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

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