Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sigiriya (Lion Mountain)

Sigiriya (Lion Mountain), about 130 miles (210 kilometers) from Colombo in central Sri Lanka, is a ruined ancient stronghold built on a sheer-sided rock pillar. It rises 1,144 feet (349 meters) above sea level and 600 feet (180 meters) above the surrounding plain. On the summit King Kasyapa I (reigned a.d. 477–495) built a palace. Together with the surrounding gardens, it is the best-preserved first-millennium city in Asia, combining symmetrical and asymmetrical elements, changes of level, and axial and radial planning. The central rock is flanked by rectangular precincts on the east 234 acres (90 hectares) and the west 104 acres (40 hectares), all surrounded by a double moat and three ramparts. The city plan, based on a square module, extends 2 miles (about 3 kilometers) from east to west and over 1,000 yards (1 kilometer) from north to south, with precincts set aside for hunters, scavengers, foreigners, and even heretics. There were separate cemeteries for high and low castes, hostels, and hospitals. As well as the city within the inner and outer ramparts, suburban houses spread beyond the walls. Sigiriya demonstrated a sophisticated level of urban design at a time when Europe was in its Dark Ages.

The origins of this remarkable architectural achievement are obscured by legend. A romantic if grisly tradition has it that Kasyapa murdered his father Dhatusena and usurped the throne. Seven years later, full of “paranoia, arrogance and delusions of divinity,” he forsook the Sinhalese capital Anuradhapura and built his palace on Sigiriya. Of course it was defensible, although in the event, that was of little consequence. In a.d. 495 his half brother Moggallana, the rightful heir, led an army against him and Kasyapa came down from his fastness to fight. When his forces were routed, Kasyapa cut his own throat. An alternative version has more historical support. Dhatusena was frustrated in his quest for the imperial title that Sri Lanka’s rulers traditionally held as protectors of Buddhism, because the king of Java would not relinquish it. A priest advised Dhatusena that if he reigned from the summit of a rock, a palace in the sky, he could win that higher status. When Dhatusena named Moggallana as his successor Kasyapa fled to India, returning to invade Sri Lanka seven months later. Anticipating losing the battle, his father killed himself, and Kasyapa entered Anuradhapura to seize the throne. When Kasyapa discovered Sigiriya, there was a monastery in the lower levels of the rock. He built a new place for the monks before he started work on the fortress, commissioning a Sinhalese architect, Sena Lal, to complete the work.

The entire summit of Sigiriya, nearly 3 acres (1.2 hectares) in extent, was once surrounded by an outer wall on the very rim of the cliff. An ancient guidebook, the Sihigiri Vihara Suvarnapura, describes a colonnaded mansion set in landscaped gardens made only for the use of King Kasyapa and his queen. The palace garden had terraces and rock-cut pools replete with aquatic flowers. They were fed by a mechanical pumping system from a lake at the base of the rock that kept them full of water even in the dry season. The west and south slopes of Sigiriya were terraced with houses for members of the royal household; on the west there were also two flights of stairs to the summit and a theater with seats hewn from the rock.

The spectacular feature that gave the Lion Rock its name was the ceremonial entrance, approached from the west through an elaborate water garden surrounded by a moat and across a flat piece of terrain known as the Plateau of Red Arsenic. The covered brick-and-timber stair leading to the summit was reached through the mouth of a brilliantly colored lion, built with brick and limestone and towering 45 feet (14 meters) against the granite cliff. All that remains of the lion are two gigantic paws with talons unsheathed, and a mass of broken brickwork. Images of Dhatusena and Kasyapa are painted on the rock above the lion’s head. The stairway rises past hollows to a gallery about halfway up, enclosed by a 10-foot-high (3-meter) polished plaster wall—the Mirror Wall—and then to a small cave about 45 feet (14 meters) higher, in which there are paintings of half-naked women. There is some debate about their identity: they could be apsaras (heavenly maidens), courtiers, or even Kasyapa’s concubines. Of the original 500 portraits, only 19 survive.

Below Lion Mountain, a western precinct was entered across the inner moat, through a timber-and-brick gatehouse. Its water gardens were symmetrically planned, with cleverly designed hydraulic systems for horticulture, agriculture, surface drainage, and erosion control. The pools and cisterns (some 400 of them) were fed from the Sigiri Maha Wewa, an artificial lake stretching for 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the foot of the rock. There were ornamental and recreational water courses and even cooling systems using underground terra-cotta conduits. A miniature water garden inside the western precinct’s inner wall consisted of water pavilions, pools, cisterns, courtyards, conduits, and water courses, many designed as cooling devices with carefully considered visual and aural effects. The largest water garden had a central island linked to the “mainland” by causeways that formed four L-shaped pools with different water levels, designed for different functions. A narrow fountain garden was flanked by four moated islands, oriented perpendicular to the central axis of the water garden; their summer palaces were reached by bridges cut into the rock. An octagonal pond marked the point where the water garden met the asymmetrical boulder garden, set at a higher level, with its sinuous paths and natural boulders. A massive masonry wall ran from the octagonal pond to the bastion on the southeast, where wide brick walls connecting a series of boulders surrounded a rock-cut throne. Not all the gardens have been excavated and described.

When Kasyapa died, Moggallana seized Lion Rock and promptly deserted it as the capital, fixing the seat of government at Anuradhapura. Rediscovered during the British occupation of Sri Lanka, the archeological reserve and historic site of Sigiriya was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982. Conservation work continues. In 1990 an area of 12,600 acres (about 5,000 hectares) around Sigiriya was declared a wildlife sanctuary. The UNESCO-sponsored Central Cultural Fund has begun restoring Sigiriya’s water gardens, and the Sigiriya Conservation Policy means that the gardens will be stripped of all introduced plant species, leaving only the ancient flora.

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