A series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
A stupendous engineering feat
The two aerial pictures of the mighty rock of Sigiriya give an idea of the vastness of the rock and the elaborate complex at the top of this massive structure 600 feet above the ground. This is not a sight one can admire from below.

Sigiriya has been identified as one of Asia’s major archaeological sites which presents a unique concentration of fifth century urban planning, architecture, gardening, engineering, hydraulic technology and art, says authoritative archaeologist Professor Senake Bandaranayake. Its location is one of considerable natural beauty and historical interest.

Though Sigiriya is known as the royal capital in the 5th century A.D, it dates back to pre-historic times with the earliest human settlements in the Aligala rock-shelter which lies east of the Sigiriya rock. By the third century B.C it was a Buddhist monastic settlement with evidence of rock caves where monks resided. Thirty such caves have been identified with inscriptions recording the granting of these to the monks.

During the last quarter of the fifth century A.D, King Dhatusena (459-477) ruled from Anuradhapura. The throne was seized by Prince Kasyapa, the king’s son by a non-royal queen with the help of the king’s nephew and army commander Migara, who had a grudge against the king. The tragic tale is told of how the son killed the father on the instigation of Migara who placed the king against a wall and covered the opening, something unparalleled in the ancient royal history. In fear of an attack from Moggallana, the rightful heir to the throne, Kasyapa is said to have built Sigiriya which could not be attacked easily.

The Culavamsa states how the prince “betook himself through fear to Sihagiri, which is difficult of ascent for human beings. He cleared the land round about, surrounded it with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion …then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold.”

Professor S Paranavitana is of the opinion that Kasyapa built Sigiriya like another Alakamanda, the celestial abode of Kuvera, the god of wealth, in accordance with the description of Alakamanda in classical literature. To him Kasyapa was no fugitive because Moggallana had fled to India for his own safety.

Whatever it is, the fact is that the inaccessible rock was turned into a vast palace complex employing a massive labour force. Historians reckon it would have taken them around seven years to build.

One of the most dramatic features in Sigiriya is its great Lion Staircase with two colossal paws and a mass of brick masonry surrounding the ancient limestone steps. (It can be spotted in the rock picture). Though in ruins today, the lion is yet very impressive and would have been a grand sight in its original form. The lion was the only gatehouse to the palace on the summit, the plan of which can be seen clearly in the other picture.

Several flights of steps can be seen to reach the different levels of the palace complex, which basically divides into three parts. The outer or lower palace occupies the lower eastern part of the summit. The inner or upper palace occupies the high western section. The palace gardens are to the south.

This article will not feature the Sigiriya paintings since Gaveshaka discussed them in an earlier series on Buddhist paintings – on 30 November 2003. Describing Sigiriya as a stupendous engineering feat as well as a notable work of art, Dr Paranavitana says that nothing comparable was attempted by any of Kasyapa’s successors.

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