It is generally unknown that the symbol of a pyramid is inscribed into an ancient face of Sri Lanka. Firstly, it appears as a graphical logo of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka), depicted inside two protecting it hands (see: Kovalov 3rd June, 2013). As such it stands for a gesture of shielding cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, including its ancient sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, situated at each of the three angles of the pyramid, with Sigiriya and Dambulla inside it (Ibid.; see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana). The very same sign but engraved in granite reappears at the ancient and megalithic site of Mihintale (Ibid.). This is why some researchers claim that it is not a modern symbol but a cultural remnant of an ancient civilisation, which once lived on the island (Ibid.). A clue supporting such a theory lies in an alignment of the Rock of Sigiriya and other natural monolithic rocks nearby, namely, Pidurangala, Mihintale and Yapahuwa (Ibid.). But if a symbol of a pyramid is so common in the context of Sri Lanka’s ancient past, why the island is not known of such built constructions?
When I first arrived in Sri Lanka, I did not expect I would see any pyramids at all but, as it usually happens, one first is driven by some fixed ideas about a place they are heading off to. At least, in my case, I always need to reverify all the gathered information on site, before I can move to any conclusions. The same actually happened in Sri Lanka.
The site of ‘Palace’ without a palace
When I reached the flattened top of the one hundred and eighty metres high monolith of Sigiriya, I was supposed to see the remnants of a palace, which according to an official history was built on the rock on behalf of a fugitive King Kashyapa (Kassapa), at the very end of the fifth century AD. (473 – 495 AD.) (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). Instead, I saw there much more than I expected but the ruins of any palace; most striking of all were red-ramped ledges of bricks, towering from the upper corner of the top level over multiple terraces, marble and granite flights of stairs and a huge pool, filled with water intensively reflecting the sunlight (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019).
Despite my all efforts, however, I was unable to find there any single construction that I could interpret as a part of a palace (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). Moreover, as much as I had observed examples of ancient south-eastern architecture elsewhere, contemporary secular constructions, even those belonging to kings and his entourage, all were usually made entirely or partially of wood and so they were likely to perish much earlier than any other structures made of stone or brick (see: Royal Terraces without a Palace of the Kings). The latter group was of a greater importance as such buildings were commonly dedicated to gods.
For example, a later royal palace of Sri Lanka, in Polonnaruwa, which was built in the twelfth century AD., features mostly the remains of bricked columns and vertical thick walls with holes, served for holding now perished wooden beams, having supported once higher level floors (Wulff Hauglann 2020; see: ). Similar characteristics are absent in the construction of Sigiriya, which successive ramps were entirely built of bricks, with some visible elements carved in stone.
Moreover, providing that the King Kashyapa’s life was at risk, he would not possibly have invested in a luxurious royal residence, engaging as much as cost as workload to erect a magnificent structure of bricks and stone on top of the rock, providing that it was supposed to be completed over hardly eighteen years.
Telling differences between a palace and a pyramid
The ramped construction on top of the rock have got four sides and is built of red bricks with the use of the lime mortar between the bricks to bind them together (Mohan 2019). Its steps and ramps slope down from the north-western part of the top level of the rock southwards. Standing at the side of the granite pool, I observed red walls of the construction, successively climbing higher up, one after the other, similarly to stepped pyramids I had once seen in Mexico. As if against all of my guesses, having reached the flat platform on top of the ramped structure of brick, I eventually found a plate there, clearly reading “Palace” (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). As a matter of fact, such plates are installed on all four sides of the ‘palace’ area, confirming that these are four sides of the palace; for example, one says: “West Palace”, and another, “South Palace”, standing for the western and southern parts of the area, respectively (Mohan 2019). The one even reads: “Palace Reception Hall” (Ibid.). And in general, archaeologists and historians claim the ruins as remnants of a palace but many alternative researchers, like Praveen Moha (2019) and Volodymyr Kovalov (2013), openly regard such a statement as misleading information as it is not based on any reliable source, especially when the so-called ‘palace’ is thoroughly examined on site.
Firstly, its dimensions are ridiculously small; the size of the top pyramid platform is 17 metres in length and 11 meters in width, which means the ‘palace’ only had 187 square metres (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; see Mohan 2019). Today, the whole structure would be barely sufficient for a medium-sized house, and it is simple to conclude that the space thought to be once a palace is simply not sufficient to be a residence of a king (Mohan 2019; see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). Comparing such measurements to the mentioned Royal Palace of Polonnaruwa, which are 31 metres by 13 metres (403 square metres), it is visible that the difference in size between these two edifices is striking (Wulff Hauglann 2020). Obviously, it may be explained by the fact the Palace in Polonnaruwa is a later building and it was not limited by space of the flattened surface on top of the Sigiriya Rock. However, a king and his entourage would have needed such a space for living, providing that there was enough room for arranging luxurious gardens, pools and pained walls with frescoes …
Taking into consideration that it was meant to be just a ‘miniature residence’ for a king, where is then a space for the king’s family and servants’ living quarters, for a harem, storage facilities or cooking areas? (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Where was accommodation of the king’s entourage, such as his soldiers, guards, ministers or priests? (Mohan 2019). Adding to that, the summit of a huge rock completely does not fit any residential purposes; it is striking that despite the limited area for a palace itself, the area was also partially dedicated to other constructions, such as a huge granite pool and terraces and a garden stone bench, as if the King had rather been more interested in reclining than having a comfortable residence (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). And even though some think that Kashyapa built a palace on the very summit of the rock to protect himself against his enemies, such a theory does not make any sense when one examines a historical fact of the King eventually having descended the rock to fight against his enemies on the ground (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana).
Furthermore, providing that the builders of Sigiriya also created an elaborate line of defence systems, which was stretching for kilometres on the way leading to the very top, so preventing uninvited guests from reaching the structure, there was no need to build all such systems, using water and boulders, to only protect a cramped palace on top (Mohan 2019). Basing on the above, it can be assumed that the structure on the rock was built for a completely different purpose from the one usually suggested (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).
‘Palace’ turns into a pyramid
If one rejects the official version, however, then the bricked construction on top of the Sigiriya rock simply changes from a palace into a ramped pyramidal structure. It is also worth mentioning that the pyramid on top of Sigiriya would not be the only one existing on the island (see: Mohan 2019).
Looking at the four sides of the ‘palace’ with its corners and edges at angle, it must be agreed that it could not have been a rectangular construction, like in the case of a typical stronghold, but more likely a stepped-pyramidal structure; whereas the walls of most regular buildings would be erected at 90 degrees to the ground, in the case of the structure of Sigiriya, there is a broad base and consecutive levels or steps getting smaller at slope angle from all the four sides towards the top, which is flat as today the pyramid is possibly missing the upper part (Mohan 2019). Nevertheless, the entire structure still consists of several plain levels and there are numerous flights of stairs to climb it (Ibid.). Staircases are mostly situated on the pyramid’s sides but some also appear running up in the middle of the platforms.
Secret of Sigiriya Staircases
What is quite surprising is that the staircases differ in their colour from the rest of the construction. This is because they are not made of red bricks, like the walls of the pyramid, but of white marble, adding that the staircases further down and surrounding the pool are entirely carved out of huge blocks of granite (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). The two kind of stairs were originally installed there in ancient times and the stairs made of marble also appear among various constructions on the ground level (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). Those from the top and the bottom levels are of the same size, shape and condition (Kovalov 11th March, 2013). The latter element furthermore brings other questions.
Namely, the state of the marble stairs is actually not good at all as their surface seems highly corroded (Ibid.). After Volodymyr Kovalov (11th March, 2013), this feature is highly surprising as there could not have been any damages caused to the marble by frosts in Sri Lanka. Moreover, assuming the official dating of the site to the fifth century AD., the condition of the marble stairs in Sigiriya is much worse than those from the same time but carved and installed in ancient Greece (Ibid.). I would even say that the marble stairs of the Athenian Acropolis are less worn out than those in Sigiriya, even though they are supposedly five hundred years older! So to say, the slabs of white marble used in Sigiriya must be more ancient than one thousand and five hundred years old (Ibid.). Such an assumption consequently questions the real age of the constructions of Sigiriya rock (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).
Crawling snake on the flat top of the pyramid
Observing the top of Sigiriya from the flat top of the pyramid, one can get an impression that the successive steps of the pyramid together with the flights of stairs create a cascade flowing from the upper-left corner down, towards the pool. Unfortunately, the major portion of the pyramid was destroyed for unknown reasons so it is not possible to find out how it once really looked like (Mohan 2019). Praveen Mohan (2019) assumes the structure is today deprived of its final peak and it ends with a remaining flat top level surrounded by a ground alignment of the bricks. The latter seem especially interesting. Namely, the bricks incorporated there are not arranged in a straight line, as is usually seen in constructions around, but they are laid with curves, resembling more a snake’s body than a fence wall (Ibid.).
Was it a recreational garden?
Although, it is difficult to surely determine a purpose of all the baffling constructions that once existed in Sigiriya, one thing is sure; it was a very unique structure and all its parts had been built on site for some specific reasons (Mohan 2019). Apart from the said palace ruins, which are dominant on top of the rock, the other mentioned above constructions are believed to have been once a part of a recreational garden as they seem similar to those visible at the foot of the rock (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).
Apart from successive levels of terraces, similar to those on the ground level of the complex, the large granite pool filled with water and multiple granite staircases around it, there is also the so-called ‘throne’, equally carved out of granite block (Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Such ‘thrones’ can also be encountered on the way from the ground level up to the rock peak (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). All of them show a similar shape and the same high-quality of processing the granite stone (Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Nevertheless, they were not likely to serve as ‘thrones’ as there has never been enough space in front of it to bow in front of any king (Ibid.). After Volodymyr Kovalov (14th March, 2013), such structures rather resemble garden benches to sit down on and relax among walled terraces. Not to mention the fact they were perfectly carved out of one of the hardest stones present on earth.
Questioning the age of the site
The age of constructions encrusting Sigiriya is uniquely determined by the Culavamsa Chronicles, which covers the period from the fourth century AD. to 1815 (“Cūḷavaṃsa” 2021; see: Kovalov 11th March). The records cannot be, however, entirely reliable as they were written and compiled by various authors at different times (“Cūḷavaṃsa” 2021; see: Kovalov 11th March). Apart from that source, there is no other evidence of dating the buildings of Sigiriya (Kovalov 11th March). Furthermore, constructing such a highly advanced building wonder over a short period of several years by means of slaves who would have used contemporary tools seem quite unrealistic as much as applying hi-tech machines in ancient times may seem fabulous to others (Kovalov 14th March, 2013).
Finally, maybe some centuries later, the King Kashyapa committed a crime and was forced to move with his followers from the traditional Sinhalese capital of Anuradhapura to the more secured location (“Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura” 2021). Consequently, the king used the existing complex of Sigiriya as his refuge (see: Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Possibly he was even pushed to enter the forbidden and holy land of the lost gods and their heritage, in order to save his life. In such a way, all the constructions having been possibly built and overbuilt at Sigiriya for ages were eventually ascribed to the fugitive King, and so the previous Ravana’s court became his home for the following eighteen years.
Engineer’s thoughts over Sigiriya
For a while I discussed with an engineer from Poland I had met on top of the ‘pyramid’. He admitted to me he had got simply amazed with all the structures at Sigiriya, and especially he was curious about the way all the granite elements were processed on site without using any machinery. Crouching by the granite pool, he also showed me how the shaped blocks of granite and tool marks on them seem to harmoniously play with the natural structure and surface of the stone (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013). ‘An application of such a technology is visible on site everywhere you go’, the engineer said.
‘But it is unknown to myself even though I’ve got much experience in processing stone for years … Actually, I have already seen it also on other sites around the island and elsewhere in the world’, he added. ‘ … These stone structures are just screaming with an advanced technology. The case is that nobody cares these days … Well, people are on holidays …’, he sighed.
Finally, he stood up and looked at the red ramps of the pyramidal structure growing above the flattened top level of the rock.
‘What about archaeologists …? What do they think about it all’, he asked, shifting his attention to myself.
I just smiled to him. There was nothing to add. Multiple questions stayed unanswered.
Featured image: The naturally made monolith of Sigiriya became home to mysterious ruins of stone and bricks, encrusting the rock and its surroundings. Photo by Anastasia (2016). In: “MadebyNastia”. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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