NEW BOOK : Enlightening New Insights of Sigiriya and Kasyapa | Sunday Observer

NEW BOOK : Enlightening New Insights of Sigiriya and Kasyapa

Senani Ponnamperuma’s beautifully written and illustrated book, ‘The Story of Sigiriya’, is a fascinating insight into Sigiriya that took me as a reader, into a vivid world of stunning perspectives and picturesque descriptions. The book balances fact with storytelling and is full of poetic imagery.

I couldn’t help but devour the spellbinding story told through the author’s eloquent prose about the ancient royal compound of Sigiriya and the King who built it. Highly recommended, The Story of Sigiriya is definitely not a dry academic account of Sigiriya. Instead, it is a vivid historic narrative of a brilliant but tormented King who, out of the wilderness, constructed the most exquisite example of ancient Sri Lankan art and architecture.

My head swirled as the author revealed, with masterful storytelling, the tragic and luminous tale of royal intrigue, an ill-starred monarch, and the opulence of his royal court. Such epic descriptions are bound to mesmerize any reader into becoming part of the story.

Dramatic backstory

For example, I felt like I was dancing with the ladies of the King’s harem when Ponnamperuma delved into a colourful, flowing description of their rich attire—bright dhotis, ornate jewellry, and exquisite coiffure and makeup. I also found myself imagining their stoic faces as they tried not to wince as a delicate three-ringed tattoo was etched across their necks—as talisman—a sign of their prided place as the ladies of the king’s household. Details such as these seemed especially joyous and colourful in contrast with the dark truths of envy, violence, and a king’s unquenchable need for redemption, that are also vital pieces of this story. All of these pictorial details in the book opened the floodgates of my imagination, providing me with a vivid imagery of events in a place and time in a long forgotten era.

The Story of Sigiriya is based on Ponnamperuma’s extensive first-hand research, as well as his careful analysis of the ancient chronicles such as, the Culavamsa and a plethora of other credible sources. The book’s vividly striking photographs add an extraordinary flair that harmoniously illustrate his text.

Through the author’s narrative, the story unfolds in two parts. The first part tells the dramatic backstory of how Sigiriya came to be, including a detailed description of how it was built, its abandonment and its epic rediscovery in 1831. The second part speaks mostly of the site’s existence nowadays, providing prospective and detail on the interesting artifacts, such as, the Sigiriya Frescoes and the Sky Palace. The appendices provide a thorough account of how the Sigiriya Frescoes were painted and how the Mirror Wall was built.

Ponnamperuma first unfolds the tragic, complex tale of turmoil among the royal family of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. He tells the story of the characters, without fear of exposing their epic flaws, as well as their triumphs. King Dhatusena (460–478 AD) had been a precocious child, whom the Culavamsa says, was surrounded by good omens that foretold greatness; unfortunately, a violent, cruel decision by him sent his legacy into a downward spiral, as two of his own embittered family members conspired against him. After Dhatusena is overthrown by his illegitimate son and his nephew, readers are sent on a journey that makes them empathetic of the son, the new king, Kasyapa (478–496 AD). Imagine a man riddled with guilt after ordering the death of his father— he is desperate for redemption, yet nonetheless thirsty for a rich legacy. This is Kasyapa—a character of epic proportions, for whom, as a reader, I had a conglomeration of empathy, fear, and wonderment.

The geolocation of Kasyapa’s Sigiriya itself was dangerous. Ponnamperuma describes the deadly wild elephants, leopards, and poisonous snakes that inhabited the place that Kasyapa chose for his citadel. Ponnamperuma also touches on how the natural environment of the place was stunning—a monumental two hundred metre solid rock towered over the surrounding plain.

In these pages the reader is sent on another whirlwind of imagery of stunning contrasts. Ponnamperuma explains that within such a place, Kasyapa built a grand palace to emulate Alamakanda – the city of the gods.

Downfall of two monarchs

Thanks to Ponnamperuma’s detailed analysis, we discover for the first time that the real culprit in this sad tale is not the hapless Kasyapa, but instead, his cousin—the duplicitous Migara who orchestrated the downfall of two monarchs. You will be hooked on the suspense of each detail Ponnamperuma reveals, especially, during the final moments that ultimately lead to Kasyapa’s death and the abandonment of Sigiriya.

Ponnamperuma’s affinity for Sigiriya is obvious throughout the entire book, including the section where he describes the visible remains of the royal compound today. Less than twenty percent of the structures that had once been the foundation of the royal compound remain in place today, but the second half of the book describes plenty of ancient structures that remain intact, such as, the Pavilion Gardens. Other features that Ponnamperuma tenderly describes to readers are, the ruins of a lion staircase, rubble on top of the enormous summit, and the fresco paintings that Ponnamperuma describes as, “simply a celebration of beauty.”

At the beginning of the book the author provided some cultural parallels of other historic events occurring at the time the story of Sigiriya was unfolding in Sri Lanka.

Buddhism in China

Such global events included the Golden Age of India, the founding of the city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, and the emergence of Buddhism in China. Ponnamperuma notes, however, that most of the world during this time “lay in cultural slumber.” When I read this, I closed my eyes and pictured a dark, spinning globe with only discreet lights shining on the aforementioned places. When I finished the book, I envisioned the same globe, imagining Sigiriya lit up in bejewelled gold. The images of the godlike palace were stuck in my head, and I was left in awe, pondering over just how creative the Anuradhapura Kingdom and the people of Sigiriya’s story were. Perhaps, the best summary of the book’s main purpose was explicitly described at the beginning of the book, when Ponnamperuma stated that the book, “attempts to visualize Kasyapa’s Sigiriya and how he would most likely have liked his story told.” Ponnamperuma’s measured, illuminating narration of Kasyapa’s story is not only keen, but also worthy of being cherished as an enlightening experience for readers.

This “must read” book makes a well versed companion for the informed traveller, amateur historian or keen expatriate wanting to know the real story of Sigiriya. 

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