Art, Culture & Heritage

“Monuments are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another,” said French essayist and philosopher Joseph Joubert. Be it in commemoration of a significant historical figure, place, event or culture, monuments play a critical role in defining the identity of a nation. The island of Sri Lanka, although just a drop in the ocean, is home to a multitude of monuments celebrating diverse cultures, and eras governed by many rulers. A prominent work of art on the island is one that’s named the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, widely known and exceedingly popular for both its history and what it entails. The origin story arrives in a tale significant to the country’s past and is largely studied as part of Sri Lanka’s beginnings. The Rock Fortress was built by King Kasyapa II; his story follows his infamous legacy, from battling unjustly for the throne to leaving his Kingdom. After playing a part in the brutal murder of his father and stealing the throne from his brother, the King was overcome with guilt that he fled to the region of Sigiriya. It is here he chose to build the rock fortress.

The people of Anuradhapura had lost their faith in King Kasyapa after his after his father’s death and overwhelmed by the remorse he felt, he sought solace in the forests of Sigiriya. The most remarkable structure that stood out was the looming rock on and around which Kasyapa built his palace, pavilions and gardens. The six hundred feet rock was initially a large black stone that was the centrepiece of the city. The King envisioned his new hideaway to be a white cloud in the sky and with an army of over a fifty thousand men, thousands of bullocks, and many hundreds of elephants – a workforce of highly skilled labourers – King Kasyapa set out to turn the forest into a magnificent city. Sigiriya then became a beautiful island, with the rock at its centre, palaces and colourful pavilions surrounded. Encased by the mirror wall and beginning from the Lion staircase, and a Sky Palace on top of this monumental rock; gardens, ponds, halls and gateways, King Kasyapa built a royal city inside of the forest and lived gallantly with his harem and royal household. 

Although the city itself is significant to the story, what stands out even now are the frescoes painted on the surface of the rock. It has been about sixteen hundred years since the rock fortress was finished yet the frescoes are integral to the Sri Lankan history still and are a testament to the beginning of Sri Lankan art. The paintings play a substantial role in contributing to the awe, wonderment and beauty of the city. What could be observed in these illustrations are depictions of nymph-like women, figures who are said to have been part of the King’s harem. The tapestry was instilled upon the notion that the women were to be admired but not touched. Highlighted by their clothing of regal designs and transparency, the women transpired a sense of beauty that exceeded the norm. 

The figures float several feet above the ground on the daunting rock in a small depression. Although only a few can be observed now, most washed away by natural elements the paintings were said to be celestial beings or women and concubines. Adorned in royal jewellery, their hair painted on to highlight the shape of their oval faces, as their eyes convey vivacious expressions; delicate and elegant hands carrying flowers while elaborate and rich jewels hang from their ears, pinned in their hair and dangle from their arms – these paintings depict the beauty of women who may have existed back then. King Kasyapa was said to have possessed a harem of about five hundred concubines of sensuous and exotic beauty, golden complexion and bare breasted. However, the intricate and regal jewels they adorn may also point to the how they may have been his daughters. Through their similarities to the depictions of the Ajanta Caves of the Gupta period in Maharashtra, India, the women are said to have been depictions asparas or goddesses that descended upon the citadel with blessings.   

These paintings are integral to the history of Sri Lankan art for they depict the style and comprehension of culture if Sri Lanka’s origins. From representation of complexion to adornments, behaviour to admiration, the illustrations present a glimpse into the derivations and beginnings of the Sri Lankan culture. Painted on the western face surface of the rock fortress that is central to the Sri Lankan landscape, the Sigiriya Frescoes still stand to be a critical part of the Sri Lankan identity. The Rock Fortress, its frescoes, the architecture around this monument from its staircase to the mirror wall play an integral role in identifying the personality of central Sri Lanka and its community, the historicity through which it is conveyed. When one visits the land of Sigiriya and observes the Rock Fotress, making the climb up to admire these paintings and all its monuments along the way, it aids to remember where it began and how it has shaped the present context of the Sri Lankan identity. 

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27th March, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings