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Fresco disaster at Sigiriya in 1967

by Premasara Epasinghe

Sigiriya is memorable to all mankind. That is why UNESCO has declared Sigiriya as a place of human heritage. To me personally, Sigiriya has unique memories.

Professor Senarath Paranavithana

In my journalistic career, Sigiriya has assumed a proportion that is quite colossal. There is a historical reason for this. Though reluctantly I have to speak about myself in this context. Towards the end of 1966 I was at Sigiriya Vidyalaya as the first Graduate Teacher. Each day Sigiriya dominated my life. As a result, it became an integral part of my teaching and journalistic career. I continued my teaching under the shadow of Sigiriya.

The world famous Sigiriya rock standing like a sentinel in the sky, symbolises the culture of the Sinhalese race. It has protected Apsaras, Vijjulathas and Meghalathas, celestial damsels and maidens of lightning (cloud maidens) in frescos on the rock face withstanding the ravages of sun and rain for centuries as though proclaiming to the world our proud and glorious heritage.

The harsh arid climate of the dry zone was such that even the wind was not conducive to have a cooling effect on the body. Although huge towering trees grew in abundance in the environs of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the hot sand which felt like burning charcoal emanated unbearable heat to the atmosphere. On 14th October, 1967 the early morning sun gradually spread its rays across the mist-laden landscape. As usual I was ready to set off to school. It's just 7.15 in the morning. A student of Sigiriya Vidyalaya came racing along on his bicycle. Alighting from his bicycle, he uttered these heart-rending words.

"Sir, last night someone has daubed paint over Sigiriya Frescoes. Some of them had been destroyed."

I could not believe my ears. I was dumb founded. On the day prior to the disfigurement and destruction, I had the opportunity of climbing Sigiriya, accompanying an eighty year American lady Mrs. Armstrong who was proceeding to United States after completing a World Tour. "Sigiriya Frescoes are fantastic. It surpasses Ajantha and Vellore. It was on the summit of the Sigiriya rock, I witnessed the most panoramic view I have ever set eyes on in the whole world," exclaimed Mrs. Armstrong.

Hearing this calamity, accompanied by some other students as well, I immediately reached up to the Fresco Gallery.

The beautiful damsels who were supposed to be carrying flowers to be offered to Pidurangala Vihara, were bathed in paint. Some other figures of Apsaras and Vijjulathas were no longer in their places. Pieces of plaster from the fresco wall were strewn everywhere on the floor. Traces of paint mixed with earth and plaster was evocative of the tragedy that has occurred here.

As a journalist, I realised the news value of this vandalism. The destruction of world famous Sigiriya painting was of universal significance and was international news. Sigiriya provided me a tragic opportunity to transmit to the world with a "News Scoop" through Lake House where I obtained my Baptism in Journalism.

I must mention here I learned my basics under the Editors M. A. de Silva, Meemana Premathilaka, Wimalasiri Perera, S. Subasinghe, Dharmapala Wettasinghe, Cicil Graham, Denzil Peiris.

Those were the days when there were no direct dialling facilities or cellular phones.I contacted my good friend, Post Master, Dambulla from Sigiriya Rest House and got through to Lake House. M. U. L. D. Chandratillake, News Editor Dinamina recognised my voice. I read out to him the short note that I scribbled on a piece of paper.

"The world renowned historical Sigiriya Frecoes had been ruined. Eighteen out of Nineteen paintings have been daubed with coloured paint and some are damaged. Some unknown vandals have entered the Gallery and destroyed them."

As the day progress, hustle and bustle which was unusual to Sigiriya was visible everywhere. Officials of the Archaeological Department, Police Officers and High Officials of the Matale area were converging on Sigiriya area.

Mr. Chandrathilaka and Wettasinghe thanked me profusely for acting promptly and giving the story to Lake House Group of Papers. (I must mention here in appreciation I was given a special award for this story).

Mr. Dayasena Gunasinghe renowned journalist and Wally Perera photographer par excellence arrived at Sigiriya at about 8.30 p.m. I was there to receive them at the Sigiriya Rest House.

Following morning three of us went to the scene and requested permission from Mr. Nugegoda, Assistant Commissioner of Archaeology to photograph the disaster. At first, he was not in favour. But Wally Perera explained to Mr. Nugegoda the gravity of the situation and then he allowed him to take photographs. Daya and I went in search of news-worthy information. Finishing our task we got into the jeep driven by Ariyaratne.

In the evening I met Professor Senarath Paranavithana. The words expressed by him still remains fresh in my mind.

"Epasinghe, those days I looked after and protected Sigiriya as it was my own eyes". Paranavitana was the most grief stricken individual when he heard the sad news.

Paranavithana and Sigiriya were bound together in many ways, that two were almost one entity. The innocent villagers in Sigiriya venerated Paranavithana as a God King. They believed when he visits Sigiriya he brings welcome rain. The day that Paranavithana and Cultural Minister, I. M. R. A. Irriyagolla visited Sigiriya to see the disaster, there was rain.

Sigiriya was neglected and covered with shrub jungle from 9th century up to the end of 19th century.

It was rediscovered in April 1831 due to the effort made by an English Army Officer, Major Forbes.

A British National Rhys David who served in the Ceylon Civil Service was the first to discover that there were frescoes on the Sigiriya Rock. He mentioned this in a lecture he delivered to the Royal Asiatic Society of England in 1874.

After the 9th century the first person who went up to the Sigiriya Frescoes was also an Englishman.

He was Mr. Alick Murray an Engineer who worked in this country. He climbed up to the plaster wall on which the frescoes were painted with the greatest difficulty and it has been mentioned that he made copies of these paintings lying face upwards on the rock ledge. It is said that in 1890 then Governor of Ceylon, Sir Arthur Gordon gave every assistance and encouragement to Alick Murray.

A disaster to a national monument is indeed a calamity to the whole country and its people.

In this instance, this defacement is a world tragedy. Although I consider this as an achievement as a journalist, to scoop this event, I am still very much perturbed that the vicious villain or villains who committed this cultural crime have not still been nabbed.

These damaged frescoes were restored firstly by Dr. Raja de Silva, Assistant Commissioner of Archaeology and the Italian expert Luciano Maranzi. The entire nation is indebted to these two outstanding personalities in resurrecting the Apsaras, Vijjulathas and Megalathas.

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