A MagnificentPalace in the Sky

Running from the demons of his past, a king searches for an impregnable fortress to establish his reign and protect his family. Stumbling upon an old monastery built around an imposing rock, he decides to convert it into his citadel. And so begins the extravagant and complex construction of the Palace in the Sky, a monumental feat that still baffles the architects and engineers of today.

King Kashyapa I (473–495 AD) had much to fear from the moment he took on the mantle of supreme ruler of Sri Lanka. He had wrongfully ascended the throne, having imprisoned and then killed his father, the former King Dhatusena. Kashyapa’s younger half-brother and rightful heir to the throne, Prince Moggallana, had fled to India to raise an army in order to exact his revenge on the usurper. The violent actions of the ambitious and power hungry Kashyapa had led to turmoil in the Kingdom of Anuradhapura, the seat of power for the Kings of Sri Lanka from 377BC–1017AD.

Kashyapa knew his hold on the throne was shaky, and he was very aware of the possible return of his wronged younger half-brother, Prince Moggallana. Therefore, he decided to abandon the capital Anuradhapura, a place that still held those who were loyal to the murdered King Dhatusena and the rightful heir. He searched for a suitable stronghold that could protect him and his court in the event of an invasion by his brother. He soon found an old monastery situated around a giant rock which towered over the surrounding jungle, some 60 kilometers southeast of the city of Anuradhapura. Wanting the site for himself, Kashyapa built a new temple and monastery for the monks on another rock formation located a few kilometers away (Pidurangala). The king soon began designing and constructing an entire city, a fortress and a palace atop and around the 660ft rock which would go on to be named Sigiriya (Lion Rock).

The construction of Sigiriya is believed to have taken seven years, with Kashyapa having commissioned a Sinhala architect, Sena Lal, to complete work on the great citadel. In its heyday Sigiriya is believed to have consisted of a magnificent royal palace built on the surface of the rock, replete with lavishly landscaped gardens and pools. The ceremonial entrance contained a spectacular feature that gave the Lion Rock its name. A great and imposing lion, the mythical ancestor of the Sinhala race and the royal symbol of Sri Lankan kings, stood guard at the entrance, its large open mouth housing the stairs that led to the summit.

Creating a Pleasure Palace

Kashyapa was a man who revelled in sensory experiences and he wanted his specially constructed masterpiece to indulge his every sensory desire. Thus, Sigiriya was designed to be a pleasure palace for the extravagant king and his trusted aides. Beautiful and intricately designed terrace, boulder and water gardens, the latter consisting of extremely sophisticated hydraulic systems, were laid out around the rock for the gratification of the royals.
The western face of the rock, akin to a gallery, was covered in intricate art, of which the most famous are the sensuous and detailed paintings of the semi-naked ‘Sigiriya Damsels’. A highly polished, plastered ‘Mirror Wall’ was placed beneath the gallery containing the famous frescoes. Those who visited Sigiriya in its glory days to marvel at its wonderment, scribbled poetry and prose on this wall, which became a special homage to the art and beauty unique to the spectacular rock fortress.

The landscape surrounding the rock was transformed into a functional city with houses, hospitals, cemeteries, as well as specific precincts for hunters, scavengers and foreigners. Moats and ramparts were built to fortify the city against invaders. Along with its visual appeal, the city of Sigiriya also demonstrated a complex level of functional urban design.

The Abode of the God-King

According to renowned archaeologist Dr. Senarat Paranavitana, King Kashyapa may have had another and more mystical reason for choosing to build his citadel at Sigiriya. The deification of the monarch was a concept that was gaining popularity in Asia, inspired by the tale of the God-King Kuvera who ruled from Mt. Kailasa in the Himalayas. The ‘Palace in the Sky’ would have helped Kashyapa to portray himself as a celestial being, a ruler from on high, a God-King much like Kuvera. Sigiriya may very well have been a vast and excessive construction planned to deify Kashyapa and wash away the stain of his murky rise to power.

Revenge Comes from Across the Sea

King Kashyapa’s elaborate schemes in moving the capital city to Sigiriya proved futile when Prince Moggallana returned with an army of Sinhala loyalists and mercenaries from South India. Moggallana declared war on his half-brother to avenge the death of his father and to claim his throne. As Moggallana’s army advanced on Sigiriya, Kashyapa rallied his troops and went forth to defend his ill-gotten throne. A glorious battle ensued in the plains surrounding the rock fortress.
At one point in the battle, as Kashyapa moved forward astride the royal elephant, his path was obstructed by a large stretch of swamp. The king turned his elephant around to navigate a different path. His troops saw him turn back and wrongly assumed that he was trying to flee the battle. In a complete breakdown of morale and discipline, they began to retreat and run away to save their own lives.

Realizing what was happening to his army and anticipating a humiliating defeat, Kashyapa chose to end his life rather than be taken prisoner. He pulled out his dagger, slit his own throat, raised the dagger on high and stuck it back in its sheath. Kashyapa was as dramatic in death as he was in life, as the show of raising the dagger was meant to draw the attention of Moggallana to the suicide. Moggallana, completely different in nature to the ruthless Kashyapa, was relieved that he didn’t have to shed his brother’s blood and carried out the fallen king’s funeral rites in a respectful manner. Once he ascended the throne, King Moggallana I abandoned Sigiriya and shifted the capital back to the city of Anuradhapura.
Sigiriya was returned to the monks who had previously inhabited the site and once again became a monastery. The monks too finally abandoned Sigiriya in 1155, and it was only used very briefly for military purposes by the Kingdom of Kandy in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The palace and its surroundings braved the elements for many years before slowly starting to crumble. The jungle crept back over the land, shrouding the once bustling city away from human eyes. The great lion slumbered, abandoned and forgotten.

The Rock Re-Discovered

The architectural wonder that is Sigiriya may have been lost forever if not for the curiosity of Jonathan Forbes, a major in the British army who accidentally stumbled upon the site in 1831. Forbes’ discovery grabbed the attention of the British colonizers who were eager to explore the ancient site. The lost city slowly began to reveal its secrets to the archaeologists that meticulously excavated the fortress and its surrounding landscape, a process that continues to this day, with new revelations still being made.
The original radiance and splendour of Kashyapa’s magnificent ‘Palace in the Sky’ may have faded with time, but Sigiriya still has the power to amaze and astound those who continue to visit.

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