Rock Carving - Sri Lanka - Sigiriya

Sigiriya is an archelological site in North Central Sri Lanka. It contains the ruins of an ancient palace complex, built during the regin of King Kasyapa (477AD - 495 AD). It is one of the 7 world heritage sites in Sri Lanka and is one of it's most popular tourist destinations.

Sigiriya was no mere fortress, gloomy and forbidding. At the brief height of its glory-it was a royal citadel for more than 18 years, from 477 to 495 A.D. and one of the loveliest that have graced this land.

There are many interpretations of the Sigiriya period, history replete with legend, love and betrayal. But one story remains, the story of Kaspaya (477-495 A.D.) its creator, King with an artist's soul. Bards have written about him and plays and film have tired to capture his personality.

Kasyapa left Anuradhapura and built for himself at Sigiriya, a palace and city modelled on the mythical abode of "Kuvera" God of Wealth. He gave form to his dreams of grandeur. Eighteen years later, his half-brother Moggallan challenged him with an army. By one of those momentary mistake of judgement that changes the course of history. Kasyapa thought he was alone in battle, raised his dagger and slew himself.

In a sheltered pocket on the western face of the Sigiriya rock, approached by a spiral stairway, are the famous frescoes. Epigraphical evidenced refers to the existence of 500 such portraits, but only 19 remain today.

On the western and northern sides of the steep rock face runs a gallery or pathway which provides access to the seemingly inaccessible summit. Shielding this pathway is a 9 1/2 ft. plaster wall, so highly polished, that even today, after fifteen centuries of exposure to sun, wind and rain, one can see one's reflection in it. Hence the name "Mirror Wall".

On the polished surface are the Sigiri Graffit recorded by processions of visitors to the rock in the past.

The summit of the rock is nearly three acres in extent. The outer wall of the palace which is the main building was constructed on the very brink of the precipice. There were gardens, cisterns and ponds laid out attractively.

The pleasure garden of the western side of the rock is studded with ponds, islets, promenades and pavilions. Some underground and surface drainage systems have been discovered during excavations. The wall abutting the moat encircling the fortress is one of the most arresting features.

The water garden are, perhaps, the most extensive and intricate, and occupy the central section of the western precinct. Three principal gardens lie along the central east-west axis. The largest of these, Garden I, consists of a central island surrounded by water  and linked to the main precinct by cardinally-oriented causeways. The quartered or char bhag plan thus created, constitutes a well-known ancient garden form, of which the Sigiriya version is one of the oldest surviving examples. The entire garden is a walled enclosure with gateways placed at the head of each causeway. The largest of these gateways, to the west, has a triple entrance. The cavity left by the massive timber doorposts indicates that it was an elaborate gatehouse of timber and brick masonry with multiple, tiled roofs.

Garden 2, the ‘Fountain Garden’ is a narrow precinct on two levels. The lower, western half has two long, deep pools with stepped cross-sections. Draining into these pools are shallow serpentine ‘streams’ paved with marble stabs and defined kerbs. These serpentines are punctuated by fountains, consisting of circular limestone plates with symmetrical perforations. They are fed by underground water conduits and operate on a simple principle of gravity and pressure. With the cleaning and repair of the underground conduits, the fountains operate in rainy weather even today.

Two relatively shallow limestone cisterns are placed on opposite sides of the garden. Square in plan and carefully constructed, they may well have originally functioned as storage or pressure chambers for the serpentine and the fountains. The eastern half of the garden, which is raised above the western section, has few distinctive features, a serpentine stream and a pavilion with a limestone throne being almost all that is visible today.

Garden 3, on a higher level consists of an extensive area of terrace and halls. Its northeastern corner is a large octagonal pool and terrace at the base of a towering boulder forming a dramatic juxtaposition of rock and water at the very point at which the water garden and boulder garden meet. A raised podium and a drip-ledge for a lean-to roof from the remains of a ‘bathing pavilion’ on the for side of the pool.

The eastern limit of Garden 3 is marked by the wide entrance and massive brick and stone wall of the citadel. The citadel wall forms a dramatic backdrop to the water gardens, echoing the even more dramatic vision of the great rock and the palace on its summit to the east. When viewed from the water gardens, the wall extends from the towering boulder of Garden 3 to a matching bastion on the south-east, formed by wide brick walls and a series of boulders which surround a cave pavilion housing a rock-cut throne.

The three water garden from a dominant series of rectangular enclosures of varying size and character, joined together long a central east-west axis. Moving away from this to the wider conception of the western precinct as a whole, we see that its other dominant feature is a sequence of four large moated islands, arranged in a north-south oriented crescent, cutting across the central axis of the water garden. These, once again, follow the principle of symmetrical repetition, the two inner islands, on the one hand, and the two outer islands, on the other, forming pairs.

The two inner islands closely abutting the Fountain Garden on either side, are partially built up on surfacing bedrock. They are surrounded by high rubble walls and wide moats. The flattened surface of the island was occupied by ‘summer palaces’ (Sinhala : sitala maliga or cool palaces ) or water pavilions. Bridges built of cut into the surface rock, provide access to these ‘ palaces ‘. Further to the north and south, almost abutting the ramparts, are the two other moated islands, still unexcavated but clearly displaying the quartered or char bagh plan.

Intricately connected with the water gardens of the western precinct are the double most that surrounds it and the great artificial lake that extends southward from the Sigiriya rock. Excavations have revealed that the pools were interlinked by a network of underground conduits, fed initially by the Sigiriya Lake and probably connected at various points with the surrounding moats.

The most significant feature of the Rock would have been the Lion staircase leading to the palace garden on the summit. Based on the ideas described in some of the graffiti, this Lion staircase could be visualised as a gigantic figure towering majestically against the granite cliff, facing north, bright coloured, and awe-inspiring. Through the open mouth of the Lion had led the covered staircase built of bricks and timber and a tiled roof. All that remains now are the two colossal paws and a mass of brick masonry that surround the ancient limestone steps and the cuts and groves on the rock face give an idea of the size and shape of the lion figure. 

Though traces of plaster and pigments occur all over this area, there are only two pockets of paintings surviving in the depressions of the rock face, about a 100 meters above the ground level. These paintings represent the earliest surviving examples of a Sri Lanka school of classical realism, already fully evolved by the 5th century, when these paintings had been made. Earlier the Sigiri style had been considered as belonging to the Central Indian school of Ajanta, but later considered as specifically different from the Ajanta paintings. The ladies depicted in the paintings have been variously identified as Apsaras (heavenly maidens), as ladies of Kasyapa’s court and as Lightening Princess and Cloud Damsels.

There are also remains of paintings in some of the caves at the foot of the rock. Of special significance is the painting on the roof of the Cobra Hood Cave. The cave with its unique shape dates from the pre-christian era. The painting combines geometrical shapes and motifs with a free and complex rendering of characteristic volute or whorl motifs. It is nothing less than a masterpiece of expressionist painting.