The Sigiriya Poetry and the Aesthetics of the Popular Poetic Tradition
by Prof P. B. Meegaskumbura

"Sigiri Gee Siri" written in 1990 by the well-known - writer W.J.M.Lokubandara, created great enthusiasm in the Sinhala readership, about the culture of Sigiriya in general and Sigiri poetry in particular. With his "Sigiri Gee Siri" he was able to convey the essence of the poetical experimentation of the Sigiri poets who- were inspired by all the aesthetically provocative aspects of Sigiriya.

The present work is an English rendering of his "Sigiri Gee Siri."

Sigiriya is one of the main cultural sites of Sri Lanka, and is now considered as the eighth wonder of the world. It is a wonderful creation of human ingenuity on a site of awe-inspiring sublimity. It is a haven for classical Sinhalese art and architecture with its buildings, reservoirs, moats, walls, springs, and paintings. Although Sigiriya had a long history running from pre-historic times, its classical- glory began in the 6th century by the efforts of King Kashyapa who established a citadel here. The entire construction was done during the brief period of his reign. The paintings on the rock surface consisted of female figures that added to the glory of Sigiriya. These female figures are delicately referred to as ‘mahanel-vanun’ (Blue-lily coloured) and ‘ranvanun’ (Golden-coloured) by the inspired visitors who wrote about them on the ‘Mirror Wall.’ Senerat Paranavitana, the eminent archaeologist discovered and fully deciphered verses numbering 685, written in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries A.C. These verses that form an important part of the cultural legacy is included in his two-volume work, the "Sigiri Graffiti" which is one of the most important, if not the most important contribution to Sri Lankan archaeology of the 20th century. Since the discovery of the verses by Paranavitana many more verses have been discovered on the ‘Mirror Wall.’

While Lokubandara’s Sinhala work, the "Sigiri Gee Siri", based on the above work, is extremely helpful for the Sinhala reader to understand the aesthetics of the graffiti, the present English rendering would serve in a complementary capacity to the two -volume magnum opus of Paranavitana, the "Sigiri Graffiti".

Paranavitana’s primary concern in his work was that of an archaeologist, while that of Lokubandara is primarily that of an aesthete. His approach is that of a ‘sahrda’ who has developed a sort of symbiotic relationship with all that is at Sigiriya. As. is mentioned in the Taittiriya Upanishad, the "real’ man passes from grosser forms to the subtler forms, through the physical, vital, mental, intellectual, culminating in the innermost beatific form. So, Lokubandara tries to glean the inner- most message/ messages of the writers who wrote on the Mirror Wall. For the author it is a sort of re-discovery of his own beatific form, reached by careful observation analysis and -enjoyment, and it is this that he invites the reader to share with him in this work. Like the ‘real" man who passes through the five stages, the author, in all seriousness, tries to guide the reader to the ‘nectar of song" as he himself puts it. However, it must be emphasized that his aesthetic considerations are thoroughly based on a keen scholar critic’s stance. It is in this sense that it serves in a complementary capacity to the Sigiri Graffiti of Paranavitana.

The salient feature of Lokubandara’s effort is that he intends his work to be a key to introduce the reader to Paranavitana’s masterpiece through the avenue of aesthetic enjoyment the intended purpose of the Sigiri poets. In his work he rarely disagrees with the original work of Paranavitana: he builds on it; makes it more meaningful; re-arranges the material thematically so that the reader may have an in- depth notion of what is h.ighlighted by the writers of the graffiti. Thus it may not be out of place here if we consider a few high points of Paranavitana’s "Sigiri Graffiti" itself so that the importance of Lokubandaras work could be better appreciated.

The "Sigiri Graffiti," is a masterly archaeological contribution, a work that cannot easily be superseded. In this work, Paranavitana delves into all imaginable aspects of the graffiti including higher textual criticism, going much beyond what is simply of archaeological importance. Aspects such as, the nature of the documents and their decipherment, orthography, palaeography, grammar, language of the graffiti, prosody, the literary quality of the documents, the subject matter of the documents, and the authors are all carefully studied in atomistic detail. There is nothing left for speculation and conjecture. In dealing with most of these aspects he traces their development up to the time of Sigiriya and connects them with the subsequent developments wherever necessary. The sections on orthography, palaeography, grammar and prosody are so detailed that they could be regarded as independent works on their own. (M. H. Peter Silva translated into Sinhala the section on grammar under the title Sigiri-gi-viyaranaya) - In his treatment of the literary quality of the documents, relevant for our purpose, here, he masterfully uses the traces of literary criticism found in the graffiti, along with celebrated notions of both Indian and Western theories of aesthetics and art criticism in his valuation of Sigiri poems. This, I think, is the first time that Practical Criticism came to be seriously applied to judge any Sinhala literary work. The graffiti won the highest admiration of Paranavitana as poetry of a high order on thematic, stylistic as well as aesthetic grounds.

The discovery of the Sigiri poems is of utmost importance to Sinhala culture. They were discovered at a time when the colonial impact was still felt and even the classical literature was not properly appreciated. The entire classical literary tradition was disparagingly considered as a mere religious tradition confined mainly to translations from Pali sources. There was a break in the cultural tradition after about the 10th century that gave way to slavish imitation of Sanskrit models. This degeneration continued during the subsequent times so that there was a vast gap between the cultural achievements of this early period and the later times. In fact, Robert Knox who wrote in the 17" century about these classical works could not imagine that they were by ‘Chingulays’ (Sinhalese people).

"The Pagodas or Temples of their Gods are so many that I cannot number them. Many of them are rare and exquisite work, built of hewn stone, engraven with images and figures; but by whom and when I could not claim to know, the ‘inhabitants themselves’ being ignorant therein. But sure I am they were built by far more ingenious Artificers, than the ‘Chingulays that are on the land. For the Portuguese in their invasion have defaced some of them, which there is none found that hath skill enough to repair to this day". (Historical Relations of Ceylon, Pp 115-116).

It was later confirmed that all these exquisite works were by the Sinhalese and no others. However, that the poems which we deal with here are definitely by Sinhala writers is confirmed by the fact that they were written in Sinhala, or Hela as Lokubandara wishes to refer to it. Simhaia>Sihaia>Hela simply is the language of the Sinhalese. But the epithet Hela or Elu is generally used to refer to the ‘pure form’ of the language that the ancient Sinhalese developed and preserved as their poetical’ language as well as the language of national identity. It is clear from this distinctive Hela form of language that although languages such as Sanskrit and Pali had a great bearing on the culture of the Sinhalese throughout, the Sinhalese, who were conscious of their self-identity, persistently held on to the Hela language, in the same way they cling to Buddhism - their national faith. For Lokubandara, the fact that the graffiti are in the Hela language is itself an "important consideration for his endeavour. He is keenly aware of the endeavours of Kumaratunga (1887-1944) who made a sustained effort to resuscitate the Hela style of writing in the 20th century. For Kumaratunga, Hela meant not only the use of pure Sinhala words but also correct grammar, brevity, logicality and economy in language use as exemplified in the best of classical writings. The graffiti here shows the earliest instance of the use of Hela language in poetry, and Kumaratunga’s high estimate of it is confirmed by the achievements of the Sigiri poets. It is unfortunate that Kumaratunga himself did not live long enough to see his convictions about the genius of Hela language being confirmed by the discovery of the graffiti that represent the earliest and the best specimens of it. It is well known that Lokubandara himself is one of the foremost exponents of the Hela movement, and it is justifiable that he takes great interest in the graffiti. Thus, we should be keenly aware that Sigiri poems not only display the talents of the poets of the times but also the ingenuity of the Hela language. Here we are dealing with a language of poetry that nearly all Sigiri poets share as their medium of poetical thought. This Hela form of language continued during subsequent times too as the esteemed form of poetical expression, well up to modern times. Prose drew on the colloquial as well as the highbrow Sanskrit lexical and stylistic deviations, but for poetry Hela reigns supreme even now. It is true that some who wish to make radical changes try to deviate from it, but such attempts have ended up’ in failure for the reason that products based on such deviations cannot match the elegance of the earlier poetical tradition enshrined in the Hela form of the language: So there is a great enthusiasm on the part of the author Lokubandara to not only find the aesthetics of the poems concerned, but also to foreground the genius of the Hela language which is associated closely with the native aesthetics of the Sinhalese. This impact of Hela form is so pervasive that even after so many centuries the innermost emotions of the Sinhalese could be stirred by it. Even the single classical grammar of the language, the Sidath sangarava (13th century) makes an attempt to provide grammatical rules intended to sustain this all too important literary form of language which by that time has been challenged by what is called the exegetical style (Arutviyakana), used in prose translations from Sanskrit to Pali sources. This hybrid prose style made inroads on pure Sinhala (Hela) prose after about the 12th century. The Sidath Sangarava introduces such prosaic arut-viyakana usages as deviations rather than approved core grammatical features. From the standpoint of this grammar, the sine qua non of amateur poets should be the mastery of grammatical as well as poetical usages of the Hela language that the author proudly refers to as the Siyabasa or Native Language. It must also be mentioned that Kumaratunga, in the same manner as the author of the Sidath sangarava was highly critical of the arut-viyakana style as a phenomenon that sapped away the genius of the Sinhala language. The reason is that this exegetical mould of language introduced unnecessary expository or exegetical trappings and too much verbiage.

We have made it clear that Lokubandara’s main objective for the present endeavour is the introduction of the reader to the aesthetics of Sigiri verses. However, this is only an overt estimate of his work. If one were to probe further, it is apparent that his real preoccupation is with the Hela language whose genius is enshrined in many of the poems found here.

Continued tomorrow


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