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Sunday, 22 September 2013





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Review :

Sigiriya: A celebration of beauty

The Story of Sigiriya
Author: Senani Ponnamperuma
Panique (Pty) Ltd, Melbourne,

Sigiriya is one of the most visited cultural heritage sites in Sri Lanka. Many books have been written in this connection. The eminent historian and archaeologist Senerat Paranavitana's The Story of Sigiriya and Sigiri Graffiti were two of the early publications on Sigiriya. Siri Gunasinghe's Kassapa's Homage to Beauty and Dr R. H. de Silva's Sigiriya and its significance are two other noteworthy publications that generated an interest in the cultural site that received step-motherly treatment from the chroniclers of The Mahavamsa and Chulavamsa.

According to ancient chroniclers, King Kasyapa who gets the credit of building a palace on top of a massive rock, was a low caste usurper who is supposed to have killed his own father King Dhatusena. With all the intrigues, cruelty, patricide and disaster, the construction of Sigiriya by Kasyapa I (473-491) within a short period is undoubtedly an amazing feat. Historians and archaeologists are baffled by the intricately designed layout of the royal palace and its environs.

Opinions differ whether Sigiriya was built as a fortress city for Kasyapa who was living in fear of reprisals from Mugalan. Although he built the fortress city, it is not clear whether Kasyapa lived there for 18 years of his reign. Despite such controversies, Sigiriya is one of the meticulously planned constructions in the whole of South Asia. In its heyday the royal complex extended for three kilometres in length and two moats on the west. There was a single rampart and a moat in the east. Historians speculate that Kasyapa could not complete the other two ramparts and a moat in the east.

Extraordinary king

Kasyapa was an extraordinary king who decided to put up his royal palace on the Sigiriya rock which rises 200 metres above the surrounding plain. The palace itself and the fortress walls symbolise Kasyapa's keen sense of splendour and grandeur. He also built an elaborate royal pleasure garden. In between the pleasure garden and the palace the western phase of the rock was reserved for paintings. Only about 22 such paintings can be seen today.

The paintings on the western phase of the rock are popularly known as Sigiriya frescoes. According to some archaeologists, the frescoes depict nymphs or Apsaras carrying flowers to shower upon the king. Another opinion is that they were Kasyapa's queens and concubines. While historians and archaeologists have been speculating on them for more than 15 centuries Sigiriya Apsaras keep on smiling enigmatically!

The author says, “Depicted as celestial beings showering flowers on those below, Apsaras if you like, they are, without doubt, the women of the royal court of Kasyapa. They were intended to evoke a sense of wonderment and to project the opulence and grandeur of Kasyapa the all-powerful god king. They are simply a celebration of beauty.”

Out of all the paintings, the fresco popularly known as “B 10” is one of the most exquisite representations of the female form found in Sri Lankan art. The author says even vandals could not deface her figure. He says, “A beautiful ethereal smile plays upon her lips as she looks down from her celestial abode. Her left hand is in the gesture of teaching. In her upraised right hand she holds a floral bouquet to be showered on mortals below.”


After the King Kasyapa's rule, Sigiriya was abandoned by other Sinhala kings who preferred to rule from Anuradhapura. It is said the Sigiriya complex was donated to Bhikkhus to be used as a meditation centre. Apparently, even the Bhikkhus did not stay there for long. Thereafter Sigiriya remained an abandoned place and the beautiful palace disappeared among the ruins. However, people from all walks of life have been visiting Sigiriya from the 7th century to view its marvels and the beautiful frescoes.

The author has divided his book into two parts. Part one provides the background of Kasyapa and describes how Sigiriya was built. The author explains in detail what became of Kasyapa and Sigiriya and describes its rediscovery some 1,200 years later. Part two describes the site as it exists today and provides interesting insight into many artefacts found there. Additional information such as how the frescoes were painted is found in the appendices.


Although the Mahavamsa and the Chulavamsa were not of much help, the author has pieced together the techniques and materials used by Kasyapa to erect his palace on the summit of the massive rock. The chapter on “How Sigiriya was built” is a graphic account which is rarely found in standard history books. To support his views, the author has included a number of photographs which depict how men and elephants took part in the massive production process. Today Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most visited historic city in Sri Lanka. Apart from the frescoes, Sigiri graffiti have attracted a large number of visitors to Sigiriya. They are invaluable to linguists to study how the Sinhala language was evolved over the years.

The Story of Sigiriya comes with a useful bibliography and an index. The book is also available as an E-book.

The author's grasp of the language and skills in photography have enhanced the value of The Story of Sigiriya. Its appeal to readers will inspire them to visit King Kasyapa's “palace in the sky” at least once in their life-time.


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