Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sigiriya, a magnificent and mysterious palace in the clouds

Symmetry with a well-balanced touch of asymmetry (see that winding little path left from the central axis...?): view from the top of the huge Sigiriya rock, towards the water gardens at the foot of it.
When I travel, I try to be at least reasonable well prepared. I check out properly the places I am going to, read up on their history and sights, and generally do some research in advance in order to get as much as possible out of the trips. But at times, despite all this, some places still manage to take me by quite a surprise... Sigiriya on northeastern Sri Lanka managed to do exactly so during the recent holidays.
Now, Sri Lanka itself is quite a spectacular little island, filled with exquisite cultural sites, lush emerald green jungle, mines filled with precious stones, misty tea plantations and long sandy beaches. Its earlier names, Ceylon and Serendib (used by Arab traders  - the word "serendipity", meaning "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise" stem from this name...) still evoke thoughts of bygone days in the tropics.

View towards the Sigiriya rock rising from the jungle and with the advanced pleasure gardens leading to it - it is said that King Kassapa had 400 maidens living in his palace, and that he enjoyed watching them bathing in the large pools...
Primitive metal scaffolding leads to the top of the rock, which made me question what we had undertaken as I'm quite afraid of heights. In the ancient times, bamboo was used instead of metal, and I wonder how many builders lost their lives making the first version...
The history of the island goes back millenniums, and even written such about reaches about three thousand years back. Visited by seafarers since ancient times, and often attacked and even invaded or colonialized by foreign powers, those many cultures have added their own footnotes to the story of the island.
Given such a long, rich history, the island is filled with cultural treasures - for example, a total of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites are crammed within its compact shores. One of the most interesting of these (according to my own, very personal rating..) is Sigiriya, part a pleasure palace, part a fortress and part a sacred complex from the late 5th century. No-one knows what it was built for so its history is shrouded in mystery, the first written records are from almost 800 years after its glory days.

A couple of more pictures of the water gardens at the foot of the rock. Technically very advanced for their time, they even contain bubbling fountains, fed by water led via underground pipes from the higher levels.

Two pictures showing how the palace and other buildings on the rock were constructed: first, cuts were hacked into the stone; tiles were inserted into these, and walls built on the base. Many of the buildings have disappeared and only the initial cuts show on the rocks and cliffs.  
Rising some 200 meters above the jungle around, the site consists of vast pleasure gardens at the foot of the rock, and ruins of a palace on middle and top of it. Some historians believe that King Kassapa I (also spelled Kasyapa) built the huge complex during his 18-year long reign in late 5th century; others (what seems more realistic) think that he extended an existing holy site or Buddhist monastery.

Halfway up the rock, a difficult to reach rocky shelter in the vertical wall (the "orange band" in the rock wall in above pictures) houses rock paintings of extremely high artistic quality depicting 21 female figures called 'The Maidens of the Clouds'. There are many theories but no definitive answers to what these beautiful figures represent - they might be goddesses, or jewel-bedecked court ladies... For centuries after Kassapa's defeat, travelers came to Sigiriya just to see these lovely ladies, and scribbled their appreciative poems into the surrounding walls.

Kassapa's own history is another mystery. According to some sources, he committed patricide and threw his brother out of the country; then fearful for his defeated brother to return from exile to extract vengeance, built and moved into his fortress and palace on the top of the huge rock. Now, sitting at the top of a rock wouldn't seem smart as a strategy as it would be easy for any attackers to just cut out all supplies and wait until the targets would surrender, which makes many historians suspicious of the theory. But no-one has quite been able to put together the complete story; the only thing we know for sure is that Kassapa's brother did eventually come back, and that in the face of a certain defeat, Kassapa took his own life. Afterwards, Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery (again?), and became one of the earliest tourist site probably in the whole world: a wall on the way up to the top still has well-preserved "graffitis" since 1600 years back - nothing is really new under the sun.

A terrace with water tanks halfway up the rock.

Not nearly as well-known as the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I found Sigiriya every bit as impressive even if it is much smaller - no pictures, especially mine taken in a pouring rain, really make justice to the genius that planned and produced it. Just thinking of the ancient builders chiseling the steps into the vertical rock wall, and carrying all building materials on the top of the huge rock using only bamboo scaffoldings make be dizzy. As tourism at Sri Lanka has increasing fast since the 30-year long civil war ended in 2009, I'm not sure how this site can be properly protected from the negative effects of huge crowds (it is very sensitive, given the extreme nature of its construction), as even now, it seems on the brink of what the site can cope with. But I sincerely hope that careful thought and generous resources will be available to save it to the future generations.

The Lion Gate halfway up the rock; originally, it consisted of a face of a lion with the paws underneath (only the paws remain). It is thought to be a symbol of the Buddha, also called the "Lion of the Sakyas" (Sakya is the clan into which the historical Buddha was born into). 

Another view from the top of the rock, towards the water gardens below.

There are several water tanks and bathing pools even at the top of the huge rock; it is said, that Kassapa was fond of bathing - and of watching his court ladies bathing. Water is collected during the wet monsoon, but interestingly, there was even a hydraulic water pump system that provided water from the ground level.

One of the many natural stone "gates" leading from the top back to the ground level.
 Kassapa's deserted stone throne - it is said that he sat on the top level with his closest courtiers (upper left corner), and the visitors and administrators had to shout their messages to him from the stone set on the lower level (lower right in the picture). Sounds quite remarkable to me - but then, everything about Sigiriya is pretty remarkable... and absolutely magnificent. 



Sara - Villa Emilia said...

Truly fascinating!
Thank you for sharing!

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Thank you - kiitos, Sara! It was such an impressing, beautiful place; such a high civilization at an early age that I had barely heard about before...
Hyvää viikonloppua,

Unknown said...

Hi, we would like to request for permission to use some of your photos for a project, kindly advise how we can contact you.


The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Jasmine - could you please email me at liisa (at) wihman dot com ? thanks

Unknown said...

Hi, I'm following up on the image rights on behalf of Jasmine. I tried sending the to the email that you have provided, but the email got rejected. Is there other means to contact us??


The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi - hmm, I must have been really tired yesterday - it should be liisa at wihman dot se (not dot com)! can you try again? or send a pm via Facebook? Thanks!