Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lankan diaries: Sigiriya Rock Fortress - the Eighth Wonder of the World

On the third day, around 9 am we went to Sigiriya Rock Fortress. We paid full amount of $ 15 (Rs 2,350 SAARC nation fee) for each person. After a week, we came to know that our driver Alex was supposed to get us 30% discount at Sigiriya as mentioned in the itinerary!

After we purchased the tickets, time and again, the driver said that we won’t be able to climb the fortress and would come back halfway. We nodded and just went ahead.

Ticket counter
Little did he knew that climbing Sigiriya rock was nothing compared to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. After all, we had to climb the rock which was just 370 metres above the sea level, whereas we had climbed a mountain that was 3,120 metres metres above the sea level to reach Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

Yes, we had climbed up to the majestic monastery that hangs on a precarious cliff at 10,240 feet, carrying our two-year-old child on a rainy day, last year.

Sigiriya rock
Eighth Wonder of the World
Locals call Sigiriya, located between the towns of Dambulla and Habarana, as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Looking at the tourists flocking the place, no wonder it’s one of the most visited tourist spots in Sri Lanka.

The Sigiriya rock -- formed from magma of an extinct volcano -- rising above the trees in the mid distance beckoned us as we slowly started walking towards the outer moat.

Since there’s a lion carved out of a big rock on top of the rock, the place is called as Sigiriya. The term Sigiriya originates from the word “Sihagri” which means “Lion Rock”.

The brochure given to us along with the tickets mentioned that the fortress complex includes remnants of a ruined palace, surrounded by an extensive network of fortifications, vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys and fountains.

Inscriptions in the caves
Some inscriptions found in the caves at the base of the rock fortress throw significant light on the place and its inhabitants. The place was a religious retreat for Buddhist monks during 3rd century BC.

In the 5th century AD, Sigiriya briefly gained attention when Dhatusena became the ruler of Anuradhapura. There are three versions of stories surrounding the king and his death and his son’s rule in Sigiriya.

Son killing father
According to the first version of story, Dhatusena had two sons: Kasyapa and Moggallana. The former was the son of the royal consort and was the rightful heir to the throne. The latter was born to a non-royal concubine.

Dhatusena had married his daughter to his sister’s son Migara, who was also the general of his army. Once there was an argument between his daughter and his sister. Enraged, Dhatusena ordered his sister to be killed.

To take revenge, Migara joined hands with Kasyapa in overthrowing Dhatusena. Eventually, Kasyapa rebelled against his father, imprisoned him and usurped the throne by becoming the king himself. Migara was not satisfied still. He made Kasyapa to belive that Dhatusena had hidden treasures and persuaded him to find them. Kasyapa asked his imprisoned father to show him the wealth and Dhatusena led him to the Kala Wewa. Dhatusena took water in hands and claimed that it was the only treasure he ever had. Enraged by this, Kasyapa had him killed by entombing him in a wall.
King buried alive!

Another story says that Kasyapa buried Dhatusena alive in the bund of the Kala Wewa!

Son kills father, brother takes revenge
According to another detailed version of story, Mogallana was by one of the most desired and finest of Dhatusena’s queens, and Kassapa was by a less significant consort. When Dhatusena declared Mogallana as his heir to the throne, Kassapa rebelled. He imprisoned his father and drove his brother into exile in India. 

Kassapa had doubts about his father’s hidden treasures. He threatened his father with death if refused to reveal the whereabouts of the secret wealth. Dhatusena agreed and asked his son to give permission to take bath in the Kala Wewa, the great tank which he had constructed. Kassapa agreed.
Dhatusena standing in the tank, took water and poured through his hands and said this was the treasure he had ever had. Kassapa was not impressed by his father’s action, and had him walled up in a chamber to die.

Meanwhile, Mogallana vowed to return from his exile to reclaim his inheritance. Kassapa started to make preparations for the expected invasion from his brother. He constructed a new fortress on top of the 200 metre high Sigiriya rock and a new city around the base. It was not just an indestructible fortress, but also a pleasure palace. Folklores say that the entire fortress was built in just 7 years and was emulating the legendary abode of Lord Kubera, the god of wealth. 

With the help of an army of Tamil mercenaries, Mogallana attacked Sigiriya in 491 AD.

Unfortunately, Kassapa himself descended from his mighty rock abode to lead the battle on the plains below. The elephant on which Kassapa was sitting was frightened by the sounds and took a U-Turn. His soldiers thought the king was retreating and fell back. Kassapa was left alone to face the attackers. Fearing defeat and capture, Kassapa killed himself on the battle field.

Mogallana captured Sigiriya and handed it over to the Buddhist monks. Once again the caves became home for monks seeking peace and solitude till they finally abandoned it in 1155. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was used for brief periods for the military purpose by the Kandy rulers, and completely forgotten.

The site was rediscovered by the British in 1828.

The Water Gardens
From the entrance, a wide and straight path led us towards the rock. A guide was telling the tourists that the path follows the line of an imaginary east-west axis, drawn straight through the rock, around which the whole city had been planned. The entire side of the city was protected by a broad moat enclosed within two-tiered walls.

Outer moat
Crossing the moat, the first point of ticket checking, we entered the Water Gardens. Luckily, there was rains in the area recently and the gardens were lush green. I’m sure during summer, there won’t be any water in the pools and the gardens would look very dry and pale.

The first section comprised of four pools set in a square. When full with water they create a small island at centre. They are all connected by pathways to the surrounding gardens. The remains of pavilions were in the rectangular areas to the north and south of the pools.

Water gardens
Fountain Garden
As we walked further, there was a small, but elaborate Fountain Garden that featured a serpentine miniature river and limestone-bottomed channels and ponds.
Fountain garden
A guide was explaining to tourists how two ancient fountain sprinklers still work when there is heavy rain! We were surprise to see how ancient Sinhalese achieved hydraulic sophistication even in the dry zone areas.

We saw an Octagonal Pond also where lots of monkeys were busy playing.

Octagonal pond
Towards the right side of the fountain garden we saw a Summer Palace ruins.

Boulder Gardens
Once we crossed the garden area, the stairs took us to the Boulder Gardens. Yes, you heard it right. It was called Boulder Gardens. Natural rocks were used to at the foot of the rock, giving a natural wild look as opposed to the neat symmetries of the water gardens just below.

On many boulders we saw lines of fissures that looked like rock-carved steps. At first we thought they were steps, but later came to know that they were used as footings to support the brick walls or the timber frames of the buildings that were built against or on top of those boulders!

Lines of fissures on the boulders

Boulder gardens
Here there are around small 20 rock shelters used by the monks before and after Kasspa’s rule, and some have inscriptions dating back to 3rd century BC and 1st century AD.

We noticed some signs of plasters and paints in some shelters and maybe they were originally plastered and painted. Security guards in the uniform guard the caves where there are traces of ornamentation.

Apsara frescoes  
After that we headed towards the main path. The walled path with bricks and limestone steps became steep as we started to move further. Walking further we reached the base of the rock, where our tickets were checked again. Two 19th century metal spiral staircases stared at us. One to go up and the other to come down from the sheltered cave that had Apsara paintings.

Spiral staircase leading to frescoes
We carefully climbed the spiral staircase to enter the cave that houses Sri Lanka’s famous frescoes – Sigiriya Damsels. The security guard had warned us not to click the pictures of the paintings. There were signboards everywhere not to take photographs. Four to five security guards guarded the cave.
The busty beauties painted in the 5th century are probably the only non-religious paintings to have survived from ancient Sri Lanka. They are not only most iconic figures of the country, but also the most reproduced images. It’s said that these frescoes originally covered an area of around 140 metres long and 40 metres height. But there are only 19 paintings surviving out of the original 500!

Some historians and archaeologists say these are the paintings of Kassapa’s consorts who are on the way to Pidurangala Buddhist temple, which is close by to Sigiriya.

Others feel that these are the images of Apsaras or female dieties or celestial nymphs and that’s the reason why they are painted from the waist up, giving a feeling to the viewers that they are rising out of a cocoon of clouds!

However, some scholars even find difference between these female figures. The golden or ochre tinted figures depict lightning which symbolizes Vajjukumari, while the dark tinted figures depict thunder which symbolizes Meghalatha! 

Whoever and whatever is the purpose of these damsels, they have been portrayed in a very naturalistic way. Like the famous murals found in Ajanta Caves in India, they are shown showering flower petals, and carrying flowers and fruits for offerings in trays.

Minor errors in frescoes
As we were not allowed to take any pictures of the paintings there, I checked some of them online and noticed that unlike murals in Ajanta Caves, these are not free from errors. They might not be visible if we just quickly glance from a distance, but a closer look makes the mistakes glaring.

Frescoes were usually painted on wet plaster. When applied, the paint is immediately absorbed by the wet plaster, leaving a permanent painting. So an artist had to be extra careful, as it’s not only difficult but almost impossible to erase any mistakes.

For instance, take a closer look at the pic below. The image has two mistakes when we look carefully. The thumb of the woman, who is holding the lotus flower, has been repositioned. This gives an impression of six fingers to the woman!

The woman, apparently handmaiden standing next to her, has her left hand repositioned. Maybe the artist had her left hand in front of her breast, and then later changed it to front. Though the artist has tried to cover this mistake by using a red blouse (none of the other women have blouses, even if we assume they have, all are transparent!) on the woman, it still gives an impression that she has three hands!

No photography
After seeing those frescoes, we were supposed to come down when we heard a heated argument between a guard and a Westerner. The tourist had clicked the pictures of the Apsaras and the security guard had seized his camera and passport. The hapless guy was begging the guard to delete the pictures from the camera, but the guard was not budging. He was threatening the tourist that since he had violated the laws he was under arrest.

The poor tourist looked so worried and so was the female accompanying him. Both were pleading the security to delete the image and let them go. But the guard was in no mood to let them off so easily. He insisted to meet their guide, but the guide/driver had not accompanied them. It’s not just his guide/driver, even our driver/guide had not accompanied us to the rock. There are separate guides available at the rock, and not all tourists hire them by paying a hefty sum of Rs 1,500-2000.

We along with other tourists were helplessly looking at the whole drama when another security guard shouted at us to move further and not block the way for others. We obliged and don’t know what happened to that guy! 
Mirror Wall
Coming back to the point, after seeing the damsels, we went back to the path that ran along the rock on one side and Mirror Wall on the other side. Looking at the wall, tourists were wondering where the mirror was. Some even made fun that maybe it was stolen by some tourists!

Mirror wall with ancient graffiti
Luckily, photography was allowed and we did take some pics of this amazing wall, which was originally coated in highly polished plaster which was made using natural materials available in the surrounding.  . It is said that the king could see his reflection in the wall. To get such a high quality polish, they used lime, egg white, beeswax and wild honey to get a polished mirror like sheen on the wall.

The security guards watch that nobody touches the wall, as some parts of the polished plaster has survived the wrath of time and people.

Mirror wall from outside
There are lots of graffiti on the wall, the oldest one dating back to 7th century AD. Looks like visitors were interested to see the remains of the fabulous pleasure palace of Kassapa and left their impressions about Sigiriya on the walls around. So now, it looks like a medieval visitors’ book with lots of comments and feedback. Historians and archaeologists have deciphered around 685 comments which throw light on the development of the language.

Lion Gate 
From there we went ahead on an iron walkway bolted onto the rock face and the flight of limestone steps took us to the Lion Gate, a platform which looks like a substantial courtyard. Two enormous lion paws carved out of the rock welcomed us. But before taking the steps further, we went to sit under the shade of trees for a while. My little one had his snacks, while we enjoyed sipping water under the cool shade.

Lion gate
The final stairs apparently leads directly into the lion’s mouth. Maybe a lion statue was carved out from the rock, but everything else seems to have been destroyed except paws. The open mouth of the lion served as the main entrance to the royal palace. Lion symbolizes pride and it’s the most important emblem of Sinhalese royalty. Maybe the size of the statue meant to reflect Kassapa’s strength, dignity, prestige, and unquestionable legitimacy to the throne, as lion is considered the king of jungle. Contrary to this, Sri Lanka’s forests never had a lion!

Not many tourists climb the stairs from here to the final summit. The reasons are two: One, the stairs are very steep. Only one person can move at a time, and one can’t stop in between, as he/she might block the way for others climbing behind. Two, the rocks are infested with wasps and bees and if the wasps/bees are in a bad mood, tourists are not allowed to climb up from this point!

The final stairs leading to the palace ruins
There were several warning signs that say: “Be silent, WASPS”, and luckily we were not attacked by any wasps!

Final stairs
After a few minutes, we started our final flight of stairs through the remains of original brick stairs that led to a modern iron stairway to the top. We could see several beehives and wasp hives clinging under the rocks above. The stairs ended at the highest point of the rock and we heaved a sigh of relief. We had made it to the top of the rock at last.

Palace ruins
We could see the upper palace sprawling gently in different tiers towards the opposite end of the rock in an area of more than one hectares from there. The foundation of the palace is surprisingly intact with gardens and ponds made of brick beautifully laid out. On the summit we saw a few remains of not only the palace, but also a pool, a throne constructed from solid rock facing the east side.

Palace ruins
Palace ruins with the pool

Palace ruins
Rock throne facing east
It’s more than what words could really explain to see the amazing 360-degree panoramic views. To the north, we could see Pidurangala Rock, and to the south Sigiri Wewa and Mapagala Rock, while to the east Eastern Precinct and to the west neatly laid out symmetrical water gardens and lush green trees below.
Gardens below
Getting to see a little monitor lizard running through the walls was icing on the cake. We relaxed for some time, munching some oranges and apples, in the cool breeze.

Monitor lizard
We met a couple of Buddhist monks from Thailand and were happy to introduce our little prince to them. They were more than happy to take pics along with our little one after knowing that his name is the one which the Buddha had before his enlightenment!

Thai monks
The palace and fortress complex is recognized as one of the finest examples of ancient urban planning. No wonder, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1982. Sigiriya is an unmatched combination of urban planning, water engineering, horticulture and arts.

The descent
The descent from the top of the rock was much easier and quicker. We came down the same way we went up until just below the second checkpoint. Later, we took the left-hand path that took us further down.
The descent from the final stairs from the palace ruins

The descent towards exit
Audience Hall
On the way, there was a sign that read ‘Boulder Arch No. 2’. We saw an Audience Hall left to it. Maybe then it had wooden walls and roofs. But what impressed us was the smooth floor, chiseled by the artisans using a single big boulder. There’s a wide throne in the hall, maybe used by the King or for some religious ceremonies.

Audience hall with a stone throne in the centre
A small cave just below the Hall had traces of paintings on its ceiling along with a stone throne. Not just here, we found these kind of stone thrones in some other nearby rocks as well.

Cobra Hood Cave
Below the Audience Hall, at one place, the security showed us a dripstone ledge carved around the entrance of the cave to prevent water from running inside! The cave had traces of old paintings similar to the Apsara paintings found further up on the rock.

Rock seat with inscription
On our way back, we briefly stopped at the Cobra Hood Cave before heading further down. Yes, we found  a cave similar to snake hood. Yes, it’s called the Cobra Hood Cave. There’s an ancient inscription on the ledge dating back to 2nd century BC, written in Brahmi script.

Snake charmer near cobra hood cave
We found some people selling snake souvenirs and a snake charmer sitting near the Cobra Hood Cave.

Different entry and exit points
We realized we reached the exit and the car park when we approached several shops selling souvenirs and mementos of Sigiriya. We didn’t buy anything as they were three to four times more than they cost in Negambo and other places.

The entry point and the exit point were completely different, and we missed visiting the museum because of that.

Exit and parking
Luckily, we successfully finished our hike without being attacked by wasps. Our kid enjoyed the hike, waving his little hands to the chipmunks and monkeys which were fortunately were very nice to us throughout the hike. 

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