Category Archives: INDIA

Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge

In May 2012, a NASA satellite passed over a shallow waters of the Indian Ocean (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). It sent back images of a chain of largely submerged objects running between Sri Lanka and India (Ibid.). The NASA image analyst, Marc D’Antonio, describes it as “a string of pearls between two islands” (Ibid.). Similarly, the archaeologist, Chelsea Rose compares it to a rocky jetty but pretty bigger (Ibid.). On closer analysis of the satellite image investigators calculate the line of rock is over thirty kilometres long (Ibid.). What makes the image especially intriguing is that the displayed rocks are located in the area of sea, mentioned in an ancient Indian Sanskrit epic, which also refers to a mythical bridge (Ibid.).

The location of Adam’s Bridge between India and Sri Lanka on Google’s Map. Photo source: Dr Rita Louise (2013). “Rama’s Bridge: Where Modern Science And Ancient Myths Collide”. In: Ancient Origins.

The Way of Rama

The Indian Sanskrit epic is known as Ramayana. It literally means the ‘Way of Rama’ and constitutes one of the great epics of India, of which the other is known as Mahabharata (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). Both epics had originated from folk tales and belong to the so-called Smriti scriptures (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2020).  Such writings encompass Hindu stories originally passed down by oral tradition (Ibid.). Ramayana is generally believed to have been written by the sage-poet Valmiki, between the fifth century BC and first century AD (Basu 2016).

According to the Sanskrit, Valmiki tells the story of Ramayana to Rama’s sons, the twins Lava and Kush (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the Ramayana date is not certain as much as the authorship of the epic (Van Nooted 2000:xv). The poet, Valmiki, himself is a half-legendary character (Ibid.:xv). Therefore, although Ramayana is very important of the Hindu tradition, it is usually said to have nothing to do with an exact historical chronology (Ibid.). As it speaks of the events recorded orally for centuries, the story itself may be much older that the written version (Ibid.:xv). However, to make their assumptions safe, scholars usually say “that Valmiki (if he really was the composer) drew upon a number of popular Rama folk tales for his epic, which he wove together into a great frame story, together with numerous exotic and fabulous incidents” (Ibid.:xv).

Valmiki training Lava Kusha (sons of Rama & Sita) in the art of archery. Author: Tej Kumar Book Depo. Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2018).

Chronological discrepancies

As a matter of fact, there are a few alternative chronologies concerning the events described by Ramayana, as much as it occurs in other archaeological areas, such as the Egyptology, where there is a difference of around one hundred years between the so called ‘high’ (the older) and ‘low’ (the younger) chronologies of the ancient Egypt. In case of the time frames for Ramayana, however, such a gap is incomparably larger.

According to the Hindu tradition, the events described by Ramayana took place during the Treta Yuga, which is the second of the four Yugas and the so-called Silver Age (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3). All of the periods are cosmic cycles as the starting point of each of them was formed by the conjunction of planets (Ibid.:3). Additionally, each successive age is shorter than the previous one (Ibid.:3). Some Hindu sources say that the Treta Yuga had lasted for 1 296 000 years (Ibid.:3). When did it start? According to such calculations, it was a period of time that began from over two millions years BC and ended around eight hundred thousand BC (!!!) (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3; Louise 2013), which sounds absurd (Louise 2013). This is probably why some scholars have re-calculated the time to make it “more” plausible. After their assumptions, the same epoch started in 5 500 BC and ended in 4 250 BC (Mittal 2006:xxiv). Such a time frame would be possible providing that twenty years is an average reign of each of sixty-three kings who were historically recorded (Ibid.:xxiv). Whereas according to the Hindu tradition, the average age of man in the Treta Yuga was three hundred years (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3), which is actually similar to the age ascribed to great biblical patriarchs in Genesis.

Statue of Rama in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India (published in 2012). Photo by Ashish3724 (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

There have also been other surveys carried out in order to prove the historicity of Ramayana. By using modern scientific tools, such as archaeoastronomy, some Hindu researches have studied if any exact dates in the western calendar can be attributed to Rama’s lifetime (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Ramayana, as much as Mahabharata, are regarded as traditional historical and religious texts of India and as such they are believed to contain real astronomical information also supported by observations recorded by the Hindu chronicles (Ibid.). Subsequently, the researches applied the ancient knowledge of configurations of celestial bodies to calculate the time when Rama’s birth may have happened (Ibid.). As a result, they have obtained the precise date of 10th January, 5 114 BC and then, using the same key, they have received further dates of successive events appearing in Ramayana, among which the construction of Ram Setu falls between the 14th and 20th September, 5076 BC (Ibid.). Accordingly, the research results are closer to the so called ‘low’ chronology of Treta Yunga, and consequently of Ramayana, if we can apply such a definition also to the ancient times of India and Sri Lanka.

Is the story a historical record or a myth?

The theory that the events of Ramayana should be dated back to thousands or even millions years ago is considered highly unscientific to western researches. But while it is not acceptable for real historical events, after the same scholars, it fits well in the sphere of myths, which is believed to have been actually presented in the epic. For many mainstream historians who have analysed the text, such a theory is supported by the fact that Ramayana tells a story filled with fairy like characters and describes unrealistic events typical of fiction: divine beings fly on aircrafts between masses of lands, giants, hybrids and demons walk the earth, ape-men construct an engineering feat, and all that is observed by powerful gods who decide about the course of earthly events. In this case, however, what means fiction for western scholars is a religious truth for many Hindus.

Ravana’s sister Suparnakha attempts to seduce Rama. He refuses and spurns her.
Internet Archive Book Images (2015) Image from page 534 of “Indian myth and legend” by Mackencie, D. (1913). Public domain. Uploaded in 2015. Photo source: “Rama” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Rama of Ayodhya is the protagonist of the story (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). He is born as a prince but he is forced to abdicate his claim to the throne in favour of his half-brother (Ibid.:xiii). As a result, “Rama himself withdraws into the forest for thirteen years accompanied by his faithful wife Sita and a his devoted half-brother, Lakshmana” (Ibid.:xiii-xiv).

The action of the story is rising when they all get into conflict with “the legions of the dark, the Rakshasas or demons” (Ibid.:xiv). The struggle culminates when two brothers, Rama and Lakshmana, humiliate Shurpanakha who is the demon king’s sister. As a result, her powerful brother, ten-headed Ravana takes revenge for his sister’s disgrace by abducting Sita (Ibid.:xiv). The demon takes Rama’s wife on board of his aircraft, vimana, and they fly together to Ravana’s kingdom on the island Lanka, today associated with Sri Lanka” (Ibid.:xiv). The demon’s capital, in turn, is usually localized at the famous Rock of Sigiriya, which is rising just in the middle of the island (see In the Realm of Demon Ravana).


Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai in a modern version of Ramayana, Raavan (2010 directed by Mani Ratnam). Movie shot. Image cropped. Photo source: Raavan (2010) Catchplay.com+ TW.

In search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana ally with the Vanara – an army of ape men and bears under the generalship of the mighty ape-man Hanuman (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Finally, they discover the place where Sita is kept captive (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). To reach the island, Rama is advised by the sea god to construct a bridge between the mainland to Lanka and move his army of ape-men on the enemy’s territory (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Once the bridge is ready, they all cross it from India to Lanka and a great battle between Rama’s army and Ravana’s demons ensues (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). Eventually, the good wins and at the moment of victory, Rama discovers his divine origins (Ibid.:xiv-xv): “[he] is an incarnation of the great god Vishnu who has come on earth to save mankind from oppression by demonic forces” (Ibid.:xiv-xv). Having killed Ravana, Rama wins Sita back and they come back to India by air using Ravana’s vimana (Ibid.:xv).

Ravana’s Celestial Chariot carrying Rama and Sita back to India, ca. 1650. Among the earliest Ramayana paintings of the manuscript, Panjab Hills. Uploaded by Yann (2015). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2020).

After coming back to Ayodhya, Rama is crowned king (Ibid.:xv). Yet the story does not end well. Rama suspects his wife of having been unfaithful to him during her stay on Lanka and he banishes her back to the forest (Ibid.:xv). There, Sita gives the birth to Rama’s twins (Ibid.:xv). At this point, Valmiki appears in the narrative (Ibid.:xv). He takes care of Rama’s sons and teaches them the story of Rama’s great exploits, which is actually the Ramayana itself (Ibid.:xv).

Floating stones of Ram Setu

The causeway or bridge between India and Lanka described by the Ramayana is usually referred to as Ram setu (Rama’s Bridge) but it is also known as Nala’s bridge, as it is the name of the ape-man engineer who has designed the whole construction (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).

The text of Ramayana gives the records of the building project in detail including all the techniques used (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). The bridge has been built over a natural sea ridge (Ibid.). First the Vanara used various wood to construct a pile foundation, and then on top of it larger stones were piled on, rising up to the flat finished level (Ibid.).

The Vanara Army is constructing the Bridge. The name ‘Rama’ is written down on the stones to make them float. Photo source: Soma Tiwari (2018). “Here’s the Real Story of Ram Setu Bridge”. In: Scientific Mystery.

As the epic says, there were special stones employed; namely, they could float on the water surface after the name Rama was written on them (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). Actually floating stones can be still found on the coast of Rameshwaram, where the bridge starts in India (Ibid.). Some scientists claim it is pumice, which is the volcanic rock that can initially float on the water due to its smaller density (Ibid.). The theory of pumice stones, however, has been strongly contested (Ibid.). First of all, there is no volcano in the areas of Rameswaram, nor any evidence of its existence there in the past (Tiwari 2018). So how did pumice stones appear there, if they are volcanic rocks? (Ibid.). Moreover, an analysis of the stones “has revealed that floating stones in Rameswaram are not lightweight as pumice stones” (Ibid.). Hindu scholars claim that although rocks found near the bridge are similar to corals or pumice in appearance, at closer examination it is found that they are not (Das 2017).

After all, the concept of floating stones found in Rameshwaram and potentially used in Ramayana has not been explained yet (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). For scholars who try to resolve that matter, the problem occurs together with the following question: could the ancient builders of the bridge know the technology to make stones float on water? (Das 2017:27).

Natural or planned construction?

The bridge was built in a proper linear alignment, which is visible even today on aerial images (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). So it was not just random throwing of stones here or there or a usually irregular natural formation (Ibid.). “’It is the context which tells the story,’ said [the marine archaeologist, Alok] Tripathi, who became the first head of the Archaeological Survey of India’s underwater archaeology wing in 2001. ‘In nature, stones would lie haphazardly,’ he said. ‘If you find them aligned or you find layers of stone and sand, from the manner of their arrangement you know there has been human intervention’” (Roy Chowdhury 2017).

Scientific and literary data linkage

The measurements of the causeway, namely 35 kilometres long and 3,5 kilometres wide, are also analogous to the measurements of the bridge given by the epic, which is 100 leagues in length and 10 in width (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). This gives the ratio of 1 (width) : 10 (length) (Ibid.). As Ramayana goes, the whole project lasted for just five days (Ibid.).

“On the first day, fourteen yojans of bridge was constructed by the monkeys speedily, thrilled with delight as they were, resembling elephants. In the same manner, on the second day twenty yojans of bridge was constructed speedily by the monkeys of terrific bodies and of mighty strength. Thus, on the third day twenty-one yojans of the bridge was constructed in the ocean speedily by the monkeys with their colossal bodies. On the fourth day, a further of twenty-two yojans was constructed by the dashing monkeys with a great speed. In that manner, on the fifth day, the monkeys working quickly constructed twenty-three yojans of the bridge up to the other seashore.”


The translated version of the excerpt taken from Ramayana, describing the construction of Ram Setu. In: Tiwari (2018).

What could an archaeologist uncover?

Since the bridge was built, the layers of sand have accumulated over the structure making sandbars and shoals (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Some scholars, like Alok Tripathi, believe that archaeological examination of the site would uncover the successive layers of the ancient bridge, at the bottom of which, there should be the solidified wood, which would have become carbonaceous material over thousands of years (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Roy Chowdhury 2017). Consequently, Tripathi has submitted research proposal to investigate the structure (Roy Chowdhury 2017). He argues that the “belief that Rama’s army built that bridge is well-established. [The Vanara may have] filled the gaps between the islets with stones and logs [and] archaeological investigation may reveal material evidence, if any” (Ibid.).

The marine archaeologist, Alok Tripathi, working at the sunken legendary city of Dwarka, India, in 2007. Photo by Alok Tripathi. Photo source: Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In: Scroll.in.

Historical records of fiction

According to historical records, such a land connection between India and Sri Lanka, as described by Ramayana, really existed and it was first mentioned in the ninth century AD in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms by the Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh, who refers to it as Set Bandhhai, which means Bridge of the Sea (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). By all accounts, the causeway interconnected Rameswaram Island, off the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu (Palk Strait), in India, and Mannar Island (Gulf of Mannar), off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka (Ibid.) and “was reportedly passable on foot up to the fifteenth century until storms deepened the channel. The Rameshwaram temple records suggest that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it was destroyed in a cyclone in […] 1480” (Ibid.).

Ptolemy’s Map of Ceylon and Ram Setu reaching to India. Claudius Ptolemaeus (fl. AD 127-145, Alexandria). Photo by Wilfriedbluhm.de. Map source Admin (2013) “Most Ramy, budowla z prehistorii łącząca Indie z Cejlonem”. In: Inne Medium.pl.

Nevertheless, the structure was still marked on the nineteenth century’s maps. In 1804, a British cartographer describes the same structure as Adam’s bridge “in reference to an Abrahamic myth, in which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain, which the British identified with Adam’s Peak, where he stood repentant on one foot for one thousand years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint” (Ibid.). Yet, according to the Hindu tradition, the footprint has been actually left by the god Shiva.

Aerial photos

The Rama’ bridge was brought again into attention by aerial images sent by NASA in 2012. The stones in the satellite image are sitting on something that the oceanographers call a shoal or sandbar (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, geological evidence suggests that the ‘bridge’ was “made with chain of limestone shoals surrounded by a shallow sea of one to ten meters depth” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Some geologists, as Dr Erin Argyilan, admit that “the structure occurs in an area where there is shallow waters and sand could accumulate between two land masses [over the time]” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). As a result, a long and narrow strip of land was composed (Ibid.).

Natural or manmade

There is no doubt such a structure exists but the key matter is now answering the question whether the construction is natural or manmade. Provided evidence could either reject or at least partially confirm the events described by Ramayana.  

Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480, when it may have been yet passable. Map found via reddit from Brilliant Maps (2015).

In the past, some scholars claimed it to “[have been] formed by a process of accretion and rising of the land, while the other surmised that it had been [shaped] by the breaking away of Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). However, the fact that the remains of the structure are situated in the place indicated by the epic is itself quite intriguing. In case it is a natural formation, as some researchers believe, it would mean that the author of Ramayana or earlier oral folks must have based a description of the “fictional” Ram Setu on the appearance of the actual causeway joining India with Sri Lanka. On the other side, there is evidence supporting the claim that this strip of land is the same one described in Hindu literature (Louise 2013).

NASA and geology

Although Ram Setu was once believed to be a natural deposition of sand, silt and small pebbles, the NASA images definitely show it looks more like a broken bridge under the ocean’s surface than a creation of nature (Louise 2013; Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Dr Badrinarayanan, the former director of the Geological Survey of India thoroughly studied the causeway and went to conclusions in favour of the theory saying it is an artificial construction (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Also other interdisciplinary scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, claim that “although the sandbar may be natural, what is sitting above it is not” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Marc D’Antonio, the NASA Image Analyst agrees that it is not just a simple sandbar (Ibid.). He says: “there are larger objects within it that have not been eroded away” (Ibid.). Dr Alan Lester, the geologist identifies “these objects as stones that have been brought from afar and set on top of the sandbar island chain” (Ibid.). Dr Badrinarayanan justifies the same by the presence of coral reef above loose sands layer for the entire stretch of the causeway (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). As he explains “corals normally form above rocks and not over sand layers” (Ibid.).

Traditional research methods also supported the NASA results by a deeper analysis of the causeway layers . A team of Indian archaeologists and geologists had embarked on the underwater expedition to physically explore the mysterious structure (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). “Dr Badrinarayanan and his team drilled [ten] bore holes along the alignment of [Ram Setu]. What [they] discovered was startling. About [six] meters below the surface they found a consistent layer of calcareous sand stone, corals and boulder like materials” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).  Next, some four to five meters further down, the team discovered layers of loose sand, and then again hard rock formations below the sand (Ibid.). But how the stones got above the sand layer is a mystery (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

Today some sections are still only between 1 and 10 meters (3 and 30 feet deep) as can be seen in this photo from NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite. Photo and caption from Brilliant Maps (2015).

According to further analysis of the boulders, the team of divers claims “they were not composed of a typical marine formation [but] they were identified as having come from either side of the causeway” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Dr Badrinarayanan’s team also indicates that stone boulders may have been quarried from either shore to be finally placed upon the sandy bottom and form the causeway (Ibid.). Could they be the so-called floating stones found in the coastal area of Rameshwaram?

Time for dating

Providing the above scientific results, it is strongly indicated that the structure in the satellite image is not natural but created artificially. And when a team of geologists dates the stones the mystery deepens … (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

In 2003, “a team from the Centre for Remote Sensing (CRS) of Bharathidasan University, […] led by Professor S.M. Ramasamy […] claimed that the “Rama’s bridge could only be 3,500 years old, [which is hardly 1 500 BC and] as the carbon dating of the beaches roughly matches the dates of Ramayana, its link to the epic needs to be explored” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Professor S.M. Ramasamy did not mention, however that the carbon dating in 2013 had been conducted ultimately on corals grown on the causeway itself and so it represents only the age of the corals, not the stones (Ibid.). Meantime, the rocks underneath the corals have been dated back to thousands of years earlier (Ibid.).

Video Material. Source: Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” (fragment) In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI).

The archaeologist, Chelsea Rose also notices that “the rocks on top of the sand actually predate the sand so there’s more to the story” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, scientific analysis of the stones reveals they are around seven thousands years old but are sitting on top of sand that is only four thousand years old (Ibid.).

Further dating

Such dating has been also supported by another method, which is apparently against the theory of the floating stones.

Today the causeway is around two metres below the present day sea-level, which can be explained by the fact that such floating stones as pumice would have eventually sunk (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Das 2017:26). Whereas the alternative theory says that the boulders were supported by the wooded scaffolding and when the bridge was completed they must have been at least one metre above the water level (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). In this case, the sea must have risen around three metres since the construction of the bridge took place (Ibid.). As oceanography reports say, in the course of seven thousand years, three metres rise of the sea level has occurred in the ocean due to climatic changes, such as global warming (Ibid.). Consequently, using such a dating tool, the bridge can be dated again to around 5 000 BC (Ibid.).

In spite of significant differences in dating the events of Ramayana, It can be definitely concluded that the causeway itself must be an artificial construction. Moreover, due to the overwhelming evidence, it can be convincingly dated back to around 5 000 BC, unless there is another strong evidence against such dating. At this point, it is not risky to suggest that the material remains of the bridge between India and Sri Lanka are equivalent to the structure described in Ramayana, and by these means, the bridge itself can become a basis for the chronology of the epic.

If the bridge exists, who built it?

What about Ramayana’s characters? Did they really exist? On the Indian subcontinent, such ancient texts as Ramayana or Mahabharata are taken literally so there is a strong conviction they tell the truth. And although such protagonists as Rama or Ravana are historical for Hindus, most western scholars reject the epic as a historical record and treat it as a legend or even a fairy tale.

General of the Vanara Army, Hanuman. Photo source: Wikiwand (2020).

According to the sacred texts of the Ramayana, the bridge was built by the Vanara, the demigod ape-men (Louise 2013). Dr Rita Louise (2013) suggests that it may be a real story if we assume the ‘high’ time frames for the Treta Yuga are correct. If so, by introducing the Vanara ape-men, Ramayana may actually refer to the representatives of Homo erectus (upright man) who appeared in Eurasia by around 2 million years ago (Louise 2013).

Nevertheless, researchers are more likely to believe these were humans who constructed the bridge themselves, without any supernatural powers. Marc D’Antonio suggests that although it must have been a gargantuan task, “ancient people transported stones in to cover areas to make them higher and so make it more passable to keep the bridge” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). If the ancient text of Ramayana refers to a time of 5 000 BC, at this point in mankind history, building such a long bridge would have been a superhuman achievement (Ibid.). Still Dr Patrick Hunt, the archaeologist, claims that humans surely were capable to build the Ram Setu, as much as they were able to design and erect such megastructure as the Pyramids of Giza (Ibid.).

Ravana abducting Sita. Chitra Ramayana by Ramachandra Madhwa Mahishi, Illustrated by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, (1916). Public domain. Photo source: “Vanara” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Also in India and Sri Lanka there are incredible ancient structures including mysterious religious monuments (Ibid.). “For this reason” says Hunt’, “we should never underestimate people of the past. If archaeological investigation actually finds that these chains of islands was indeed man made, it really could change our understanding of ancient people’s times and technologies” (Ibid.). Likewise, Marc D’Antonio admits that “the people who designed and built the bridge must have actually been very clever engineers and they certainly would have found a way to maintain this connection using stones and bring them in to actually make some type of a bridge between Sri Lanka and India” (Ibid.).

Other questions without an answer

There are, however, other questions one should answer. Generally, if scholars agree that men were skilled enough to build such megastructures as Ram Setu thousands of years ago, it must be also admitted that even in their times they were highly advanced in terms of technology and engineering. Meantime, archaeological finds in Egypt expose a number of primitive tools, which are claimed to have been used in the third millennium BC by the builders of the Giza Pyramids.

Tools, which were apparently used by the builders of the Egyptian pyramids. Documentary shot from Grimault, Pooyard (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids.

‘If they built pyramids with such tools’ one would say. ‘They had been able to build the bridge across the ocean as well’.

Yet, according to the theory of evolution, human technology should have been even less developed at the time of Ram Setu, which is believed to be an earlier construction than the Egyptian pyramids, not to mention the megalithic constructions of Göbekli Tepe, which are dated back even to 10 000 BC. In this case, how is it possible to explain that after all contemporary people were able to make it? Could it be sure that it was possible to construct the bridge only by means of primitive tools, said to be available at that stage of technological development? (Grimault, Pooyard 2012)

A ceremonial textile hanging with the depiction of the Combat of Rama and Ravana; late 18th century, India, Coromandel Coast. The Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA. Photo source: The Metropolitan Museum (2020) “The Combat of Rama and Ravana, late 18th century, India, Coromandel Coast; Asian Art (36,427)”. In: The MET150.

One would say ‘yes’ as the tangible proof exists (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). So all the ancient constructions were made by simple means because they are there, and they were built at the time when men only used simple means so the fact that such constructions exist proves that it was possible to do it with simple means (Ibid.). But are such dead-end conclusions correct? After the engineer, Robert Bauval, the given ‘context [of the ancient architecture simply] does not fit the evidence’ (Burns 2010).

Endless debate

Although the science has approved that the causeway between India and Sri Lanka is artificial, there are still fierce debates on the matter of the bridge’s connections with Ramayana’s legendary events (Tiwari 2018). People in India strongly believe in the supreme powers that have helped in the construction of the causeway, yet it is hard, especially for western scholars, to acknowledge the explanation of the bridge’s appearance through a mythological perspective (Ibid.). However, irrespective of the means used for its construction, Rama’s Bridge should be undoubtedly considered as an engineering masterpiece (Das 2017:27).

Featured image: Aerial image of Rama Setu. Akshatha Vinayak (2018) “10 Mysterious Things About Ram Setu”. In: Native Planet. Explore your World.

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Documentary shot from Grimault, J., Pooyard P. (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids. Ekwanim Production &Wild Bunch.

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Movie shot (cropped) from: Ratnam M. (2010) Raavan. In: “Madras Talkies, India”. In: (2020) Catchplay.com+ TW. Available at <http://bit.ly/3axjVCx>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite (published in 2015) “Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480”. In: Brilliant Maps. Available at <https://bit.ly/3c0j3US>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Ptolomey’s Map. In: Admin (2013) “Most Ramy, budowla z prehistorii łącząca Indie z Cejlonem”. In: Inne Medium. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VWM7Wo>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In: Scroll.in. Available at <https://bit.ly/2yYFjzG>. [Accessed 1st May, 2020].

Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office (2017) “Adam’s Bridge – The Mythical Bridge Over the Ocean” In: Sri Lanka. Wonder of Asia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2W545G3>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

Statue of Rama in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo by Ashish3724 (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. (2012). In: Wikipedia Commons. Available at <http://bit.ly/2KCsUHE>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2020) “Shruti”. In: Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at <https://bit.ly/2yWaSdy>. [Accessed 30th April, 2020].

The Metropolitan Museum (2020) “The Combat of Rama and Ravana, late 18th century, India, Coromandel Coast; Asian Art (36,427)”. In: The MET150. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SrbxKK>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Tiwari, S. (2018) “Here’s the Real Story of Ram Setu Bridge”. In: Scientific Mystery. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SqhBmR>. [Accessed 1st May, 2020].

Van Nooted, B. A. (2000) “Introduction” In: Buck, W. (2000) Ramayana. Delphi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Video Material: Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” (fragment) In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI). Available at <https://bit.ly/2VTAAIJ>. [Accessed 30th April, 2020].

Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI). Available at <https://bit.ly/2SeFYUx>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

Al Fresco vs al Secco and Controversial Examples of Murals

Yet before I started my studies of art history I had got problems to accurately recognize a technique applied by artists in processes of mural painting. Although people generally describe wall paintings simply with the term of frescoes, it may not be technically correct for all of them (Jaspal 2007). Then I actually realized that even scholars may happen to misuse the term, especially in case of controversial examples, whose technique has been always strongly debated.

But let’s start from the beginning

When we talk about wall paintings or murals (Latin murus) we mean paintings done on the walls (Somathilake 2007:109). In the context of techniques of murals, we can specify:

AL FRESCO (It. ‘fresh’) True fresco (buon affresco, as distinct from fresco secco), is painting done with mineral or earth pigments upon wet lime or gypsum PLASTER. (Vegetable pigments cannot be used as they are attacked by the lime). The pigments are suspended in water, and unite with the plaster as they dry. The basis is a roughcast wall, covered with a layer of plaster (the arricciato), on which the composition (the synopia) is sketched out in charcoal and sinopia. Only enough wet plaster (the intonaco) is then applied for a day’s work. Any additional retouching must be done in fresco secco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:96)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12 and ‘Last Judgement’ 1536-41 (fresco). True Fresco is a skill that dates back to Classical Antiquity but reached its peak as an art form during the Italian Renaissance. Photo source: Get Your Guide (2008-2020). “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” In: Get Your Guide.

And …

AL SECCO (It. ‘dry’), fresco secco (It. ‘dry fresco’) Painting which, unlike true FRESCO, is carried out on plaster which has already dried. It can be done in TEMPERA, or with PIGMENTS in a MEDIUM of lime-water. In the latter case, the surface is dampened before applying the paint. The results are less durable than true fresco.

Lucie-Smith (2003:195).
Cupola decoration Inv. No. 7118 Tempera; Bawit, Monastery of St. Apollo, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Cairo, tempera). Photo source: Emil Krén and Daniel Marx © Web Gallery of Art.from Web Gallery of Art (1996-2020).

Al Fresco – from the Antiquity to Renaissance

AL FRESCO (fresh in Italian) indicates fresh or wet ground, and FRESCO BUONO (true fresco) is made using a genuine wet ground (Somathilake 2007:109). Although al fresco had been already practiced by ancient civilisations, the technique called fresco buono (or buon fresco) was first perfected in Italy, around 1300, on the verge of Renaissance (Ibid.:110).

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘The Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508 -1512 (fresco) The most iconic image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, also referred to as ‘The Creation of Adam’. Public domain. Photo source: “Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia.

“The technique [actually] involves the most durable form of art known to Europe where a piece of painting must be completed on a wet and freshly laid stucco ground before another piece of plaster is prepared” (Somathilake 2007:113). In this method pigments are mixed with water only (Lucie-Smith 2003:96). In a fresco technique, “no binder is required to be added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate layer while drying” (Jaspal 2007).

Young Girl Gathering Saffron Crocus Flowers, detail of wall painting, Room 3 of House Xeste, Akrotiri, Thera. Second Palace period, c. 1700-1450 BC., Thera. Public domain. Source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, the method “consists of painting with lime-resistant pigments (only pigments which do not suffer from lime can be used) on damp lime plaster, which has not yet set. In this process as the plaster can only be painted on once it is wet, the painter divides his work in the so-called ‘day-pieces’, each piece day being the area, which he can finish [daily]” (Somathilake 2007:113). “In this rapid process, the parts of the plastered portion that have not been painted yet need to be cut away at the end of [work]” (Dhanapala:65). When the artists comes back to painting, the surface is plastered to keep it damp (Ibid.). “Thus in true fresco nothing can be added or altered after the plaster has set. This time factor gives fresco painting an extraordinary vitality as it means that the brushwork must be quick, the forms monumental and the range of colours limited”(Somathilake 2007:113).

“In addition, when the plaster sets, the particles of colours crystallise into the wall and remain permanently fused in it. They cannot flake off. […] The fresco can only be damaged if the wall decays. (…) The relevant plaster layers must therefore be very carefully built up” (Ibid.).

The Minoans decorated their temple (known as palaces) complexes and homes with the so-called true fresco painting (buon fresco). Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 BC, fresco. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0. Public domain. Photo and caption source: Dr Santa German, (2020). “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy (2020).

The technique of Al Secco and Tempera

Fresco secco actually indicates any dry technique of murals, including tempera. Here, “the whole wall or rock surface may be completely plastered and allowed to dry” (Dhanapala:65). The main aspect of this method, involves then painting on lime plaster which already has set (Somathilake 2007:113). The technique al secco was commonly applied in antiquity (Somathilake 2007:113). In its process, “the pigments were ground in an aqueous binding medium. The completely dry lime plaster wall is usually thoroughly saturated with lime water (or baryta water) and left overnight. The painting then takes place on a moist surface as in fresco, except that the colours are mixed with a solution of casein glue or egg yolk [- tempera], instead of being ground in water only” (Ibid.). Painting in fresco secco “are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Yet, as they are done on dry plaster, there is no stress of the time deadline” (Jaspal 2007). This technique has always complemented the fresco method, when alterations were needed. These are usually referred to as superficial, upper layers (ibid.).

TEMPERA (It. fr. Lat. temperare, ‘to mix in due proportion’). An EMULSION used as a MEDIUM for PIGMENT. Traditionally, tempera is made with whole eggs or egg-yolk, but milk, various kinds of glue or gum or even dandelion juice or the sap of the fig-tree can be used.

Lucie-Smith (2003:213).

In other words, the pigment used is mixed with some liquid vehicle, such as egg-yolk, diluted glue or gum, chalk, clay, gelatine, etc. (Somathilake 2007:109-110,112,120). Next it is laid on a dry surface. After Somathilake (2007:120), however, true tempera is when the colours are ground with egg yolk only. Another characteristics typical of tempera are rather opaque colours in paintings, whereas in the true fresco technique, colours are subdued and their choice is limited (Dhanapala:67).

It is important to note that tempera in al secco technique is exclusively used in wall paintings, when a painting is applied directly on plaster (the latter is applied first on the wall or rock’s surface). Tempera, however, can also be executed on the wood (e.g. fayum portraits), vellum (e.g. The Beautiful Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry), paper (Funerary Equipment, Tomb Of Userhat), canvas (paintings in the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar), etc.

Wall painting flourished in Faras in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The finest monumental composition is the Nativity, once in the northern aisle … Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. ((2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.
…. and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace in the narthex. The paintings were executed in the tempera technique on dry mud plaster, using natural pigments found on the desert fringes of the Nile Valley. Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.

Major difference between the techniques

Accordingly, the main difference in these two methods is that in the fresco the pigments are strongly bound within the plaster and so are united with the surface, while in al secco the pigments are applied as layers on top of the plaster surface (Dhanapala:65; Somathilake 2007:114).

Controversy in the matter of the Technique of Murals in South Asia

Controversy regarding a recognition of a correct technique of murals mainly appears in an analysis of paintings from South Asia, precisely Ajanta (India) and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). Let’s call them simply paintings. The paintings of Ajanta Caves and of Sigiriya rock are said to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries (Dalrymple 2014; De Silva 2019). Most of experts have already reached a consensus that the so-called Ajanta ‘frescoes’ are actually paintings made by means of some kind of tempera, which actually amounted to the title of al secco as their pigments had been applied to dried plaster (Somathilake 2007:120). Nevertheless, the case of Sigiriya still keeps the scholars awake.

Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Differences between murals of Ajanta and Sigiriya

One of Sri Lankan authors, D.B Dhanapala heatedly states that even “most authorities incline to the opinion that [Sigiriya paintings] are tempera in technique, [their] reasoning seems to be this wise: ‘[the] Sigiriya pictures bear a close affinity to those at Ajanta. [As the latter] have been proved to be tempera paintings, therefore the Sigiriya figures are tempera [too]!” (Ibid.:64).

There are several aspects of murals that can be actually examined in order to decide on a technique applied: characteristics of the ground (plaster), the presence of medium and its nature (Somathilake 2007:119).

Women in the Clouds in Sigiriya: true freso or tempera? Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Medium

As it is discussed above, a medium binder has been ultimately used in al secco technique, usually by means of tempera. The universally accepted classification of paintings, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, fresco etc. is generally formulated based on the medium (binder) used (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the binding medium in India and Sri Lanka is said to have largely perished due to autoxidation and the depredations by insect-pests (Ibid.:119-120). Hence there is an issue of identifying the presence of the binder even through chemical analysis, which factually stands in the way of coming to a definite conclusion (Ibid.:120).

One of the most iconic Sigiriya’s murals ; the so-called Apsara or a court lady. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Dr. Somathilake (2007:120,123), however, underlines that “in many murals [vegetable glue or gum] was the only organic binding medium that held the pigments firmly to the ground unlike in the fresco method. Thus, all these facts would definitely point to a tempera technique at Ajanta and elsewhere.” The binding components of the Sigiriya pigments are said to be a vegetable gum and a drying oil, which is insoluble in water (Ibid.:124). Probably, this is why the murals, which were exposed to the elements for centuries, have eventually survived to our times (Ibid.). From literary documents, we also know that ancient artists of Sri Lanka were familiar with a technique of using an oil medium for wall paintings (Ibid.)“and there was an apparent reason for using [it] since almost all of the murals were located outdoor, unlike the painting sites of India” (Ibid.).

Ground for the murals

In further examination, Dhanapala also analyses the ground for the murals in both cases, Ajanta and Sigiriya. The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya, unlike Ajanta’s thin surface, was actually more prepared for the technique of true fresco (Dhanapala:65-66). Moreover, artists working in Ajanta Caves must have worked in dimly-lit halls (Ibid.:66)(the way they actually let the light in is another mystery) and so they probably were not able to complete such intricate compositions, as Ajanta boasts, before the plaster got dry (Ibid.). Sigiriya’s painting have got more simple compositions and they are located in the open rock pocket, where strong sunlight has been available (Ibid.) (a separate question is how the artists actually managed to paint on the rock surface, while being suspended at the height of over 50 meters above the ground (Kovalsky, V. 2013).

The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya was more prepared for the technique of true fresco. Photo by Artur Maltsau (2015) Free images at Pixabay.

Pigments used

Furthermore, the author observes that in case of Ajanta, the scenes are overpainted in many scenes, whereas at Sigiriya, there are only few examples of overcoating (Dhanapala:67). In comparison to Ajanta, where colours are deeper and their palette wider, at Sigiriya the pigments are much thinner and so subdued, and they are restricted to mainly red, yellow, green and black (Dhanapala:67; Somathilake 2007:121,123). Although there are small areas of more intense green and blue, the author suggests, they may have been later additions completed in tempera (Dhanapala:67). Dr. Somathilake (2007:121), however, argues that although the blue pigment was not actually used as much as the other colours, it is evident that the green was originally applied in Sigiriya murals and so it was not a later addition. He also underlines that all the pigments used were of natural origins. In a fact, organic pigments were typical of both, fresco and tempera techniques.

Ajanta caves Mural paintings- Flying Apsara (Left), Queen Sivali begin tended to by her maids (Right) . Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020) . “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Besides, Dhanapala points out to the fact that the pigments in tempera have got a tendency to peel off on the plaster, which happens at Ajanta but does not occur at Sigiriya (Dhanapala:67). Even though the plaster comes off in Sigiriya murals, the pigments stay strongly incorporated in its structure (Ibid.:68). And if paint peels off, it appears only on surfaces, which were later altered in tempera (Ibid.).

Sigiriya woman with two hands

Dhanapala then puts forward another argument to support his thesis. In the figure no. 8 of the pocket B, behind the woman’s right hand, which was altered, there is an outline of the original hand visible in the plaster (Dhanapala:67).

Mural showing the woman with the outline of the original hand and the altered one below. The artist must have changed his mind … (Image modified from the original – the size reduced). Photo source: Jenny Rainbow (2020). In: Fineartamerica.

Dhanapala came to the conclusion that the artist changed his mind about how the woman’s hand should be actually depicted “but before he had time to erase the original hand the plaster dried” (Ibid.). Dr. Somathilake responds to Dhanapala’s argument claiming that an examination of the painting does not show any attempts to erase the contour of the original hand (Somathilake 2007:120-121). Moreover, if the plaster had dried before the artist had time to erase the hand, he would not have enough time to finish the hand in the altered position (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the scholar assumes that both: the original version and its alteration would have been done in fresco. There is another option though. The original woman’s hand may have been made in a true fresco technique, and later her hand was altered with a tempera technique. That would actually explain how the artist had enough time to finish the altered version and also why his original idea was still visible in the plaster.

Compromise ?

In his conclusion, Dhanapala sustains his arguments and claims Sigiriya murals were originally made as real frescoes (Ibid.:68). On the other side, such authorities, as Dr. Somathilake, strongly disagree with that opinion and argue that using the term ‘frescoes’ in terms of Ajanta or Sigiriya murals “is a misnomer in every sense” (Somathilake 2007:124). Further, they emphasize that there is no evidence that the Asian wall paintings are real frescoes (Ibid.), and “the general technique of the murals of India and Sri Lanka has always been some kind of tempera” (Ibid.). On the other side, there are scholars who have reached the compromise in that hotly debate and they believe that a technique applied in Ajanta and Sigiriya may be actually a combination of real fresco with tempera (see Somathilake 2007).

Notable Mural painting in Ajanta caves called Black Princess . Photo and caption source Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

“No known process …”

Finally, it is also worth to quote another scholar, Havel (1905) whose words have become prominent for many researchers investigating the matter of Sigiriya’s murals (Dhanapala:66).

“There is no known process of tempera or oil painting which would stand to exposure of tropical weather for nearly fifteen hundred years as the Sigiriya paintings have done.”

Havel (1905). In: Dhanapala:66.

We can also conclude that, like many aspects of Sigiriya site (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana), also the question of its paintings (aka frescoes) still remains unsolved, not only in terms of their technique of painting but also regarding the way they were executed, iconographically represented, and the purpose they were made for at all.

Featured image: Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

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