Monastery or pleasure palace?
The Sigiriya rock fortress — said to be the abode
of Kasyapa but now disputed (inset) The lion paws
and The beautiful maidens are said to depict
By R. Wijewardene
ago in the great kingdom on the island’s northern plain,
Kasyapa — the son of King Dhatusena by his second wife —
murdered his father and placed himself on the throne at
legitimate heir to the throne, Mogalana, fled to India
in order to raise an army and reclaim his kingdom from
his usurping half brother.
Kasyapa, having made himself king, feared the imminent
return of Mogalana with an accompanying army of Indian
secure himself against the threat of invasion, Kasyapa
abandoned the Sinhala kings’ ancient abode at
and installed himself in a palace at the summit of the
spectacular orange-streaked rock at Sigiriya.
summit of this inaccessible natural monolith, he set
about creating what many claim is a genuine wonder of
the world — a fantastic pleasure palace at the top of a
virtually unscalable rock.
Focus on pleasure
Confident that the rock’s sheer walls would allow him to
withstand any siege, the parricide prince began to focus
his attention less on defence and more on pleasure.
laid out vast pleasure gardens at the site and had
thousands of labourers toil for decades to turn the
living rock of Sigiriya into a succession of galleries
lined with images of heavenly maidens.
secure was King Kasyapa in his fortress that he began to
see himself not as a low-born usurper but as a god king
— an avatar of the ancient god of wealth Kuvera, whose
palace is said to be perched on the summit of Mount
even began to lay out the garden and architectural
features of the fortress to imitate mythological
description of Kuvera’s palace, but before his
megalomaniacal designs could be completed Mogalana, the
rightful heir to the kingdom’s throne, returned with an
pitched battle ensued at the foot of the fortress, but
when his elephant failed him Kasyapa committed suicide,
leaving Mogalana victorious.
The tale of Vijaya
rightful order of things was therefore restored and a
deviant, decadent monarch who had abandoned Buddhism to
establish a debauched ego-centric cult was defeated by
the pious, dutiful and Buddhist Mogalana.
ancient story, along with the tale of Vijaya — the
mythical ancestor of the Sinhala race — and the story of
Siddhartha Gauthama should be immediately familiar to
anyone educated in Sri Lanka.
tale of Kasyapa the parricide prince has been told and
retold. Originally discovered in translations of the
Mahavamsa, today it is recounted in everything from
children’s storybooks and history textbooks to tourist
Unfortunately, however, the gripping and elaborate tale
that has captured the imagination of generations of Sri
Lankans and visitors to the island, like so many of
history’s finest stories, is very unlikely to be true.
century of archaeological exploration at Sigiriya has
uncovered almost no evidence that supports the romantic
claim that a palace once sat atop the flat summit of the
Never a palace
conducted decades of excavation at the Sigiriya site,
former Archaeological Commissioner Raja de Silva has
stated categorically that a palace never sat at the
summit of Sigiriya.
limited archeological remains at the top of the rock
indicate that the structure that stood at the summit did
not posses either a tiled roof or the doors and windows
that would typically be associated with a royal palace.
Ultimately, Raja de Silva claims, the low terrace of
Sigiriya could not possibly have served as the
foundation for a structure as significant as a palace.
Fundamentally, De Silva takes issue with the logistics
behind erecting a palace at the summit of a 1000 ft.
rock, and claims that it simply would not have been
possible during the 20 years of Kasyapa’s rule.
also discounts the claims that Sigiriya was employed as
a fortress, arguing that the site was, in fact,
indefensible; an isolated and easily-surrounded spot
well away from the men-at-arms and supplies available at
Anuradhapura, and further points out that Sigiriya has
several entrances, which is inconsistent with
fortresses, which are invariably designed to have a
limited number of entrances.
A defensive fortress
Silva claims that even the celebrated historian
Paranavitharana, who argues in favour of Sigiriya being
the abode of Kasyapa, admitted the site could not have
been a defensive fortress, and presented the site more
as a pleasure palace.
has always been debate as to whether Sigiriya served
primarily as a fortress or a pleasure palace. If Kasyapa
feared being deposed enough to build a palace on top of
an inaccessible rock, why did he lavish his attention on
art sculptures and gardens, which are not remotely
relevant to defence? And why, if Sigiriya was indeed a
fortress, did he immediately come out to battle Mogalana
on the low plains beneath the rock?
Ultimately, the extravagance visible at Sigiriya simply
does not appear to be compatible with the theory that
Kasyapa was an insecure monarch whose reign was
characterised by his fear of being deposed.
Whether Sigiriya was a fortress or a pleasure palace has
been debated for decades, but Raja de Silva claims that
it was neither.
claims that the rock that towers over the plains of
Dambulla and Habarana served for several centuries as a
monastic complex. And that many of the site’s features —
its isolation, its indefensibility and its art work (all
incompatible with theories that view the site as either
a defensive fortress or pleasure palace) can easily be
explained if Sigiriya is viewed as a religious site.
Sigiriya’s rock-hewn galleries
heart of the issue, of course, are Sigiriya’s iconic
frescoes. Different historians at different times have
made various claims as to the provenance of the maidens
that adorn Sigiriya’s rock-hewn galleries.
been suggested that they are essentially portraits of
the pleasure-seeking Kasyapa’s wives and concubines, or
that they are celestial beings — Apsaras painted to
confirm Kasyapa’s vision of himself as a god-king in a
many theories ascribe their origins to Kasyapa, it has
also been claimed that the sheer number of frescos
originally at the site was such that they could not have
been completed during Kasyapa’s reign alone.
Estimates of the age of the frescoes also suggest that
they were completed as much as several decades apart. If
that is the case, it is impossible that they could have
been completed during Kasyapa’s 20 year reign.
Graffiti on the mirror wall
difficult to explain how some frescoes could have been
completed long after the others, as it is unlikely —
given the circumstances of Kasyapa’s rule — that his
successors would have wanted to continue his work.
frescoes continued to be visited for centuries — as
attested to by the graffiti on the mirror wall — and
were not immediately defaced by Kasyapa’s successors.
This suggests that the paintings had little connection
with the king.
de Silva, in arguing that the Sigiriya site was a
monastery, claims that, rather than Apsaras, the
frescoes depict the goddess Tara.
a tantric goddess and the female aspect of the
Bodhisattva Avalokatissera is commonly rendered in
Mahayana art and iconography. Images of Tara have been
found at several sites that date from in and around the
Sigiriya period — Veragala, for example.
claim that the figures at Sigiriya depict Tara’s
celestial abode are central to De Silva’s broader claim
that Sigiriya was in fact not a palace but a centre of
Mahayana Buddhist worship.
cites the scale of the complex, the elaborateness of its
frescoes and the prevalence of monastic sites around
Sigiriya as evidence that the rock was in fact a major
also claims that it continued to be a significant
religious site for several centuries, and as such
interprets the famous graffiti on the mirror wall as the
remarks of visitors to a sacred site.
Ultimately, de Silva argues in favour of the view that
Mahayana Buddhism was reasonably prevalent in 6/7th
century Sri Lanka, and that Sigiriya was perhaps the
main centre of the Mahayana faith on the island. This,
it is claimed, explains the depiction of the site as a
pleasure place in the Mahavamsa.
Mahavamsa was a chronicle maintained by Theravada monks
who disdained Mahayana practices, and the portrayal of
Sigiriya as the palace of a parricide was a deliberate
attempt by Theravada historians to erase the memory of a
once-flourishing rival movement.
de Silva’s claims regarding the function of Sigiriya do
not discount the Mahavamsa’s basic tale. There may well
have been a King Kasyapa who killed his father and was
deposed by his brother. What de Silva claims, however,
is that Sigiriya could not have been the site of
Seat of power
probability, Kasyapa, like his forefathers, would have
ruled from Anuradhapura. It is possible, however, that
Kasyapa was sympathetic to Mahayana Buddhism — hence his
negative portrayal in the Mahavamsa and the fact that he
might have made lavish donations to the monks at
Sigiriya. However, Sigiriya was not the seat of his
Ultimately, De Silva’s interpretation takes issue with
the Mahavamsa — the great chronicle on which so much of
our understanding of this country’s history is based.
Fundamentally, he claims that the only support for the
view that there was ever a palace on top of Sigiriya
expressed by Paranavitharana, Senake Bandaranayake, and
several others, lies in the Mahavamsa.
However, he maintains that the Mahavamsa’s Theravada
chroniclers had, in this case, a vested interest in
so many other major debates in Sri Lankan history, the
controversy regarding Sigiriya centers around arguments
regarding the accuracy of the Mahavamsa as a source of
Ultimately, Raja de Silva’s argument regarding the
monastic origins of Sigiriya suggest that the stories
recounted in the Mahavamsa are just that — stories with
little basis in history.
however, is a controversial claim, and one that will
continue to be debated — perhaps for centuries to come.