliber of film personality Manik Sandrasagra, and archaeologists and architects Dr. Raja de Silva, Dr. Roland de Silva, Prof. Nimal de Silva, Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala, and Ashley de Vos — expressing their views on this massive monolith — first called ‘Sihagiri' (remembrance rock) and later ‘Sigiriya' (Lion Rock) and which has, for many years been the center of discussion by historians and theologians who have been divided in their opinions on a number of its aspects.

God King
Scene from the film God King
God King set
Filming God King atop Sigiriya
God King set
Set of the film God King

And once again their opinions differed.

There was Manik Sandrasagra, Founder of the Cultural Survival Movement of Sri Lanka, producer of ‘God King', who in his presentation "Whose Story is History" talked of Sigiriya as being unique in structure, the holiest place in Sri Lanka and the most magnificent building this country could boast of and the necessity for the study of the many manuscripts on it in order to understand and appreciate it after which, of course, we would not treat Sigiriya as a place for mass tourism.

Dr. Raja de Silva, a former Archaeological Commissioner, on the "Significance of the Rock and its Paintings", stressed that before we accept what has been told to us, we had to have a look at the back-ground of those historians. He did not accept the writings of each and everybody. The whole history of Kasyapa devolved on one and one source of evidence — the Mahavamsa (Sinhala Buddhist Chronicle). He was against mass tourism.

Hotelier Asker Moosajee offered an answer. Why not think of new ways of preserving the environment and encouraging tourism rather than curtailing it — particularly as the great revolution in travel during the last 50 years and the changes in the Sigiriya environment having been instrumental in motivating tourists to visit this area. Of the 1,000 visitors said to be arriving in this country per day, about 200 on an average climbed Sigiriya.

Hotelier Abbas Esually rather downcast at the majority decision to not augur too well for the hotel sector said that this over capacity was experienced only on three or four days of the year and on some long week-ends.

Esually has great plans to attract more people to Sigiriya and has already submitted a proposal to the relevant authorities for permission to have a ‘Sonne Luminaire', a sound and light show of international standards which will be sponsored and which he believes would draw bigger crowds to Sigiriya — thus making it more popular.

Dr. Roland de Silva, Architect, Archaeologist and Founder Director-General of the Central Cultural Fund (1980-1998) on the subject "Is Sigiriya the Earliest True Tourist Site in Asia?" while tracing its inception, saw the richness of Sigiriya in terms of its cultural content, architecture, paintings, moulded sculpture and the decorative work refinement — all of which were unquestionable in style and unsurpassed in any period of local history.

Prof. Nimal de Silva, Head of the Department of Architecture, Katubedde University, on "World Heritage Site Sigiriya — Nature, De-sign and Technology" mentioned Sigiriya as being very special in that it had five great attributes all in one — nature, design, aesthetics, technology and graffiti. You had only to look at the manner in which our ancients married rocks to create steps or stairways in their imaginative ways, to realize it is, certainly an achievement of man. "That is why Sigiriya has been declared a World Heritage Site."

Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala, on the Pre-Historic Background to the Site of Sigiriya, talked of it as having arrived at its maturity. It was a fantastic urban isolated city — an extension of the Anuradhapura civilization.

Architect Ashley de Vos talked of "The Concept for the Royal City of Sigiriya" — providing such information as the absence of the roof on that Rock Palace being due to the strong velocity of the wind up on the summit, that the mud moat separated the jungle from the pal-ace and that it was the earth from this moat that was used to make bricks.

Much, much, more valuable information on this controversial subject was disseminated by these speakers. But, unfortunately, it is not possible to cover all that in the space provided and I have skimmed through a few points which struck me at the time.

The Forum, of course, concluded with Lyn de Alwis saying: "Sigiriya is more mysterious today than it was yesterday."

A refreshing and relaxing switch over from the Forum and enjoyed by all was cocktail/dinner time on the hotel's spacious lawn which took on the ambience of a typical village fair with a pingo carrier offering cocktail snacks like fish fingers, an ice-cream vendor on a bicycle announcing the availability of ice-cream cones, women turning out hot hoppers, kottu roti stalls, carts laden with Sri Lankan sweetmeats, a buffet table of scrumptious Sri Lankan cuisine and the screening of the film ‘God King' as a grand finale.

The tour of Sigiriya the following day was equally enjoyable. I was up at the crack of dawn to take a bus ride to this Fortress — just one kilometer away from the hotel. And there was Ravi Yogaratnam, the National Tour Guide/Lecturer attached to Hemtours to accompany us and answer any questions.

As our bus drove along, I was able to see the mud moat. The bus did stop in next to no time at the western entrance of the Sigiriya complex.

Climbing stone steps and via a metal spiral stairway and in a sheltered pocket on the western face of this rock were the frescoes which I spent more time looking at after, of course, Yogaratnam's brief description of Cave B 7, (referred to as the Deraniyagala Cave) its paintings and the blue coloring which, apparently was lapis lazuli (a silicate of sodium, calcium and aluminum with a deep blue color) not avail-able in Sri Lanka but in India.

There are only 20 of the 500 Sigiriya murals (frescoes) that could now be identified — time and vandalism having wiped out the rest. And here on the Rock were the much talked of two types of frescoes — "the dark ones and the fair ones" — painted in shades of brown, amber, ochre, red, rose with flowers on their hair and water lilies in their hands. These frescoes have inspired the men, women and monks who arrived there to scribble their poems of love and admiration of them on the mirror wall.

And then I recalled having been told by some that the ‘dark ones' referred to as the ‘Golden Ones' represented the Queens of Kasyapa and by others that they were the women of his harem. That was an-other point on which various views have been expressed.

But whatever the reason, it was a picture gallery meant to satisfy the sensual eye of the king who loved all that was beautiful and leading a lonely life, beguiled his loneliness with song — and dance — captured by the artists.

Arriving at the Lion platform and the mirror wall, I had a glimpse of the ‘graffiti' also now faintly visible and written in ancient Sinhala.

This mirror wall is said to have once led to the palace and captured the shadow of the Royal palanquin bearers during the day and also on moonlit nights and on which the men, women and monks who fell in love with the frescoes scribbled some of their finest poems (685 in all) on the shining plaster of this wall — thus leaving us with a hazy record of the nature of their lives and times.

According to Yogaratnam one of the visitors who fell in love with the frescoes had scribbled he had seen 500 of them though there are now only 19 or 20.

Today it is possible to see only the front paws of the Lion and between these paws are steps leading to the roofless summit of the Rock, covering an area of three and a half acres and from which height you get a breathtaking and beautiful view of the surrounding area.

A pool for collecting rain water, asanas (seats), a cobra hooded cave, and a drip ledge constructed in the 3rd century to prevent water from flowing into the cave and a stupa were also some others that attracted my attention and which bore evidence of the theory it was the abode of monks before Kasyapa created his residence there.

Back home and reflecting on my experience I could not help but agree that Sigiriya is, indeed a work of art. A vestige of Sri Lanka's ancient civilization, culture, philosophy and the faith of a proud people — the Sinhala or the Lion race.


This article first appeared in Explore Sri Lanka magazine of July 2000.

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