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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sigiriya (Sri Lanka), A Palace in the Sky

A Guest Post by:
P.N. Sampath Kumar,
                                  Cochin Shipyard, Kochi                                  

I heard of Sigiriya, the historical monument in Srilanka for the first time while surfing internet in 2004 when my colleague in the office entrusted me with the job of planning his vacation in Srilanka. Considering the risk of travelling too much deep into that country due to the turbulent political situation and also the difficulty in climbing the number of steps for his ailing wife prompted him to opt out that option. But those inputs initially saw the seeds of curiosity and longing to visit this place at an opportune time.

Magestic Sigiriya Rock
For SriLankans “Sigiriya” is more than what our Taj Mahal is for us. Derived from the root Sanskrit name Sinha Giri (meaning Lion Mountain) this city used to be the capital of the 5th century King “Kashyapa”(479 – 497 AD). The Story goes that King Kashyapa, the son of Dhatusena (King of Anuradhapura – 50 KM north of Sigiriya) and half brother of Prince Moggallana killed his father fearing that his half brother would be appointed as the next king. He shifted his capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya and created this beautiful city in a span of, they say, 7 years. Sigiriya provided an ideal place for a fortress as it was in a difficult-to-approach remote area. His half brother Dhatusena though fled to India fearing for his life, came back stronger after few years and defeated his brother Kashyapa in a war. It is said that Kashyapa committed suicide by cutting himself, not wishing to die at enemy’s hand. The site became a monastic refuge after his death. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it served as an outpost of the Kandyan kingdom but later went into ruin and was rediscovered by a British archaeologist Mr. H.C.P. Bell.
All these in the backdrop of my mind, we included this site in our itinerary during our vacation to Srilanka in mid April 2011. We were staying in Kandy, in central Srilanka. It was a Sunday morning, after breakfast (we came across a couple of south Indian restaurants run by Tamils in Kandy) we proceeded to Sigiriya by a hired cab on a one day trip. Our Driver ‘Tamura’ from ‘Kandy Cabs’ was a nice boy who understood little Tamil and English. As advised by Ms Shakuntala, the owner of the hotel where we stayed, we got sufficient sandwiches, flavoured milk packets and bottled water parcelled for the journey. Itinerary included visit to Dambulla cave temples also en-route.

Kandy has unpredictable weather. We feared rain en-route as it was playing hide and seek for the last two days in Kandy. After a few miles (it is all miles and yards in Srilanka) alongside the Mahaveli River, and later through the reserve forest, we reached Matale town. We took a break there to have a cup of Srilankan tea and later walk around the big goddess temple (Muthu Mari Amman) in the middle of the town. I was told that Mahatma Gandhi has once visited Matale in 1927 and laid foundation stone for one school here.
Mariamman Temple at Matale
We furthered our travel through paddy fields and coconut plantations. The journey through the unknown land was pleasant. Paddy fields are getting ready for sowing. Farmers ploughing the land with buffalows is a usual scene. Air smelled mud. Occasional scenes of houses resembled the Malabar Coast in India. The tiled houses there are the most suitable for the rainy whether. On both sides of the road, there were shops selling bananas, fruits and vegetables and tender coconuts. Tourism is becoming a serious business. It was nice to see big Banyan trees on both sides of the road. Thanks to the conscious effort on the part of the government. Banyan trees are great source of Oxygen and even prevent depletion of ozone layer, they say.

Huge Buddha at Dambulla base
Dambulla Caves - Outside
The reclining Buddha
Dambulla town is also the home for the most impressive cave temple in Asia, dedicated to Lord Buddha. Situated on top of a rock, the five caves are said to have been continuously occupied since it was established in 3rd Century BC. There is a functioning monastery. Dambulla is famous for murals, mostly Buddhist themes. They also run down below a good museum detailing the Jataka and other stories related to the Tooth Relic.
A Chaitya
Though entry for the Sri Lankans is free, foreigners including Indians are charged SL Rs.2200/- (1 SL Re= In Rs.0.45). Despite being funded by UNESCO, and liberally supported by Buddhist countries like Japan and Burma, they charge such huge fee from the foreign tourists. Elsewhere, in Srilanka, SAARC member country citizens are allowed 50% discount on entrance fee. (We availed this discount in Sigiriya and in Kandy Tooth Temple).

Dambulla is a lovers’ paradise too. Roadside shops selling lotus flowers, incense sticks, souvenirs and eatables are aplenty. On a whole, this place somehow did not impress me. This was my first encounter with a Budhist Shrine outside India. They have reduced it to being only a pilgrim centre, run by a group of ritualists catering to the needs of the poor locals.

Sigriya seen from Dambulla rocks
The view around Dambulla rock is enchanting. Sigiriya fortress seen at a distance of 13 miles was inviting us. In the next half an hours travelling through difficult village mud roads (the main road was under repair) we reached Sigiriya. SL Rs.1650/- was the ticket charge per person. We hired a certified guide (paid him SL Rs.500/-). We bought a bottle of cold water and followed our guide Perera. He gave us a very good brief introduction on the city of Sigiriya beginning from King Kashyap till the end.
Main entrance - A moat at the foreground
Old brick work
The city is about three kilometres in length and one kilometre in width surrounded by huge wall and an outer moat filled with water for added protection. Creatures like lizard monitors are in abundance. Their predecessors would have helped the intruders and thieves to climb the fort those days. A notice board cautioned the visitors against loud noise which could disturb the wasps on the big trees. Hornets attack is common here.
The water gardens
Experimenting with a fountain
The well-organised and landscaped gardens around Sigiriya consist of pleasure garden, water gardens, fountain gardens, boulder (stone) gardens and terraced gardens. The water garden, as it is called, particularly consisting of a number of symmetrical ponds and countless fountains on both sides of the main pathway welcomed us to the fort. Some of the fountains in the water gardens are still operable during rainy seasons. Our friend Perera demonstrated it by exhaling air into one of the holes to show water gushing out from the other fountain.
The king's summer palace was also located close to the water gardens, which are amazing constructions for those early ages. The gardens of Sigiriya are said to be the oldest such constructions in Asia and one of the first in the world. Excavations (by UNESCO) are still incomplete and a lot more need to be done.

Ruins of the Palace
The Lion Gate
Halfway through lion gate
The royal palace was built atop the rock while other buildings and gardens were built around the rock. Only the foundations of these structures remain now. At one time, a gigantic brick lion sat at one end of the rock while the climb to the top started with a stairway that led between the lion's paws and into its mouth. Although the lion is no longer there, the paws and the first steps are still visible. The stairway built around the rock leading to the summit is astounding.
The highlight of Sigiriya trip is the wall paintings (frescoes) of 5th Century AD period. From over 500 paintings only around a dozen paintings only are seen. Rest of it would have been destroyed by vandals or Budhist monks who would have thought that these paintings might distract them. These frescoes would remind one of the Ajanta cave paintings in India. Some believe the women depicted in these paintings to be ‘apsaras’. On a closer look, one can easily make out that these women were from different races. These beautiful women resembled, Indian, Chinese and even African faces. The quality and the bright colours speak volumes about the artists of bygone era and the techniques they used.

Graffitti on the mirror wall
A mirror wall beside the main stairway to the rock is another wonder. It is coated with a mirror-smooth glaze and continues to shine despite being exposed to rain, sun and winds for centuries. The graffiti on the wall is believed to have been written between the 6th and 14th centuries by the many visitors who were delighted by the splendor of the rock.
Pool at the summit
King's Assembly area
A throne at the summit beside the pool
At the summit an archaeology enthusiast can spend hours looking at astonishing features of such an architectural wonder. The remnants of the swimming-pool, pools providing drinking water and pipes leading off from them are still visible. Meeting places, stone seats, courts and sentry posts are nearby.
View from the summit
Farm Lands
We stood there admiring the surroundings, looking at the dense forest on the one side which would have been hunting place for the kings in search of wild elephants to be used in wars and the far reaching fertile paddy fields on the other side which provided them abundant wealth of grains. Somewhere beyond those fields in the north is Anuradhapura, King Kashyap’s birth place. Towards East, 80 miles away is the famous Trincomalee, one of the most beautiful harbours in the world. And in the south-west about 100 miles away is our temporary base in Srilanka. We had to leave as it was already 5 pm in the evening. Sayonara Sigiriya ....