Siri Gunasinghe’s Sigiriya, Kassapa’s Homage to Beauty
After the text of my monograph on Sigiriya Paintings was prepared for the press, a book has been published by Siri Gunasinghe [SG] (2008) titled Sigiriya:Kassapa’s Homage to Beauty (SKHB). The author seeks to make the following points against my views.
(1) That Kassapa built a palace at Sigiriya, and was the patron for the paintings. This is in opposition to the subject of my recent book (2002) titled Sigiriya and its Significance (S&S). A Mahayana-Theravada Buddhist monastery.
(2) That the paintings do not represent the goddess Tara - the interpretation given by me in the book mentioned above - but that they depict nondescript beautiful women.
SG does not adopt the usual mode of archaeological/art criticism studies, which involves the presentation of the evidence followed by the conclusion, but states his assertions at the outset and seeks, occasionally, to justify it by giving his supporting "evidence". Several illustrations are given below and their merits/demerits discussed.
1. "Kassapa’s Palace at Sigiriya"
This is what SG says about Sigiriya and Kassapa:
"... the solitary rock on top of which King Kassapa 1 (478 - 496) chose to build his palace in the sky ...".
SKHB p. I
Imbued with the notion of a palace atop Sigiriya, SG has not thought it necessary to substantiate it. He is hard put to refute my arguments (de Silva 2002) against a palace and therefore, adopts a facile solution by ignoring them altogether.
It is not understandable how he has disregarded all that has been written by me to show the great improbability - from the literary record and the archaeological findings - of Kassapa having built a palace at Sigiriya.
2. "Sigiriya not a Mahayana Buddhist monastery"
With regard to the question posed by SG (p. 2) as to "what Sigiriya was or what purpose it was meant to serve", he later (p. 43) briefly refers to previous interpretations; also to mine in the following words:
"There is also the view that -it was a Mahayana monastery. In the absence of verifiable supporting evidence, none of these theories are tenable".
"Similarly untenable is the view advanced by Raja de Silva in his otherwise commendable study -of Sigiriya that it was the location of a Mahayana monastery".
SG uses a subtle ploy in seeking to reject (not refute) my interpretation. He attributes to me what I have not said; then he rejects the attributed statement on the grounds of an absence of verifiable evidence. Finally, he rejects my interpretation. SG attributes to me the view that Sigiriya was a Mahayana monastery. Nowhere have I said such a thing. What I did say was:
"All these literary records indicate that Buddhist viharas existed on and around the Sigiriya rock before, during, and after the rule of Kassapa 1; also that Dhatusena, Kassapa and Moggallana were patrons of Theravada Buddhism leaning towards the Mahayana form (i.e., the Dhammarucis) which prevailed at Sigiriya (Hirakawa 1990 & NOTE 2).
S&S P. 10.
With reference to the viharas existing there from before Kassapa’s time, SG is mindful of my statement that "Kassapa would not have bitten the hand that fed him", and that he would not have built a palace at Sigiriya. I stated:
"It would certainly have endangered the situation of Kassapa had he attempted to build a splendid palace on the summit, i.e., at a higher level than the monastic buildings on the terrace of the lion-staircase house, and the monasteries on the escarpment and at ground level below".
S&S p. 13.
SG states that:
"There was a monastic establishment in Sigiriya before (emphasis mine) Kassapa commenced work on his palace complex...
SKHB p. 3 4.
But, SG is unable to explain the existence of monasteries at Sigiriya at the time that Kassapa is -alleged to have started his work. So, he adopts an ingenious method of surmounting the problem: he sends "a plague on both their houses" (as Shakespeare later said) and causes the monasteries (i.e., at least the pre-existing Dalha and Dathakondanna viharas) to be abandoned. Give ear to what he says:
"It is possible, for reasons we cannot now know, the monks had abandoned the monastery by that time".
That is why (SG suggests), the Mhv. stated that Kassapa cleared the area; "to prepare the site for his city". Apart from the fact that the Mhv. mentions no city due to Kassapa, SG glosses over the greater probability that Kassapa may have cleared the area (if in fact he did so) for the stated purpose of building his donatory vihara in the names of his two daughters, Bodhi and Uppalavanna.
SG (SKHB p. 44) in attempting to show that there was no Mahayanist influence in Sigiriya, states:
"as noted earlier, there is no recorded evidence of any Mahayana presence in Lanka before or during Kassapa’s reign".
Furthermore, he states that Dhammarucis were not a sect at had Mahayanist persuasions. This is what he has to say, without any substantiation, about the Dhammarucis and the Sagalikas.
"The Dhammarucika and Sagalika monks are sometimes assumed to have been followers of Mahayana. They were just dissident Theravadins who broke away from the Mahavihara fraternity on account of differences of opinion on matters of discipline rather than of doctrine".
SKHB p. 44
SG’s suppositions mentioned in the book are made revolving round the reign of Kassapa 1, a mere 18 years of the 14 centuries long known period of Sigiriya’s monastic existence (cave shrines of the 3rd century BC to the 12th century AC, when Parakramabahu I undertook restoration work there). However, his opinion that there was no Mahayana presence in the Island before Kassapa has no foundation, as will be shown below.
SG is blind to the literary sources quoted by me in S&S, p. 10 Mahayana- Theravada viharas: Hirakawa (1990, NOTES 1 & 2 about dhammarucis), and Heinz Bechert (1976) on the Mahayana presence in early Sri Lanka. They did not comprise (1) dissident Theravadin Mahavihara monks who (2) broke away from the Mahavihara for any reason. The Dhammarucis were a coterie of doctrinally different monks (followers of the Vaitulya-vada, a Mahayanist doctrine, about which more below) headed by Dhammaruci thera who came with his followers from Pallavaram in South India direct to the Abhayagiri vihara. They would certainly have included the dissident Mahavihara monks who had earlier left the Mahavihara with Bahalamassutissa after his teacher Mahatissa was expelled on disciplinary grounds (Mhv. ch. 33, v.97).
If SG had read the literature on the Buddhist sects (Dhammarucis, Sagaliyas, Vaitulyas) in Sri Lanka, such as the sourcebook, Nikayasangrahawa (CM Fernando 1908), or other books on the history of Buddhism such as Adikaram (1946), Ven, Walpola Rahula (1956), the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (vol. 4 & NOTE), John Still’s Index to the Mahavamsa (Raja de Silva 2002 & NOTE), all of which are freely available in libraries, he could have avoided making the suppositions as quoted above. Contrary to SG’s assertion of an absence of early Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka, quoted above, it would suffice to quote my old Chief, Senerat Paranavitana (1928, p. 36) who stated:
"It was in the reign of Voharika Tissa (ca. AD 263 - 285) that the Vaitulyas (or Mahayanists, as we may call them) became powerful or numerous enough to attract the attention of the Mahavihara monks; and they were for the time being I suppressed. There is hardly any reason to question the identity of the Vaitulyas with the Mahayanists".
According to the Nikayasangrahawa, there were four occasions when the popularity, of the Vaitulyas with the kings rose to appreciable levels - it waxed and waned as the moon - and it was in the fourth year of the reign of Parakramabahu I (1153 - 1186) that the Dhammarucis, Sagaliyas and the Vaitulyas who were long active against the Mahavihara were expelled; the Abhayagiri vihara (p. 22), the seat of the Vaitulyas and Dhammarucis, was reconciled with or united with the Mahavihara.
3. "Kassapa created Sigiriya"
SG makes the following assertion:
"There is one proposition about Sigiriya that can be accepted without much argumentation, and that is that Sigiriya was a pleasant environment that was created expressly for Kassapa’s delectation. Kassapa’s strong aesthetic disposition is evident all over Sigiriya".
SKHB p. 44
This is a dogma unaccompanied, before or after its pronouncement, by any basis for it. It is based on an insecure foundation which is the belief in the Mhv. story of a palace built by Kassapa in Sigiriya, a story that I have shown to be most Improbable (S&S pp 12 - 30)
The sole "evidence" relied upon by SG as the basis for the chimera of a palace at Sigiriya is the Mhv. part 2, the ecclesiastical chronicle of the dominant Buddhist church, the Mahavihara, which is dated to a time about 700 years later than the events that are said to have happened in Kassapa’s time. This Mhv. was earlier shown by me (S&S pp. 5 - 7) to be unreliable in its commentary on secular matters; SG himself has expressed doubt about the veracity of several secular matters related therein; but he has shown unquestioning faith in the Mhv. story of Kassapa’s palace at Sigiriya. His mind is made up, and he does not want to be confused by the literary, archaeological and circumstantial evidence to the contrary, provided by me.
SG is of the view that the paintings
"are only pictures of beautiful women, and just that".
- SKHB p. 73
SG is reluctant to concede that the Kandalama painting is of a Tara, nor does he suggest that it depicts any other personality at that Buddhist cave shrine. Furthermore, the date attributed to the painting is stated as follows:
"The figure has been tentatively dated to between the fifth and the eighth centuries, but, in terms of the overall appearance, the shape of the face and the general expression, she should be dated, if not in the Polonnaruva period, at least, close to it, and cannot be viewed as evidence of the presence of the cult of Tara before or during the time when Sigiriya was under construction".
SKHB p. 72
We are not told by SG who has so "tentatively" dated the Kandalama Tara. Senake Bandaranayake (Sunday Observer of 18.10.1998, col. 4) has given the date as between ca. 5th to 7th century. The only possible explanation for the strange departure by SG in now assigning a very late h.i.e., Polonnaruva period date is not difficult to understand: if it can be shown that the Kandalama Tara is later than the fifth century reign of Kassapa, then SG can seek to convince his readers that Tara worship was unknown before the time of this king; and therefore that the Sigiriya Paintings cannot depict Tara.
The difference between SG’s thinking and mine on the subject of the Sigiriya paintings in general and Tara in particular should be made clear here. I have., after giving good reasons, dated the paintings to "sometime after the beginning of the sixth century AC, ..." (S&S pp. 107-115.
SG has (giving no reasons) dated the paintings to the patronage of Kassapa I (AC 478-496). My reference to the Kandalama Tara and NOTE thereon are to be found in the section on Bibliography, below, under de Silva RH (1953) [S&S p. 133], where I have mentioned that it is one of the earliest paintings in the country when considered from the point of view of the technique of painting. This is on account of its material technology which is of the earliest type, preceding even Sigiriya where the lime ground that is laid over the clay layer is of An appreciable thickness: This earliest technique (as obtains at Kandalama) is reflected in the Vinaya (de Silva 2005 p. 191) and in the Ajanta paintings (ferruginous clay plaster with admixed vegetable fibres, superposed by an egg-shell thin layer of final lime ground).
Furthermore, regarding the shape of the face of the Kandalama Tara, SG must know that the oval or round or squarish features that an artist may endow a face with are subjective criteria depending on the features of the model that he envisioned at the time of painting. It cannot be used for relative dating of a painting as he is seeking to do.
The existence of the earlier (ca. fourth/fifth century) Tara at Kandalama is not relevant to my identification of the sixth century Sigiriya females as Taras. However, the find of a Tara near Sigiriya datable to a period before the fifth century would lend verisimilitude to the interpretation that the later (towards the mid-sixth century) Tara-like figures at Sigiriya are in fact Taras; and this would be a thorn in the flesh of SGs non acceptance of Taras there.
Like several others before him, SG unconditionally surrenders Sigiriya to Kassapa (dated AC 478-496) and (dis)credits the royal patron with having had hundreds of paintings of beautiful ladies of his court prominently painted in a Buddhist monastic complex - a site where Kassapa had admittedly donated a vihara and uyana to the sangha.
With reference to my identification of the paintings as Taras, SG states:
"That view of Taras, however, could only be validated if these figures adhere to the proper ichnography of Tara as stipulated by the requirements of the Mahayana praxis".
- SKHB p. 44
This is precisely what I have done: I have spent pages 90 to 108 in S&S giving detailed reasons why the ichnography of Tara is identical with the gestures, postures, attributes, and complexions of the Sigiriya paintings, and reasonably concluded that they were paintings of Tara. SG has not written a word of comment to support or refute these conclusions. This is the only way he can foist on the reader his view that the Sigiriya beauties were nondescript females depicted for the delectation of Kassapa.
SG’s text (as I have shown in this review) is crawling with assertions which are unsupported by reference to sources or evidence, thereby obliging us to conclude that these are nothing more than his- own as a homage to Kassapa, is a flimsy tissue of untenable conjectures.