February 9, 2013
Because Sigiriya is only 25 k’s from Danbulla, Christof suggests we spend a second night in the same hotel using a three-wheeler to cover the distance. I love the idea of staying in one place for two nights, and if he’d wants to ride in a taxi instead of on a bicycle, who am I to stop him?One of History’s greatest perversities is the stupendous contributions made by delusional, power hungry monarchs. Sigiriya, another World Heritage Site, was built, legend has it, by Kasyapa, King Dhatusena’s son by a concubine, who, aspiring to the throne, buried his father alive after an attempted assignation on its rightful heir, his half-brother Mogallan, who escaped to India. Leaving the Sinhalese royal capital of Anuradhapura where he had fallen from favor with both the aristocracy and the clergy, and fearing for his life, he began work on the audacious project of constructing a Sky Palace on top of a 200 meter high granite boulder which he had painted white and decorated with a band of frescoes so that, towering above the forest, the city would appear to be floating on top of a cloud. He was ambitious and ruthless enough to finish the project, constructing in reality his own personal vision of Alakamanda, a mythological City of the Gods.
Approaching the site through the remains of a park dating from AD 477-495 (the years of King Kasyapa’s reign), we stroll through what once must have been lavish terraced gardens where we can almost envision water babbling from fountains into pools and streams and see the beautiful members of the king’s harem refreshing themselves in the cool pleasant shade. The gardens, built by ingenuously building brick structures into the existing granite cliffs, are an imaginative example of early urban planning. Built 1600 years ago, remains of the formal, geometrically constructed gardens that once lined the main boulevard leading to the Fortress on the Rock, an exact mirror image on either side of the wide road, would have been in its day abundant with colorful pavilions and wooden structures.
Kasyapa’s reign came to a bloody end, when his brother returned from India with an army to battle him for the throne. Kasyapa left defenseless by a deserting army, avoided his brother’s wrath by slitting his own throat with a dagger. After Kasyapa’s death, Mogallan returned the royal seat to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya to the monks, who founded a monastery, and gradually the splendid city fell into disrepair, and overgrown by the jungle was forgotten.
Rediscovered by a British civil servant while elephant hunting in 1827 – it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that serious excavations began – revealing an intact Mirror Wall, a protective structure running alongside the vertical cliff leading up to the boulder fortress, which is still in use today, a tribute to the tremendous accomplishments of its architects.
Climbing through the gardens, past remnants of brick lined pools, and up to the caves used by the monks who had cleverly carved drip troughs in its ceilings, we mount the stairs of the Mirror Wall, now a pleasant ochre color but thought to have been originally polished to a luminous white to enhance the cloud-like effect of the white painted rock. Its walls are graffiti covered – an astounding number (1800) of inscriptions have been deciphered and thought to date from the past 800 years, referring mainly to the beautiful frescoes painted in a rock overhang half-way up the mountain.
The graffiti messages are scratched onto the wall in three languages – Sanskrit, Sinhala and Tamil – and leave a fascinating record of what early tourists thought of the beautiful women depicted here, which ranges from the prosaic,
‘I was here’ to the poetic,
‘Women like you make mens heart’s melt and their bodies shake’, or more explicitly,
‘The girl with the golden skin enticed the mind and eyes
Ladies like you make men pour out their hearts
And you also have thrilled the body
Making it stiffen with desire’.
‘Their Bodies shine like the moon in the cool wind’,
‘The five hundred damsels arrest the progress of him who is going to heaven.
With their gentle smile and the fluttering of their eye-lids, the damsels stood here,
enslaved me who had come to the summit of the cliff’.
Today tragically, only 22 of the above mentioned 500 paintings remain, and are the only surviving example of Sri Lankan secular art. The frescoes are thought to be portraits of Kasyapa’s harem, because the women are all portrayed with the same necklace tattoo – which possibly symbolizes the King’s ownership.
The tiny-waisted, large-bosomed beauties are breathtakingly beautiful, but because the path is narrow and small, in order to avoid creating a blockage on the steps below us, we are forced to proceed upwards after a far too fleeting glance at their exquisite beauty, arriving a few minutes later at the foot of the Lion Gate, where a pair of enormous paws show the magnitude of the original entranceway to the Sky Palace.
Climbing a modern metal staircase, the grooves of the originals still visible in the wall of the cliff, we finally reach its summit where the royal palace, gardens and reservoirs once stood and which today still provides a tremendous view over the jungle-covered countryside.
Local men, hoping to make money off of the female visitors, lie in wait to offer their assistance in climbing to the summit of the mountain. When my upper arm is unexpectedly grabbed without warning by a young fellow gently propelling me up the stairs with the following words,
– Steps narrow and steep, ladies slip, hospital Dambulla.
I wrench it free of his grasp jabbing him with my elbow for good measure,
– I’m fine thanks, I bark, deeply annoyed that he could think me feeble enough to warrant his services.
The 1,200 steps, many of which are still the narrow, irregular stone-hewn originals, sand strewn and slippery, are in fact a serious challenge. The modern wobbly staircases, set up to replace the missing originals, are even worse, and not expedient for people suffering from a fear of heights.
From afar the line of tourists climbing towards the Sky Palace resembles a colony of ants winding its way up the mountainside. Many of them are in fact not fit enough to manage the journey on their own. Two self-appointed guides in flimsy flip flops propel an overweight man to the top, one of them pushes him from behind while the other, walking backwards, pulls him up the stairs.
Were the nobles assisted in their ascent to the the City of the Gods in a similarly graceless fashion?