High density of palm trees and a heavy breath of tropical climate were the first impressions that had touched my foggy senses since my arrival in Sri Lanka. Confused and exhausted, I crawled out of the airport dragging my suitcase behind me and carrying an unnecessary winter jacket over my shoulder. The flight was long and a nightmare, but a thought about staying on a warm island during the European winter slowly gave me a new strength to live.
Pyramid in the hands
Before travelling to Sri Lanka, I was planning, reading and watching a lot about that corner of the world, including the preparation of a bucket list things to do during my journey. I knew from experience that similar plans are subject to verification in the field. There were most famous monuments usually mentioned in tourist guides, especially Sri Lanka’s old state and religious capitals – the milestones of the island’s history. The official website of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka) connected all of them by means of a line creating an equilateral triangle, placed almost in the very centre of the island.
The figure of the triangle was additionally covered by a pair of hands, as if in a gesture of protecting cultural heritage. This pyramid-shaped graphic sign contains three ancient capitals of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Inside the triangle field, the majestic Sigiriya and Dambulla with temples carved in the rocks were enclosed. Although they are indeed the most visited places, which are must-sees according to tourist folders, and at the same time extremely important places for the Buddhist community, it does not mean that the number of important places in Sri Lanka should be limited to the mentioned heritage triangle. On the contrary.
A similar sign of the pyramid enclosed in the hands, this time carved in the granite rock, can also be found elsewhere – in a place that is already outside the line of the geometric figure mentioned above, at the ancient site, called Mihintale. It is believed to have also been made by the same government organization to mark the place of Sri Lankan cultural heritage in the same way as it is represented in its famous logo. But why did the CCF choose a place for this sign beyond the delineated triangle? Why did they choose a less known site of Mihintale? The author of a series of articles devoted to the puzzling history of Sri Lanka, Vladimir Kovalsky (Chapter 4 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya), draws attention to yet another triangle … It is formed by ancient cultural-religious complexes suspended on rocks, and simultaneously, unknown Sigiriya’s sisters.
Seat of gods suspended in the sky
The main symbol of the island constantly appears on postcards, folders and on more or less successful paintings hung on the walls of hotel rooms. The massive monolith from magma rock shoots from the ground in the very center of the island to the height of 180 meters.
If you remember the tales about turtles, so big that their shells seem to be islands covered with thick woods, you can easily compare them to the bulk of Sigiriya. The rock seems to bend under the weight of secrets that it wears on its steep back covered with tourists: “Lion Gate”, “Mirror Wall”, frescoes of women whose bodies are drowning in flowers and jewellery, and disappearing in clouds (see: Al Fresco vs al Secco and Controversial Examples of Murals), megalithic constructions worked out in hard granite of unknown purpose … And there is only one written note about this giant in the archives preserved on the island:
He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri
which is difficult to ascend for human beings.
He cleared a roundabout, surrounded it with a wall
and built a staircase in the form of a lion…
Then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold,
like another Alakamanda, and dwelt there like the god Kuvera.
Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)
The main character of this fragment tells about a builder of Sigiriya who, according to the record, was called the King Kassapa. He is believed to have ruled on the rock in the fifth century A.D. (477-495).
The fragment above comes from the chronicles called Culavamsa (Lesser Chronicles), which are a sequel to the much older chronicles of Mahavamsa (Great Chronicles). Mahavamsa covers the period from 543 to 300 BC, while Culavamsa deals with the period from the 4th century up to 1815 A. D. Over the centuries, the chronicles have been repeatedly transcribed and compiled, which greatly obscures the original history of the country. The text on Sigiriya itself appeared 700 years after the reign of the King Kassapa. There is no other evidence of the age of the Sigiriya complex. And this is indeed a multipart construction, as it is not limited to the rock itself, but it also covers a significant area around the monolith. First, the road to the top of Sigiriya leads through the so-called “Water Terraces” and before it starts to steeply roll around its protruding belly, it climbs up the stairs that wind through the corridors created by the formations of huge granite boulders. These, in turn, faithfully guard the passage to the famous “Lion’s Gate”, flanked by two paws armed with claws … but are these really the remains of a lion, as it is described in the fragment above?
If the chronicle does not lie, Kassapa had only 18 years to create the entire complex. Taking into account the material used, the impetus of the construction and quality of the tools available at the time, it seems rather unlikely. What’s more, after completing the feat, the king did not use its significant potential of defence, as if he had ignored the primal function of the fortress and the workload involved in its construction. In order to fight the final battle, he abandoned his insurmountable rock and faced heavy defeat at its feet. Besides, the circumstances of Kassapa’s death are also shrouded in mystery and have different versions. Finally, the victorious brother of the beaten king moved the capital back to Anaradhapura, and Sigiriya fell into the hands of Buddhist monks and with time it became a pilgrimage and tourist centre. Probably the Buddhist followers had inhabited the rock much earlier, precisely around the 3rd century BC, as soon as the Buddhism appeared on the island.
Sigiriya is not a lonely island
In the same period, Buddhist monks undoubtedly formed monasteries in the caves of the Pidurangala rock, which is located a few kilometres north of Sigiriya.
Both rocks are the monoliths created as a result of volcanic activity, and their stories are related to each other. Pidurangala’s peak resembles the form of a slanted, flat triangle, as if someone had cut the top of the rock across with the same ease with which the butter is sliced.
From the top of Sigirya, you cannot see this characteristic triangle, or a heart to be more poetic, because it lies on the other side of Pidurangala. The entrance to its summit is even more strenuous than in the case of the nearby Sigirya, but the view from there is magnificent, particularly on the famous neighbour, who is stormed by the crowds of tourists.
Are these really just fairy tales …?
Before I came to Sri Lanka, in my imagination Sigiriya dominated the plain as a lone monolith. Now it turned out that it is just one member of the team of rocks monoliths that form an enigmatic whole.
Together with already mentioned Pidurangala, Sigiriya points out a peculiar top of the pyramid with two other peaks at its base: Mihintale – in the northwest of Sigiriya and Yapahuwa – in the southwest.
Like Sigiriya, Yapahuwa has a flat bevelled top and steep walls. In the 13th century, there was a capital of the state and a religious centre with a famous Buddhist relic, which is now kept in Kandy. Mihintale, in turn, is a rocky table that carries huge blocks of granite. However, nature did not pull them up there. According to legends, the Mihintale summit once served as a place for anchoring aircraft, vimanas, described by Vedic texts such as Mahabharata.
The aforementioned Sri Lankan oldest chronicle, Mahavamsa, describes the arrival of Mahinda to Sri Lanka from India. Mahinda was a Buddhist missionary and a famous monk who was also the son of the ruler of India, Ashoka. With his coming he brought the new faith to Sri Lanka. Every tourist arriving on the island hears this story as a testimony to the beginnings of Buddhism there. I have heard it myself as well, but never in a full version of the story described by the chronicle. Namely, according to the full text Mahinda came to the island by landing in his vimana at the top of Mihintale, and his flight from India would have taken him less than a day …
As if I heard a modern report on an airplane journey from India to Colombo … The summit of Mihintale is also linked to the monk by his name – Mihintale means in Sinhalese as much as the “Mahinda Plateau”. According to ancient epic stories, both Sinhalese and Tamil, before the arrival of the monk, the same rock was called Sagiri, while the name Sigiriya is pronounced in the Sinhalese language as Sigri (Cf. Vladimir Kovalsky). Such similarities certainly testify to the relation between the rocks.
Of course, similar content about ancient flying machines is treated as a fairy tale. Still it is quite illogical that the record compiled in the 11th century on the history of Sigiriya is widely accepted as an irrefutable fact, and some of the content that comes from much older sources is cut off in order to pass on only what the human mind is able to fully accept.
Ah, those ever-present pyramids…
On the stone in Mihintale, there is a carving of the already mentioned glyph of a pyramid or triangle covered by the hands. The top angle of the figure contains a smaller pyramid, as if an Egyptian pyramidion crowning the top of the main pyramid. The above-mentioned author, Vladimir Kovalsky (Cf. Chapter 4 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya), draws attention to this sign when he mentions a triangle made of rock monoliths: Sigiriya (Pidurangala) – Yapahuwa – Mihintale. The axis of symmetry of the triangle, from the top of Sigiriyia to its base, i.e. the horizontal line joining Mihintale and Yapahuva, meets with the axis of symmetry of the triangular peak of Pidurangala. As we all remember Pidurangala’s summit itself had once been shaped as a triangle. Couldn’t it be symbolically represented as a pyramidion of the pyramid carved in the Mihintale granite rock?
And who was Kuvera?
Kuvera or Kubera, mentioned above in the fragment of the Younger Chronicle (Culavamsa), was a god and legendary ruler of Lanka, today Sri Lanka. His half-brother Ravana (or Raavan) took power over him and became an undisputed ruler with his royal seat on Sigiriya (Alakamanda). There are other written sources telling of those events, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata.
They belong to the epic Sanskrit of ancient India which was written on the basis of oral tradition, first formed during the Vedic period, namely in the first millennium BC. Ramayana focuses mainly on the armed conflict between Ravana and Rama, ruler of India, which was to take place millennia ago. Ramayana, meaning ‘the Way of Rama’, is one of the greatest Indian poems that has been adapted to many films and theatrical plays. Its authorship is attributed to also a legendary poet, Valmiki (see: ‘The Way of Rama’ Between India and Sri Lanka). Indian eposes describe the time of flying vehicles – vimanas, an advanced technology and a nuclear war … Even today, inhabitants of Asia take those stories as actual records of their lands and ancient rulers … Although it is still impossible for western scholars to explain certain phenomena or purpose of major constructions scattered around Sri Lanka (likewise everywhere in the world), similar records are only treated as a bunch of legends created by people with a vivid imagination, just as an ancient genre of sci-fi.
Featured image: The Rock of Sigiriya/One of Sigiriya’s Frescoes. Photo by Joanna Pyrgies&Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
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.