WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Sigiriya and its significance :

Palace in the sky or Mahayana Buddhist monastery?


sigiriya3.jpg (20789 bytes)(Review by Desamanya Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne)
Over half a century ago I was taken by my "Sigiriya and its significance: A Mahayana Theravada Buddhist monastery"by Raja de Silva. 168pp. 168 ill. Printed by Aitken Spence Printing (Pvt) Ltd. Published by Bibliotheque (Pvt) Ltd., 7, First Lane, Galpotta Road, Nawala.

late father, a Lawyer and Politician, yet a keen member of the Royal Asiatic Society, to a lecture in the Museum Lecture Hall delivered by Dr. Senarat Paranavitana, the Archaeological Commissioner. It was entitled Sigiriya the abode of a God King.

The lecture was well attended, but most who had come, had it seemed, came in the belief that the secrets of Sigiriya could scarcely be revealed. Some thought that the great rock was a fortress developed by a parricide king, fearful of revenge, since he had supplanted his heroic father, the liberator of the land from alien invaders and the benefactor of the vast agricultural population around the ancient and populous capital of Anuradhapura where thirsty fields had benefitted from the joining of the Kala and Balalu wewas into a gigantic lake which released waters through a unique irrigation marvel, the Yoda-ala nearly 50 miles long with a gradient of 1 in 600 ft.

sigiriya4.jpg (35507 bytes)It was therefore a surprise to many present to hear that Kasyapa had abandoned ancient Anuradhapura, the nerve-centre of the land, and left to build a new capital in Sigiriya and to reside there. But Sigiriya was to be not merely a refuge and a fortress; it was also to exemplify a novel feature of the ruler as a celestial being, a "God King" like Kuvera. The concept of the deification of the monarch was held to be a growing and a new cult sweeping through Asia. Sigiriya was conceived by Kasyapa. It was a plan to present himself as a ruler from on high in accordance with his concept that he, as a living God, resided on the summit of the massive rock.

Dr. Paranavitana drew on his knowledge of Indian classical literature to find parallels that buttressed his theory, and proceeded to weave a magical tale of a celestial ruler on high and its heavenly environs.

The gorgeous paintings of which only a fragment remains, were only celestial maidens; the mirror wall a contrived structure that reflected the red arsenic fields of the God Kuvera’s kingdom, and the Lion, before the final ascent, part of the plain where the fierce lions gambolled.

Some critics who dared to question Dr. Paranavitana were given short shrift. He did not deny that it was a belief held earlier that Sigiriya was a temple, but he was encouraged by the Mahavamsa reference written nearly six centuries after Kasyapa, to declare that Sigriya was more than a fortress; it was a vast construction planned to deify Kasyapa.

It might have originally been a monastery but it had become something more; it was the vast regal centre created with the awareness of classical Indian literature, as a Palace in the Sky ( a celestial abode. The concept of the divinity of a ruler was not a new concept. It did not require vast constructions to impress the idea on the minds of the people. As was once generally believed, Sigiriya had once been the abode of Yakkha Kings. The idea persisted in the Laggala area once believed to be the centre of Ravana’s kingdom

"Lankave novada deiyo vadasitinne"

Elsewhere, for example in Rome, the Emperor had six centuries earlier been deified following Egyptian and Persian traditions. Kasyapa in Sri Lanka did not, as elsewhere in Asia and the world, require a special effort to circulate in his subjects a belief in his deity.

High on the 600 ft rock, buffeted by regular rains and incessant winds, the construction of a palace and appurtenant buildings would have given Kasyapa hardly any time during his reign to fulfil his ambition if he so conceived it. He might have been swept away and the "God King" metamorphosed into a "Cloud Messenger"

In any case the ledges cut as guard sites would have endangered military watchers and required replenishments of soldiers. Moreover, regular visits to his court below would have entailed painful descents and ascents and brought about rheumatism or gout on the monarch, who though a refugee needed contact with court and commoner to effectively rule the kingdom.

That the capital on the rock was most unsuitable for permanent construction or continued living was not paid heed to. No wonder Lord Killearn (earlier in Egypt as Sir Miles Lampson during the last Great War) heaved and panted on a visit to Sigiriya during our own Independence celebrations "Damn fool of a King to have lived at that elevation".

Nor was it suitable for defence strategy. As Chou-en-lai, one of the great leaders of China’s historic Great March observed ¾ the defenders could have been starved out in 6 months.

But Dr. Paranavitana’s web of Fancies had to remain until percipient minds assailed his theories. Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala, Acting Archaeological Commissioner, as has been shown by Dr. Raja de Silva, pointed out that the paintings were spread out over a period of time ( and some date certainly from a time prior to Kasyapa.

&127;De Silva has shown considerable examples of Mahayana-Theravada worship that arose in India to spread to Sri Lanka about the period of Sigiriya’s development. Tara Devi, like Cybele, Diana, Ceres ( and in our own times, Mary ( all reflect a human urge to seek protective divine maternal care. The worship of Tara, the iconography connected with her worship, and similarities to the Sigiriya paintings have been clearly shown by de Silva.

That water and wells played a significant role in the Mahayana cult has also been shown by de Silva; so too, residences for monks on elevated land and on hills. The Pacina-tissa-pabbata vihara below the Nuwara-wewa in Anuradhapura, the Giman-hala above the bund of Basavak-kulam, the summit of Alagalla, Wakirigala, the hill above Padavigampola, Kudumbigala, and other such sites testify to this.

Sigiriya might have on some rare occasions given shelter to refugee soldiers. The safety of the shrine was resorted to in Europe and even in Sri Lanka after the 1818 rebellion, or refugee centers built at Nilambe in the Kandyan period or Govinda-hela centuries earlier. But to foist on Sigiriya a new capital that required obliteration of ancient shrines is to run in the face of fact and religious sensibilities. This has been clearly shown by de Silva.

He has gathered much material as evidence from Sri Lanka and India and copious and relevant references to sites and traditions elsewhere to strengthen his work. In the field of art, especially painting, he has percipiently pointed out through Bertrand Russell’s comments how ancient Romans realized that not only what was visible to the eye but what excited the mind, made an impact on living humans.

Verily this work of de Silva has dispelled doubts and vague conjectures on Sigiriya, and built up a coherent and cogent interpretation of this great centre, which never was "the abode of a God King", but for a long and significant period the resting place of a great and noble protectress of humans and a Mother of all Bodhisattvas.

A deep study of all available evidence ( archaeological, literary, religious and cultural from Sri Lanka, India and further afield ( has made Raja de Silva’s study a work of rare scholarship. He had first to clear the debris of misinterpretation, fanciful surmises, and ignorance of many, to get at the core that shows Sigiriya in its glory and Tara Devi in her protective effulgence.

Palace in the sky or Mahayana Mandala?
"Sigiriya and its Significance"

(by Raja de Silva [Bibliotheque (Pvt) Ltd. Sri Lanka] Rs. 3,000/=
Review by Tissa Devendra)

It is rare pleasure to come across a book produced in Sri Lanka whose superb format and high quality illustrations are only surpassed by the richness of its contents. Raja de Silva has been one of our most distinguished Archaeological Commissioners who has, over and above the call of duty, devoted a lifetime of study to that most magnificent monument of Sinhala civilization - Sigiriya. His greatest contribution to Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage and posterity was his meticulous restoration of the wonderful frescoes which had been brutally vandalised over forty years ago. This volume, his magnum opus, is the distillation of his painstaking research. He argues, with convincing cogency, that the traditional acceptance of this architectural wonder as the palace of Kassapa I, oft- damned as the "parricide king", is based on the shifting sands of biassed chronicles, unsupportable theories and romantic imagination.

The author’s argument is simply stated. Sigiriya was not Kassapa’s palace and pleasure garden. Neither was it a fortress nor was it ever the capital city of Sri Lanka. What this site encompasses is a vast Buddhist monastic complex, embracing both Theravada and Mahayana practices, and spanning many centuries -long before and long after Kassapa’s reign. De Silva’s conclusions are based on an impressive analysis of data drawn from many disciplines - epigraphy, literature, meteorology, Buddhist philosophy, iconography, art history, chemistry and, above all, over a century of scientific excavation by the Archaeological Department. No other study has ever drawn on such a rich lode of material and few, if any, have been able to match de Silva’s great erudition, practical experience and his "magnificent obsession" with the subject of Sigiriya and its significance.

Significant Findings

Some of his most significant conclusions are disarming in their simplicity. No remains of tiles, rafters or post- holes [for pillars] have ever been discovered on Sigiriya’s summit. Furthermore, from a study of monsoon patterns and wind velocity, buttressed by H. C. P. Bell’s excavation reports, he draws two conclusions. The first is that Kassapa’s eighteen year reign would have given him only six months per year during which any construction work was possible on the summit. In this brief ‘window of time’ it was logistically impossible for Kassapa to marshall the men and materials, apart from an ‘army’ of superb artists clinging to precarious perches, to build a ‘palace in the clouds’. De Silva argues, most convincingly, that the summit was a complex of ‘kutis’ [cells] where Buddhist monks lived in meditation and contemplation, far above the hustle and bustle of mundane life. The ‘asanas’ were seats for meditation, discourses and doctrinal disputation. The paved walkways were for meditative perambulation, a feature unique to the Buddhist monastic tradition. The ponds and gardens were designed for contemplation, a Mahayana concept now widely known because of the rock and sand garden of the wonderful Zen temple in Kyoto. A stupa on the summit, to which little attention has been paid, completes the monastery complex. No other monastic site in this country seems more appropriate for seeking the ‘divine emptiness’ of Nirvana or reincarnation as a Bodhisattva, in the Mahayana tradition.

The author’s disarmingly simple explanation for the lack of evidence of permanent roofs on the summit further buttresses his contention that this was a monastery and no palace. He argues that the roofs of the kutis’ [monks cells] were thatched in cadjan - the only type of roof readily renewable after the battering of monsoons. Furthermore, this would place these cells firmly in the Buddhist tradition of ‘pannasalas’ [leaf huts] as dwellings of monks. Interestingly enough, the plausibility of de Silva’s conclusion is now backed up by a parallel from another continent, another hemisphere and another century. In 1450 or so the Incas of Peru built the mountain city of Machu Picchu 1,500 feet high up in the Andes. It has been described in terms that apply equally to Sigiriya. "The Cyclopean size of its stone blocks and the masterful way they were fitted together seem like an unbelievable dream". Scholars agree that while the stone walls remain intact no ruins of any roofs remain because they were thatch - easily renewable after the fierce gales that sweep the Andes!

History and the Culavamsa

Central to the author’s thesis is the archaeological evidence he adduces to establish that Sigiriya and its environs were the location of monastic establishments from before Kassapa’s reign until the 12th century. For much of this period it was the abode of monks who were followers of the Abhayagiri Vihara which was the fount of Mahayana doctrines in Sri Lanka. It is for this reason that the author is, rather too harshly, critical of the Culavamsa account of Kassapa’s reign atop Sigiriya. By the 12th century, when Ven. Dhammakitti wrote this chronicle Mahayana worship had long been wiped out and the Theravada orthodoxy of Mahavihara had regained the supremacy it yet enjoys.

It was only natural for a Mahavihara writer to look at the past from that particular perspective. I, for one, cannot believe that Ven. Dhammakitti fantasised or wrote of Kassapa with malice aforethought. History, after all, is the victor’s version. If the battle of Waterloo was won by Napoleon his scholars would have written a very different history of Europe from that which we studied. As such, one cannot expect a Mahavihara monk to be scientific and objective about a perceived patron of a ‘heretical’ establishment.

Mahayana and Tara Devi

De Silva has opened a much needed window into the wide spread, vitality and monumental contribution of Mahayana to Sri Lanka’s cultural history. This ‘secret history’, which has left its magnificent sculptures ranging from Weligama to Buduruwegala and even Aukana, needs both deep study and popular discourse to achieve acceptance as an integral component of our history. The greatest Mahayana monument in Sri Lanka, according to the writer’s almost watertight interpretation, is Sigiriya. The entire complex has been conceived as one integrated whole - a Mahayana ‘mandala’ a symbolic diagram of the meditative process to attain Bodhisattva-hood. The way to the summit leads through gardens, ambulatory paths, ponds and fountains - all objects of contemplation — which are surrounded by scattered monastic cells and caves. The Lion Stairway, according to Buddhist iconography, was "to remind the devotee whose of the Buddha whose voice was like that of a roaring lion [Mahasihanada] enunciating the Truth".

The lion also symbolises Tara the female Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism to whose adoration the incomparable frescoes are dedicated. Every single figure exemplifies a different aspect of Tara. This repetition of the object of ‘worship’ is characteristic of a Mahayana technique of meditation and is most famously seen in the Tun Huang ‘Cave of a Thousand Buddhas’. Sadly, a thousand cruel monsoons have lost us a place in the sun for Sigiriya as the "Mountain of a Thousand Taras". But thanks to Raja de Silva we now see the wondrous Tara, once again, in her true aspect as Bodhisattva. I dare say no more about the frescoes, or Sigiriya, - the author has said it all with great erudition and fine sensitivity.


Raja de Silva’s "Sigiriya and its Significance" was formally launched, with singular felicity, at Hotel Sigiriya on Saturday 26 October. The hotel management had generously hosted an interesting mix of people to the occasion - journalists, artists, dilettante scholars, bird-watchers and even a swami [of sorts]. We sat facing the western face of Sigiriya rose-hued and mysterious in the rays of the setting sun. Raja de Silva modestly sketched out his theory and adroitly fielded a variety of questions ranging from his doubts about the Culavamsa ‘history’, the vital statistics of the frescoed ladies and the libidinous nature of Tantrayana practices. Raja put in a bravura performance and, what is most important, threw out a challenge to our historians, archaeologists and scholars to engage in an open discussion of his thesis, which they have never commented on in spite of its earlier publication in scholarly journals. We look forward to a battle of minds.

In concluding this review I quote from two poems that encapsulate Sigiriya’s enduring romance and mystery. The first is Verse 261 of the Graffiti [trans. Reynolds]

Who is not happy when he sees

Those rosy palms, rounded shoulders

Gold necklaces, copper-hued lips

And long long eyes.

The next is from the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda [who spent some years in ‘Ceylon’] writing of Machu Picchu in phrases redolent of Sigiriya:

Tall city of stepped stone

High reef of the human dawn...

The fallen kingdom survives us all this while.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka