In Search of the Lion at Sigiriya – Part 1

In Search of the Lion at Sigiriya by Ama H.Vanniarachchy

Part 1

Therefore Kasyapa fearing his brother Moggallana, fled away from Anuradhapura, built a fortress on the summit of a rock that is extremely hard to climb. The doorways of the many stairways to clamber the rock were built after the fashion of lion faces. Wherefore the mountain was called Lion-mountain (Siha-giri), Sigiri. He adorned the place with all riches, tightened security and built a beautiful palace on the summit and lived there. – Mahavamsa (second half) 39th chapter

Written fifteen centuries ago this narrates the tale of Sigiriya and its creator, the ill-fated king, Kasyapa, who has been accused of patricide by chroniclers. 

Sigiriya, the Lion’s Rock is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Sri Lanka as well as in the world. This mysterious place has fascinated people for centuries, even far before it was rediscovered in the 1890s. The many poems written on the mirror wall reveal how people in the past were awestruck by the beautiful frescos, the gigantic lion, and the breath-taking ambience of the place. Although Sigiriya has been subjected to extensive research since the late 19th century, the complete story of Sigiriya still remains unveiled. 

Though beauty is spelled in every nook and corner of the place, an unexplained eerie mysteriousness overshadows the story of Sigiriya. The gigantic lion paws and many stories about a majestic lion’s head, although nowhere to be seen today, upheaves the mystery surrounding the place. The many tragedies woven surrounding Sigiriya enhances the dimness of the place’s atmosphere.  

Mysteries of Sigiriya

Sigiriya gets its name because of many lion-faced gateways that were believed to be built by Kasyapa. It is mentioned in a few Sigiri poems that there once was a majestic lion’s head at Sigiriya. These poems are evidence to believe that the lions’ head was intact till the 9th century. What did the first person who rediscovered Sigiriya in the late 19th century witness? What did H.C.P.Bell witness at Sigiriya and what are the many rumours about an internal stairway, a hidden palace and mysterious attacks by wasps? Did Bell witness something more than what we see today? Why did Kasyapa choose a lion and did Moggallana actually perform human sacrifices at Sigiriya as prof. Senarath Paranavithana suggests? What was the fate of the once majestic Sigiriya after the demise of Kasyapa? 

We shall embark on an exciting journey to the past and attempt to unveil mysteries surrounding Sigiriya and Kasyapa with the aid of chronicle records, Sigiri poems, archaeological evidences, Bell’s work records, and Prof. Paranavithana’s new interpretations.

Rediscovering Sigiriya 

Major Forbes, a British officer in Sri Lanka was the first to visit Sigiriya in recent times and record about it, in his book Eleven Years in Ceylon. He visited Sigiriya twice, in 1831 and 1833. It was not possible for him to climb the rock as it was covered with thick forest. 

In the year 1853 A.Y.Adams and J.Bailey were successful in climbing up to the summit. Since then, many including Sir James Emerson Tennent, Rhys Davids, and T.H. Blakesly have travelled and written about Sigiriya. 

Bell in Sigiriya, 1894

Archaeological work at Sigiriya began in the year 1894 by the Department of Archaeology. Bell conducted the first archaeological work at Sigiriya starting from 1894 to 1900, followed by Prof. Paranavithana from 1946 to 1954.

Bell who started work at Sigiriya in the year 1894 visited there on 15 April and 16 as it is recorded. There he wrote, “This isolated rock citadel and fortress is connected with the romantic history of the parricide king, Kasyapa I. (479 – 497 CE).”  

Before the iron ladders and railing that we see today were erected, Bell and his team used jungle ladders. In this year they couldn’t reveal much about the summit due to the dense vegetation. 

“But until access to the summit is made at least fairly safe by iron ladders and railing, work on Sigir-gala is out of the question,” wrote Bell in 1894. 

Later, it is recorded that two iron ladders and a single low handrail were fixed in position by the Public Works Department. In January 1895 an archaeological survey commenced at Sigiriya.

The Lion 

Bell writes in 1898…

“These alto relieves were not a variant from of the ‘elephant-head dado’ of the chapel ‘screens’ at the large dagobas of Anuradhapura. They were none other than the huge claws – even to the dewclaw – of a once gigantic lion, conventionalised in brick and plaster, through whose body passed the winding stairway, connecting upper and lower galleries. The monstrous Sinha – suggestive of the legendary founder of the Sinhalese race – towering majestically against the dark granite cliff, bright coloured, and gazing northwards over a vista that stretches almost hilless to the horizon, must have presented an awe-inspiring sight for miles around. Thus was clinched forever to the hill the appellation Sihigiri, Lion Rock.” 

Professor in History, Mangala Ilangasinghe writes that Bell encountered the legendary gigantic lion during his visits and it is unfortunate that the lion is no more to be seen. Bell had clambered through the spiral stairs which ran through the lion figure. 

As Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake says, this lion sculpture must have consisted of the head, chest and paws and it was originally made of timber, brick and plaster and had an internal staircase. He further states that it is fair to assume that the lion was relatively well preserved, at least until the 9th century.  

Ancient poets wrote about the majestic Lion

Having ascended Sigiriya

To see what is (there)

I fulfilled my mind’s desire

And saw

His Lordship the Lion

We saw at Sihigiri

The King of Lions

Whose fame and splendour

Remain spread

In the whole world

There were many lions, says the Great Chronicle…

As the chronicles say there have been more than one lion faced gateways at Sigiriya. But remains of only one lion can be seen today.  We are not quite sure about the material these were built of as we do not have evidences of these gateways except for one. Attempts have been made to recreate (illustrations and graphics) the lion in recent times. 

Lions in ancient Sinhala arts

Lions are not uncommon in ancient Sinhalese art as they can be seen in abundance in ancient buildings and its symbolisation depends on its context. It must be noted that in many of these instances, the lion is used in religious settings or merely as decorative motifs. 

Lion: a symbol of royalty or a bloodline?

However, at Sigiriya, one or several gigantic lions and lion-faced gateways were neither mere decorative objects nor religious symbols. The lion has been the symbol of the Sinhalese race for centuries. According to mythology, the Sinhalese descended from a lion, therefore, they were called the ‘Lion People’. The lion flag still remains as the national flag of Sri Lanka. 

But why did Kasyapa have to build a gigantic lion and many lions at his newly built abode? Was it a message to his political rivals, as he ascended the throne amidst great political turbulence? To answer this it is important to understand the political situation of Kasyapa’s time. 

Who was Kasyapa, the creator of the Lion?

Kasyapa, a man of twisted fate was the creator of the Sigiriya we know. He is also known as ‘The God King’ for he was compared to the god of wealth, Kuwera, by the chroniclers, born as a royal yet deprived of the monarchy for, as the chronicle says, his mother was a non-royal.

Kasyapa killed his father Dhatusena and became the king. His brother Moggallana, the rightful owner to the throne, according to the chronicles, fled to India. This is the typical story recorded in the Mahavamsa (second half). However, eminent scholar and archaeologist Prof. Paranavithana had a different and rather controversial take on the Story of Sigiriya, which was published in 1972 as Story of Sigiriya. His new interpretations and new archaeological findings help in solving some of the mysteries surrounding Sigiriya. 

Now we shall visit the royal palace at Anuradhapura, early 5th century CE, and the neighbouring Kingdoms including the Pandyas, Parthian Empire, Pallvas, Pundra kingdom, the Kalabras, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Our journey will be guided by the chronicles, few inscriptions, and archaeological evidences. 

(To be continued…)

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