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Defacing of Sigiri Frescoes

Sigiriya is one of the Sri Lanka’s main cultural centers. Today, it is considered one of the eight wonders of the world. During King Kashyapa’s reign it was a place of safety. He was the seventieth king of Sri Lanka. Its beautiful breath- taking, majestic view, architecture, buildings, lakes, reservoirs, moats and springs and paintings of Apsaras, Vijjulathas, Meghalathas, added more colour to this great historical site.

The heartfelt inner feelings of the visitors were recorded in the "Mirror Wall". Professor

Senerath Paranavitana, archaeologist, deciphered 685 poems in his masterpiece,SIGIRI GRAFFITI. Dr. Paranavitane was one of the most brilliant, outstanding personalities that adorned Sri Lanka in the 20th century. Sigiriya and Paranavitane are inseparable. Paranavitane was a veritable gold-mine of knowledge. The villagers loved him. They believed that whenever Paranavitane visited Sigiriya he brought rain.

One of the poems written in the "Mirror Wall" depicts that Sigiriya’s splendour was known world over, even at that time, because of these beautiful frescoes.

Si rajue yasasa Sri

Tubu mulu lov Patiri

Nilupulasun Asiri

alumo Sihigiri

(Sigiri Graffiti- Poem 205)

(We witnessed at Sigiriya, the king of lions, whose fame and splendour remain "Spread in the whole World" and the wonderful damsels with eye resembling blue lilies).

I was a graduate teacher attached to Sigiriya Vidyalaya in the late 1960s. The harsh climate of the dry zone was such, even the wind did not have a cooling effect on the body, although huge towering trees grew in abundance in the environment of the Sigiriya rock fortress. The hot sand was like burning charcoal. It reminded me of what we read in "Vannupatha Jatakaya" –"Kihinagurk" which emanated unbearable heat to the atmosphere.

On October 14, 1967, the sun gradually spread its rays across the mist- laden landscape, covering the majestic Sigiriya rock. I got off to school at about 7.15 a.m. A student of Sigiriya Vidyalaya, came racing on his bicycle, alighted, and uttered these heart- rending words:

"Sir, last night, someone daubed paint over the Sigiri frescoes. Some of the frescoes where destroyed and damaged beyond repair."

I was dumbfounded for a moment. Accompanied with some students, I immediately climbed Sigiriya, and went up the spiral ladder. At the door step, I met Mr. Nugegoda, Assistant Archeological Commissioner.

"Mr. Epasinghe, this is a heinous crime. About 15 beautiful Sigiriya frescoes were daubed with lacquer paint and disfigured. Two or three paintings were completely damaged, probably with some iron- rods" stated heart- broken Nugegoda.

I was the first outsider to see this brutal crime. This can be considered the most barbaric, very wicked crime or act recorded in the cultural history of the world in the 20th century. Many foreign visitors, whom I have met at the Sigiriya Rest House, were of the view Sigiriya frescoes surpass the beauty of Ajantha and Vellore paintings. They also stated they witnessed the most fantastic, beautiful sight in the world, from the summit of the Sigiriya rock.

During my university days, I worked as a "Stringer" attached to Lake House. I knew the "Defacing of Sigiriya Frescoes" was international news. I gave this "Scoop-Story" exclusively to the Lake House Group of papers. There were no mobile phones at that time, so I booked a trunk-call through Dambulla post office from Sigiriya Rest House. Within about 10 minutes I got through to Dinamina News Editor, the late U. L. D. Chandratilaka. He recognized my voice. I read out from a piece of paper, I had scribbled on, relating to the defacing of the Sigiriya frescoes.

Chandratilaka, with excitement shouted:

"Wette, Wette Epa on line. He says last night Sigiriya Frescoes were destroyed."

I spoke to the late Dharmapala Wettasinghe and the late Cecil Graham, the highly respected editors of the Dinamina and the Daily News, respectively. They thanked me profusely in transmitting the news. I suggested to them to send a staff reporter and a photographer immediately.

The following day, my story hit the headlines, in the Dinamina, Thinakaran and the Daily News. SIGIRIYA VINASI, SIGIRIYA DESTROYED. Dayasena Gunasinghe, photographer, our beloved Wally Perera, "Wally uncle", arrived at Sigiriya Rest House around 6.45 p.m. We went into action the following day. Early in the morning we climbed Sigiriya. First we were not allowed to climb the spiral ladder. I spoke to Nugegoda, requested permission to get into the "Pocket", where the tragedy took place.

"Only thing you are not allowed to take any photographs" stated Nugegoda.

Daya and I, entrusted the job to be tackled by Wally Perera. Rolly-Poly, Wally Uncle, spoke to Nugegoda politely.

"Sir, you cannot hide this. It’s international news. We have to break the news to the world" stated Wally Perera.

After a long discussion, we won the day. Wally Perera, photographed the tragedy. Daya and 1, interviewed the watchers, labourers and some of villagers, near the frescoes’ Pocket and spiral ladder.

Most of the innocent villagers stated that during Dr. Paranavitana’s period, Sigiriya frescoes were guarded day and night. During the time of this tragedy there were no guards or watchers, on duty, at night.

Sigiriya, was bubbling with activities. The police officers were everywhere. Many government officers, from Kandy, Matale, Naula, Dambulla flocked to Sigiriya. The hurly burly, Joseph Gaffoor, the tough police officer, was seen at Sigiriya. He was a notable figure in the investigations. He was seen questioning the guards, watchers and some villagers.

Three of us, arrived at Lake House in about three hours. Ariyaratne, our driver was more like a Grand Prix champion driver. On arrival, Dharmapala Wettasinghe and Cecil Graham instructed me to meet Dr. Paranavithana for a statement immediately. I proceeded to Raymond Road, Nugegoda and met Dr. Paranavitana.

"Epasinghe, I looked after and protected the frescoes like my own eye. It was one of the greatest treasures of our proud nation. As the Commissioner of Archaeology, I kept guard, watchers on duty day and night." Although feeble, this great man, heart- broken with tears in the eyes quipped: - "SIGIRIYA REKA BALAGATTE MAGE ASE DEKA VAGAI"

Sigiriya was neglected and covered with shrub jungle, from the 19th century. It was rediscovered by an Englishman- army officer Forbes. A British national Rhys Davis, who was a civil servant, was the first to discover the frescoes in the Sigiriya rock. He once mentioned this in a lecture delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society in England. Alick Murray, an Englishman who worked in this country, was the first to climb the Plaster Wall ("Mirror Wall").

Rain- giver

As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Paranavitana was considered the "Rain- giver". Still the old people who worked under Dr. Paranavitana, in Sigiriya, consider this great man as a God-"Paranavitana Deviyo."

The government of Sri Lanka with the assistance of UNESCO invited an Italian expert, Lusiano Maranzi, to repair this cultural damage. It must be mentioned here the Assistant Commissioner of Archaeology, Dr. Raja De Silva, the great archaeologist, scientist, author of "Sigiriya Paintings", a valuable book, was the first to commence the repair work on the damaged and disfigured Sigiriya paintings. Thanks to this great man and Italian expert Maranzi, we are fortunate today to see again the smiling faces of Vijiukethas, Megalathes and Apsaras, the damsels proceeding to the nearby Pidurangala temple.

Prophets are not honored in their own country.

I read an article, which appeared in The Island dated October 3, written by Bandu de Silva, where there was a quote referring to an article written by reputed journalist, former editor of The Island newspaper, Gamini Weerakoon, where he states the "Savior"of the most valuable Apsaraas or Sigiriya frescoes, Dr. Raja De Silva did not receive an invitation card for the opening ceremony of the multi- billion rupees project. (Courtesy of the Japanese Government)

If it was so, I presume, the higher authorities should take up this matter and see, why Dr. De Silva was not extended an invitation.

Sometimes, prophets are not honoured in their own country. If this was the case, I presume even Dr. Senarath Paranavitane, if he was living, sometimes would have not received an invitation. Have they forgotten history? The study of past events, especially political, social and economic development of a country, can be defined in a nut-shell, as history. The nation that forgets the past has no future.

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