Sigiriya: The Testimony of Ancient Architecture

Sigiriya Citadel , The Ancient Rock Fortress

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Sigiriya is the most visited tourist destination of Sri Lanka. It demonstrates the evidence for ancient inheritance of the island in the form of a fortress that is resulted by a combination of urban planning, water engineering, landscaping, horticulture, architecture and arts. Sigiriya is also referred as the eighth wonder of the world due its unique features.

The buildings and gardens of Sigiriya show the technical skills possessed and technologies used by its creators during the times of historical significance. Considering the creativity and uniqueness of Sigiriya, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1982.

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Sigiriya is located between the towns of Dambulla and Habarana in Matale District of the Central Province in Sri Lanka. The area consists of dry zonal jungles that stand on a massive stony flat terrain, 370 meters (1214 feet) above the sea level.

Sigiriya fortress has significant archaeological features that attract thousands of local and foreign tourists every year. The ruins of the capital built by King Kashyapa during the second half of the fifth century can be seen at the summit and on steep slopes of a huge rock. There is no doubt that the construction of such monument on a massive rock, which is about 200 meters (660 feet) in height and consist of sharp slopes in each side, required advance architectural and engineering skills.

Sigiriya is recognized as one of the finest examples of ancient urban planning. The site was constructed by King Kashyapa as both a palace and a fortress, which provided residential facilities with tremendous security. According to Culavamsa (A record of Sri Lankan history), the Prince Kashyapa has killed his father (King Dhatusena) and has seized the throne. He has become the King usurping his elder brother, Prince Mugalan who escaped to India. In panic of a future attack by his brother, King Kashyapa has built Sigiriya fortress, applying all kinds of techniques to safeguard the throne while assuring the luxurious life that he deserves as the king. Sigiriya had a brief status as the capital of Sri Lanka until Prince Mugalan returned and defeated King Kashyapa during the same century.

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This fortress complex was designed in the form of a huge stone lion, which helped to emerge the name ‘Sigiriya’ from the word ‘Sihagiri’, which means ‘Lions’ Rock’. While the rest of the parts of the body of this lion have been destroyed with time, at a middle plateau of the rock, the pair of paws of the lion, constructed out of bricks and plaster can be seen even today. A series of stairs arising from the mouth of the lion provides access to the upper and more difficult part of the rock.

Today, the fortress complex consists of remnants of the royal residence which include a ruined palace, an extensive network of fortifications, enormous gardens, ponds, waterways, passages and cascades. The area merely at the summit with ruins of this ancient heritage is around three acres in extent. The moats, wall surfaces and also yards of the palace are extended for few hundred meters from the base of the rock.

The main entrance to the fortress is located at the northern side of the rock. Five gateways were placed at entries to the fortress. The more complicated western gateway is thought to have scheduled for the royals.

The visitors have to climb through stairways and paths which have been diplomatically designed to reach the peak. The journey through a series of galleries and staircases gives a magnificent experience to the visitors. The visitors will have to struggle with winds as they reach the summit, however the winds result in reduced sweating during warm sunny days.

Archaeological Interventions at Sigiriya

Sigiriya was the capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom up to the death of King Kashyapa in AD 495. Then it became a Buddhist monastery until it was abandoned in the fourteenth century. The fortress was hidden in the jungle for centuries and rediscovered by British historians in the nineteenth century. The Archaeological Commissioner of Ceylon, Harry C.P. Bell performed substantial research in the area and formed the basis for all studies related to Sigiriya.

Archaeological operations at Sigiriya began on a small scale in the 1890s. The Cultural Triangle Project, introduced by the Government of Sri Lanka, concentrated its attention on Sigiriya in 1982 and the interventions began on the entire city under this project.

Sigiriya Frescoes

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The western wall of Sigiriya consists of frescoes created at the time of King Kashyapa, which have become some of the most prized objects in Sri Lanka’s artistic heritage. These unique ancient paintings with incredible historical significance are the main reason to attract tourists to Sigiriya. The caves that exist at the rock base also provide evidence for some paintings inside, however the famous frescoes on the rock ceilings are the most valued all over the world.

The painting design of the frescoes differs from the drawings that belong to Anuradhapura duration. The lines are repainted in a form which boosts the sense of volume of the figures. The paint has been applied in sweeping strokes, using more pressure on one side. This pattern gives the effect of a much deeper colour tone when sighted from an angle. Various other drawings of the Anuradhapura period consist of similar strategies of painting, yet do not show the line painting style as that of Sigiriya frescoes.

While the majority of frescoes have been destroyed and shed down with time, eighteen out of them can be seen even today. These frescoes exhibit portraits of beautiful females emerged from clouds with flowers in their hands. They have high foreheads, tempting eyes and lips that remind lotus buds, while the attractiveness has been enhanced with a blush on their cheeks. The texture of their blouses reflects transparency and resembles silken cobwebs woven in the wind. Similar texture has been applied to show the night dew and running water on the backgrounds of the frescoes.

There are various ideas about identity of these females. Some think that they are the wives of King Kashyapa, while others think that they are the women participating in religious rituals. Sigiriya frescoes have a close similarity to the paintings in the Ajanta Caves in India.

Sigiriya Mirror Wall

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Another attractive feature of Sigiriya is its mirror wall. This was constructed from block masonry and covered in white plaster. The mirror wall was polished thoroughly during King Kashyapa’s reign for him to see his reflection on it while passing the same. Later the mirror wall was scratched and painted with inscriptions and poems written from eighth to the thirteenth centuries by the monks, pilgrims and other visitors of Sigiriya. Individuals of all kinds wrote on the wall, on varying subjects such as love, paradox and experiences including their thoughts about Sigiriya and its splendor. These ancient inscriptions reflect the writing skills and the enthusiasm of the visitors while proving that Sigiriya was a tourist destination since more than thousand years.

The Archaeological Commissioner of Sri Lanka, Senarath Paranavithana analyzed 685 verses on the mirror wall surface that were written from eighth to tenth centuries CE. One such inscription explains, “At Sigiriya, of abundant splendor, situated on the island of (Sri Lanka) we saw, in happy mood, the rock that captivates the mind of all people who come here”. Another says that “I am Budal (the writer’s name), included among hundreds of individuals to see Sigiriya, as all the other visitors wrote poems, I did not write anything”.

It is important to note that painting and scratching on the mirror wall surface has been strictly prohibited for today’s visitors, for the protection of the old works.

Sigiriya Gardens

Sigiriya gardens are located in the western part of the site and are split into three connected but distinct forms namely water gardens, cave and boulder gardens and terraced gardens. These are considered as oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

Sigiriya Water Gardens

Sigiriya water gardens are located at either sides of the route that starts from the middle area of the rock towards the western direction of the site. These gardens have been developed symmetrically on an east-west axis and lounge parallel to the course mentioned above.

The archeological discoveries have enabled understanding the garden plan, which was designed diplomatically, considering the slope along the ground. The original design is noticeable when examining the western part of the site from Sigiriya rock summit and it facilitates visitor’s imagination on the charming beauty of water gardens at its fully functional stage.

Water gardens consist of a complex hydraulic system, which includes lakes, canals, drains, pools, ponds, dams, bridges, fountains and water pumps that were designed using advanced water engineering techniques. This hydraulic system enables circulation of water through the whole area of Sigiriya during rainy as well as dry seasons while supporting the defense system and enhancing the beauty of the fortress complex.

The first water garden consists of a plot bordered by water and it is connected to the primary precinct making use of four causeways. A mini water yard lies in the west of this water garden, which contains numerous tiny swimming pools and also watercourses. This garden appears as a one developed after the Kashyapan duration, possibly between the tenth to thirteenth centuries.

The second water garden contains two long, deep swimming pools set on either sides of the course. Two superficial, serpentine streams supply water to these pools. Fountains made from round sedimentary rock plates are placed underneath. Underground water channels which supply water to these fountains are still functional, especially throughout the wet season.

Summer season palaces are built on the squashed surface areas of two big islands that lie on either sides of the second water yard. Two more islands are located farther to the north as well as the south of the yard. All these islands are integrated in a way comparable to the island in the first water garden.

The third water garden is positioned on a greater level than the other two yards. It has a big octagonal swimming pool with an increased podium on its northeast edge. The big block and stone wall surface of the castle gets on the eastern side of this garden.

All three water gardens are connected with the external moat on the west and the huge man-made lake on the south of the Sigiriya rock. All the pools are also interlinked using an underground conduit network fed by the lake and waterways attached to the moats. As the water flows down via canals of a greater to a lower ground level, the places with high pressure have been blocked using pierced, circular stone plates to create fountains. Water is pressed up through the holes due to natural pressure generated by its flow through the yards and differed diameters of holes help to control the height. Smaller holes are concentrated at the middle of the rock plates while the ones with increased diameters are seen around.

Sigiriya Cave and Boulder Gardens

The boulder yards include a number of big rocks connected by winding paths. The gardens expand from the northern to the southern inclines of capitals at the foot of Sigiriya rock. The cuttings that were used as grounds for block walls and beams reveal that the majority of these rocks had a building or a structure upon them. These were made to assault adversaries from the top of rocks when they came nearby.

Sigiriya Terraced Gardens

The terraced yards were developed from the natural hill at the base of the Sigiriya rock. A series of balconies climbs from the pathways of the stone garden to the staircases on the rock. These have been developed by the construction of block wall surfaces and are located in an approximately concentric plan around the rock. The course in the terraced gardens is made of limestone stairs. Starting from these stairs, there is a protected path on the side of the rock, resulting in the uppermost terrace where the lion staircase is located.

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