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17th January 1999

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Eighth wonder of the world ? 

Will Sigiriya qualify to be: 

By Tharuka Dissanaike

SigiriyaSigiriya- the lion moun tain. Kasyapa, the con troversial King and master builder, wanted to own it and built himself a lofty palace atop the huge rock, rising 200 metres out of the flat, irrigated dry zone landscape. Thousand five hundred years later, Sir Arthur C. Clark mooted the idea that Sigiriya qualifies to be the eighth wonder of the world, ranked closely with the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.

While there is no designated world authority to bestow this honour upon Sigiriya- Kasyapa's fortified palace and city- it still makes an attractive marketing slogan. "The eighth wonder of the world is Sigiriya, in the Indian-ocean island of Sri Lanka." 

Sigiriya has great tourism potential. The Cultural Fund hopes that there will come a day when tourists flock to the country especially to see the Lion Mountain as they would the Pyramids or the Great Wall.

The claim is not merely a boast either. Sigiriya was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. A millennium publication listing the 70 wonders of the world features Sigiriya quite high in the order.

Senake Bandaranayake, Director General of the Central Cultural Fund and Vice Chancellor and professor of Archeology of the Kelaniya University has been working on the Sigiriya Project for two decades. Now on the verge of taking up appointment as the Ambassador to France, Bandaranayake is pleased to announce that the excavation work on the site is almost completed.

"Sigiriya is one of the most important urban sites of the first millennium. The city and palace planning is very imaginative and extremely elaborate."

The site compares with other Asian wonders of the era like Ankor in Cambodia, Taxila in Pakistan and the forbidden city of Beijing. Sigiriya is one of the best-preserved sites where the layout of the buildings and gardens is still clearly evident. 

"It is smaller in size in some cases but Sigiriya has an extraordinary sense of grandeur, Bandaranayake said.

Sigiriya has a very complex rampart system. The city was walled and moated. Besides the inner and outer cities within the ramparts, there is evidence of suburban dwellings immediately outside the walled area. The complex is three kilometres from East to West and one kilometre from North to South.

"It speaks of grand urban planning. A brilliant combination of a geometric square module and natural topography." The architects and engineers at the time took care to incorporate nature and never to deny it. Existing lakes, rocks and hills were cleverly woven into the general plan. "It's a combination of human mind and the natural world." Bandaranayake said.

The palace on top of the rock is the earliest surviving palace in Sri Lanka. The Lion's staircase at the entrance to the palace is one of Sigiriya's famous features, along with the apsara paintings on the western rock face and the mirror wall below the paintings. 

While of the staircase only the two gigantic paws remain, there is evidence to show that the lion structure was indeed much larger and extended head and shoulders out of the rock in a crouched position. The cuts and grooves on the rock above the paws indicate that the lion structure- built with brick masonry and limestone, presumably with a timber framework, was some 14 metres in height.

The gardens of Sigiriya, a combination of natural flora and imaginative landscaping, are ancient botanical garden's carefully planned and laid out. According to the Sigiriya Conservation Policy the gardens will be soon stripped of all plant species introduced between the years of 1940-1980 leaving only the ancient varieties.

In Sri Lanka research on Sigiriya is not confined to the city and palace that Kasyapa built, fleeing the wrath of the people of Anuradhapura for having committed patricide. Evidence of prehistoric dwellings has been unearthed in Sigiriya caves. 

Iron production factories operated here. Studies extend to the ancient villages and settlements in the "Sigiriya Basin", the irrigation network of the Sigiriya Mahawewa, and the old monastic complexes that existed before the coming of Kasyapa and flourished after his tragic death.

In the Aligala caves, east of the rock but within the Sigiriya complex, lies evidence of one of the earliest dates of iron production in the world- carbon dating has determined it as 9th century. Prehistoric skeletal remains have also been unearthed and there are two sites in Sigiriya which have a continuous sequence for around 20,000 years, Bandaranayake said.

Many of the village settlements are believed to extend over three millenniums- long before the written history of Sri Lanka. Even the monastic settlements are quite ancient- beginning around 3rd century BC.

"The nearly two decades of work at Sigiriya is now beginning to find expression in a number of publications," said Bandaranayake.

This year, the book, SIGIRIYA published by the CCF and written by Senake Bandaranayake, will soon be available to the public. A colour-coded map of Sigiriya -the city and palace is in the press. 

One of the earliest publications was "Settlement Archeology of Sigiriya and Dambulla Region" and its follow-up, "Further Studies"- these books mapped out the archeological landscape of the entire Sigiriya Basin.

Several other interesting publications are due. One is Benil Priyanka's New Readings of Sigiriya Graffiti- this will be the first new reading of 150 writings since Prof. Paranavithane's efforts 40 years ago.

Mangala Illangasinghe has translated Senake Bandaranayake's film script 'Sigiriya-The Lion Mountain' into Sinhala. A collection of work of Sigiriya graffiti- readings, graffiti drawings and mapping of the entire mirror wall- is now underway.

Senake Bandaranayake has now taken it upon himself to compile an entire collection of the work and research on Sigiriya in the past 20 years. This project should take two to three years more, he said.

With excavation work at its tail end, the Sigiriya Project concentrates on two other main aspects of the site- namely visitor management and research.

Visitor management looks at developing Sigiriya as an important archeological site in the world. The shortcomings of the present, manifest in the lack of trained guides, written information and proper explanation of the antiquity and significance of various features at the site. For instance, the Cobra Hood cave which is below the main Sigiriya rock has some very interesting and different motif paintings on the rock surface the likes of which has not been found elsewhere in the country. But a casual visitor would know nothing about these or even of the existence of the cave.

"We are planning a new Visitor Centre and museum at Sigiriya," Bandaranayake said. A grand sound-and-light show is planned at Sigiriya as an added attraction for visitors. It will use the actual rock as a backdrop while the shows will be of historical significance.

An Environmental Research Programme to study climate change through the past centuries has been established at Sigiriya. The Centre was initiated to study the ornamental botany of the gardens soon deviated to researching old climate using microfossil plant remains.

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