The Rock of Yapahuva: An ancient citadel | Sunday Observer

The Rock of Yapahuva: An ancient citadel

30 September, 2018
AWE-INSPIRING SYMMETRY: The rock of Yapahuva– picture taken from an unusual angle
AWE-INSPIRING SYMMETRY: The rock of Yapahuva– picture taken from an unusual angle

The ancient fortress of Yapahuva sited in the natural beauty of the plateau and of great architectural splendour has like its more famous counterpart, Sigiriya, played no small part in the history of Sri Lanka.

As a photographer, I have been to some of the most far-flung places in the country. After 20 years in the field, I felt like my country was a stranger to me. I began to explore it as I would explore any unknown land- with my camera. Although I travelled to Kurunegala and its suburbs on many occasions, I never knew Yapahuva was such a fascinating place to explore, until I went on a trip to this ancient site during my recent visit to Kurunegala. In fact, I never wanted to visit it because Yapahuva is such a popular travel destination among visitors here and abroad, and has appeared in tourist brochures and publications, so often in the past. However, having explored the site, I could capture the hidden beauties of the eloquent stone marvels of Yapahuva.

Nestled in a plain some distance from Kurunegala, in the North Western Province, one branches off along a narrow road near Maho, passing through varying, typically dry zone scenic beauty. The Yapahuwa rock standing over 100-metre (300 feet)high dates back to the 13th century.

Strange events

This ancient Yapahuva rock has been a witness to many strange events, and up its scalable sides hoary mystics, ascetic bhikkus, warriors and kings have clambered, and on its granite surfaces people have scratched personal their records.

According to historical chronicles, the fortress of Yapahuva was occupied by a chieftain called Subha, who established himself here after the fall of Polonnaruwa. During these years (1215-1236) Yapahuva was one of the few centres of resistance to the invaders and became a stronghold of massive dimensions.

For a brief period, from 1274-1282, it was also a royal capital and King Bhuvanekabahu I reigned from here. The city was to survive until the end of the 13th century when it was finally attacked by the Pandyans, who had succeeded the Cholas as the dominant power in Southern India.

The massive fortification is perhaps, second only to Sigiriya in its strength and complexity. The fortress was protected by a broad moat bridged by three causeways. Between the inner and the outer ramparts lay the city. It was here that the greater part of the inhabitants lived and there are still traces of the four ponds which once provided water for them.

However, almost everything has disappeared now and there is hardly any sign that a town ever existed. Most of the surviving buildings are to be found within the inner line of defences which housed the citadel, the preserve of the warlord and later the king himself. At the very heart of the whole complex was the great rock, which acted as the last refuge. Upon the rock itself, commanding the surrounding countryside, stood the palace. The ornamental royal stone stairway of Yapahuva is one of the most beautiful creations of medieval Lanka. Beginning at the foot of the rock, it rises in three tiers up the face of the rock, leading to the remains of the king’s palace.

Elaborately carved and decorated, it is flanked on either side by sculptures rearing from the stone. Like many buildings and structures of the period, it was designed and probably built in South Indian architectural style. As a result, the whole tone of the carving is rich and sumptuous, an echo of the art and architecture of the Pandyans. Halfway up the stairs is a pair of royal lions, rising from the stone. Massive, mighty figures, they guard the entrance to the palace. Filling the visitor with awe, they remind him that he was about to enter the presence of the king.

Yapahuva is famed for the Yapahuva Lion, which has been used on Sri Lanka’s ten rupee note. Just above are balustrades adorned with the mythical Gaja Sinha, the elephant-headed lion. Although he is hardly found in the sculpture of Anuradhapura, the Gaja Sinha is very much a feature of this era, a reflection of the fusion and intermingling, which characterised the 13th century.

At the summit of the stairway, a hundred feet above the plain, stands an elaborately pillared porch. In the centre is an entrance hall, flanked by guardhouses. Sited on a large rocky ledge overlooking the city, this marked the final entrance. After the slow and arduous climb to the top, the view is breathtaking. We also get to see the ruins of the erstwhile palace constructions in the middle of the rock.

Archaeologists’ delight

H.C.P. Bell, Sri Lanka’s first Archaeological Commissioner, who carried out extensive excavations at the turn of the 19th century, identified the structure as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Properly housing and protecting the Tooth Relic of Buddha, the symbol of kingship, was always a prime duty for the Sri Lankan king. However, this theory is not accepted now.

Yapahuva became a great city in the island for nearly 11 years, but after King Bhuvanekabahu’s reign, the capital was once more shifted and the fortress became the hunting ground of treasure seekers and looters.

It lay forgotten again until work on its preservation was begun by the Archeological Department of Ceylon, many years later.

The ruins of Yapahuva, buried under jungle and earth, were discovered by a British army officer in 1817. Later, H.C.P. Bell did much research, and excavation and conservation was also carried out under the direction of the eminent archaeologist Dr. Senerath Paranavitana.

The lowest level of Yapahuva houses a museum and a cave temple of the Kandyan period. Adorning the walls are horizontal murals while a Buddha statue belonging to the Kandyan period looms out of the dark cave of the rock Viharaya. As I leave, the scorching sun is about to set on the vibrant skyline. Sometimes, there is much to enjoy in some place you visit, unexpectedly.