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Review Essay
Raja de Silva’s new book:

‘Sigiriya Paintings’ and connected matters


I have read two excellent reviews on this new contribution to knowledge by the former Archaeological Commissioner, Raja de Silva who spent almost a life time at Sigiriya, examining and studying the paintings and helping in their preservation. The first of these reviews was by Tissa Devendra, published in The Island, and the second was by Gamini Weerakoon, in The Lanka Guardian on Monday, 21 September 2009.

Both reviewers asked why other Sigiriya-scholars were silent on the rather ‘heretical’ views expressed by this scholar. Yes, ‘heretical’ but not unrelated to reality. ‘Heretical’ because it rejected the stereotype presented by the compiler of Mahavamsa which part relating to Sigiriya was codified after over five centuries later which claimed that Kassapa built a palace at Sigiriya. Numerous other views have been expressed on the subject by a galaxy of scholars, especially on the females who are the subject of the extant paintings.

These range from the palace-theory more recently given a new lease of life by Dr. Senaka Bandaranayake with [doubtful] interpretations of archaeological finds to fit into the palace-theory. Why a palace alone could have a claim to the man-built scenery at Sigiriya when even more beautiful structures like bathing ponds and other devices were attached to the great monasteries of Abhayagiriya and Isurumuniya?

The idea of a palace emulating Alakamanda built up by Dr. S. Paranavitana expanding on the hyperbole used by the Mahavamsa compiler; and his later idea of a Parvata-raja written in his retirement when hallucination seemed to have set in. That is his Story of Sigiri written on the basis of so called inter-linear inscriptions which he only could read (and transferred to an imagined Parampara –pustkaya. His reference to both Sigiri and Persepolis as abodes of Parvata-rajas – "monarchs who chose mountains as their abodes" would have never been made had he ever visited Persepolis and seen that there is no Parvata there (I visited the place on 12 occasions): or read the interpretation that the place was not used as a permanent abode by Achemenied rulers but as a ‘ceremonial’ city where foreign dignitaries were received at the Equinox festival. That itself exposes the weakness of the Parvata-raja theory besides the doubtful credibility of his sources he quoted.

The theory of a ‘fortress’ built by Kassapa for security in fear of an invasion by his brother for reasons of his patricidal offence, which is also alluded to by Mahavamsa, has been debunked by both scholars and ordinary visitors. The argument is that Sigiriya was such a vulnerable spot where the king and his retinue could have been starved to death.

I myself, though not an archaeologist, but a Mahavamsa-student from my younger days when I started learning Pali under family Pundits, referred to Sigiriya of post-Kassapa era as an Executioner’s hell where a number of public executions were carried out.

Though the reviewers lament the absence of critiques of Raja de Silva’s two books on Sigiriya, no mention is made of supporting views expressed. I wrote a review in The Island supporting Raja’s theory of a Mahayanist monastery quoting from Mahayana texts which I was privileged to read during my stay in China and Japan. I mentioned particularly the Sukhavati-vyuha. I went beyond Raja de Silva to identify Sigiriya as a monastic complex dedicated to Avalokitessvara worship, and that the lion symbolized ‘Avalokitesvara’ in the Sihanada- manifestation’ referred to in the Mahayana texts (Greater Sukhavati-vyuha: 33). I found the landscaping of Sigiriya also representing the scenes described in the same text where a person meditating on Avalokitesvara should concentrate among other things, on the scenes of waterfalls, springs, rock-fall et al, emanating from the body of ‘Avalokitesvara,’ the Surveyor of all around him. (Avalokana= survey). It is a quality close to Maha-karuna- samapatti" attributed to [Gautama] Buddha. (Greater Suhkavati-vyuha: 9 (GSV): "See this dream-like country how beautiful it is, which was made by the teacher during a hundred thousand kalpas".)

G.S.V:40: state:

Then the Bhagavat addressed the noble-minded Bodhisattva Ajita, and said: Do you see, O,Ajita, the perfection of the array of ornaments and good qualities in the array of ornaments in that Buddha country [Sukhavati]?; and above the sky (places) with charming parks, charming gardens, charming rivers and lotus lakes, scattered with many precious Padmas, Utpalas, Kumudus, and Pundarikas; and below , from the earth to the abode of Akanishthas, the surface of the sky, covered with flowers, ornamented with wreaths of flowers, shining on rows of many precious columns, frequented by flocks of all kinds of birds created by the Tathagatha?"

I also argued that Kassapa may have for a time found solace in the Avalokitesvara monastery at Sigiriya because it is only in Avlokitesvara worship that sins could be expiated by the practice of certain rituals. Confirmation of the King practicing rigorous rituals could be found in the Mahavamsa itself where it says that the [parricide] King practiced Dhutangas, there which, according to Childer’s Dictionary, and Visuddhi-magga were austere practices, thirteen in number, prescribed for ascetics who desire to prepare themselves for the attainment of the highest stages of sanctification. These were besides the Appamanta (which according to Childers were the four subjects of meditation prescribed for recluses who wish to attain entire sanctification). The compiler of Mahavamsa being a Bhikkhu of the Theravada fraternity, had obviously, interpreted the Dhutangas practiced by the King in Theravada ideology. The more likely circumstance is that that the King practiced the Mahayanist rituals described in Sukhavati-vyuha and other Mahayana texts. The conclusion to be reached is that Kassapa had not lived like Kuvera in the magnificent Alakamanda but spent time practicing austere practices whether of the Mahayanic nature or of the Theravada school.

I went beyond Raja de Silva’s scientifically argued evidence to show that Sigiriya was no palace, nor fortress but a Mahayanic establishment. What more evidence does one need to show that Sigiriya is but a human creation of the concept of Mahayanic idea of Sukhavati, the abode of Buddha (Bodhisatva) Amitabha who resides on the calyx of a lotus flower attended by the two Bodhisatvas - Avalokitesvara and Mahasthama? He would finally come out to hear the Dhamma from the former.

Females throwing flowers

Here again one should read the GSV:37 where it is said : ‘’ ……… they consider in many ways that they should worship (Buddhas) with such and such flowers, incense, lamps, scents, garlands, ornaments……….,; and so on and as they have considered this, there arise on their hands such materials for every kind of worship. And while performing worship of the Buddhas with those materials, beginning with flowers and ending with musical instruments, they lay up for themselves much immeasurable merits. Again, if they wish that such handfuls of flowers should be produced on their hands, then such handfuls of heavenly flowers, of different colours, of different scents, are produced on their hands as soon as thought of….They shower again such handfuls of flowers upon those blessed Buddhas. And the very smallest handful, being thrown on high, appears above in the sky as an umbrella of flowers ten ‘yojanas’ in circumference. And when the second has been thrown after it, the first does not fall down on the earth. …………………….."

The joyous world of Sukhavati cannot be without its female component. There is reference in the text to numerous Apsaras in Sukhavati heaven who dance (No 23) ; and of seven times seven thousand Apsaras who surround the residents of the joyous world of Sukhavati.

Doesn’t the above description of flower sprinkling which I have quoted only a part give a better explanation of the presence of females above the ‘clouds’ than any explanation offered so far? I would not, however, on that account go to dismiss Dr.Raja de Silva’s theses that the females represent the Taras, the consorts of Avalokitesvara.

Mahayana practice in the 5th century

No seriousness could be attached to Dr.Siri Gunasinghe’s contention which he submits in an attempt to dismiss the Mahayana- monastery theory over Sigiriya that there was no serious Mahayana influence in Sri Lanka in the 5th century to which period Sigiriya is originally ascribed. One is, in fact, surprised at this contention coming from a serious scholar and art critic like him. Even a simple look at Dr.S. Paranavitana’s article on Mahayanism in Ceylon published in the Journal of Science when this scholarly genius was yet an Assistant in the Department of Archaeology would show the fallacy of the argument. There are far more detailed studies on Mahayanism in Sri Lanka since Dr. Paranavitana wrote. Mahavamsa itself bears evidence of the serious threat to orthodox Theravada school in the time of King Mahasena which resulted in the complete destruction of Mahavihara and the Bhikkus abandoning the place. Even the story of Mahavamsa ended with that destruction but was later picked up around the 11th century when the Buddhist centre of gravity had moved to Polonnaruva.

That part of the Mahavamsa is full of references to image worship and the story of Kassapa itself refers to an Abhiseka-Jina which Dr.Paranavitana erroneously (or was it purposely?) interpreted as a statue of Jesus Christ ignoring the Hindu/Mahayana practice of anointing/consecrating images. As I have argued elsewhere, Kassapa’s refusal to allow Commander Migara to organize a ceremony for the image of ‘Abhiseka-jina’ which surpassed that offered to "Sila-sambuddha" (considered a reference to the stone Buddha statue now at Abhayagiri complex removed from Mahavihara by Mahasena), was not because Migara was a Christian as Dr. Paranavitana suggested, but because the king did not wish to antagonize anymore the Mahavihara which deplored his act of patricide and refused to accept the offer of the monastery of Bodhi-Uppalavanna built by him. Migara accomplished his wish after he became a turn-coat and side with Mugalan giving away security secrets. For the present, Dr.Gunasinghe’s thesis has been adequately met by Raja de Silva. A more detailed deconstruction could be presented on another occasion.

Sigiriya Museum

Gamini Weerakoon refers to Raja de Silva not being invited to the opening ceremony of the Japanese-gifted Sigiriya Museum. He points out the services he rendered throughout his career in the Archaelogical Department in studying the paintings and taking measures to preserve them and how he had saved the paintings except two which were badly destroyed after vandalistic attack in the 1960s even before the international expert Dr. Maranzi arrived. On a second such attack I contacted Dr. Maranzi through the good offices of UNESCO on which occasion the Italian expert said there was little left for him to do as Raja de Silva had done a perfect job. Raja de Silva’s services should have been recognized as it was due to his efforts, as Gamini says, that the frescoes were saved for posterity and to earn tourist dollars. He writes:

"That was 42 years ago, when Rajah De Silva was declared the "savior" of the nation. But a few weeks ago his fellow archaeologists and historians did not even care to extend an invitation card to the opening of the multi-billion rupee (courtesy of the Japanese government) Sigiriya Museum."

Was Raja de Silva ignored because he presented a different theses from that presented by the palace-theory propagated by Dr. Senanaka Bandaranayake school for the lure of the tourist dollar? Or is there a deeper conspiracy to erase Sigiriya’s Buddhist heritage? This is a question that should be raised at national level. The country should know who were invited to the function and who were not.

The treatment meted out to Dr. Raja de Silva is not surprising. The Cultural Triangle authorities formerly directed by [ Dr] Roland Silva completely down graded my role in transferring the Tourism Triangle Project originally proposed by UNESCO (Bolla Plan of 1965) into a cultural project and getting it adopted as a major International project, later upgraded to a World Heritage Projects when I functioned as one of he Vice-Presidents of the World Heritage Committee.

Writing in the publication "UNESCO Cultural Triangle Project" published in 1990, Roland Silva claimed that he and Dr. Guruge were the two wizards who opened the floodgates of UNESCO for the Cultural Triangle Project and concocted their mythical contribution. This publication with falsified information has been re-printed at the expense of the Central Cultural Fund and is on sale even today. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe under D.B.Wijetunge administration was right. He was of the view that the project had helped people to go places. He wanted the projects closed up except the Kandy World Heritage project. Two people benefited most from it. Mr. Laksman Jayakody as former Minister of Cultural Affairs too realized it later!

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