Category: Sigiriya.

Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Site: Scandal, suicide and Sigiriya

By Unum Muneer

Imagine, if you will, a sky-high fortress shrouded in juicy, blood curdling scandal. There is no wonder why UNESCO named the fortress city of Sigiriya one of Sri Lanka’s seven World Heritage Sites.

Precariously perched at a whopping height of 370 metres Sigiriya is often referred to as “the palace of the skies”. The entire city and palace were built on and around a granite peak in the fifth century AD. It takes modern day explorers a grand total of 1,200 steps to reach the very top. This was the vantage point once used by the king himself to watch over Sigiriya… Legend mixes with recorded facts to create this structure’s turbulent history.
It all started with Kassapa, the illegitimate son of King Dhatusena of Ceylon. Kassapa could never be the legal heir to the throne, and would have, in an ideal world, simply had to sit back and watch his half brother Mogallana take over one day. However, he did not let this technicality hamper his thirst for power.

With some encouragement from his cousin, Kassapa resorted to patricide: he had his father walled up while he was still alive, and left him to suffocate. Mogallana fled to South India after hearing the news. This meant that Kassapa now had all of Ceylon to himself. He promptly shifted the country’s capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, which is the first time large-scale development took place in the area.

Kassapa’s main reason for the switch was that it helped him start from scratch to create an unassailable fortress city. He wanted to use the height and ruggedness of the granite terrain to his advantage. Even now, tour guides eagerly point out guard posts and strategically placed boulders once used to keep Kassapa’s enemies at bay. This military machismo is also reflected in the structures main aesthetic choice. The word Sigiriya literally means “the lion’s rock”. One of the main entrances to upper Sigiriya was shaped like a massive lion’s head, with lion’s claws carved out on either side of the staircase. The claws still remain on the modern day ruins, each the size of a Jehangir Kothari parade. They look majestic, threatening and ready for action, as if they never realised that the king they were made to defend died centuries ago.

Along with being a military stronghold, the area grew to be an important cultural site. More than halfway up the rock, climbers are ushered into an alcove to see “the maidens of the clouds”. This is the title given to frescoes of 21 unnamed women; the painting style for these is so unique that UNESCO states the artists ushered in a method which lasted for centuries in the area. The “Mirror Wall” stands close to these paintings, it is a long stretch glazed with porcelain-like substance. It was designed to let King Kassapa watch himself as he walked by it. However, after his reign, it became a common spot for Sinhalese graffiti poems. These ancient verses have proven to be an important historic source of information about Sigiriya.

Some of the graffiti refers to there actually having been 500 women in Sigiriya’s frescoes when they were originally made. The identities of these women are disputed; some scholars say they represent heavenly nymphs. Others argue that all these women actually served in the palace as the kings concubines.

Whether or not Kassapa went to the extent of having 500 concubines, he certainly did ensure that Sigiriya was a site for opulence and pleasure. Even now a series of small walls indicate that the palace had dance halls and luxurious bathing pools for his harem. That being said, Kassapa’s party did not last all that long, and he was vanquished after spending just 11 short years in Sigiriya.
Mogallana had returned from India with a strong army. Kassapa engaged him in battle but lost due to tactical errors. He then committed suicide by slitting his own throat.

After Kassapa’s death, Mogallana shifted the capital back to Anuradhapura. Sigiriya was handed over to the Buddhist monks and was used as a monastery. Their religious presence was so strong that some experts now argue that Sigiriya never existed as a fortress to begin with.
In Kassapa’s defence, there have been recent theories painting him out to be more than just a patricidal playboy. Some argue that he mistakenly killed his father in battle because of Mogallana’s misdirection, and that Kassapa actually built Sigiriya as a tribute to his father. The theory states that it was always King Dhatusena’s dream to build a “heavenly palace”.

The passage of time may have weathered Sigiriya but the sight of the ancient plateau against the lush green landscapes is still breathtaking. What’s more, the mystery and legend that surround it cannot help but grow richer with age.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 24th, 2011.

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Category: Sigiriya