Blasting a rock
By Sanath Weerasuriya
Sigiriya, an icon of Sri Lankan tourism has gained worldwide fame. Sri Lankans believe that Sigiriya was the kingdom of the great king Kassapa, who ruled for 18 years, from 477- 495 AD. But in his new book Sigiriya and its Significance, former Commissioner of Archaeology Raja de Silva has unveiled some radical theories about the history of this famous rock.

'Sigiriya and its Significance' was launched last week at the Hotel Sigiriya and in a lively and scientific presentation, Dr. de Silva presented his view that contrary to the accepted thinking that Sigiriya was built by Kassapa, it was a short-lived capital and its paintings were also done by Kassapa during his 18-year reign, it was in fact a Mahayana Buddhist monastery.

Popularly known as 'Sigiri Raja' among his colleagues and friends for his devoted work on the Sigiriya rock, Dr. de Silva says the Buddhist monastery was built over several hundred years. The paintings are not of Kassapa's queens, cloud damsels, lightning princesses or apsaras, but depict the Goddess Tara.

Dr. de Silva said that his theory was from a scientific point of view. "I don't agree with the accepted theory for various reasons," he added. He said he accepted the writings of anybody, if the facts were reasonable and once he knew the background of the party concerned. The 'chethanawa' or motive of the historian, is reflected in what he writes, he added. Dr. de Silva explained that the history of Kassapa revolves round one source so far - 'the Mahavamsa' which comes in a few slokas. But, the compilers of the Mahavamsa were members of the Buddhist sect - the Mahavihara, and Kassapa was a follower of the opposite sect - Abeyagiri.

According to Dr. de Silva, the sections from Chapter 38 onwards of the Mahavamsa, where Kassapa is referred to, were written at least 700-800 years after the demise of Kassapa. "Therefore, is it likely that the compiler of the thirteenth century, who wrote about events of the fifth or the sixth century, relied upon on a story trail, not authentic, prejudicial or other Mahavihara sources? Is it acceptable to examine Kassapa in the hands of these Mahavamsa authors?" asked Dr. de Silva.

The Mahavamsa in its very brief information given on Sigiriya says that Kassapa came to Sigiriya, cleared the land around and about, built a staircase in the form of a lion, built a palace on the summit and lived there like God Kuvera on Alakamandawa.

Dissecting this theory, Dr. de Silva said that we are invited to believe that Kassapa came to an abandoned land, cleared it and built a wall. But the Mahavamsa does not mention exactly where he built the wall. The wall could be on the summit, on the sloping land area of the escarpment between the summit and ground level or at ground level.

On the summit, there is a rectangular projection, facing north. The rock surface of the summit extends to about three and a half acres. This was surveyed, measured and excavated by H.C.P. Bell - the British Commissioner of Archaeology, but not conserved as there are still areas slightly under cover.

Dr. de Silva said that in this rectangular projection, there is a structure to the northwest, which has not received any mention from modern archaeologists. This, he said, was a dagoba or stupa, at the highest level. At the same level, there are remains of a big building with minor structures on either side.

Dr. de Silva said, at a lower level, there is a light stone-paving. There are two other structures next to the dagoba. The rest of the summit is devoted to reservoirs, ponds and innumerable gardens, which have been accepted by all his predecessors as the palace of Kassapa, though he himself believes there is no evidence of a palace.

"What you see is a platform or a terrace surrounded by a parapet wall or higher wall. There is no evidence of any roofs, rooms, structures of setting of timber pillars or evidence of a building.

"There, however, is clear evidence of a stone seat - 'Aasana' or throne which is 100 feet away at a lower level, with evidence of four posts for the setting of pillars and roof against the escarpment.

"I spent many months on the summit during the north- eastern monsoons measuring the speed of the wind, rain-fall and other environmental changes. No roof would have withstood the gales of the monsoons from May to September, I am sure of it," said Dr. de Silva.

"The evidence of a wall round the rock, the dagoba, the gardens and terraces was well-known in monastic buildings. Monks walked up and down in the "Sakman Maluwa", while meditating and the enclosed stone seat with steps leading to this would have been from where monks delivered desanas or religious discourses to devotees."

Bell, who reported even the small items he found on the summit during excavations in 1898, did not say there may have been a timber roof and flat tiles.

The staircase in the form of a lion was documented by Bell. Except for Paranavitana, nobody explained as to what a lion structure, constructed at tremendous cost was doing there. The lion was a symbol of royalty but, Paranavitana went on to say that this particular lion was in keeping with the Manothathva Lake on Alakamandawa which was an integral part of the Kassapa story, where it was said that he lived like Kuvera.

"In early India, the lion was associated with the Buddha - the Sakyasingha. At the Sanchi gateway, you see a number of lions. In Asoka's capitals, the lion is on all the inscriptions. The lion was part of Buddha's monuments. At Sigiriya, the Buddha was at the highest level and the lion below at the entrance," Dr. de Silva explained

Dr. de Silva thus related the significance of the monument in order that the frescoes - an integral part of the monument, would be understood. Some described the frescoes as human, others as divine figures. But there is no reasonable explanation for these figures to be cut off at the waist both in the upper caves and the caves below,

"Bell said that it was due to the continuity of the rock. But, I believe this holds no water," he said

The western escarpment, from the second century BC through the Anuradhapura period, had been replete with a wealth of Buddhist monuments. This is recognizable from the architectural features of guardstones, moonstones and Buddha statues found in the caves. A seated Buddha, three dagobas and one Vatadage had been found.

Why were the frescoes cut off at the waist? According to Dr. de Silva, these paintings, style-wise and iconogra-phically were almost contemporary of the Ajantha frescoes of the 5th and the 6th centuries in India. Therefore, the Sigiriya frescoes, it could be said, were of the same school. He said that the paintings are securely dated by inscriptions and are of the first quarter of the sixth century AD. (Kassapa's reign was from 477-495 AD.)

He said that the ornamentation on the ceiling of the cobra cave is identified with that of Ajantha. The posture of the frescoes, the way they hold their neck forward, the "mudra" and other features are identical with the iconography of Tara.

Vidyajyothi Raja de Silva, has been a member of the statutory Archaeological Advisory Committee since his retirement as Archaeological Commissioner in 1979. He is the author of many books, including the official guide books to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa.

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