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The "Cloud Maidens" Of Sigiriya


"Sweet girl, standing on the mountain, your teeth are like jewels, lighting the lotus of your eyes.

Talk to me gently of your heart…

Who is not happy when he sees those rosy palms, rounded shoulders, gold necklaces, copper-hued lips and long, long eyes." - Graffito, Sigiriya Mirror Wall, c. 800 AD

The rock fortress of Sigiriya rises abruptly from the surrounding plains of north-central Sri Lanka, dominating the country for miles around. A massive monolith of red stone, so sheer that the top overhangs the vertical walls on all four sides, it looms 349 metres (1,144 ft) above sea level and 180 metres (600 ft) above the surrounding scrub and jungle.

All but impregnable to surprise attack and even sustained siege, there are indications that aboriginal hunters first inhabited the great rock more than two millennia ago. It was not until the fifth century AD, however, that Sigiriya entered briefly into a golden age as the seat of Sinhalese power in mediaeval Sri Lanka. The story surrounding this blossoming has been described by the historian Zeylanicus as ‘a barbaric tale of vindictive passion, romantic beauty and superhuman endeavour without parallel in the bloodstained annals of Lanka'. Certainly as the lovely, tear-shaped island enters the 21st century still wracked by a bloody and intractable civil war, it bears relating again.

The Parricide King

In 459 AD Dhatusena, a Sinhalese of noble birth, defeated his Tamil rivals and established a new capital at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka's north-west. His eldest son, Kasyapa, was born soon after to a minor queen. Subsequently the chief queen bore him another son, Mogallana, who was held to be the legitimate heir by virtue of his mother's superior rank. Needless to say this sat badly with Kasyapa who, in 477, seized the throne by force and walled up his father alive. Meanwhile Mogallana, fearing for his life, fled into exile in the Tamil realm of south India.

Thereafter Kasyapa is said to have felt remorse for his ruthless deed, though it is equally probable his actions were driven by fear of his brother's return. Whatever the case, almost as soon as he had seized the throne the parricide began fortifying the massive outcrop at Sigiriya, building a splendid palace atop the great megalith. Here he ruled for eleven years. Even today it is easy to imagine him, sitting on the smooth stone known as the king's throne, admiring the elaborate gardens constructed on the plain below whilst simultaneously scanning the horizon uneasily for his foe.

His fears proved far from groundless. In 495 Mogallana, backed by Tamil forces, returned in search of revenge. Unwisely, Kasyapa descended from his lofty perch to meet the invaders, directing the advance of his soldiers from elephant back. Soon the great beast became separated from the bulk of the army and Kasyapa, isolated and in despair, committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat. Flushed with victory, Mogallana proclaimed himself king and transferred the capital back to Anuradhapura, leaving the rock fortress of Sigiriya to the wild beasts, the jungle, and an obscure order of cave-dwelling monks.

The Fortress Rediscovered

So matters remained for almost a millennium and a half as rival Sinhalese and Tamil dynasties vied for control over the interior, while the coast fell under European dominion – first Portuguese, then Dutch, and from 1796 the British. In 1815 the latter extended their rule to Kandy and the interior of the island. Just 16 years later, in April 1831, a certain Major Forbes of the Indian Army reported the “rediscovery” of the great rock during the course of his explorations, though an ascent to the long-abandoned summit was too dangerous to contemplate.

Sigiriya remained inaccessible, but it was no longer forgotten and soon began to attract a small flow of curious Western visitors. Perhaps the most significant of these was the Buddhist scholar T.W. Rhys Davids who, in 1875, was startled to see half-hidden frescoes of beautiful women when scanning the rock with his telescope. Who had painted these images – and indeed, how, since they were concealed beneath a giddy overhang half-way up the precipitous west face – remained a mystery until 1889 when Alick Murray, a British engineer on service in Sri Lanka, went to extraordinary lengths to reach them.

In the face of stiff opposition from the local Buddhist monks, Murray employed Tamil stonemasons to cut a series of holes in the rock face into which iron rings were painstakingly cemented. A wood-and-bamboo ladder was lashed to these precarious holds, and by this rickety structure Murray finally gained access to the overhang. Not that this meant he could relax, for ‘even when the rock chamber was reached, the slope of the floor was so steep that no one could sit on it'. A narrow platform was therefore lashed to the rock by means of more iron stanchions, and here the intrepid Murray lay for more than a week, ‘notwithstanding a fierce wind which shook the woodwork in the most alarming manner', while making drawings of the mysterious frescoes.

Following this ascent Sigiriya's long centuries of isolation were at an end. In 1895 the great rock came under the investigation of H.C.P. Bell, the first Archaeological Commissioner for Ceylon. Bell's pioneering work soon suggested that the solitary megalith was Kasyapa's long-lost fortress, a conclusion put beyond doubt when in 1898 he uncovered two enormous stone lion paws on a platform halfway up the otherwise sheer north face. These are all that remain of a massive brick-and-stucco lion that once guarded the rock, between whose paws access to the final giddy ascent was made. As Bell deduced, the rock's name derives from this awesome guardian figure – Sinhagiri, the “Lion Rock”.

Under Bell and his successors the work of excavation proceeded apace. A narrow, precipitous path leading to the Lion Platform was cleared, and a three metre (10 ft) high wall erected by Kasyapa as a balustrade was exposed. This structure, coated with an incredibly smooth glaze and incised with hundreds of age-old graffiti, is known as the “Mirror Wall”. Far above it, and still quite inaccessible, the gorgeous frescoes remained chaste and tantalisingly out of reach – a situation which persisted until October, 1938, when the Archaeological Commission erected a vertiginous spiral staircase to the overhang, making the maidens accessible to the general public for the first time ever.

On closer inspection the frescoes, executed in tempera on the rock face, were adjudged to date from around the time of Kasyapa. Exquisitely painted in brilliant colours, they are strongly reminiscent of contemporaneous Gupta cave paintings at Ajanta near Bombay. They are apparently secular in character, and having no obvious religious significance are generally considered to be representations of the beauties in Kasyapa's court. An inscription on the nearby Mirror Wall speaks of “Five Hundred Golden Ones”, but at the time of their rediscovery only 22 survived. Some, loosely designated viju-lata or “lightning princesses”, are light-skinned: whilst others, known as megha-lata or “cloud maidens”, are of darker hue. 

The forms of these celestial maidens rise above delicate clouds at waist level. They are elaborately bejewelled and their ample breasts are barely concealed by diaphanous gauze garments. Some hold flowers or trays of flowers in their hands. They are extremely sensuous – a quality readily noticed which has aroused conflicting emotions in visitors to Sigiriya down the years. Thus, a male admirer incising his thoughts on the Mirror Wall a thousand years ago was moved to write:

"The ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon to me. Now I have seen these resplendent ladies, heaven has lost its appeal for me."

A contemporary female, clearly less enamoured with the frescoes, records different, if equally passionate emotions:

"A deer-eyed maiden of the mountain side arouses anger in my mind. In her hand she holds a string or pearls, and in her eyes she assumes rivalry with me."

This worldly sensuality may explain early damage to the Sigiriya nymphs, for it is speculated that disapproving Buddhist monks may have destroyed those frescoes within reach long centuries before Alick Murray's daring ascent. Certainly misplaced puritanism seems the most likely explanation of a vicious night attack during October, 1967, when all but one of the surviving frescoes were daubed and disfigured with paint by persons unknown. So serious was the damage that specialists had to be called in from Italy to restore the frescoes, which are now officially recognised as a national treasure and protected as a part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Unfortunately during the attack three of the maidens were damaged beyond repair, so security at the Lion Rock is pretty tight today. Flash photography is forbidden, and guards are permanently on hand to keep an eye on visitors. It's quite a climb to the Mirror Wall, and an ascent of the vertigo-inducing spiral staircase, completely clad in rusting steel mesh and now in serious need of restoration or replacement, is not for the faint-hearted. The reward is well worth the effort, however – and when at last you stand, catching your breath and marvelling at the cloud maidens, spare a thought for the enthusiastic foolhardiness of Mr Alick Murray, not to mention that of the intrepid artists, clearly inspired by visions of celestial beauty, as they clung to their precarious perch so many centuries ago!


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley, Chaweewan Chuchuay, Rainer Krack & Pictures From History - © CPA Media