A Concept for the Royal Complex at Sigiriya
by Ashley de Vos, Chartered Architect,
Landscape Architect & Heritage Conservation Consultant
For many, it is the sheer romance of the story that invites them to indulge in illusionary trips of fanciful grandeur.
The story as repeated, as expanded and recreated over the years, with frills added like a well iced cake, is an exciting story and ideally suits the illusionary splendor of tourist endeavor. Tourism is an illusion, so the more flamboyant the story the better.
But was Sigiriya as flamboyant as everybody makes it out to be, or was it the response to an event, a situation, the context, the reaction to a site by an artist monarch, who was indulging in minimalist fashion.
Our response to Sigiriya, is through the eyes of Deva-as, one of the team of sthapatis or architects who dedicated 15 years of his life to the creation of a new royal activity platform for his king in the jungles of Sigiriya. A decision finally paid for with his life. The story as related in the ola records of Deva-as is as follows.
"We had been trained in a thousand year tradition, a tradition that grew out from the very best. From the formidable Persian and the Greco-Roman/Mediterranean in the West and from the great Chinese empire in the East. From the eloquent Indus valley, the Mauryan, the Asokan, the Satavana and the Gupta traditions from the North.
The island of Lanka for the Egyptians and the Greeks was the great emporium, an entrepot, where the goods of East and West were exchanged. The importance of the islands location at the crossing point of the two monsoons, at the centre of the trade route between China and the Mediterranean required it to be always depicted larger and more important than the subcontinent, on their carefully and accurately executed cartographic expressions.
The island was peopled by groups that constantly sailed out of the country of the maneless lion in the Indus valley. An island, secretly yearned for by Alexander the Great, in his quest for the island of Taprobane. Alas, the seagoing fleet he built in the North Arabian sea, was sailed by his faithful admiral to the island of Taprobane, as a final tribute to his dying leader. Alexander the Great, the great Iskandar, a leader who was defied by his faithful troops during his lifetime.
It is the rich and gracious traditions that we studied at the feet of our illustrious teachers. These traditions were unique in their minimalist simplicity. They were responsible for the simple architectural forms that embraced the expressions and the teachings of the enlightened one, the Buddha and flowered to greatness in the centuries that followed.
We had heard of the great rock that rose out of the forest, but I had never seen it. We were told it was like a huge crouching lion. This sent shivers of pride down my spine. I could never understand the real relationship between a lion and a woman, as related in the original stories. Even the writings recorded in the court of the great Chinese emperor referred to our land as the Lion Kingdom. Their well documented port records, refer to the constant movement of the large ships from the Simhala land to and from her ports.
This fantastic story took further shape in the words of my great aunt on my paternal side, who assured me that, in fact, the founder of our warige (clan) was a brave warrior who, like a lion, fought a long battle with a despotic king of a city state far in the North, located between the Gulf of Kutch and the Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat. We were his descendants, a group that was banished to certain death in the great ocean. How after many days of travel, the ship had blown on to the reef that encircled an island. We had inter married with the local inhabitants whose ancestors had themselves braved the seas many centuries before us in search of fresh pastures. We had introduced what we knew and absorbed what the earlier groups had to offer. We were all a part of this great mix.
She also told me that many travelers from different parts of the known world were intrigued with what this island had to offer and had stayed on. This is the reason why everyone is unique, why we all look different. "If you don’t believe me, just look around you,” she said. We were, she proudly stated, "Are all part of the ‘Sinhalisation’ process that made up this nation. The Sinhala nation. The people of the Lion Kingdom.”
The day Kassapa decided to leave the palace at Anuradhapura, there was pindrop silence. He was a fun-loving, but stubborn and impatient prince, a son of a lesser consort. But, when he invited me to be one of the team to build his new complex, I was as excited as on my twelfth birthday, when I drew the long bow in his presence.
Kasappa was in a bad mood, he did not expect Moggalana, his half brother, to muster troops against him. Patricide was not uncommon in the episodal history of this land. He was upset, he just wanted to leave Anuradhapura to Moggalana and build something for himself. But the news that came across the ocean was different. Moggalana was coming back one day to claim what was his and his avenge his fathers death.
Kassapa had decided to travel South and build a new palace complex on a location far away from Anuradhapura, amongst his people. A location that over looked the northern plains. He could then observe his brother if he ever came back. The Lion Mountain with its magnificent vista of the plains, would afford him this uninterrupted view. It was also far enough from Anuradhapura to give him sufficient warning. Kassapa had visited the mountain before with his father King Dhatusena, on one of his supervisory trips to inspect the bund of the Kalawewa. He tried hard to forget his rash act.
The caves at the base of the Lion Mountain were inhabited by forest monks, who liked the peace and quiet, an isolated site like this offered. "The priests could stay on and come to the new palace for their daily dana," assured Kassapa.
On a cool morning, the palace procession moved out of the south gate of the city of Anuradhapura. It proceed between the gigantic Jetwanaramaya and Ruwanwelisaya stupas and monastery and past the sacred Bo-tree. Kassapa descended from the back of his elephant and walked silently past the tomb of Ellara. He did not appreciate why a Dravidian king was respected so, but like everyone else, he accepted it. He had one last look back at the city before the procession took the bend past Vessagiriya and was swallowed in the jungle.
Three days and three very slow days, and the royal procession took us past Aritapabbata or Ritigala and further south into the Sigiriya plains. And there ahead, rising out of the morning mist, was a gigantic crouching lion. My heart missed a beat, I had never seen a lion before, except in the illustrations we learnt to copy as part of our training, or as carvings in the mouldings at Anuradhapura. It also looked different to the drawings, the Chinese monks living in Anuradhapura had shown me of their lions. They seem to have more teeth than mouth.Here was a noble creature, but of solemn and sombre demur, so accurate, as though nature confirmed our nation's claim to the kingdom of the lion.
We were tired, as we had left our last camp at the break of dawn. Kassapa the artist, was keen that we saw his lion as it rose out of the mists. What an inspiring sight it was. I would not have missed it for anything. Kassapa pointed to the apsaras or heavenly maidens floating above the clouds, but he was always the artist, the dreamer.
The Sinhalese are born artists, starting from the first letters a child etches in the sand, the fist becomes used to the vakka mouldings. The hand moves freely in a natural artistic style and every rock has a name associated with shape, it was natural for an artistic people, to read identifiable shapes into the forms they saw.
Gemunu and UC, the royal chefs had gone out with the forward party. They wanted to produce the best to celebrate the first sightings of the rock. They had laid out a sumptuous meal at the foot of Pidurangala, with the crouching lion in the background. The forest monks living at Sigiriya and at the top of Pidurangala had already partaken of the first dana offered by the king.
The meal was not a visual extravaganza, but it was a gourmets delight. Freshly caught poached tank fish, with wel penela sauce, olu kiribat, roast venison with wild curry leaf stuffing covered in woodapple glace, garnished with our own wild cherries. Topped off with fresh pomegranate and wild mangoes. Having partaken to a fill of what Sigiriya had to offer the royal party sank into oblivion.
Late in the morning we were awoken by the shrill call of a peacock calling its mate. A quick dip in a rock pool and I was ready for work. We mounted our elephants. Kassapa suggested that we encircle the rock in receding circles to quickly evaluate the terrain. The immediate vicinity was thickly forested and we noticed fresh droppings, evidence of a herd of wild elephants, they were either still in the forests, or had passed through in the morning.
The general terrain sloped away from the rock and was full of boulders of large rock, that had fallen off the main mastiff during thousands of years of erosion. The gentle slope was also the result of natural erosion. There was sufficient rock for all future construction, but Kassapa wanted the rock left untouched; he had a devious mind.
The next four weeks were spent working out strategy. The exposed rock mastiff was itself a result of erosion. The hill covering the rock had eroded away and left a shape that consisted of a cap of resistive rock and a lower layer of less resistive material, further weakened by the existence of garnet chips within. The darker bands were even weaker as they contained mica, while the lighter and harder stratified layers were of quartz.
Kassapa’s analysis was sound, all the pieces of rock exfoliating and separating from the mother rock would spill off and come to rest against the existing circle of rock, creating a tight barrier. Thus preventing all of it from rolling further and lower down in to the plain. "We will collect an adequate supply of drinking water on top of the rock, it will be protected and free from contamination and no one will be able to cut it off. The wind on the top of the rock is too strong for any building activity. We will live and build our dwellings on the lower levels. The fallen rock will be our last defense. Once through this defense we should have an easy and quick method to reach the summit of the rock.” Thus, Kassapa laid down the basic principles we were to follow in the design of the complex at Sigiriya.
A moat separated the complex from the jungle and the herds of wild elephants, who came quite close, drawn by the smell of the tame ones in the stables. The earth that came out of the moat was used to make the bricks that were fired using the smaller jungle timber, felled in the initial cleaning process. As Moggallana’s plans were uncertain, we decided to first build the gigantic ramp as an easy method of climbing up to the flat terrace half way up the rock. The ramp would completely encircle, circumambulate the rock and reach the flat terrace, which when viewed from the distance, looked like the Lion’s paw.
Kassapa wanted the side of the ramp covered in a high wall to protect the user, who may have a fear of heights, "after all we were not cliff dwellers ,” he said, and from the arrows that may be fired from lower down. I remembered the shriek my sister let out, when I smuggled her up on to the top floor of the Satmahal Prasadaya in Anuradhapura during the repairs. Bringing her down was more difficult than taking her up.
The side wall to the ramp was exposed. As the plaster was exposed to the elements, it needed to be protected, to be special. Our teacher suggested egg white and bees honey mixed with davul kurundu and lime, as the surface would then get quite hard, have a sheen and will remain protected for a long time. Anchoring the base of the ramp to the main rock needed careful study. Finally, we opted for a series of parallel crevices cut into the rock to help the brick wall, to have a firm hold on the face of the rock. The bamboo scaffolding created a spidery web round the rock.
Kassapa could still see his apsaras floating above the morning mist. He decided that was where they should remain forever, floating above the morning mist. They were to remain his personal tribute to the heavenly ladies he saw floating in the mist, on the very first day.
The scaffoldings were extended and the painters went to work. The space between the morning mist and the cap rock was to house a myriad of heavenly ladies who would look down on us mortals below, lifting our spirits in constant obeisance to the devas.
After the ramp was completed, reaching the Lion’s paw terrace was an easy task. Kassapa hated being carried. He mixed easily with us his people, who left all to follow him to an uncertain future. The task of getting from the flat terrace, which we all identified with the Lion’s paw, to the summit was more complicated. There was an almost vertical section straight up through the throat, by the right ear, to a location on top of the head. We did not have a need to build a lion. It already existed. We only divided the form into identifiable sections to facilitate our work.
The stage one, design of the stair was enclosed, in a flat vertical shaft and internalised. This was done as a protection from the wind which blew very strong at the top of the rock. Further, Kassapa did not want those who went up and down to be seen in the distance. He did not want to attract too much attention. "It should build into the neck, and blend into the mane ", he said. It was important that the form of the lion was not disturbed. Any additions had to blend into the existing shape. It was Mahinda’s job to perch on top off Pidurangala with his diyatharippu lenses and telescope and ensure this was ensured. The waving of a yellow flag meant all was well.
The wall that connected the top of stage two to the vertical staircase was a wall similar to the ramp that encircled the rock. We had to chisel out parallel lines in the rock and in some cases grooves perpendicular to the rock to ensure that the foundations anchored well to the mother rock. With the completion of stage two and a short connecting section, which was referred to as stage three, the vertical stair was complete. A stylised pair of Lion’s paws were placed on the terrace, on either side of the access to the stair, to create an entrance to the main staircase. A low walled, stone paved enclosure completed the forecourt.
On completion of the stair, everyone who left with Kassapa wanted to climb the rock, to see the Anuradhapura they had loved, but left. But alas, it was too far. Kassapa’s choice of refuge was perfect. The plain was clearly visible on all sides for many miles.
When it rained, the rock collected its fair share. But the haphazard discharge of this water on all sides of the rock created many problems for the maintenance of the access ramp. We now set about collecting the water at the summit on brick terraces and against a vertical screen wall built to take the full blast of the northeast monsoon and by carefully channeling it into the brick built collection cisterns. The water we could not collect was carefully brought down via channels and shed off the face of the rock, using drip ledges, an age proven technique that the Sinahalese were very good at.
At a strategic location facing the rising sun and fully exposed to the strong northeast wind, we carved out a throne for our leader. Again due to the strong wind it remained without a permanent roof. Timber posts and a cloth viyana, carefully anchored to the ground using bronze hooks, afforded adequate protection from the sun. Anura insisted that Kassapa should sit on a dry seat and spent two days carefully plotting out the route taken by the rain water draining down the back wall and ordered the careful chiseling of a channel, along the top of the back rest. An alternate route to enable the rainwater to reach its final destination without affecting or wetting the throne.
The next phase of the development was to organise the ring of stones at the lower level, into a defense system. The path through the ring of stones was controlled by a series of gateways, followed by a set of steep steps. When the gates were closed, access was only over the rocks. Strategically placed on the larger rocks, using the same techniques of concentric circles of regularly spaced out crevices, cut into the rocks for anchoring the foundations of the walls, were the murages or security structures. They would be manned day and night.
The space or area between the ring of stones and the ramp would remain jungle, with a set of carefully laid out footpaths forming a ring right around, giving access and connecting the ramp to the entry points. The defense system which took five years to complete was now in place.
The audience hall with cloth viyana roof, perched high in the defense wall, was also a look out. Whenever Kassapa was in Sigiriya, he met us regularly. He was interested in the progress of the complex. But he was preoccupied, he was spending more time in discussion with Eppawala Gunanadha, the chief priest at Pidurangala.
Kassapa now turned to the building of his palace. He would travel more frequently between Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. A low stone wall as an inner edge to the moat, held the large flat terrace on which the palaces would rise. We were always conscious of the question of water and its conservation . This led to the construction of a number of carefully laid out storage cisterns just below the ring of stones to collect the rainwater falling between the rock and the last line of defense. This water was required to work the fountains in the courtyards of the palace complex below. The ring of stones with its gateways, which encircled the rock, was by now totally lost in the forest. Its intricate pathways were known only to a few.
The palace complex was to comprise of a number of courtyards and interconnected pavilions, with roofs that would spread across the western side of the rock. A side naturally protected from the northeast monsoon. This was to be my personal project. The aged, wise Sirigune, the chief sthapati, the astrologer whom, I consulted regarding the orientation, predicted I would become famous in the future. My courtyards together with the fountains, some of which was used for storage of rainwater, while the others were shallow pools with a thin layer of tiriwanagal or crystallized limestone, in a lens of water. These courtyards were interconnected to ensure that no algae clogged up the bottom. The combination of tiriwanagal and water was a method frequently adopted to reflect light into a space. The tiriwanagal acting as a prism threw out natural light in all directions. "These courtyards would be called by different names ", he said, "but most significant they would be referred to as watergardens,” which it significantly was not. Sirigune had pulled my leg before, but we always took his remarks in good spirit.
We needed more bricks, so we simply enlarged the wewa and the moat, which now encircled the rock. Affording a significant and formidable defense system. We could survive months of siege and the water supply was our own.
The heavenly ladies looked down on us mortals from their cloud perches. Davido Rabochi, the chief painter no doubt of Italian ancestry, had reservations regarding the paintings on the eastern face of the rock. The whole area was exposed to the northeast monsoon. The rock face was more brittle and it had no overhang or protection for the paintings. Further, it was exposed for half a day to the hot rising sun. Hence his reasoning that we should not use a fresco technique as the ground was weak and the surface exposed to severe wetting and drying cycles. But should instead, use simpler methods. Eventually the eastern face was left unpainted.
"We will not be here for long, it does not matter how you do it,” assured Kassapa, who had by now reconciled to his inevitable Buddhistic fate. He was also losing interest in Sigiriya. We had already worked for twelve long years at Sigiriya. The infrastructure was in place and all the buildings completed. The fields were yielding regular crops.
In the fifteenth year, news arrived from across the seas that Moggallana had mustered his troops. He had taken a long time. The wait had taken its toll, it was long and already difficult. Kassapa retreated to Sigiriya and waited. The remainder of the story is recorded in the Mahavamsa, the Tikka of the Maha vihara. But the true story of this unhappy saga will be revealed only after the versions of the Uttarawamsa, the Tikka of the Northern or Abeyagiriya Vihara and the Mahavamsa are collated as one. That will reveal the real story of Lanka.”
This story contains many years of research, examining the available material and a detailed analysis of the many features of the site. It is presented at times in the first person. One is not sure if Deva-as really lived.