Monday, April 10, 2006

Sigiriya, Srilanka

I am a sucker for forts. I had read about the Dutch fort at Galle and the Sigiriya Rock fort. Galle is completely out of the way for this trip, so I thought we will visit the Sigiriya Rock fort.

Sigiriya is about 20 kms from Giritale and could be reached in 45 mins by car. Mathow as usual, picked us up at 9. am. I was told that it takes 1 and half hour to go up the rock and takes 1 hr to come down. So, we decided that the Sigiriya trip is going to take about 5 hrs in all, including travel, so leaving at around 9 am was the best option. That would leave us with a lot of time to rest in the evening.

Sigiriya contains the ruins of a Fort built on top of a rocky structure. It was built by King Kashyapa ( 477 – 495 AD ). It took about 10 years to build this fort, and Kashyapa lived there for just 8 yrs. He was defeated by his brother in war and was killed. Sigiriya then became a abode of the monks. Before it became a fort, it was a place for the monks. Monks lived there in its caves, and finally, it was given back to the monks and remained a monastery upto the 14th Century. The ruins of the fort were discovered in 1907 by British Explorer John Still.
Sigiriya Rock Fort is one of the 7 world heritage sites in Srilanka.

The rock itself is about 180 m high, and is the only rock in its area and it is flat at the top, where the fort is situated. Hence it is visible from any place far away. In fact, you can see it from Dambulla. And from the top of the fort, you can see the Golden Buddha of Dambulla.

Sigiriya may have been inhabited through prehistoric times. It was used as a rock-shelter mountain monastery from about the 3rd century BC, with caves prepared and donated by devotees to the Buddhist Sangha.

The Mahavamsa, the ancient historical record of Sri Lanka, describes King Kasyapa as the son of King Dhatusena. Kashyapa was born to Datusenas concubine and was the step son, not in line for the throne. But, Kashyapa always wanted to be a king. When Kashyapa became old enough, he asked his father for his share. King Datusena asked Kashyapa to become a monk. Kasyapa murdered his father by walling him alive and then usurping the throne which rightfully belonged to his elder brother Mogallana.

Mogallana fled to India to escape being assassinated by Kasyapa but vowed revenge. In India he raised an army with the intention of returning and retaking the throne of Sri Lanka which was rightfully his.

Knowing the inevitable return of Mogallana, Kasyapa is said to have built his palace on the summit of Sigiriya as a fortress and pleasure palace. Mogallana finally arrived and declared war. During the battle Kasyapa's armies abandoned him and he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Chronicles and lore say that the battle-elephant on which Kasyapa was mounted changed the course just to get to a better fighting position/place but the army misinterpreted it as the King fleeing. Thereafter the army abandoned the king altogether. Moggallana returned the capital to Anuradapura and turned Sigiriya into a monastery complex.

The irony of this story is that had Kassyapa stayed inside the high walls of Sigiriya, Mogallana would have never been able to defeat Kassyapa. Some people believe that the years of waiting for an invasion had driven Kassyapa over the edge, some think that Kassyapa had developed a guilty consoncience after what he had done and wanted to fight his brother on a equal level. No matter what had Kssyapa stayed inside Sigiriya not many medeival armys would have been able to occupy a defended Sigiriya

Alternative stories have the primary builder of Sigiriya as King Dhatusena, with Kasyapa finishing the work in honour of his father. Still other stories have Kasyapa as a playboy king, with Sigiriya a pleasure palace. Even Kasyapa's eventual fate is mutable. In some versions he is assassinated by poison administered by a concubine. In others he cuts his own throat when isolated in his final battle.

Still further interpretations have the site as the work of a Buddhist community, with no military function at all.

The rock fort has many parts – the outer moat, there are 2 moats, then the lower gardens with the fountains, the rock gardens at the lower level of the rock, the lion gate with the mirror wall and the frescos and then the palace complex in ruins at the top.

The site is both a palace and fortress. Sufficient remains to provide the visitor with a stunning insight into the ingenuity and creativity of its builders.

The gardens in the base of the rock is called water garden. It has many fountains and water ways. The water in the fountains was supposed to be operated thru pressure in the water ways underneath. It must have been wonderful in these days.

Only once side of the water garden’s ruins are excavated. The other side is still buried under soil. It has been left that way for future generations to see.

From the base of the rock, steps take you upwards. On all rocks, one can see depressions, the remaining parts of the brick structure, watch towers, resting rooms. Every wall and face of rock has white plaster indicating that there must have been beautiful frescos there. Also, there are several sand beds which might have been gardens.

From here the climb to the top of the rock is via a modern iron stairway that reaches the rockface through the remains of the original brick gateway, the Lion Gate, now degenerated to a massive pair of brick paws. The ruined paws are all that remain of a huge head and fore paws of a lion, whose open mouth served as the entrance to the royal palace.

The route continues around, across and up the cliff face via a rather airy iron staircase, a modern replacement for the original brick stairway, that vanished along with the lion's head during the 1400 years since the palace was constructed.

The stairway ends at the highest point of the rock. The ruins of the palace buildings rise only perhaps half a metre above the surface of the rock, but the extensive works cut into the surface of the rock have endured better.

The complex is surrounded by an extensive set of walls and man made pools.
John Still in 1907 had observed that; "The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery... the largest picture in the world perhaps".

The paintings would have covered most of the western face of the rock, covering an area 140 meters long and 40 meters high. There are references in the Graffiti to 500 ladies in these paintings. There are just about 8 of these frescos remaining. Each one has a unique face. It is belived that the faces are that of each concubine of King Kashyapa, whom he might has received as gifts from friendly kingdoms.

It rained that day and the entire place became very cool. Children from a school came for an excursion, and entire place was buzz with children chattering.

We reached Sigiriya at about 10 am. We engaged a local guide who would take us above and would explain every thing about the place to us. The stories that I have written about Sigiriya are true and were explained to me by our guide.

Somewhere mid way over the rock is a hornet’s nest. So, around that place, we were asked to maintain silence. But, some noisy westerners disturbed the hornet’s and they all came buzzing. We had to run for shelter or remain silent without moving for about 30 mins. Then, we slowly got off the rock and came down.

The ride back to the hotel was smooth. I have fresh in mind the rock fort and the images of the heavenly maidens. The place is beautiful, thought it is in ruins, and expresses so much about the glories days of ancient Srilanka.

Monday, February 27, 2006


Day 4

Anuradhapura was top on the list. I wanted to visit this place, coz this was the place where Buddhism started first in Srilanka. Emperor Ashoka’s children Bindusara and Sangamitra, took a sapling from the Bodhi tree at Gaya to Anuradhapura and planted it there. The tree is prayed and millions of devotees come there to offer their prayers.

Anuradhapura is also the 1st capital of ancient Srilanka. In all good intentions, I wanted to visit Anuradhapura first and then visit Polonnaruwa which is the 2nd capital. But, the order got reversed as Arvind’s health was not good. We visit Polonnaruwa first. But, that’s okay.

I visited Anuradhapura alone.

Mathow picked me up early, and the distance of 90 kms from Giritale resort took about an hour and a half.

Anuradhapura is the oldest city I have visited. According to my reading, it was a city dating back 500 BC.

This ancient and 1st Srilankan capital, is famous for its well preserved ruins of the Great Srilankan Civilization. It is one of the greatest civilizations of Asia. It is a UNESCO recognized World Heritage Site. It lies 205 kms north west of Colombo.

Reading more about Anuradhapura, I realize it is not just a 500 BC city, it is much older than that.

Mahavamsa is the greatest ancient historical books of Sinhalese, and it mentions that Anuradhapura was the capital of Kind Pandukabhaya who ruled from 437 to 367 BC. It was built by King Vijaya’s chief minister Anuradha, and hence it was called Anuradhapura.

As per historical records the city is of the 5th century BC, but excavations near the citadel have revealed information about the earlier inhabitants of the city. Excavations also showed articles dating 900 to 700 BC. The city is well placed, between the ports on the Northwest and the North East, and is buried deep in the jungle, which was to serve as natural defense.

First, Pandukabhaya who founded this city and planned it, had gates for the city, and quarters for traders. At that time, the city must have covered a large area. This is evident from the countless number of ruined roads we passed through as we drove to reach the different places in this city.

Buddhish was introduced first into Srilanka here and then, the city became more prominent. The book Mahavamsa states that King Kutakannatissa built the first wall around the city to a height of about 7 cubits with a moat. This fortification was later enlarged and reinforced during the reign of King Vasabha. Gates were also added, and these can be seen even today.

The noted traveler Fa-Hien visited Anuradhapura at this time and was thoroughly impressed with the city planners. He states in this books that there were two types of homes. The homes of the merchants were large and well decorates, these merchants were mostly from foreign countries, South India, Mediterranean and Persia. The other homes were much smaller and they belonged to the locals whose main source of income was from agriculture.

King Devanampiya Tissa wanted to create enclosures for the Sanga ie the Buddhist monasteries and wanted to himself live close to the Buddha. Hence he commissioned the constructions of buildings with marked boundaries. Thus began the great building era.

Go around Anuradhapura, and you will see how large the city is, and how large the buildings and stupas are. They made the largest stupas and seems like they did it with easy and in style.

The monastic settlement, known as the Theravadins was founded by King Devanampiya Tissa in 249 BC.

The Mahayana followers built the Abhayagiri Vihara.

King Mahasena ( 275 BC – 310 AC ) built the Jetawana Ramaya, which is the large brick structure in the world. Its looks marvelous from a distance with its orange robe. The robe is given as offering by devotees.

Therefore around the city, several gigantic stupas were constructed. The Mahatupa, the Bodhi tree and the Thuparama are in the south of the city, the Abhayagiri to the north, the Pubbarama to the east, the Tonovana to the north-west and the Jetavana to the south east.

The tooth relic was brought by the King Kirtisri Meghavana, and was kept in a building named Dhammachakka. It was taken in a annual procession to Abhayagiri.

The city began to grow and lots of people began to live there. Administration has to be taken care of and amenities had to be provided.

King Vasabha ordered the construction of many ponds for rain water harvesting. River Malwatu Oya was dammed to built the Maccaduwa wewa. Tissa, Abhayavapi and Nuwarawewa tanks were built to collect rain water. I passed through Nuwara wewa and I could see the Ruvanaweli Seya and the Abhayagiri at the background.

Hospitals, quarters for the crippled and blind were built. King Buddhadasa ( 337 – 365 BC ) appointed a physician for every 10 villages. Sanitation was taken care of the city was always maintained clean.

Anuradhapura is known for its irrigation system and many of these survive to this date.

The city flourished for 10 decades. It came under attack by the Kings of South India, especially the Chola rulers. The Cholas plundered the city and ruined it. In 1017, the city has to deserted and the capital was moved to Polonnaruwa.

Anuradhapura became ruins and the forests took over.

Sometime around the 19th Century the British colonists cleared the jungle and laid this beautiful city bare. Several tanks were restored and made usable for the general public.

So, what is there today to see at Anuradhapura. For any ancient ruin lover, there are lots of treasures.

There are basically three types of buildings – Dagobas ( stupas ), monastic buildings and Pokunas ( tanks ). The Bo tree is dated back to the year 245 BC.

The most important places to visit among the ruins in the city are the Bo tree, Ruwana weli seya, Tupa ramaya, Lanka Tilake, Abhayagiri, Jetavana Ramaya, The Dhana shala ( where the monks used to eat ), The Atupokuna where about 7000 monks used to bathe daily, the Kuttam Pokuna or Twin ponds were the royals used to bathe, Kiribath Vihara, Samadhi Buddha among other places.

Isirimuniya is a small Buddhist vihara close by, and it has many exquisite statues of Buddha and a small museum.

I finished by Anuradhapura trip and got back to the hotel by about 2 pm, ready for lunch and a well deserved afternoon siesta.
Also Read
Day 1 : Negembo
Day 2 : Dambulla
Day 3 : Polonnaruwa