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Exploring the Sigiri-bim

by Derrick Schokman

The Sigiri-bim was a critical communication zone between the three core kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kurunegala.

From the top of the Sigiriya rock you can see the central highlands in the South. Against that backdrop running towards you are two low ridges enclosing a basin or bowl about 45 km from North to South and 35 km east to west. This is the Sigiri-bim.

The archaeological landscape in this region dates from the 3rd century BC to the 13th century AD, with the greatest development having taken place from 500 to 1000 AD.

Heritage sites

The Sigiriya Citadel and the Dambulla Rock Temple are the two major monuments in the region, declared World Heritage sites of UNESCO. They have been excavated and conserved first by the Department of Archaeology and later under the Cultural Triangle Program.

Sigiriya is much more than a 5th century palace in the sky and fresco paintings. It is one of the best preserved examples of urban planning in single phase construction in South Asia.The axis of the royal complex or citadel, 3 km long and 1 km wide, is the 200 metre high rock. There are three ramparts and two moats on the West and single rampart and moat on the east.

The eastern and western precincts of the royal complex have been laid out in a precise square module with the North-South and East-West axes meeting at the Centre of the palace area on the summit.

The Western precinct of the royal complex was an elaborate pleasure garden, the oldest surviving landscape garden in South Asia.

The quintet of cave temples which comprise the 150 metre high Dambulla Rock Temple is the finest of its kind in Asia. The entire ceiling and wall surface are covered with paintings dating back from the 18th century to first century BC.

It is an outstanding 1858 sq. metres representing the largest painted surface in any ancient shrine in the world. This temple also has a multitude of Buddha images, which has given it the name of "The Shrine of the Infinite Buddhas".

Visitors to the Sigiri-bim tend to pay attention only to these two heritage sites, little realising that there's plenty more to see and learn in this region.

Pidurangala

There are several old monasteries at Pidurangala, Enderagala, Ramkele, Manikdena, and Kaludiyapokuna, which were not only important as religious foci; but also as major centres of socio-political and economic origination.

A mile North of the Sigiriya Citadel is Pidurangala which served as the royal monastery. A despoiled dagaba at the foot of the hill could well have been the cremation site of King Kasyapa who founded the Citadel. Carbon datings at the site coincide with the traditional date of the demise of the King.

Above the modern temple are the old image houses. A flight of steps leads to the summit, where a long cave has a large recumbent image of the Buddha in brick and stucco. It has been dated to the late Anuradhapura period around the 10th century.

Mapagala

To the South of Sigiriya is the Mapagala Fortress. Archaeological Commissioner Hocart in the 1920s took note of the cyclopean style stone walls in the fort, and the square hammered stones in the ramparts of the Citadel.

The ability to cut such massive blocks of granite to precision suggested that iron-smelting and iron tools were available to construction workers. This is supported in the carving of the stone thrones in the Citadel, one at the foot in the Assembly Hall, and another in the palace on the summit.

In fact the Sigiri-bim was one of the earliest places where iron-smelting was carried out. This has been revealed by excavations carried out in the 1980s and 1990s in the Aligala Care in the Citadel itself, at Dehi-gaha-ala-kande near Alakolawewa village 8-9 km South-East of Sigiriya and in the Kiri-oya valley to the east where stone forges were found carved in the rock along with covered slag heaps.

Maligatenne

Kandalama lake, with the five-star Kandalama Tourist Hotel overlooking its wonderful rural setting, is one of the thousands of reservoirs created by the ancient people over a period of 15 centuries to conserve water for domestic needs and the cultivation of rice, the staple food. It was a period during which village, temple and lake was the trinity of Sinhalese culture.

King Mahasen of the 3rd century was the first of the big reservoir builders. The Mahavamsa credits him with the great Minneriwewa and 16 smaller reservoirs. The ruins of several buildings at Nuwaragalkande in the Sigiri-bim are believed to have been his maligatenne, a sub-palace where he resided during the construction of Minneri wewa.

Four small reservoirs in the area, Nuwaragalwewa, Nagollawewa, Vewelwewa and Puselgolla wewa could also have been constructed by him.

Mahasen was deified by the ancient people for his great contribution to irrigation. He is worshipped even today in the Sigiri-bim as Minneri-deviyo, a deity protective of the welfare of rural folk.

Gedige

As a bonus to explorers of the Sigiri-bim, on the way back to Kandy they could take the opportunity to visit the Gedige. This unique monument was originally constructed at Nalanda, but had to be subsequently moved and reconstructed at Naulla to meet the needs of the Mahaweli Diversion Programme.

It is unique in that it displays a homogenous blend of Buddhist and Hindu architecture. The ground plan of moonstone, makara balustrade and gana step-risers together with the architrave of the doorway are Buddhist.

The windowless vestibule, crowded pilasters, horse-shoe shape fake windows and the remaining sikhara of the original four on the dome are all Hindu.

No one really knows who built the gedige. It has been dated to between the 7th and 10th centuries.

 

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