The Sigiri Apsaras

Panorama View Of Sigiriya Rock

Panorama View Of The Sigiriya Rock Fortress

In Matale district, near Dambulla stands the Sigiriya Rock Fortress of Sri Lanka. A giant monolith rising from the ground and reaching for the heavens, the Rock’s towering height and unique shape is easily identified and recognizable from miles away. The Rock’s sheer size, shape and colour exudes a mystical charm when you look at it, engendering in you a feeling it is something special, something divine. The Rock base was dwelled by Buddhist monks from around 3rd Century BC. It is also found that these areas had been inhabited by people prior to Sigiriya becoming a kingdom.

The most renowned attraction in Sigiriya is the Sigiriya Rock Paintings or ‘Frescoes of Sigiri Damsels’ (locally known as ‘Sigiri Apsaras’) painted on a Western Rock Face cavity (a depression about 23 m lengthwise) about 100m high from the Rock base. There now remains around 21 paintings of Sigiriya Damsels from around 500 paintings painted during King Kassapa’s reign along several other places of the Western Rock face. All these paintings are of young and old female figures, each unique with no two similar figures among them.

A Sigiri Apsara (Damsel) With Her Consort Tending To Her

A Sigiri Apsara (Damsel) With Her Consort Tending To Her

As to how Sirigiya came to become a Kingdom, we step back to the reign of King Mahanama who ruled Anuradhapura from 410-432 AD. King Mahanama’s prince, Dhatusena, became the King of Anuradhapura in 459 AD, defeating the Indian invader Pandu. Dhatusena had 2 sons from 2 queens. Mugalan from the head queen and Kassapa from a companion queen. Prince Kassapa, with the help of King Dhatusena’s army general, Migara, killed his father and became King. The Buddhist Bhikkus and the people despised Prince Kassapa conduct and favoured Price Mugalan as the ruler. Fearing that Mugalan will return to avenge him at a later day, King Kassapa decided to make Sigiriya his kingdom. During his 18 years rule from 477AD – 495AD, Sigiriya Kingdom was created. It is believed that he feared for his life and sought the refuge of Sigiriya Rock for his safety. After 18 years, Prince Mugalan did return with an army from India to oust King Kassapa. During the battle Kassapa killed himself and Mugalan became King. He handed Sigiriya back to the Buddhist priests, returned to Anuradhapura and ruled the country from there. Sigiriya as a Kingdom was abandoned from around 1150 AD and was almost forgotten for the next 7 centuries until its rediscovery during the British rule by Major H. Forbesin in 1831.

A Sigiri Apsara Confiding In Her Consort

A Sigiri Apsara Confiding In Her Consort

Though King Kassapa is not regarded in high esteem in Sri Lankan history due to his dubious conduct, he is credited as a ruler with unsurpassed imagination in creating a Sri Lankan architectural marvel of fine art and engineering expertise that could challenge the world’s architectural marvels in its time, which is an amazing accomplishment to this day from what can be gleaned from the present ruins of Sigiriya. King Kassapa architected his fortress as an ecological wonder by having the Royal Pleasure Gardens, Water Gardens, Fountain Gardens and Boulder Gardens constructed within the inner city as well as at the palace premises on the Rock summit.

A Demure Sigiri Apsara

Getting to the frescoes require some effort as one needs to walk a fair bit, about 1.5km through the numerous gardens’ paths, scale a number of flights of stone steps, and a spiral iron staircase that takes the visitor a further 15m up from a gallery below to an iron platform that runs throughout the length of the frescoed rock depression. The stage where one commences to walk along an iron platform and scale up the Rock face to reach the frescoes is quite scary if you look down and could be pretty daunting for one with acrophobia or vertigo, although the platform/stairs are solidly built and securely anchored to the rock face. If you want to see the frescoes, you just have to make the climb, there is no other way to go about it. Consolation is, you have an appreciation of the beautiful surrounding scenery even at this stage of the climb.

When you are face to face with the frescoes and wonder at the incredible lifelike and sensuous beauty of the damsels/paintings (they look good to the present day) and the exceptional skills of the painters (were they divinely inspired?) who created them, it is definitely worth the effort! After seeing the frescoes, visitors can either make their way back down or proceed to scale up to the Rock summit, which is another ~500m walk along more iron platforms/stairs which are again solidly built and securely anchored to the rock face. The panoramic view on the way to the summit and from the summit itself is breathtaking, especially in the evening sunset.

To read more about Sirigiya, goย hereย  where the historical facts therein is excerpted for this post.

All photos Fuji X-E1 with XF 18-55mm

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