What it was, and who ‘the Maidens’ were:
Of all the Sri Lankan archaeological sites and artefacts that have
not been found self-expressive as regards their identity, Sigiriya and
its ‘maidens’ have come to hold a primary position. Many are the views
expressed about them by national and international scholars during the
eleven decades that have gone by.
Sigiriya (Lion’s rock) is an ancient rock fortress
To say that the Rock was a fortress or even a capital and that the
maidens were members of the royal harem, or that they were celestial
nymphs on pilgrimage is the outcome of almost unrestricted imagination
permissible at a time when local archaeological studies were in their
infancy. To say that they were mourners at the king’s demise is the
result of a resort to historical evidence at minimum.
A view that the Rock was once a centre of Mahayanism and that
conceptions pertaining to that religious systems are evident in the art
and sculpture of the site certainly marks an advance in the intellectual
approach related to the problem.
And if Sigiriya is seen as the fruition of an attempt to emulate the
Alakamanda divine abode with the maidens regarded as clouds and flashes
of lightning, that interpretation marks the acme of intellectual
reasoning with all available archaeological details and relevant Hindu
lore with an immensity of classical references in support.
Having read and re-read this last mentioned learned point of view (by
Paranavitana), the more non-intellectual layman in me began to question
for my own self whether the skin-colours of blue (nil) of some maidens
and of gold (ran) of some others, in themselves, are competent enough to
exalt them to the status of clouds and lightning flashes.
Of course, literary imagery of our region and of the times makes
allowance for it, and it should not be forgotten that the situation is
realistic too, for we have yet in our midst females whose complexion
compromise well with what is evident at Sigiriya.
As a symbol in art nevertheless, some feature suggestive of heaviness
and sombreness of the one, and of brilliance and flashiness of the other
as may be expressed by the face and limbs (mudra and abhinaya) were in
need, and I retain these sentiments even as yet.
My earlier approach to Sigiriya, however, has been as a teacher of
Sinhala Classics at the University for a period now nearing
The verses on the Mirror Wall there, 685 of them as edited by
Paranavitana, commanded my attention and respect as would a Maha Kavya
such as the Kav Silumina and Janakiharana and, as by habit, I focused on
the epigraphy, etymology, grammar and syntax of each, and the meanings
too, emphasising as well the evidence to its creativity.
It was during these years that I happened to be interested in
Cultural Anthropology, thanks to the guidance and inspiration rendered
by Dr. Nanda Deva Wijesekara - the only scholar of the times qualified
in that discipline at the time.
It focuses on the origin and the evolution of all aspects of human
behaviour irrespective of ethical or other considerations ranging from
black magic and the basset of orgies to the highest speculative and the
most appealing of pleasantries, with an emphasis on their aims.
I was particularly interested in such studies on language, art
(inclusive of festivals) and religion right from their remotest days, as
they were linked to my professional activities.
Fertility emerged as a key word around the meaning of which man - the
latest arrival on earth, manipulated most of his activities. I read of
the bacchanalia, lupercalia and saturnalia of the Western Classical
Cultures and of the ceremonial activities at Olympus and Fuji Yama and
the lesser mountain rites in a vast array of world cultures, and
somewhat avidly of the Giragga Samajja of the city of Rajagaha about
which I read in Buddhist Pali works and which faintly echoes in the Rock
Edicts of Dharmasoka (3rd century BC).
Two rich princes - Kolita and Upatissa by name, visited that
‘Concourse on the Rock Summit’, were disgusted of what they happened to
see there, entered the Dispensation of the Buddha, attained Arahantship
and became His two Chief Disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana. Nearer
home, I read in the Mahavamsa and the Visuddhi Marga Sanna of a
Giribhanda Puja held over the Mihintale Rock exactly two thousand years
ago, and I contributed an article about it to the Research Journal of
the Ruhuna University - the Rohana, twenty two years ago.
And then, I began to have different visions of Sigiriya. Here,
incised on the Rock (and not ‘as a line drawn on water’) is the
hundred-fold testimony to the arrival of people - of youth in
particular, well accoutred in robes and ornaments and passing their time
on the summit, on the ledges and in the sylvan surrounding below, all
with one pronounced intention - the enjoyment of ‘the good fortune or
happiness of union’ (siyov siri or siyov suva), an under-statement, I
believe! Most likely, they fore-gathered in the season of spring,
vasanta, when nature herself is in joyous mood in flower and fruit
propagating the message of fruition and fertility, inspiring man to
behave in conformity.
The references are the more to the maidens: there were those ‘on the
wall’ (bita), that stayed dumb (muka) and those possessed of a
rock-hardness of heart (sita gal tad), and let us admit, though not with
good reason, that they refer to the frescoes.
But there were others on the rock ledge (beyada) and on the summit (giri
hisa) and then at various unspecified places walking about with a
graceful gait as of a female swan, raising their ruddy hands, looking
about jerking their breasts, signalling with garlands of flowers,
holding musical instruments etc.
Two fresco maidens holding flowers
Yet others awaited the arrival of their paramours and smiled on their
arrival, making flowers drop off their hands; and approaching them as
they sang songs they shed tears at their meeting. The list is not
And a poet named Sahabandu refers to five hundred females (agnan) and
certainly not paintings (sittam) on the Rock resembling the crown of the
Mountain Lord. Paranavitana, annotating this verse, is firm that the
paintings are meant here for which he has no justification. Many today
have come to believe that such a considerable number have now
disappeared, but are unable to indicate the vestiges even of a low
fraction of that number at Sigiriya.
So Sigiriya did not appear to me as an awe-inspiring rock of silence
to which gathered a few artists to paint their fantasies of feminine
beauty and connoisseurs to experience raptures of aesthetic enjoyment,
and where the peace was broken by the grating and staccato sound of
sharp points of steel incising the surface of the Mirror Wall with
quaint medieval Sinhala characters.
It impressed on my conscience as a gigantic venue at which youth
gathered in all their romance, frolic and exuberance in order to
participate in an out-standing ritualistic festive event form time to
The host of evidence that I had already gathered was not in the least
imaginary, and it was neither the outcome of any extraneous academic
toil. It was not speculative too. It has been there for ages, and it was
there unknown as such and unrecognised by the many inclusive of my own
self until around thirty years ago. It was recorded contemporaneously by
some of those that saw first-hand what took place at Sigiriya and
participated in them. And, above all that, that mass of evidence is in
So, what type of evidence, rather than that to which the verses of
the Graffiti belong, can supersede or excel them in the task of
identifying what Sigiriya was in its hey-day?
The verses are, to repeat i. contemporary, ii. executed by the
participants and iii. found in situ.
So, exactly thirty years ago I made my first presentation of this
view on Sigiriya in the form of an address before the Sri Lanka
Archaeological Society, and in the form of a research article once more
to the Rohana a few years later. In 1988 at the National Archaeological
Conference I addressed a far wider audience on the subject, and then at
the Sri Jayewardenepura University too. In 2001, I made it the subject
of my Paranavitana Memorial Oration in Colombo - presenting more and
more testimony at each subsequent occasion.
Such a ‘new find’ is a verse the contents of which go far to assert
that the festival held at Sigiriya pertained to a certain part of the
year, at least during the 8th-9th century period when it was composed.
It says, ‘O maidens, wave your hands (summoning me). Don’t you
appreciate these songs (of mine)? Do not ignore one who has espied the
new moon of (the month of) bag.’
‘Bag’ here is Bak, according to present day usage, i.e. March-April,
when Vasanta (spring) dawns over our part of the world (however
unrecognisably) and when our own Sinhala New Year Festival is held.
Sighting the new moon was one of its outstanding customs (i.e. 50 years
ago.) and it is possible that during Sigiriya’s hey-day it was attended
with romantic and sexual over-tones in keeping with the tenor of a
So, I have reason to conclude that once in the past Sigiriya was the
venue of a highly patronised Spring Festival - a ritual of fertility
held in association with a mountain - a local Giragga Samajja and a
later version of the older Giribhanda Puja which, no doubt, is the
antecedent of the Sinhala New Year Festival of the present day. Then,
who are the ‘Maidens of Sigiriya’?
As for me there is only a logical step more - that is to say that
they were participants in the festival for the enjoyment of whose
company (sijov siri and siyov suva) the others came. Nevertheless, an
academically justifiable question remains: Is there any evidence?
Firstly, the frescoes are not the stereotyped out-come of the tenets
of feminine beauty as delineated in, for instance, the literary concept
of Alankaravada which makes all females look identical in the plastic
art of our region. The maidens at Sigiriya are so personal and
individualistic that every one of them is different from all others in
general, as far as their height and body-contours, and not only the
skin-complexion (as well known) are concerned.
Their faces are different mutually, aren’t’ they? Hence, they are
each a female with a particular identity: one may be Devala - the wife
of Budal, Kalaa - the girl friend of Devale, Ayi - the sister of Sala
etc. There is also a lady of middle age with hanging breasts (bati tana)
- perhaps the mother of Nilemini, ‘Blue Gem’, just married to Agboy.
And a visitor who was both an artist and a poet declares, ‘As you,
with flowers in hand, were drawn by this artist, this rock ledge appears
as the very heaven.’
I see him now ascending the Rock with his paints and brushes in one
hand and the hand of the one of the colours of the nil katrola mal in
the other, in the morn of that day on which the new moon of bag was due