Sigiriya from the top and the bottom and from afar

Sigiriya: apsaras on the rock face

For eight centuries before Kashyapa the activity in Sigiriya was monastic. Then for the next eight centuries, it was again a home for monks. After that it was abandoned and the bricks crumbled and the timber rotted and something that approached a pharaoh’s doing didn’t stay intact for as long except for the foundations, and the impressive hydraulics.

The guides prefer the midpoint of the sixteen centuries, of the time when it was Kashyapa’s abode—they can paint more color into the king’s life than the monk’s. “He had five hundred wives,” Milton told me, pointing to the four large pools laid in a char-bagh design. And he pointed out a wide stone seat installed at a vantage point: “The king’s throne,” he said. He wished me to imagine his own visualization, his fantasy perhaps, that the king was the only man watching while his five-hundred wives and concubines bathed all at the same time in those pools around him.

The pools are at the base of the mesa that is Sigiriya. For the women to play there before the king they’d have descended 200 steep meters from the top of the rock where the palace was. Between these water gardens at the feet of the rock and the palace on the top, on a wide indented rock face, there are painted the famous Sigiriya apsaras.

Some sixty-odd of them have survived a vandal attack. Their colors are bold, and they are vibrant portraits indeed, of women floating northerly to some purpose which is not apparent because the painting whole has not survived. Milton wished me to know that the women were Kashyapa’s, which, in a sense, many of them might have been, because the artists could have modeled their characters on the most alluring women in the king’s life.

The artists have been unabashed in expressing how much femininity they demanded in women—as much as our Indian sculptors did, who carved the shilabalike in the Belur-Halebid temples in Karnataka.

Milton was hurrying me through everything, not allowing me to reflect on anything. I’d made a final offer of seven-hundred rupees against his demand for a thousand for his “guide lecture.” He allowed me only grudgingly to sit and gaze at the lion’s paws that came after we’d climbed some more. Such paws! In its time there was a full lion on its haunches that wore those paws, but the bricks, and the wooden lintels that held up the mouth through which the ancients ascended to the palace on top, all those are lost to fifteen centuries of time.

Milton’s explanation was a long row of bee hives under the highest overhang of rock; he said the bees would begin to stir when the noon heat came upon them. So he rushed me to the top, where the view all round is of plains and, where the horizon should be, of hills. Behind the set of hills to the south is Kandy; beyond the northern hills is Anuradhapura, and also Pollonurawa—all of them capitals of old. The late-morning sun had begun to let know who truly has forever been the ruler of Sri Lanka, but a cool breeze dried and cooled and restored me.

Kashyapa is said to have killed his father, Dhatusena, murder being the only course to the throne available to him: he was born of a non-royal consort. Dhatusena’s capital was Anuradhapura, but when Kashyapa assumed kingship he ordered that his palace be built here on this mesa, on the fifth of a five-terrace structure. On the four terraces below, he located the dancing halls, the pleasure gardens, the royal baths. The living areas they kept cool for him through a clever deployment of waterways through rock and building. Thus lived Kashyapa in full view of his subjects who lived on the plains below, his splendor a flash in time on a strange piece of rock that a volcano left behind.

Milton was courteous when we parted in the heat. His hand was dry when we shook hands, and he looked still fresh, and good for another immediate “lecture tour.” I was covered again in sweat, and in dire need of more water to drink.

Sigiriya Rock from my room at The Kandalama Heritance

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