National Geographic : 1946 Nov
Sigiriya, "A Fortress in the Sky" BY WILSON K. NORTON * With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author OUR GROUP had just returned from a series of combat photographic missions in China and the Arakan region of Burma. After the hardships of the fight ing front, the security and comfort of Head quarters in Ceylon were a welcome change. Before we had time to unpack our belongings, however, orders came through that we were to cover training activities in Trincomalee, in northeast Ceylon. This type of assignment was considered a form of rest. It was still early afternoon when we aban doned the comfort of the Colombo-Trincoma lee highway at Inamalawa to drive our jeeps six miles off our course to the historical monu ment of Sigiriya. We thought the trip from Inamalawa to Sigiriya would be easy, but little did we sus pect the effects of the recent monsoon rains. Several times we had to stop to retrieve our baggage, which bounced off as we hit a deep rut or a sharp turn. There were far too many of both. First Glimpse of the Lofty Fortress Our anticipation heightened as we caught occasional glimpses of Sigiriya rising impos ingly out of the surrounding jungle. We arrived at the resthouse about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The cordial innkeeper escorted us to our rooms. Our veranda gave us an unbroken view of this extraordinary rock which rises a sheer 400 feet from the sea of emerald jungle at its base (page 670). We could not have arrived at a better hour. Though the western sun had dropped low enough to leave the distance between our van tage point and Sigiriya in shadow, it crashed full upon the face of the citadel, causing the red granite to stand out in sharp relief against the dark streaks. The black curved lines on the surface etched by the monsoon rains of many centuries em phasized the overhanging or mushroom effect of this gigantic geological freak. The innkeeper interrupted our ejaculations of delight. "This way is good," he said, pointing to the sky, "but tonight is the moon." After dinner we learned what he meant. The white tropical moon spotlighted the side of Sigiriya eerily against the darkness of the jungle below and the sky behind.t Guests familiar with the history of Sigiriya told us its story. They made frequent refer- ence to the Mahavamsa, or Great Chronicle, which had been begun by the Buddhist priest Mahanama, relative of the royal family, who had been an eyewitness of some of the events he described. Tales of Revenge, Patricide, and Fear Sigiriya was the fortress of King Kasyapa I, who sought refuge there after brutally murder ing his father, King Dhatu Sena. During his youth Dhatu Sena lived in re tirement because of the supremacy of Tamil conquerors from India, who were in power between A. D. 434 and 459. He studied under Mahanama, his uncle, for the priesthood, but upon reaching manhood he abandoned the life of contemplation to wrest his land from the alien rulers and recover the throne. Dhatu Sena succeeded in routing the Tamils and re-established peace. He restored the old religion to its former pre-eminence. The nobles who during the Tamils' rule had formed alliance with the usurpers were reduced to serfs on their own land. All those who had remained loyal, he re warded generously. He founded hospitals and monasteries, restored and redecorated religious edifices, and constructed reservoirs, which were sorely needed. Much of his large store of jewels went for the readornment of statues that had been desecrated by the Tamils. One of the outstanding accomplishments of Dhatu Sena was the construction of the great "tank" of Kalawewa, or Black Reservoir, three miles from Kekirawa. This huge irriga tion lake of more than 4,000 acres, now partly restored, is a feat which commands the respect of modern engineers. The embankment built by Dhatu Sena was about six miles long, 60 feet high, and 20 feet wide at the top, with a spill 260 feet long and 200 feet wide. The old spill still exists, and a modern spill covers a wide breach. Today there is a two-lane paved highway on top of the embankment. Although Dhatu Sena was a good ruler and did much for the welfare of the kingdom, he * The author was a member of the Field Photo graphic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services. Capt. John Ford, USNR, of motion-picture fame, or ganized and commanded this branch of Maj. Gen. "Wild Bill" Donovan's famous organization. The author was in charge of OSS photographic operations in southeastern Asia, India, and Burma. t See "Archaeology in the Air," by Eliza R. Scid more, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1907.