Sigiriya or Sinhagiri is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District near the town of Dambulla in the Central Province, Sri Lanka.
Sigiriya sited in the central province is 92 miles from Colombo and 10 miles from Dambulla. Dr.Bandaranayaka describes the complexity of Sigiriya as “a unique concentration of 5th century, urban planning architecture, gardening, engineering, hydraulic technology and art, centered on a massive rock, rising 200 meters above the surroundings plain. Sigiriya’s location is one of considerable natural beauty and historical interest. Sigiriya plain still retains much of its forest cover, and many of its village settlements and man made village reservoirs that date back to the first millennium A.C.”
Although, the history of Sigiriya is believed to commence from Kasyapa (477-495 A.D.) archaeological investigations have revealed that Buddhist Monks had occupied rock caves at Sigiriya from the 3rd century BC. These caves have the “Deeply-incised protective grooves or drip ledges.” Some of the 50 rock shelters discovered have inscriptions stating that the caves were donated to the Buddhist Monastic order. These inscriptions belong to a period between 3rd century BC and 1st century AD. There is evidence, however, that human habitation at Sigiriya dates back to a prehistoric time.
“Aligala rock shelter to the east of Sigiriya rock”, is a prehistoric site of the Mesolithic period; that is, about 5000 years ago. However Sigiriya came into prominence through Kasyapa-1 who built a palace at the top of the rock and converted Sigiriya into the architectural marvel it is considered to be today. In fact, there is a serious proposal to get Sigiriya named as the “Eighth wonder of the world.”
The Man Who Built Sigiriya
King Dhatusena had two sons and a daughter. The elder son Kasyapa, according to the Chulavamsa, was born to a mother of unequal birth but Moggallana the younger son was born to a mother of equal caste. He loved his charming daughter and gave her in marriage to his sister’s son and made that son the commander in chief. The commander in chief had whipped his wife on her thighs, but the reason for this punishment is not known. When king Dhathusena saw the blood stained garment of his daughter and heard of the whipping, he flew into a rage, as he loved his daughter. In retaliation, the king got the mother of the commander in chief “burned naked”. It is shocking that he burnt his own sister because the sister’s son had beaten his wife who was the king’s own daughter.
This incident is inexplicable in a great king like Dathusena. It led to the tragic end of both Dhatusena and Kasyapa. Dhatusena built 18 Viharas for the Theravada monks and also constructed 18 irrigation tanks for the people. Above all, he built the famous Kala Weva, which is one of the greatest irrigation works of the Sinhalese and it is functioning in all its glory, even today. His service to the community of monks manifested in the repair and reconstruction of a large number of old temples to such an extent that the author of the Chulavamsa compares him to king Dharmasoka, the great of India.
However, Dhatusena made a mortal enemy of Migara the sister’s son, who vowed to take revenge for the murder of his mother. Migara was able to influence prince Kasyapa to turn against his father because Kasyapa’s mother was not from a royal family and he was not entitled to the kingdom which would have gone to his younger brother Moggallana. Therefore, Migara who became a close friend of Kasyapa made him seize the kingdom by force and imprison his father. When this happened Moggallana fled to India in fear.
Later, Migara told Kasyapa that his father was hiding treasures to be given to Moggallana. King Dhatusena was asked to reveal where the treasure was hidden. King Dhatusena, after some hesitation, asked the messengers to take him to Kala Weva and promised to show the treasures. At Kala Weva, he showed the great irrigation tank as his treasure to the king’s messengers. When the king heard of this, he became very angry, and asked the Senapathi to kill his father. The Chulavamsa says that it was the Senapathi who stripped the king naked and bound him to a wall and closed it up with clay. The commander in chief had his revenge in this brutal manner.
The Constructions of Sigiriya and the Battle between the Brothers:
The Chulavamsa gives scant information about king Kasyapa-1. It says that in fear of his brother he went to Sigiriya “which is difficult of ascent for human beings.” He cleared the land, surrounded it with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion. He collected treasures and kept them there, well protected. Then he built a fine palace worth to behold like another Alakamanda and dwelt there like God Kuvera (God of Wealth). This is all the information that is given of the architectural marvel that Sigiriya is even today.
Later on, it is said in the Chulavamsa that he regretted very deeply what he had done and in-order to save himself, he performed many meritorious works. He planted gardens near the city gates and mango groves in his territory at a Yojana’s distance from each other and ordered villages to support it. He restored Isurumuniya, made it larger and granted villages to support it. However, when he offered it to the Thera School, they were reluctant to accept, fearing the reproach of the people as the king was a parricide. Therefore, the king presented the Vihara to the Buddha image and the Monks then agreed to accept it as it now belonged to the master. He also built a Vihara and presented it to the “Dhammarucis”. He took Sil on the Poya days and cultivated the four great qualities in Buddhism. That is Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upeka. He had sacred books copied and built images and alms halls in great numbers. In this manner, he ruled for eighteen years and it is a wonder that he could have done so much during this short period.
His brother Moggallana came back to Sri Lanka and collected an army and approached Sigiriya to fight Kasyapa. On hearing of the approach of his brother, Kasyapa marched with his army to fight his brother, and fought a mighty battle. During that battle Kasyapa, on his elephant saw a swamp in front of him and turned his elephant to seek another road; his soldiers thought that he was retreating and broke up in disorder. This misunderstanding of his soldiers, made Kasyapa lose his battle and like Brutus, he took his life with his own dragger. Even though the Chulavamsa says that Kasyapa lived in fear of Moggallana, it is not easy to believe this, because Sigiriya is not the work of a man who lived in fear. It is obviously, the work of a great artist and architect, and then the very fact he marched forth at the head of his army and fought a battle shows that he was a brave man. There is no doubt about Kasyapa’s courage and self-assurance as he had left for his 20th century descendants perhaps, the eighth wonder of the world.
Constructions at Sigiriya
Dr. Bandaranayaka says that one of the most important aspects of the archaeology of Sigiriya is that it is one of the best preserved and most elaborate surviving urban sites in South Asia, from the first millennium A.D. The royal palace has been built on the summit of the massive rock, which has an area of 1.5 hectares. The palace is 200 meters above the surrounding plain. The area to the west of the rock is a symmetrically planned royal park with elaborate water retaining structures with a surface and subsurface hydraulic systems. It is surrounded by three ramparts and two moats, forming a rectangle of 900*800 meters. The outermost rampart of the Sigiriya complex is an earthen embankment defining the extent of the uninvestigated outer city.
This is more or less a rectangle 1000*1500 meters with two eastern gateways and a great man-made Sigiriya lake to the south. The plan of the city is based on a precise square module. Dr. Bandaranayaka concludes, “that in its total conception Sigiriya represents a brilliant combination of concepts of symmetry and asymmetry in a deliberately interlocking of geometrical plan and natural form.” The entrance to the city was, by means of five gates fixed at different places round the ramparts. The western gate was elaborate, and was probably set apart for VIPs. On the northern side, there were two entrances. The other gate was at the end of the rampart extending towards the south.
From the south there are two approaches to the Sigiriya rock. One gate is similar to the one in the north. The other gate originated from the main rampart at a point where the rampart bends to the north. And it is parallel to the western bund of the Sigiriya Weva. The area enclosed by the ramparts is about 100 acres.
The excavation of the Sigiriya complex was started by Mr. Bell and thereafter Dr. Paranawithana continued from 47-52. It must be mentioned that the conditions prevailing at Sigiriya were very harsh. The road system was in disrepair and accommodation was inadequate. There was always the threat of disease and the officers worked on a meager budget. Research under these circumstances was not easy and the officers of those times, who did their research and conservation should be remembered with gratitude.
Royal Gardens/ Pleasure Gardens
One of the main activities of the Cultural Triangle has been the restoration of the Sigiriya gardens. Sigiriya provides the unique example of one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, whose layout is still in a fair state of preservation. Three distinct but interlinked forms of gardens are found, that is, water gardens, cave and boulder gardens and terraced gardens encircling the rock. Similar garden types are also seen on the summit of the rock.
The water gardens are the most intricate, and occupy the central section of the western precinct.
Consists of a central island surrounded by water, linked to the main precinct by causeways. The quartered plan is well known ancient garden form, and the Sigiriya version is one of the oldest examples. The entire garden is a walled enclosure with gates placed at the head of the each causeway. The cavity left by the massive timber door posts indicates that it was an elaborate structure.
The fountain garden is a narrow precinct on two levels. The lower western half has two deep pools with stepped cross-sections. Draining into these pools are shallow serpentine streams paved with marble slabs. The serpentines are punctuated by fountains consisting of circular lime stone plates with symmetrical perforation. They are fed by underground conduits and operate on a simple principle of gravity and pressure. Consequent on the repair of the underground conduits the fountains operates in rainy weather even today.
Is on a higher level consisting of extensive area of terraces and halls. The northeastern corner has a large octagonal pool, and terrace at the base of a towering boulder forming a dramatic rock and water combination at a point where the water garden and the boulder garden meet. The two inner islands, closely abutting the fountain garden on either side are, partially built on bed rock. They are surrounded by walls and moats. The flattened surface of the island was occupied by “Sitala Maliga or Water Pavilions”. The double moat that surrounds the garden and the artificial lake that extends from the Sigiriya Rock are intricately connected with the water gardens. Excavations have revealed that the pools were inter-linked by a network of underground conduits, fed initially by the Sigiriya Lake.
Miniature Water Gardens
To the west of the water garden recent excavations show a miniature water garden, very different in character from the gardens described above. There are five distinct units in this garden, each combining pavilions of brick with paved water retaining structures and winding watercourses. A striking feature of this miniature water garden is the use of this water surrounds with pebbled flows, covered by shallow slow moving water. These served as cooling devices and had aesthetic appeal creating interesting visual and sound effects. Another aspect is the geometrical intricacy of the garden layout. This miniature garden has a more complex interplay of, tiled roofed buildings, water-retaining structures and watercourses, than is seen elsewhere.
The boulder garden has a design that is in contrast to the symmetry and geometry of the water gardens. It consists of a number of winding pathways, which link several clusters of large natural boulders, extending from the southern slopes of Sigiriya hill to the northern slopes below the plateau of the lion staircase. In this boulder garden most boulders had a pavilion upon it. An unusual feature is the “Cistern Rock” taking its name from the large cistern formed out of the massive slab of granite and the audience hall on the rock which has a flattened summit and a large five-meter throne carved out of the rock. The vertical drains cut in the sides of the rocks in a few places indicate that controlled water movement formed a part of the garden architecture in this area.
This form of garden has been fashioned out of the natural hill, at the base of the Sigiriya rock by the construction of a series of rubble-retaining walls, each terrace rising above the other and running round the rock.
The Mirror Wall and Graffiti
The mirror wall which is well preserved in its original form dates from the fifth century; built from the base of the rock with brick masonry. The wall has a highly polished plaster finish, from which it has got its name. The wall encloses a gallery paved with polished marbled slabs. There are no verses on the mirror wall dated before the 8th century. Therefore, roughly for two centuries, no visitor had scribbled on the wall. But 685 verses have been discovered, deciphered and analyzed in two books of high-class scholarship by Dr.Paranavithana. And he has ascribed these songs to the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries. We have to be grateful, to the first individual who scribbled a verse on the mirror wall, because thereafter various people wrote songs to the beautiful Sigiriya cloud nymphs. Some of them were nobles, merchants, travelers and Buddhist monks. The themes of their songs varied on subjects like love, satires, and curses, witty ironical or sad celebrations of festive or painful experiences Out of 685 poets who wrote verses on the mirror wall, twelve were women. But strangely, none of the poets refer to king Kasyapa as a parricide. Dr. Paranawithana says that amongst the 685 graffiti verses written by our ordinary people in the 8th to 10th centuries A.D., there is not a single verse that can be classed as really obscene. (The first gee verse in Sinhala has been left for us by Kati, the charming wife of King Dutugemunu, in a cave inscription in the second century BC. The cave had been donated to a Buddhist convent).
One of the striking features is the lion staircase, now preserved in two colossal paws and a mass of brick masonry. The lion must have given a vision of majesty when it was intact. The size of claws helps us to visualize the original size of the lion. In fact, there are graffiti that records the impact that the massive lion had on ancient visitors H.C.P. Bell said in 1904 “The monstrous Sinha towering majestically against the granite cliff, in bright color, gazing north-wards over a vista that stretches to the horizon, must have presented an awe-inspiring sight for miles around.