Solving an age-old enigma : Who are the Sigiriya beauties? | Sunday Observer

Solving an age-old enigma : Who are the Sigiriya beauties?

These are divine damsels, raining flowers, from heavenly clouds
These are divine damsels, raining flowers, from heavenly clouds

“Beauty is truth’s smile, when she beholds her own face in a perfect mirror.”

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

(Indian Philosopher Poet 1861-1941).

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“A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Its loveliness increases, it will never

Pass into nothingness.”

John Keats (1795-1821)

British Poet.

Let me begin with a question, please.

What is the most misunderstood group of ladies in the whole of human history? The word ‘Ladies’ here, includes both the animate and the inanimate variety.

Unambiguously and unhesitatingly I assert, that the beauties in the cavern in the Sigiriya Rock, are undoubtedly the most misunderstood bevy of beauties in the whole world.

When I say this, you will invariably want me to provide proof to substantiate this statement which to many, may seem bold.

We will initially focus on their Rocky Residence, The Sigiriya Rock. This highly fabled rock, rises sheer out of the surrounding green jungle, to a height of about 200 metres, very much like a massive fist raised in defiance.

Fortress

The Royal creator of the spectacular Rock Fortress Palace, is Kassapa I (478-496). Since he fell afoul with the Mahavihara – the traditional compilers of the historical chronicle Mahavansa – his miraculous creation – Sigiriya Rock fortress palace – has not received adequate attention. Noting this grievous neglect, Prof. Wilhelm Geiger remarks:

“How explain, the fact that of so mighty a work as the fortress of Sigiriya, not a single detail is described? Even the name is only mentioned in four places.

And yet this is perhaps the most magnificent building of which Ceylon can boast....” (Dr. Wilhelm Geiger, introduction to the translation of Culavansa Part I. Page V. 1953).

King Kassapa converted this colossal rock into a celestial abode and a guarded fortress.

His magnificent creation while demanding universal admiration has endowed upon the later generations, a whole series of tough, mind-boggling enigmas which even the moderns with their ultra-sophisticated technologies cannot unravel and fathom.

Kassapa built an intricate system of residential complexes complete with such adjuncts as recreational spaces, leisure resorts as parks and miraculously, a minor-Royal City atop the rock.

Motivated

My core concern here is to explore briefly what motivated him to shift the capital from Anuradhapura and to bring into being the rock-centred haven that synthesizes military prowess with aesthetic splendour, While on this, I am deeply concerned with the need to understand the long misunderstood beauties who have endured for centuries, ravages brought on by the vagaries of weather and time and by the shocking misconcepts popularized by people over the ages, about their identity and what they represent.

I feel that it is necessary to speak a word about myself too, merely as a matter of courtesy. I am not a professional Archaeologist.

But, from childhood on as it were, I was deeply engrossed in that discipline.

I hail from Unawatuna, a short distance away from the home village of world-renowned Prof. Senarath Paranavithana.

His sister’s sons were my school mates in early days. When I came over to Colombo for my higher education, I had the rare blessing of meeting Prof. Paranavithana. He was especially kind to me and helped me to translate some of his essays in such learned publications as “Artibus Asiae”.

As a child I spent hours reading the Sinhala work titled ‘Puravidyava’, authored by Walisinghe Harischandra.

My built-in enthusiasm came about this way. After this momentary aside I can return to Kassapa.

To my mind Kassapa was a Royal hedonist. By definition, a hedonists is a person committed to a lifestyle, in which pleasure-seeking is primary and dominant.

If a marked threat to life is perceived, the pleasure- seeking sharpens. (A kind of folk instance can be cited. During the days of war, even ordinary people, who felt a vague threat due to the global conflict, took to pleasure – seeking avidly, not knowing, when death will claim them.

Kassapa was the son of a secondary consort of King Dhathusena. His brother was born of a Primary Queen. Kassapa acquired the throne but was, perpetually mindful of an attack from brother Mugalan.

Over and above that, to Mahavihara, Kassapa was Persona non-grata. This deepened Kassapa’s grievances.

Kassapa decided to leave the “uncomfortable” capital, and build for himself, a Pleasure-Haven, to lead a life of joyous indulgence, with the ever-present threat to life very much in his mind.

Each architectural detail was planned and executed, with twin purposes as priority goals – pleasure and security.

The total complex of the Sigiriya domain, as created under the keen supervision of Kassapa, is nothing short of an Architectural miracle. That is from today’s point of view, when rack and ruin have taken their toll over centuries.

One can only visualise what an overwhelming wonder the Sigiriya complex would have been in its hey day.

Of all the enigmas with which Kassapa has filled the curious minds of succeeding generations, the most intriguing is the mystery of the identity of this group of Beauties.

Over the ages, various explanations have been put forward. But, none of those can fully and completely unsnarl the “Sigiri Beauty Riddle.”

Before I present my own solution to the Enigma of Sigiriya Beauties, the most logical procedure to my mind is to take up predominant solutions and scrutinise them.

What is quite relevant and highly significant here is the need to initially appreciate that the group of beauties originally consisted of more than 115. Only about 19 figures remain at present.

Bell’s vision

The pioneering Commissioner of Archaeology in Sri Lanka, H.C.P. Bell presented his interpretation. According to him these frescoes depict Queens and their ladies-in-assistance, on their way to the temple in the vicinity. As this view is favoured by many individuals, let us go into it in some detail.

A pilgrimage is a holy and sacred spiritual tour. Can anyone imagine that the Royal ladies went to the temple clad in all those bejewelled ornaments and vivid cloths? If you observe closely some ladies are dancing. The frill, at the waste if you examine carefully is agitated as happens when the lady dances. Some frescoes had the ladies taking musical instruments in their hands. That kind of temple-visit is not at all likely among the Buddhist Royalty. There is yet another crucial issue.

Ladies

If, as Commissioner Bell suggests, these are Royal Ladies how is that there is no male person present as escorts of Royal Ladies? This is indeed a serious matter, that goes counter to the ‘Temple visit’ theory. Prof. Paranavithana, does not make an attempt to identify the ladies specifically. In his paper to ‘India Antiqua’, the learned professor ‘suggests’ they could be ‘megha latha’ and vijjullatha (cloud maidens and lightning maidens). Even if they are so why are they there? What is their allotted functions.

Mr. E.B. Havell felt that the ladies represent court personnel on their way to heaven along with their ladies-in-waiting.

But, why should they? And again in such glamorous costumes and jewellery.

If they go for water-sports flowers and musical instruments in hand, and in addition dancing, there is something seriously amiss in that kind of water-sport. Besides, if the court ladies are bent on water sports, just a little above them, they have the highly compelling pools and ponds on the Rock summit. This way the water theory does not hold water. There is yet another highly crucial consideration. In the traditional Royal Harem, the ladies are not quite known to be participating in water sports, outside their strictly secure premises.

One of the most absurd of theories is advanced by those who aver that these ladies are lamenting the death of their spouse. The supreme sponsor of the total complex of celestial palace-fortress system is King Kassapa.

He had this mythical site built at a vast expense and through intricate technical effects to promote his lifestyle of prioritizing the pleasure principle. If in such a context he has a group of ornately clad bevy of beauties, lamenting his death, something really incongruous has happened. Centuries after the creation of Sigiri pleasure palace, visitors trekked to this place. In their marvel and bewilderment at their stupendous creation, they set down various ecstatic concepts.

These late visitors had no clue whatsoever about Kassapa’s glorious dream. In that kind of situation if those visitors had unrestrained nations about the significance of the ladies, we can understand that. But, if a modern who has greater access to the rich history of Kassapa’s time than those uninformed visitors who created fanciful concepts were to theorize that the ladies are depicted as lamenting the passage of their lord, it could be thought of as an unimaginative exercise. One must take a fresh look at the uncontrolled notions recorded by the later visitors, in their limitless ecstasy at the sight of the frescoes.

If someone were to say that the frescoes show ladies holding baskets of flowers or throwing flowers, that part of the idea is acceptable.

But even that kind of thinking overlooks the most essential “Why?”. Why should they do it? That is where most of these views tend to be weak.

To my mind, one of the theories that comes quite close to the reality of the Sigiri damsels, is the interpretation proposed by Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy. He is of the view, that these are divine damsels, raining flowers, from heavenly clouds.

This is centrally correct. But, even there a view is not expressed about “Why” they are made to perform that function.

At this stage I feel I must express my solution of the enigma with all the humility I can muster. Way back, in January 2010, writing an article on the Sigiriya Beauties, in the Sunday Observer, I said: “To be totally realistic, we must appreciate that they are beautiful ladies.

But, they are painted here for a practical and pragmatic function. They are there to greet the visitors, with dancing and the scattering of flowers. I am quite certain that this is the right interpretation.” Since that day I have pursued extensive theories.

I am quite right when I say that the ladies at Sigiriya form a beautiful reception committee.

To give them divinity, they are shown emerging from clouds. Consider this too. They all have their eyes on the path below. And, that is the approach path of the visitors to Kassapa’s Pleasure Haven.

Apsara

Kassapa much more than any other ruler of that time, was influenced by Chinese culture. In China the Apsara motif is quite prevalent. They stay above the entrance to important places, to receive the guests with dance, song and scattered flowers.

In some places such as the Air Ports in Cambodia, live groups of beauties perform the glamorous function of being the reception committee.

As I am conducting further research on this subject, I have given here only a brief outline.

The Sigiriya Beauties, depict the glamorous reception committee to the hedonistic domain of pleasure loving ruler Kassapa. 

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