Captivating Tales of Sigiriya’s Rediscovery

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– An adventure that takes you back in history, art and culture –

Sigiriya Frescoes
Sigiriya Frescoes

A visit to Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka is an adventure that takes one back in history, art and culture. Apart from melodrama, romance, intrigue and the grandiose life that surrounds the rock fortification of Kassapa, the tales of its rediscovery in the 19th century are as captivating.

An evening’s musing on these stories of our ancients and not so ancients has often been an exhilarating experience. Especially if you have spent the morning climbing the rock and exploring its environs.

According to records the first to rediscover Sigiriya was Jonathan Forbes, a British military officer. Forbes and two of his friends set out on horseback from Polonnaruwa in search of Sigiriya and were the first to re-discover the lost citadel in the jungle in 1831.

Forbes returned to Sigiriya in 1833 to explore its environs and he reported the existence of plaster laid on the rock and painted over in bright colours above the walled gallery especially, in places sheltered from the elements. But he did not describe the paintings.

An anonymous writer in 1851 published an account of his visit to Sigiriya, describing the long gallery wall and the rock surface opposite “covered with a thick coat of polished chunam, as white and bright as if it were only a month old”. He recorded that the plaster was covered with paintings chiefly of lions, from which circumstances he said the name Singagheery, Sihaghery, or Seegiry was given to the site. However no other visitor had noted or reported any paintings of lions at Sigiriya.

In 1875, T.W Rhys Davids of the Ceylon Civil Service, at a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society held in England in 1874 reported the existence of painted figures on a fine white and hard chunam plaster.

Observing through a telescope he had also noted that there were ornamental patterns to be seen on a terrace higher up the rock, and surmised that a large number of them must have been erased by the passage of time. Apparently these paintings too had disappeared and were not reported by later visitors.

It was T.H Blakesley of the Public Works Department who for the first time reported on the subject of the paintings in 1876.

He realised that they were groups of female figures repeated again and again, the upper parts of the body being depicted richly ornamented with jewellery. The figures he said had a Mongolian cast of features.

Murry of the Public Works Department seems to have been the first person to have found his way into the fresco pocket and come face to face with the frescoes. He made tracings of them and copied some in pastels and published a paper on them in 1891.

However the first real study of the paintings commenced with H.C.P. Bell from 1893 onwards.

It is also interesting to note an observation made by John Still (1907) that “the whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery… the largest picture in the world perhaps”. Dr. Raja De Silva confirms that these paintings have the largest surface area out of such paintings of the early period.

Much controversy and debate exists as to the subject of the paintings; of the bewitching figures of Sigiriya.

H.C.P. Bell was of the view that these ladies were the ladies of Kasyapa’s court accompanied by their attendants of darker complexion, probably of a different race.

He observed that all the figures were moving in the same direction. The flowers carried by them suggesded that they were setting forth to worship at the temple of Pidurangala, lying to the north of Sigiriya.

This portrayed a devotional procession proceeding to the shrine at Pidurangala. He was also of the opinion that they could also be goddesses appearing to emerge from the clouds.

Senarath Paranavitana’s suggestion that they represent Lighting Princesses and Cloud Damsels or the personifications of clouds and lightning, the dark figures taken as cloud damsels and the fairer skinned as lightning princesses. (meghalata and vijjukumaris respectively), well known motifs for decorating walls in ancient times..

Ananda Coomaraswamy, in keeping with well established south Asian traditions, identified the Sigiriya women as apsaras or celestial women casting down a rain of flowers.

Senaka Bandaranayake says that recent studies have reinforced this idea, showing that apsaras are often represented in art and literature as celestial beings who carried flowers and scattered them over kings and heroes as a celebration of victory and heroism.

Whoever these ladies were they have inspired and mesmerized their visitors (local and foreign) over many centuries. Those who saw them never forgot them and many composed poems and verses to them which they inscribed on the highly polished surface of the mirror wall below the paintings.

This world famous graffiti dates back to the 6th century. Today all that remains of these sensual beauties are spread in a 20 meter long concavity, sheltered by an overhanging rock.

Till recently there were nineteen figures in this fresco pocket. But in 1967 vandals hacked away major parts of two of the paintings and daubed a green paint on these and twelve other paintings.

Luckily it was possible to restore all except the damaged and missing parts of these paintings celebrated as the finest examples of pictorial art in the island.

A unique example of an ancient landscaped garden

Gardens have always delighted man creating earthly paradises and reflecting the artistic culture and civilization of a particular time period .

The 5th century AD Sigiriya gardens are celebrated as the largest and the most elaborate ancient garden complex in Sri Lanka. And perhaps providing us with a unique example of one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world-one whose skeletal layout and significant features are still in a fair state of preservation.

The historical importance of the gardens at Sigiriya lies essentially in two factors; one, their antiquity and degree of preservation, the other, their ingenious combination, on a grand scale, of at least three traditions of ancient landscape gardening.

Senaka Bandaranayake described the Sigiriya gardens as consisting of three distinct but interlinked sections; the symmetric or geometrically planned water gardens, the asymmetric or organic cave and boulder garden and the stepped or terraced gardens encircling the rock

Of these, the water gardens are the most extensive and intricate, occupying the central section of the western precinct through which the present tourist approaches the rock fortress.

The well-defined pools, underground water conduits and fountains leave little to the imagination of the pleasures of this garden. The dramatic boulder garden typically forms a garden contrasting with the symmetry and geometry of the water gardens.

Its principal feature is a number of rock clusters which held buildings with tiled roofing. and a rock sheltered pavilion below, all elaborately painted and decorated and linked by winding pathways and paved passages and stairways.

The terraced garden is shaped out of the natural hill at the base of the Sigiriya rock, the terraces rise one above the other in stage-like formations, created by the construction of a series of retaining walls, A combination of the terraces and the pools cut out of the rock form the garden on the summit at Sigiriya, on a much smaller scale than the others.

These formed the domestic garden of the palace itself. In Sri Lanka other ancient landscaped gardens have been found, in the royal pleasure garden or the Ranmasu Uyana at Anuradhapura, and at a number of monastic sites such as at the Abhayagiri Vihara at Anuradhapura and the Kaludiya pokuna at Mihintale.

By Ksiahnie S. Fernando.
Daily Mirror

Also See

Map of  Sigiriya Fortress

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Travel Directions to Sigiriya

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