Sigiriya – The Lion’s Rock, rock fortress has a history marred by intrigue, betrayal and bloody and violent death. It is the refined artistic vision of but one man. Abandoned and forgotten for a millennia, it is now inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
How did this extraordinary structure come into being?
Let us go back to the 5th century AD. Seated on the throne of Anuradaphura’s capital is King Dhatusena I, who had just united the country after defeating South Indian invaders. He is most famous for introducing a staggering eighteen water reservoirs, providing safe drinking water for the entire city of Anuradaphura and the surrounding agricultural area. This was essential for the survival of the Anuradaphura people and the entire country.
Dhatusena had two sons and a beloved daughter who married Migara, a royal nephew and an army commander. Migara’s actions in life were not unlike a Shakespearean tragedy. He treated his wife appallingly and he forgot that his wife, the daughter of Dhatusena was the apple of the king’s eye. Things got so bad that the King, in a fit of rage, burned Migara’s mother alive! This was intended to hurt the ruling King as she was the king’s beloved sister.
And so the revenge machine begins to roll. Migara seeks revenge by colluding with Kashyapa, the king’s eldest son (not heir to throne because born illegitimately) to kill King Dhatusena. The gruesome twosome imprison the king in the wall of the water tank he himself built, and leave to a slow and agonizing death. The rightful successor of the throne Moggallana saves his own life by escaping to India where he would spend the next 18 years. Kashyapa finally became king in 477.
As history teaches us, power gained through murder is often not fortuitous. King Kashyapa I is not respected by his people and even gains the savage nickname of ‘parricide’ (meaning one who kills a close relation). Kashyapa is so terrified of Moggallan’s return that he decides to move from the capital Anuradaphura and builds his own fortress in Sigiriya.
Could Kashyapa have ever thought that over 1500 years later, Sigiriya would become one of the island’s greatest tourist attractions?
Almost certainly not. However, as an inspired artist and visionary, he had created a masterpiece that has forever been incorporated into the rich history of Sri Lanka. His inspiration was the mystical city of the gods, built among the clouds and here he created his earthly interpretation, using all the riches of his kingdom available to him.
The entire fortress was surrounded by two defensive walls and three moats (the hungry crocodiles living there proved an additional and effective defence). The main and most prestigious entrance went through the aromatic gardens which splendoured bright summer palaces, open pavilions, artistic fountains and towers symmetrically distributed to the thick inner city walls.
Continuing, the robust stone staircases led to the splendid mirror wall, the harem-full frescoes, the imposing lion staircase and eventually to the spectacular royal palace prominently situated at the top.
The central point of the new city was about 200 meters high. Situated at the top was the royal residence. Only the king, the queen and a few lucky servants had access to this palace.
The whole peak was surrounded by a wall that protected them from the wind and rain. Rainwater was carefully collected and stored in tanks at the top and the excess transported to the tank below. Entrance to this palace led through a lion-shaped staircase some 35 meters high.
Next to the staircase was the mirrored wall, which, after a millennia, has changed to an intense orange colour. At the time of the Kashyapa king it was white and so polished that the frescoes on the opposite wall reflected onto it. The frescoes were painted as a decorative element against the white walls where Sigiriya used to be. They represented a staggering 500 women, who almost certainly were part of king Kashyapa’s harem. In modern times, such behaviour is deplored and in fact illegal, however, in those times it was considered an honour to serve the king and hierarchies existed among the women placing the older and wiser women at the top, Today, 18 original frescoes are preserved. Sigiriya was an example of unparalleled combinations of art, horticulture, water-engineering and architecture.
What happened to the fall of the Kashyapa kingdom?
Again, a significant role was played by Migara, who once committed betrayal against Kashyapa, and since this time he became his sworn enemy. Migara made a contact with his brother Moggallan in India, and when he returned to the island with a small army. Migara betrayed Kashyapa in a decisive battle. Kashyapa, believing in the superiority of his army, left Sigiriya and decided to attack his brother in an open field. When the Kashyapa turned his elephant to avoid the marshy ground, Migara took the moment and gave a sign of retreat to the whole army. In this way, the king of Kashyapa ended his short and turbulent reign, deserted by his army, cut his throat with his own dagger. His brother Moggallan respected Kashyapa posthumously. His royal cremation took place, apparently on the neighbouring Piturungala mountain. Kashyapa’s reign ended in 495.
His brother Moggallan became king and moved the capital to Anudaraphura. Sigiriya, deprived of treasures, was transformed into a Buddhist monastery. For centuries it was slowly abandoned, until completely baron and left to the all-encompassing jungle to be forgotten forever. Eventually, In 1831, a British officer hunting elephants found the first traces of Sigiriya, and serious excavations and conservation works began in 1889.
Today we can only see about 20% of what used to be a vision of the city of the gods, King Kashyapa I, a man entangled in betrayal, and at the same time an artist and a visionary.