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SIGIRIYA

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.

Mirror Wall

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 half-a-century.

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.

Interested

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 complete!

Females

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 time.

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 situ.

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.

Verse

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 spring festival.

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?

Beauty

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 to appear.

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