Before Machu Picchu Was – There Was Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya

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Aerial view of Sigiriya from the east

Aerial view of Sigiriya from the south – see here for the image source

The emperor had a capital at Cusco but, having this desire for some place he could truly call his own, he ordered the building of a new home one hundred kilometres away.  Less than a decade later it was ready – and it was a wondrous sight to behold.  Occupied for some time, on his death the site was abandoned. It seems his son, the next ruler, was not too  keen on spending any time there.  This, in a nutshell,  is the story of  the greatest of the Incan Emperors, Pachacuti (he ruled 1438–1471A.D.)  and the weekend retreat he had built at Machu Picchu.

the view of Machu Picchu at the end of our descent from Intipunto, the Gateway of the Sun, which sits high above the site

the view of Machu Picchu at the end of my descent from Intipunto, the Gateway of the Sun, which sits high above the site – I laughed as my guide brought me to the “money shot”!

It is also the story of a Sinhalese ruler Kasyapa in the 480’s C.E. (the new way of indicating A.D.) and the palace/fortress he had built on the summit of a rock outcrop which towers above the plains of central Sri Lanka.  Anuradhapura, some seventy kilometers to the north (see Google map here), had been the capital for the past 700 or so years; for seven years labourers worked to create the new one in Sigiriya. However, like Machu Picchu a thousand years later, it too would be abandoned by the next ruler and fall into disuse. In each case it would take a foreigner (a college professor from Yale and a British military man) to “discover” what locals already knew to exist, and bring these world wonders to the world’s attention.  In each case the site would become its country’s premier tourist attraction.

The Site of Ancient Sigiriya Today

Ancient Sigiriya Today  – click here for the Google Map view and zoom in for more detail

This February I visited Sigiriya in Sri Lanka and what I found there certainly rivals and, in my mind, surpasses Machu Picchu in scale and in ambition. To be fair it should be noted that while Pachucuti’s  marvel was meant as a “weekend retreat”,   Kasyapa ( who ruled 477-495 CE) created an entirely new city and principal residence, a combination of palace and fortress which makes use of the two-hundred meter rock monolith (apparently what is left of a volcano) and the surrounding plains of central Sri Lanka.

However, without the years of publicity and fame that Pachacuti’s weekend retreat at Machu Picchu has received, few outside of Sri Lanka have even heard of Kasyapa and the achievement of his builders.  Perhaps now, with the recent end of Sri Lanka’s twenty-five year-long civil war, its people can focus on less deadly matters, including the revival and promotion of their very own “eighth wonder of the world”.

How to pronounce the word?

I must thank a Sinhalese diner in the Colombo eatery across from the mosque just south of  Desoyza Circle for correcting my pronunciation of  “Sigiriya”.  I was saying “Si gee ree ya” with the stress on the ree. He pronounced it – “Si geer yer”. I hope I got it right!

Why is Sigiriya important?

Along with the Temple of the (Buddha’s) Tooth in Kandy, when it comes to cultural sites Sigiriya is the top tourist draw in Sri Lanka.  It lies inside “The Cultural Triangle”,  an area in the centre of the island rich in the pre-modern history of Sri Lanka.  This area is of particular meaning to the Sinhalese (and not so much to the other ethnic groups which make up Sri Lankan society).

Sri Lanka's

Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” – see here for an interactive Google map version

The remains of former capital cities, impressive Buddhist architecture (in the form of dagobas or stupas) and rock sculpture – while interesting in themselves, also serve a contemporary political purpose for the Sinhalese.  “We have been here a long time,” the ruins say to Sri Lankans and tourists alike, “and we have done amazing things.” The reclamation of the ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – and of Sigiriya – serve as a statement of Sinhalese revival.

Who had Sigiriya built?

While the origins of Sri Lanka’s #1 tourist attraction are still occasionally explained solely in terms of a Buddhist monastery, the lack of overtly Buddhist icons anywhere on the site point in a different direction. (For the tourist “Buddha-ed out” or “stupa-fied” by visits to Dambulla and Anuradhapura, Sigiriya makes a great “time-out”!)

From the Culavamsa (the continuation of the epic Sinhala chronicle, the Mahavamsa, a blend of history and legend), we learn of Dhatusena and two sons, one – Kasyapa –  born from a common woman he knew during his years as a resistance fighter, trying to reclaim the Sinahala kingdom from invading Tamils.  The other son – Moggallana – was considered royal and a true heir to the throne, given the proper bloodlines of his mother. Dhatusena was successful in winning back Anaduradhapura and the kingdom from the Tamils over the span of a decade of resistance.  Dhatusena would rule from 459 C.E. (A.D.) until 477 A.D. He would eventually die on the orders of his son Kasyapa who wanted the throne he felt would be given to Moggallana. His brother, meanwhile, fled to southern India, from where he would eventually return with a Tamil army to take on his half-brother.

Motivated by a mix of guilt and fear and shame, Kasyapa decided that he was not really welcome in his capital at Anuradhapura .  Seventy kilometres to the south his engineers found a rock monolith on top of which they could built the king’s palace, while below on the plains quarters were established for other royals and for inhabitants of the city.

It took fourteen years for the project to be completed; it seems that his builders had recreated at Sigiriya the Sinhala version of the City of the Gods. He would not live there long.  His brother would return from India and, with the help of his Tamil allies, defeat Kasyapa and take over control of  the kingdom.  Within a few years Sigiriya was forgotten and abandoned. Over time legends and taboos discouraged locals from ascending the rock, though it is said that Buddhist monks lived at the base of the rock in various rock overhangs that you can see to this day.

It was the British – no respecters of the taboos of other cultures! – who would scale Sigiriya and bring its story to the modern world . Now, of course, the steady stream of tourist buses  and tuk-tuks  underlines the fact that it is one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist attractions.  It is absolutely worth a visit – but, given the $37. US entry charge  it really does help to know the story beforehand so that you know what you’re looking at as you make your way through the site.  This post will give you a head start

Map of Sigiriya

Map of Sigiriya at the entrance of the site

What is there to see in Sigiriya?

There are five main things to focus on during a visit to Sigiriya.

  1. the grounds of the city which used to lie at the foot of the monolithic rock

  2. the Sigiriya Frescoes

  3. the Lion’s Paws Terrace

  4. the Summit Complex – Kasyapa’s Palace

  5. The Archaeological Museum

1. The Grounds Surrounding The Rock 

While some archaeological work has been done, most of the foundations of the town which lay at the foot of the rock have yet to be uncovered.  As you walk along the pathway from the Western Gateway, you will see some evidence of what was there 1500 years ago. However, without some previous knowledge of what was here and the imagination to rebuild it, there is little to see.  As you get closer to the rock itself, there are gigantic boulders that the path weaves through and around.

looking down on the western precinct of the inner city of Sigiriya

looking down on the western precinct of the inner city of Sigiriya –

uncovered or reconstructed brick foundations along Sigiriya entrance path

uncovered or reconstructed brick foundations along Sigiriya entrance path

Sigiriya ponds near entrance

Sigiriya ponds near entrance – only foundations remain, the mostly wood structures having rotted or burned away long ago.

pond near the western entrance - south side

pond near the western entrance – south side

looking back towards the western gate entrance

looking back towards the western gate entrance

approaching the boulder garden and t stairs to the summit

approaching the boulder garden and the stairs to the summit

Boulder Gardens

Sigiriya brick wall, boulders, and pathway

Sigiriya brick wall, boulders, and pathway

pathway through the boulders

pathway through the boulders

round raised platform near boulder gardens

round raised platform near boulder gardens

steps leading to round platform

steps leading to round platform

Sigiriya stairway through the boulder gardens

Sigiriya stairway through the boulder gardens

Sigiriya tourists and pilgrims make their way up

Sigiriya tourists and pilgrims make their way up

2. The Sigiriya Frescoes.

As you ascend the path and the metal staircase to get to the terrace which sits at the bottom of the last bit of climb to the palace complex on the summit, you will pass a number of paintings of from-the-waist-up, bare-breasted women, either with bunches of flowers in their hands or being offered flowers by a servant girl.  While some see the women depicted simply as the women of the court of Kasyapa,  others have read deep religious significance into these figures, interpreting them as  apsaras, celestial nymphs.

One hundred meters above the plains, this indented area of the rock face was prepared with a number of layers of lime plaster before the artists went to work on the white surface.   Using four basic colours – red, green, yellow, and black – some five hundred images were once thought to have adorned the rock face.  Today as visitors made their way up to the Lion’s Paws Terrace, they will see only the few which survive.  Below are some of the images which you’ll see – some are in better shape than others.

sigiriya lady and attendant

Sigiriya lady and attendant

Sigiriya lady and flower girl

Sigiriya lady and flower girl

sigiriya lady and flower girl 2

sigiriya lady and flower girl 2

Sigiriya lady being offered a flower

Sigiriya lady being offered a flower

Sigiriya fresco of lady holding flowers

Sigiriya fresco of lady holding flowers

Sigiriya fresco - some damage

Sigiriya fresco partially damaged

The paintings – and their easy treatment of nudity –  have not been appreciated by everyone.  Here is a depressing reminiscence about the intentional destruction of at least some of the paintings by villagers in 1967.

one of the  Sigiriya fresco - vandalized by an offended villager?

one of the Sigiriya fresco – vandalized by an offended villager?

terrace below the Lion's Paws plateau

terrace below the Lion’s Paws plateau

The Lion’s Paw Terrace (aka The Plateau of Red Arsenic)

After you pass by the Frescoes you come to a terrace – the images below sets the scene. In the centre of the rock is a staircase which takes you up to the summit of the rock and the palace of Kasyapa.  Those days all one sees are two gigantic lion’s paws at the base; the original entrance would have ascended into the body of a crouching lion.  It is what gave the rock its name – Sihagiri or Lion Rock. Only the paws remain! Echoes of Shelley’s Ozymandias! “My name is Kasyapa, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

looking down from the summit at the Lion's Paw Terrace

looking down from the summit at the Lion’s Paws Terrace

Lion's Paws and Staircase going up to the summit palace area

Lion’s Paws and Staircase going up to the summit palace area

The Lion's Paws entrance

The Lion’s Paws at the entrance of the stairway to the top

Sigiriya the final stretch of staircase to the top

Sigiriya – the final stretch of staircase to the top

The Summit Complex – Kasyapa’s Palace

The summit of Sigiriya Rock requires some knowledge of what was there before – and a bit of imagination to build it all back up.  Unlike Machu Picchu, where many of the buildings only need roofs to complete them, at Sigiriya you will find only the stone foundations of many of the buildings, as well as retaining walls, staircases, terraces, and a large tank/water pool. The image below is a model representation of the Rock and the summit area. The highest point is the rectangle at the top right where  a dagoba (stupa) was apparently located.

3-D model of the Sigiriya Rock with the summit complex

3-D model of the Sigiriya Rock with the summit complex

The notion that Sigiriya was built as an invincible fortress is a bit far-fetched.  While scaling the summit would indeed represent an impossible task for the opposing army, the fact is that the “fortress” would easily fall after a siege of one month or six months or whatever it took. The wood structures could easily be set afire and suffocating smoke fires could be created to make things very uncomfortable for the relatively few people left up top.

The notion of Sigiriya Rock as a palace complex meant to replicate a mythical Buddhist paradise is closer to the truth. Kasyapa’s reign ended with the approach of an army led by his half-brother Moggallana and his Tamil allies. Instead of waiting at Sigiriya for his enemies, Kasyapa went to them and so lost whatever imagined advantage his “fortress” gave him.  The battle ended with his army in retreat and Kasyapa sparing Moggallana the need to kill him by committing suicide.  His story has all the ingredients of a Shakespearean tragedy and, in a sense, is the essence of Sigiriya.

Sigiriya ruins - brick foundations  and staircases

Sigiriya ruins – brick foundations and staircases

Sigiriya summit ruins- more foundations and staircases

Sigiriya summit ruins- more foundations and staircases

the tank on Sigiriya summit

the tank on Sigiriya summit

looking up to the top of the Sigiriya summit complex from the tank

looking up to the top of the Sigiriya summit complex from the tank

Sigiriya bikkhu begging for food donation

Sigiriya bikkhu begging for food donation – how did he get up there?

I still wonder how this dog ended  up on the summit.  As we sat there taking in the view to the south, he let it be known that he was interested in my energy bar.  Unfortunately, all he got was a scratch behind the ears.  Unilike many of the dogs I saw in Sri Lanka this one did not seem to be  afflicted with mange.  Being a stray dog in Sri Lanka cannot be an easy thing. When I saw one young man mistreating a dog who was clearly hurting, I asked him if he spoke English. His response told me he clearly did.  I asked him if he was a Buddhist.  Of course, he said. I suggested to him that maybe the dog was a bodhisattva who was there specifically to provide us with yet another opportunity for an act of kindness. His reaction told me he wasn’t getting the point.

looking south from Sigiriya summit

looking south from Sigiriya summit

the view from the south end of the summit area - Sigiriya Vava down below

the view from the south end of the summit area – Sigiriya Vava down below

On the way down from the Lion’s Paws Terrace, we passed by the remains of some of the agricultural terraces.

Sigiriya - descending from the summit past some terraces

Sigiriya – descending from the summit past some terraces

On returning to the entrance, it is definitely worth your while to spend forty-five minutes or so at the Archaeological Museum just a two hundred meter walk away.  It provides a great overview of the site and has some of the small sculptures and objects found in the archaeological work that has been done so far.  Clearly, uncovering the site will keep Sri Lankans busy for a few generations. It will continue to draw both locals and tourists intent on experiencing an aspect of Sri Lanka other than the beach.

Links:

There is a video on Sigiriya at the UNESCO World Heritage site which is surprisingly informative given its three-minute length. (See here.)

The Story of SigiriyaIf you are going to visit Sigiriya the best investment ($9.01) you can make – other than hire a competent guide! –  is the Kindle version of the book The Story of Sigiriya by Senani Ponnamperuma. Check it out here.

The writer also has a website (access here) where you will find a great introduction to Sigiriya. Unfortunately, I went to Sigiriya without a real solid understanding of what I was looking at – and I have this aversion to hiring site guides.  The result is that I missed pointing my camera at more of the places that would have told the story so much better than what you see here.  I bought the book after I got back home!

 

My Other Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Posts: click on the title to open

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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