Were Sri Lankans the earliest tourists of the world?

The world-famous Mirror Wall at Sigiriya reveals thriving tourism from ancient days
By Rajitha Weerakoon

Domestic-tourism may not figure as an important component in today’s tourist roadmap. But graffiti scribbled on the Mirror Wall (Kaetapat pavura/kaetabita) at Sigiriya reveal that there had been quite a load of Lankan tourists travelling from as early as the sixth century AD, long before tourism saw the light of day in the West.

During a discussion on Sigiriya when Dr. Raja De Silva, Retired Commissioner of Archaeology forwarded his theory that Sigiriya was a Mahayana monastery and the frescoes were paintings of Goddess Tara, Dr. Roland de Silva, Retired Director-General of the Central Cultural Fund raised the question “Was Sigiriya the earliest tourist-site in Asia?” in which case Sri Lankans would be the earliest Asian tourists? He was quoting from Sigiriya graffiti deciphered and translated into English from the eighth to the tenth centuries AD by Professor Senarath Paranavitana.

The maidens that adorn the Sigiriya rock have inspired many an ancient traveller to write verses on the famed Mirror Wall

But Sigiriya, whether this isolated rock monument was King Kassapa’s (477- 495AD) abode, a representation of God Kuvera’s Alakamandawa or a Mahayana Temple, was an architectural marvel with exquisite decorative work, sculpture, well-planned landscapes, ponds, fountains and a tantalizing art gallery which drew Sri Lankans to the site from many parts of the island.

The spontaneous outbursts left behind in the form of free verses by these random visitors on the Mirror Wall give evidence of the fascination Sigiriya had held for them whose visits extended from the 5th to the 13th centuries with more active visitations being made from the 8th to the 10th centuries. Verses ceased appearing in the 13th century with the jungle tide taking over Sigiriya coinciding with the shift of the capital from the North Central Province (NCP).

Whereas in Europe, Dr. de Silva said tourism was “leisure education” in Greece and Italy for scholars and cultured tourists of colonial Europe and according to the Oxford English Dictionary “tourism was born in the 17th century and the Englishmen were the first to practise it.”

Over thousand years prior to this, it was a cultured lot who made the trek to Sigiriya as well. But what made the Lankan tourists unique was that they left behind verses which expressed their individual views on their visits and their feelings of what they saw in beautiful stanzas on the shimmering Mirror Wall while giving us an indication of the literacy-level that prevailed in the first Millenium.

“(Hail!) the resplendent rock named Sihigiri captivates the minds of those who have seen (it) as if (the mountain) Mundalind, which was adorned by the King of Sages (i.e. the Buddha) has descended on the earth.” (verse 82)

And, “We saw at Sihigiri, the King of Lions whose fame and splendour remain spread in the whole world.” The pride they felt had spilt over to the verses.(verse 37)

About tourist-arrivals they wrote thus: At the present time, hundreds of thousands of householders remain clinging to this. (They) look at this a hundred thousand times in order to impress in their memory what there is at Sihigiri. (verse 130)

The legend of Sigiriya itself may have set the tone as a tourist attraction with its theatrical backdrop of “palace coups,” “court drama” and the predicament of a great King. But what we find is that most of the tourists had become captives of the Sigiri damsels as thousands of verses written in their dedication illustrate.

“Svasti! (Hail!) I am Agboy. I wrote this. Like a vatkol flower entangled in a blue katrol flower, the golden coloured one who stood together with the lily coloured one will be remembered at the advent of the evening!” (Verse 334)

Not only romance but sensual feelings had been expressed in abundance by these early tourists. “Prosperity! When (I) saw the lonely woman, my mind inclined itself (to her and she) took (to herself) my eye. If (you) having seen, have not accepted me (as your lover,) heart was never aflame in former days…”(verse 51)

There had been complaints made too by disappointed lovers: Ah! This (manner of) standing of yours o deer-eyed damsel, is indeed (that) of not having known the (very) name of intimacy…..pleasure has been received by others. When you are come (you say that there is) no intimacy (in me.)”(verse 31)
For those who were curious to know the numbers of damsels that adorned the Sigiriya wall, graffiti written in an earlier period provides the answer. “ ……..five hundred damsels who ( in their) splendour are (like unity) the crest jewels of the King.” (verse 61)

Professor Nimal De Silva, Chairman of the UDA at the time the discussion was held offering his views on the damsels said that the western façade of the rock of 30 by 100 metres plastered and painted was once one canvas and may have looked like a “cheettha redde” (floral-printed chintz) with female figures scattered all over. This delightful mural indeed would have been a feast to the eye of the earliest tourists before it was subjected to the ravages of nature.

But what evidently fascinated the tourists was the mystery that surrounded these voluptuous ladies. “…..the deer-eyed ones do not speak, (remaining) in the self-same manner in which they have severally been painted. I am prince (Apa) Bamdi Dapul” (verse 74)

And of their identity, even those who scribbled verses just a century later from the historically accepted time of Sigiriya origin of the fifth century seemed to have been ignorant of it. Why was their identity shrouded in mystery?

In the relatively recent past, H.C.P. Bell identified the damsels as ladies of Kassyapa’s court going towards the shrine of Pidurangala. Paranavitana suggested that they represent lightning princesses and cloud damsels. Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy felt that they are apsaras following South Asian tradition while the theory that of Dr. Raja De Silva was that they were representatives of Goddess Tara. Quoting from an ancient text he said, “ Tara holds in her left hand a lotus which she opens with the right hand and she is a heavy breasted lady.” One or two graffitis described the frescoes as Devi or Goddess.

So, while the damsels had guarded their identity for well over 1500 years, most of the tourists had identified themselves, their position/profession and the place or the province from where they arrived. This was an era when travelling was by no means easy and only those who could afford made it to Sigiriya. Thus most were the elite which included royalty, state officials, physicians and ladies of the King’s harem. But there are also verses written by soldiers, metal workers, archers and Bhikkhus amongst others. And they had come from Mahapatanju, Siripiti, Weligama, Ritigala and Polonnaruwa …….from Uturu Pasa, Padi Pasa and Ruhuna.

“Hail! I am Je(t-ma)la, who came from Polonnaruwa. I wrote the verse. …….” (Verse 34)
“Hail! We, the 3 persons who are the apprentices of A(bo)hi Nilal, the olkamuna at (Du) natura-Na-veher wrote this.” (Verse 76)

The Palace Guard Poyal’s song was “having seen (them,) death does not perturb me.” (verse 68)
The pageant of tourists include amongst others Saladala of the house of Ka(na), the keeper of books, Kitala, the guard of the bedchamber from Sapugasa-vati, Agbohi, a washerwoman from Valigam, Lady (Tisa,) wife of Lord K(itag)bo, Lady-in-waiting of princess Jet, Bohodevi, the private secretary of Prince Mihindal and Vijurala-bata from Ruhuna.

The woman from the King’s harem wrote “Hail, I am Friar Sirina, a resident of Tavalpa. Having lived in the King’s harem, we shall certainly not go outside in his absence thus reflecting they are as if they have stopped and are standing looking forward)” (verse 90) – a guess made that the damsels had been women of Kassyapa’s harem.

Some of the verses according to Professor Paranavitana had been written in the fifth century and therefore, one could see the development of ideas over several centuries. A few had been written in Sanskrit and some in the Nagari script around the 9th century. About six verses had been written in the Tamil language between the 11th-the 12th centuries.

These travellers had obviously carried with them the pen of the time – the “panhinda”(quill) – a custom that may have existed among the literate travellers. And some of the verses had been written by tourists while standing and some from the seated position.

The discovery of miniature terracotta figures of Sigiriya damsels during excavations is a reflection of the kind of tours that existed which illustrates that in the first millennium, tourists had been carrying away even souvenirs that represnted Sigiriya. Perhaps there were souvenir-sellers doing brisk business with the loads of tourists who were visiting the site?

While “hundreds of thousands” had been climbing the hill, there had not been an absence of concern among the tourists about pollution as this verse indicates: I know also how Sihigiri had been ruined by these (people.) Stop, o faithless ones as there are more people with good taste.” (verse 81)

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