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Features Island Apr 21 2003


Senarat Paranavitana’s abode of a god-king
Sigiri: Revisited and reviewed

sigiriya.jpg (16989 bytes)by Raja de Silva

4. Design of monumental features at Sigiriya compared with topographical information from Meghaduta (pp. 144ft).

SP thought that the gallery could not be explained in terms of military necessity for the security of Kassapa, and sought to explain it in terms of symbolism connected with his design of Sigiriya, which was allegedly done to make of it a local Alaka, the palace of the God Kuvera on Mt. Kailasa in the Himalayas in order to enhance the image of Kassapa identifying himself with Kuvera.

We have shown above that the gallery is easily explained, not in terms of military or engineering necessity connected with Kassapa’s security but as a practical measure to give access to the summit to those who arrive by the southern or western gates of Sigiriya. The whole raison d‘etre for the complicated explanation of the features at Sigiriya as being purposefully symbolic of the topographical features of the Meghaduta‘s road to Alaka thus disappears. However, let us consider SP’s comparison of the path taken by the cloud messenger on the way to the palace of Kuvera with topographical features at Sigiriya (p. 144ff), a comparison that leads to the following equivalencies.

i. Sigiriya gallery = Krauncarandhra tunnel, opening, pass

ii. Sigiriya gallery mirror wall = mirror of the damsels of heaven

iii. Sigiriya lion plateau and lion = manosila-tala and kesarasimha

iv. Sigiriya tank = Anotatta lake

v. Sigiriya paintings = clouds and lightning personified

We propose to take a closer look at these intriguing comparisons.

i. Sigiriya gallery and Kraunca pass.

sigiriya1.jpg (20158 bytes)Alaka is on the summit of Mt. Kailasa in the Himalaya range. Since Kassapa’s palace is on the summit of Sigiriya rock, it follows that the Rock should be taken as equivalent to Mt. Kailasa. But the Krauncha pass or aperture (through which the cloud messenger passes) is sited in the Krauncha mountain, not on Mt. Kailasa. Therefore SP’s analogy of the Sigiriya gallery being equivalent with the Krauncha pass is not tenable for the reason that this pathway is on the (Sigiriya) rock which is the equivalent of Mt. Kailasa, not Mt. Krauncha.

ii. Gallery wall (mirror wall) a replica of the mirror of the damsels of heaven, i.e., Mt. Kailasa.

SP suggests that the entire rock surface of Sigiriya was plastered white to resemble the whiteness of Mt. Kailasa (p. 148, 149). The evidence on the great rock, however, is to the contrary: admittedly, a large surface area of the rock only on the western and northern sides, delimited above by drip ledges to inhibit the downflow of rain water, was manifestly plastered. However, other vast areas of the Sigiriya rock were evidently not plastered. Besides, as noted by PEE Fernando (1950) whereas Mt. Kailasa itself is referred to as a mirror, at Sigiriya it is only the gallery wall that was so described - as a mirror wall - at a much later period by visitors, due to its shiny surface.

iii, iv. Sigiriya lion plateau and manosila-tala (plateau of red arsenic; Sigiriya tank and Anotatta lake.

SP draws attention to the resemblance to the situation of the lion’s platform at Sigiriya with the plateau of red arsenic in the story of the Meghaduta The colossal figure of the lion was (he stated) a replica of the Lion (kesara-simha) on the Plateau of Red Arsenic (manosila-tala), which is in the proximate vicinity of the Anotatta lake (p. 150). The analogy of Sigiri-weva being a representation of the Anotatta lake does not hold water for the reason that the lion’s platform is at a much higher level than and far removed from the Sigiriya tank.

sigiriya2.jpg (30909 bytes)Furthermore, the plateau of red arsenic inhabited by the kesara-simha species is inappropriate for comparison with the lion’s platform at Sigiriya although it has a lion at one end. The remaining three sides of the rectangular plateau or terrace (72 yds x 36 yds, ASCAR 1898, p.8) were devoted to, the construction of buildings around a paved courtyard. The plateau of red arsenic was a natural habitat.

As for the lion itself, it is unlikely that even an educated visitor to Sigiriya in ancient times would have been acquainted with the Sanskrit poem of Kalidasa and its literary allusions. When he saw a lion figure below the summit, the story of the fierce kesara-simha and the plateau of red arsenic is most unlikely to have passed through his mind. On the other hand, having heard that there was a dagoba on the summit, the stairway can be taken as the gateway to this dagoba which is the first monument the devotee would have seen closeby (to the right-hand side) on gaining access there. The reason for constructing the lion at this particular spot would be evident to the visitor who is aware that he is in a Buddhist monastery. He would understand that the lion at the gateway to the summit served the purpose of reminding the devotee of the Buddha, the Sakya-simha, whose voice was like that of a roaring lion, enunciating the truth..

v. Sigiriya paintings = cloud damsels and lightning princesses

SP explains the Sigiriya paintings of female figures as representing personifications of clouds and lightning present halfway up the face of the rock. They were for the purpose (he said) of suggesting to the spectator that the palace of Kassapa was above that level. These paintings, then, were for the purpose of glorifying the image of Kassapa I as a god-king, done by the king himself high up on Sigiriya, his abode.

Comment

At the discussion that followed the lecture, PEE Femando (1950) said that the resemblances ii, iv, and v. made by SP were "not altogether convincing". We propose to discuss SP’s interpretation of the paintings as being designed to enhance the image of Kassapa at Sigiriya. The interpretation is based on the following literary considerations, which were later examined by Wijesekera (1984).

1. The second century BC painter of the murals in the relic chamber of the Ruvenveli dagoba in Anuradhapura depicted vijjulata on the walls.

2. The Pali word vijjulata occuring both in the Mhv. (ch. 30, v. 96) and the Thupavamsa (83) was translated by Geiger (1960) as ‘lightning’.

3. SP rejected the translation of Geiger indicating that lightning was represented by bright zig-zag lines on the walls of the Ruvanveliseya relic chamber, and preferred to interpret the subject of these paintings as females (cloud damsels and lightning princesses) on the basis of the commentary to the Mhv. (Malalasekera 1935) composed about 400 years later than the chronicle. There is no support for his suggestion that this symbolism was a common motif in ancient Sinhala painting.

To the general spectator, the meaning of a good painting is conveyed by its content, provided the message is not cryptic as in modern abstract art. SP’s theory that cloud damsels and lightning princesses were depicted at Sigiriya was criticized by Wijesekera (loc.cit.); he showed, by a linguistic analysis of the Pali and Sanskrit words in the texts relied upon by SP, that there were no such motifs as cloud damsels and lightning princesses in Sinhala painting. There has been no reply by anyone, and Wijesekera’s cogent criticism remains ignored by all others.

No one unaware of the obscure single reference to meghalata and vijjukumari to be found in the mediaeval commentary to the Mhv. would have been able to identitfy the females of various complexions at Sigiriya as personifications of clouds and lightning in the form of princesses. SP’s belief in the existence of Kassapa’s palace on the summit, and his interpretation that the paintings depict goddesses known as cloud damsels and lightning princesses are both unfounded. He is correct, however, in taking the paintings as to representing a class of goddesses (see Raja de Silva 2002).

The foundation for SP’s elaborate theory of the meaning of Sigiriya is his belief in features there which cannot be explained by reasons of military necessity - for the security of Kassapa who lived in a palace on the summit. It is shown in this review that there being no evidence of a palace on the summit, there is no reason to believe that Kassapa lived there. There is no reason to attempt to explain any features at Sigiriya in terms of military requirements. These features referred to by SP are explained without difficulty on the basis that Sigiriya was not a fortress or the abode of a king. That Sigiriya was a long-standing monastery which had several entrance gateways is another (though connected) story which, however, is outside the scope of this review.