The New Museum in Sigiriya

"The major consideration when planning, designing and constructing the museum was not to have it overshadowing, in the slightest, the Rock itself. The museum, the excavated gardens and all else is secondary to the Rock".

This is what Chandana Ellepola FIA, Architect of the Sigiriya Museum Project told us as we stood at the entrance to the completed museum funded by the government of Japan. Significant was the close cooperation between Sri Lankan architects, designers and engineers, and Japanese experts from JICA – on site and in Colombo. Combining expertly, they built the building inspired by Ellepola, designed its interior and placed the excavated artifacts and made items such that the museum complements the eighth wonder of the world - unobtrusively yet magnificently.

True to the condition mentioned above, one sees the museum only when one is almost upon it, and then as green sections spied among the trees, the green of the building merging into the green of the trees. None of the large trees on site were cut; the museum was designed around them and thus emerged a ‘green building’ successfully conserving the archaeological character of the Sigiriya monument and its site.

A path leads you to the front entrance but that takes long to negotiate since you are lost in wonder, gazing at the red lotus in the ponds on either side, trees growing from within the ponds. The huge red lotus was brought over from Anuradhapura. The water represents the moat around the Rock. The building – offices, museum, open air theatre and atrium for sitting around covering 350,000 sq ft - is on stilts, making allowance for any flooding of the Sigiri Oya which has been impounded to fill the pools and then released to go its way to irrigate land.

We were taken on a guided tour of the building by Ellepola and Dr Yoshiko Abe, the resident Japanese museum consultant on the project, while workmen were busy completing jobs. Abe seemed very capable, speaking good Sinhala to the workers. She’s been dedicated to the project, living in Sigiriya with a couple more Japanese since the inception of the museum project - two and a half years ago.

The architectural concept drew inspiration from the sophisticated design systems apparent in the 4th century ruins of the Sigiriya monument, the most significant of these being the unique hydraulic system now apparent in the excavated gardens; thus the moat around the museum and a terraced cascade of water within. Sigiriya is a massive rock among huge trees and rich vegetation. The building replicates this with trees growing within it and around it, giving beauty and shade while making you feel you are immersed in nature.

Within the Museum

Climb a couple of steps and you are at the first level – from the ground floor entry terrace to the upper floor museum lobby. The concept of the levels parallels the climb to the summit of the Rock. Of course lifts will be installed and the entire building is totally wheelchair friendly with huge ramps running along each floor, gently gradated, reminding one of the ramps in the National Library of France – the new one like four open books - and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

You involuntarily gasp as you move forward in this atrium for framed in the structured open space is the majestic Rock. On one side is a huge Thimbiriya tree, the roof built as large open squares to accommodate its spreading branches. Etched in glass will be the story of King Kassyapa from the Chulavamsa, in the three languages. This area will be the information foyer; airy and naturally lit.

You enter the main museum passing through a side court built around several large spreading kumbuk trees, through an enclosed bridge in the form of a brick archway tunnel which is an exact replica of an archway to the Rock which appeared after excavation. Entrance through the arch is intended to symbolize a passage through time since entering it you are led to five closed spaces - Time Periods. Dr Yoshiko Abe took over here since the artifacts and exhibits are her domain. The Japanese consultants were directly responsible for the museum artifacts executed by Archt. Nagakane from Japan working in close coordination with a national advisory committee of experts headed by Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake.

The first space is the Protohistoric Gallery; the exhibits being excavated artifacts of various sorts from iron implements to pottery and terra cotta heads and figures. The second gallery is the Buddhist Monastery Period with artifacts of that period displayed. Photographs complement the actual exhibits. The third section is the story of King Kassyapa.

The room dedicated to his achievements showcases Japanese technology at its most precise. You walk along glass panels looking down, first at the water gardens, then on the mirror wall area, the lion’s paw and last of all on the summit of the Rock, exactly replicated to scale. The fourth gallery is the mirror wall room, where you gasp again as you see the rock-wall with the kurutu kavi or graffiti replicated exactly. The fifth and last gallery has been dedicated to etho-archeology of the Sigiriya region; the history of archeology; and landscape archeology.

You move up to the mezzanine floor like you would on the rock itself climbing a spiral stairway. You gasp again in wonder. There along one wall is an exact copy of the Sigiriya frescoes. The plaster and rock face were executed in Japan and brought across, and the painting done by Prof Albert Dharmasiri of the College of Fine Arts, University of Kelaniya. Further away is another frieze of Apsaras, those not included in the pavilion open to visitors on the Rock. The guide pointed to his favourite – stern faced and obviously the chaperoning matron of the other maidens. Along its full length, the gallery overhangs a wide linear structural void, thus creating the illusion of great height similar to the actual fresco location on the Rock where you look over your shoulder and see the ground far below. You are suspended in that mesh covered gallery over a sheer drop. You get this feeling in the museum.

Moving down you get to the service areas of the museum. A large open deck serves as the terrace of the open air theatre below. This terrace affords space for cultural activities and for visitors to sit and relax. Here too resemblance to the Rock has been maintained since wide platforms and decks are present and used now as functional areas for the large crowds that ascend the Rock.

The exit path is again over the Lotus Pond. The walls of the corridor are topped with water troughs filled with indigenous flowering aquatic plants. The offices comprise an administrative block which, though within the museum, is completely separate from its public areas.

Japanese and Sri Lankan Cooperation

The museum was built and completed through the cooperation of the Japanese government and our Ministry of Cultural Affairs. There were a couple of humps which were diplomatically negotiated, so that the museum is not only a superb addition to the Sigiriya complex but an acknowledgement of magnanimous cooperation between Japan, the funder, and Sri Lanka whose architects, designers and builders were responsible for the concept of the museum and its construction. This is a noteworthy feature: that while Japan funded the entire project, its conception, design and building was left to Sri Lankan experts, with Japanese professionals assisting. Usually in a foreign funded project, more than 70 percent of the workers are foreign, from architects and engineers down to even welders and builders coming over from the funding country. Not so in the Sigiriya Museum Project.

Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake has to be acknowledged with gratitude. He is credited with having inspired the Sigiriya Museum project and was also responsible for the current archeological display concept of the Sigiriya monument and site; the archeological exposition of the Sigiriya gardens. It was his wise decision that juxtaposes the then and now. One side of the extensive gardens is left as it was - soil covered and overgrown. The other side has been excavated to present the marvelous achievement of the 4th century landscapers, hydraulic experts and the aesthetic sense of Kassyapa himself.

The museum will be ceremonially declared open on 28 July by His Mahinda Rajapakse, our President, and His Excellency Yasuo Fukuda, former prime minister of Japan.

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