WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Mahavamsa, Mahavihara and Mahayana

The D. T. Devendra Memorial Lecture -1998 by Dr. Raja de Silva, Retired Archaeological Commissioner

(Source: Daily News - May 1998)

Before exploring the triangle within the three angles of the Mahavamsa, Mahavihara and Mahayana, may I speak a few words about Mr. D. T. Devendra.

Mr. Devendra was one year senior to me in the Archaeological Department, so I can say that I am his oldest colleague. I was then junior in years and looked up to him as a benevolent uncle whose character was admirable: upright in every sense of the word - "probus", as the Romans had it - possessed of a fund of knowledge and wisdom both of which assets he was ever ready to give me the benefit of; soft spoken, unruffled in any awkward situation, and an exemplary public officer. Mr. Devendra was in my view primarily a gentleman of scholarship, and he had taught me much of books and men.

I propose to assume the role of lecturer-guide and take you on a tour of the triangle that confines me. Each of the gateways (Mahavamsa, Mahavihara, Mahayana) is so large that I can do no more than describe the main features and then go on to consider the view of a few ancient sites within the triangle, the most important of which is Sigiriya. This, no doubt was the intention of Tissa Devendra when he proposed the title of my talk.

As the outset may I share with you a piece of advice by the Buddha, and recorded in a Mahayana work known as the Jinanasara-samuccaya.

"As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words after examination of them and not merely our of regard for me".

If the Buddha had exhorted his disciples not to accept even his words without examining them, how much more would he have commended us not to accept the words of the Sangha without examining them to see if they are reasonable. I propose to spend quite some time in sharing with you my thoughts and findings of just that: what the Sangha had to say about Kassapa I. And Sigiriya.


The gateway of the Mahavamsa stands at the apex of our triangle. From its name which means Great Lineage, everyone here knows that it is a history of this island, a chronicle. Let us take a closer look at it.

The most important work of Sinhala origin but written in Pali verse is the Mahavamsa. This compilation was in several parts written in different centuries by various authors who had as their sources the ancient commentaries known as the atthakatha. There were many atthakathas prepared by the dwellers of the Mahavihara (Great Monastery) in Anuradhapura. There existed an earlier Mahavamsa in Sinhala known as the Sinhala-attakatha-Mahavamsa, which was the source of the Pali Mahavamsa written by the thera Mahanama in the 6th century AC, in the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura.

The atthakatha, the general term used to refer to these ancient commentaries, were compilations maintained through the centuries till they took their final form containing material of historical interest up to the time of Kind Mahasena (4th century AC.) It may be taken that the atthakatha were compiled almost contemporaneously with the events they relate and handed down orally in the Mahavihara till the 1st century BC, when they were first placed on record together with the Pali Buddhist canonical works at Aluvihara.

From then on, the various atthakatha would have been recorded in the Mahavihara, and in other viharas too such as the Abhayagiri vihara. The Mahavamsa is largely a historical record of Buddhism and the relationships of our kings with the Buddha sasana or Buddhist church maintained by the Mahavihara.

There are several parts to Mahavamsa, the first of which ended with chapter 37 and King Mahasena. The second part continues the chronicle up to and including the rule of Parakkamabahu 1. (1153 - 1186) and was reputed to have been written at the beginning of the 13th century AC, by the monk known as Dhammakitti probably in Polonnaruwa. This part ends with chapter 79. The next part of the Mahavamsa takes up from chapter 80 to chapter 90 concluding with the story of King Parakkamabahu IV in 1333 or thereabouts.

This short description of the Mahavamsa would not be complete for our purposes without a reference to an important Pali text which is the commentary on the Mahavamsa and known as the Mahavamsa-Atthakatha. It is titled the Vamsathappakasini and popularly known as the Tika of the Mahavamsa. The work is datable from internal evidence to a period after 7th century AC (Dathopatisssa 11, 659-667) and more particularly to the time of the Chola occupation of the early 11th century.


The second gateway to our triangle is the Mahavihara. This was the first and largest monastery set up in Anuradhapura in the royal garden south of the city walls and known as the Mahamegha Gardens, by King Devanampitytissa (3-7 - 267 BC) for the purpose of settling Mahinda thera and his companions who had arrived from India to officially introduce Buddhism in the country. It is the Mahavihara tradition that exists to this day. The Mahavamsa was the chronicle of this monastery. In general, the Mahvihara enjoyed the patronage of kings during its long history.

The Mahvihara upheld the doctrines which were claimed to be the true teachings of the Buddha and were called the doctrines of the theras or the Theravada.

The first great setback to the peaceful existence of the Mahavihara, the capital Anuradhapura and indeed the whole country was a great peril followed by a famine which lasted for 12 years. This was called the Brahmanatissa Peril. Tamil usurpers ruled in Anuradhapura, and Vattagamani Abhaya (1st cen. BC.) went into exile for 14 years. There arose the first schism in the Mahavihara after King Vattagamani Abhaya founded the Abhayagiri Vihara in the northern part of Anuradhapura and handed it to the thera Mahatissa who had supported him in his adversity.

Mahatissa was expelled by the Mahavihara and soon after that he left the Mahavihara with a large number of bhikkhus (500 are mentioned) and went to reside in the Abhayagiri Vihara. The King supported the new vihara and there was antagonism between the two monasteries.

After a few years certain events took place that resulted in the appearance of the first dissenting school of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the complete separation of the Abhayagiri from the Mahavihara. There came a few monks from South India to the Abhayagiri bringing with them new religious doctrines, pupils of the thera Dhammaruci who belonged to a sect called the Vajji-puttas. Mahatissa there (jnr) took the name of Dhammaruci and thereafter the Abhayagiri monks were called Dhammarucis. During the reign of Vattagamani Abhaya, when doctrinal differences were afoot, the Mahavihara had the oral Buddhist canonical works and their commentaries put to writing.

In the time of King Voharika-tissa (214 - 236) there appeared yet another new school of Buddhist thought known as Vaitulyavada (Vailpulya, Vidantavada, Vetullavada) which were considered heretical by the king's advisers such as the Minister of Justice Kapila. The king's intervention in the doctrinal dispute between the Mahavihara and the Abhayagiri Vihara, which accepted the new Mahayanist ideas, resulted in the Vaitulya books being burnt and the Vaitulyavadins being disgraced. The Vaitulya has been described as the "bodhisattva-pitaka" and their books extol Mahayana gods and goddesses.

King Gothabhaya (253 - 266 AC.) who was a supporter of the Mahavihara eyed the activities of the Vaitulyavadins of the Abhayagiri Vihara just as Voharika-tissa did. But before he took action against them there was another sect at the Abhayagiri called the Sagaliyas who held heterodox views, who feared the repetition of sanctions against the Vaitulyavadins, and who left the Abhayagiri Vihara and took up residence in the Dhakkhinagiri Vihara not far from Sigiriya. A couple of decades later the Sagaliyas opposed the Mahavihara. Gothabhaya burnt the Vaitulya books and banished to India 60 Vaitulya monks.

King Gothabhaya had two sons, Jettha-tissa and Mahasena, who were entrusted to the tutelage of an Indian monk from the Chola country called Sanghamitta who was partial to the Vaitulyavada and ill-disposed towards the Mahavihara which suffered immensely as a result. The Mahavihara monks abandoned the monastery and went to Ruhuna, and the Abhayagiri Vihara became enriched at the expense of the Mahavihara, and the king fast became unpopular.

A civil war was averted by Mahasena agreeing to atone for his misdeeds against the Mahavihara; and the monks returned from their refuge in the South after the Mahavihara was rebuilt in recompense. Sanghamitta was assassinated.

But Mahasena was to really reconciled with the Mahavihara. A monk called Kohan-tissa of the Dakkhinarama prevailed upon the King to build a rival monastery to the Mahavihara within its premises. This was done in the garden known as the Jotivana (grove of light) which is but another name for the Nandana Garden south of the City walls, hallowed as the site where the first Buddhist discourse was delivered in Anuradhapura. The monk Tissa of the Sagaliya sect was appointed in charge of the new monastery, the Jetavanarama, which was independent of the Mahavihara and doctrinally opposed to it.

In the time of King Parakkamabahu 1 (1153-1186) the unification of the three nikayas ie. Mahavihara, Abhayagiri, Jetavana was effected and the Aahavihara continued as the sole great Buddhist monastery in the island.


The third gateway of the triangle I am considering is the Mahayana about which we are least informed thanks to the dominating influence of the Mahavihara for almost two thousand years. Unlike the Mahavamsa and the Mahavihara already considered, the Mahayana is abstract, it is a concept, it is a part of the Buddhist religion. There were in the early centuries of the development of Buddhism, the Great Ship and the Little Ship to ferry Buddhists across the great ocean to enlightenment or freedom. Hence the term Mahayana popularly translated as the Great Vehicle in contrast to the Small Vehicle which was called, in an uncomplimentary manner, the Hinayana. The meaning of the term Mahayana is faintly indicated in its name: it has greater horizons, it is more liberal and expansive in several ways than the Hinayana form of buddhism which is more felicitously called the Theravada or teaching of the elders. I propose to briefly consider the characteristics of the Mahayana, keeping in mind the influence of its many dimensions on archaeology.

A distinguishing feature of Theravada Buddhism is the emphasis on directing our efforts by thought, word and action to an acquisition of merit towards our own salvation. In Mahayana Buddhism, however, there is offered to the common people the good news of the existence of a large number of gods and goddesses, saviours, whose chief desire is the amelioration of the sufferings of the people in this very life to start with.

Kassapa and Sigiriya

Ever since Archaeological Commissioner H. C. P. Bell commenced field work in Sigiriya in 1895, archaeologists, art historians and other scholars have based their studies on this ancient site on the few references to Kassapa 1 (AC 479-497) and Sigiriya made by the compiler of a part of the Mahavamsa, the chronicle of the Mahavihara (orthodox Buddhist church). As a result, they have, with an exception or two in the German Swamy Gauribala (1970) and A. H. Mirando (1986) taken the monumental and pictorial remains of the vast Sigiriya complex to have been the works of Kassapa 1 in his capital; woks of a secular rather than of a religious nature.

I propose to examine the story of Kassapa 1 and Sigiriya published by writers of repute in the light of the Mahavamsa that has been the cornerstone of their theories. If the foundation is solid, the superstructure would stand; if on shifting sand, it would collapse. My observations are presented here to enable you to judge for yourself.

The second part of the Mahavamsa (also known as the Culavamsa in modern times) dealing with the reigns of King Dhatusena and his sons Kassapa 1 and Moggalana 1 was compiled, no doubt from earlier source material, by the thera Dhammakitti, probably in Polonnaruwa, in the 13th century. Thus this work is some seven centuries later in date than the events it records. Furthermore, the author of the relevant Mahavamsa belonged to the Mahavihara which had by this time suppressed its rival sects and evidently did not consider Kassapa I, the parricide, as a favourite patron of the Theravada Buddhist tradition which was centred in the Mahavihara. Thus the truth about Kassapa I was likely to have even misrepresented or blurred by the suppression of facts which unpalatable to the Mahavihara monks. It is reasonable, therefore, to be wary about taking literally, and as "gospel" truth, the whole Mahavamsa account of Kassapa I. And Sigiriya, to the extent of believing (without other corroborative evidence) that the works to be seen there today are those of Kassapa.

The credibility of the Mahavamsa regarding this period of our history will be examined first; then will follow conclusions to be drawn from the archaeological evidence.

Can the Mahavihara compiler of the second part of the Mahavamsa be taken as an impartial chronicler of events that took place seven hundred years before his time, particularly concerning his views on kings and their secular activities? Let us consider, here the drama of King Dhatusena, the Princes Kassapa and Moggallana, and General Migara as recorded in the Mahavamsa. King Dhatusena was the grandson of Dhatusena of the Moriya clan, the owner of a house. Fearing the door-keeper Subha who became king, Dhatusena Snr., with others of his clan fled the city. Young Dhatusena became a monk temporarily, then gave up his robes to engage in politics, killed three Tamil kings and rose to kingship.

As a bachelor Dhatusena consorted with a woman of unequal caste who bore him a son, Kassapa. Dhatusena had a second son born to a woman of his same caste, and he was called Moggallana. The kings's extended family consisted of his sister and her son Migara, the two princes Kassapa and Moggalana, and a beautiful daughter. No mention is made of the mothers of the two princes. Migara was appointed army commander, and given the hand of the daughter on whom he doted.

One day, General Migara, incensed by some unmentioned misdemeanour on his wife's part, horse-whipped his wife till she bled. King Dhatusena, flew into a rage and inexplicably, ordered his sister, Migara's mother, to be burnt naked at the stake. This woman, who was made to suffer such a horrendous end even though she was blameless, was the aunt of Prince Kassapa. Migara, in his hatred for the King, was able to win Kassapa's sympathy to accomplish a palace coup. Dhatusena was imprisoned and later executed by being manacled, fettered, and immured with clay in a wall. The chronicle states that Dhatusena, who had enjoyed the goodwill of the Mahavihara, went to the king of the gods (i.e. heaven) on his death.

The epithets used by the Mahavamsa compiler to describe the kings and their secular activities disclose his prejudices and partialities, and provide sidelights on the chronicler himself and his establishment, the Mahavihara. He describes the murderous Dhatusena as an excellent king, but Kassapa who metes out due punishment to him is called "wicked". Moggallana, the younger brother of Kassapa 1, who rose in arms against him, is called "mighty". How, then can the Mahavamsa compiler be taken as an impartial, objective, chronicler of seven hundred year old secular events? Archaeologists have unreservedly based their theories of Kassapa and Sigiriya on the unreliable underpinning of this Mahavihara Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa account referred to above is given below and examined critically.


The "wicked" Kassapa having failed in his bid to have Moggallana assassinated by two ill-chosen agents, his groom and his cook, sought refuge in Sihagiri (Sigiriya) which was difficult of access for human beings. He cleared the environs, surrounded "it" with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion, from which fact it received the name (Sinha: lion). Kassapa stored his treasures in Sigiriya guarded by his men. Kassapa built there a fine palace and took up his residence "like the god Kuvera".

Gardens and viharas

In Anuradhapura, Kassapa 1: laid out gardens and built (restored) viharas (eg. Issarasamana Vihara) and named this new vihara after himself and his two daughters Bodhi and Uppalavanna. This endowment was in the present Vessagiriya premises.

In Sigiriya, near the Rock (referred to as a mountain) Kassapa built a vihara in the already existing garden known as the Niyyanti Garden, and named this vihara too after his daughters. This vihara and a garden to the north of it were granted by Kassapa to the Dhammaruci sect. Kassapa became religious and he made images and built many alms halls. Kassapa's army chief, General Migara, also made religious endowments in Sigiriya: a parivena and an image house for the Buddha statue known as the Abhiseka Buddha, evidently a Mahayana statue which we should conclude according to the working of the chronicle, was an image that existed in Sigiriya before the arrival of Kassapa.


In Kassapa's battle with Moggalana, both "set forth" with an army each but we are not told where their respective headquarters were; the King would have set out from his capital and Moggallana would have approached it intent on war. However, Moggallana was reported to have collected his troops at the Kuthari Vihara in the Ambatthakola District. The place of battle is not mentioned but the suicide of King Kassapa when he sensed defeat is recorded. Moggallana, now King, came to the city (i.e. the capital, Anuradhapura) with the regalia. Moggallanas subsequent actions vis-a-vis Sigiriya, as recorded in the Mahavamsa are given below.

Non-Theravada viharas

Two viharas existed on Sigiriya even before the time of Kassapa 1 and they were named the Dalha and the Dathakondanna respectively. The chronicle which had earlier given the name of a vihara built in Sigiriya by Kassapa (i.e. Kassapa-boodhi-Uppalavanna vihara) has not stated that this king founded these two viharas. However, his successor Moggallana I was recorded to have handed these two viharas to the adherents of the Dhammaruci and the Sagaliya schools; sects which had leanings towards the Abhayagiri and the Dakkhinagiri (i.e. the present Kaludiyapokuna monastery near Sigiriya) viharas respectively.

This information in the Mahavamsa is followed by the statement that the Pabbata-vihara (Vihara on the mountain) which Moggallana I had built was granted to Mahanama thera of the Dighasana vihara. This new vihara was most probably on Sigiriya hill which was earlier referred to in the chronicle by the term "mountain". In fact, Paranavitana placed the Pabbata-vihara in Sigiriya when he stated that the rock of Sigiriya, converted into a monastery, was granted by Moggallana I to the Elder named Mahanama of the Dighasana Vihara. All these literary records indicate that Buddhist viharas existed on and around Sigiriya rock immediately before, during, and after Kassapa's time.


Kassapa's works as recorded in the Mahavamsa may now be considered while keeping in mind that the 13th century compiler of the chronicle and/or his sources considered this king to have been a "wicked ruler" and were prejudiced against him. It is noted that the building activities attributed to Kassapa in Sigiriya were a surrounding wall, a fine palace on the summit of the Rock, a lion-staircase house a vihara. There is no mention in the chronicle of the numerous other imposing structures to be seen in Sigiriya which is the greatest monumental complex in Sri Lanka. Nowhere else in the Mahavamsa was so little written about so much.

The chronicle does not state where in Sigiriya the surrounding wall was built. Was it on the summit of the rock or at the boundary of the surrounding area below the main rock on the southern, western and northern sides? Or on the eastern side?, Let us consider the possibilities: On the summit of the great rock, there is clear evidence that a boundary wall once rose from the slope below the edge on almost the total periphery of the rock; serried rock-cut ledges remain to betoken the support for the rising wall similar to the ledges on which the brickwork of the mirror wall of the gallery was set. Regardless of where Kassapa had built a surrounding wall in Sigiriya, the purpose for such a construction was not started, nor does it entitle one to conclude that it was for defensive or security purposes connected with his own safety.

(a) Sima

A surrounding wall marking the precincts was an essential part of every Buddhist vihara and was well defined under the name of sima (boundary). The presence of boundary ramparts and preceding moats are in fact an inevitable feature of a type of Buddhist monastery sited at an elevation and know as a pabbata-vihara. A study of this type of ancient Sinhala monastic architecture was recnetly made by Marasinghe (1985). There are several existing examples of such viharas in the country and the Dakkhinagiri vihara which has prominent ramparts as its sima is the closest example to Sigiriya. It is possible that the surrounding wall said to have been built by Kassapa was in reality the sima of a vihara.

(b) Lion-staircase house

The King could well have built this staircase to enable devotees too reach the summit where a crowning vihara (a veritable pabbata-vihara) was to be sited. It is an archaeological fact that the summits of hills and mountains were devoted to the building of temple and Buddhist viharas.

"Palace" theory

All past Archaeological Commissioners, and several other scholars who have studied the archaeology of Sigiriya have hitherto accepted the theory that the summit of the great rock was the site of the palace of Kassapa I. I propose to consider the reasonability of this assertion and its implications.

The 13th century Mahavamsa (second part) requires us to conclude that Kassapa, the parricide, seeks refuge in Sigiriya in the late 5th century. This vast site was at that time a flourishing monastic complex, not a desolate and uninhabited jungle from which rose a wooded hill. Archaeological evidence leads to the conclusion that from the 2nd century BC the Western and Northern escarpments below the great rock were replete with cave shrines and cells for monks. Buddha statues were excavated in two of these caves which were thus image houses from ancient times.

How plausible is the "splendid palace on the summit" story of the medieval compiler of the Mahavamsa? Literally in keeping with the tisarana invocation "sangham saranam gacchami" (I go to the sangha for refuge). Kassapa emulates a former king Saddhatissa (137 to 119 BC) who is remembered as having sought refuge (as a prince) from attack by his brother Dutthgamani by going to the sanctuary of a vihara. Attention was drawn by Conze (1993), the well-known Buddhist scholar, that it was the king's duty to protect the Order of the monks, and that great benefits accrued to the monasteries in the form of donations, prestige and royal protection from interference.

The vihara is the depository of the images of the Buddha, the books of the dhamma, and is the sanctuary of the sangha. As Ven. Prof. Dhammavihari (1991) has stated "A Buddhist could hold no other object or veneration above the tisarana or apart from them", and that a Buddhist gives undivided and unswerving loyalty to this tripartite institution.

Therefore, it would have been unthinkable for a Buddhist King, particularly in such adverse circumstances as Kassapa was placed, to have interfered with the Sigiriya viharas and acted in any way prejudicial to the well-being of the Sangha members therein; which would certainly have been the case if Kassapa had attempted to build a splendid palace on the summit, at a higher level than all the monasteries on the escarpment and at ground level below. Nor would Kassapa have placed his soldiery anywhere within the sima marked by the ramparts. On the contrary, the king, court, army and the people would have supported the Buddha sasana there, as Kassapa did.

He would not have bitten the hand that fed him, as is implied by the story of Sigiriya not only of the late Mahavamsa compiler but also of modern scholars who have not thought of this great monastic complex in a Buddhistic way. The king could well have further protected the viharas from possible attack by his enemies by strengthening the sima on the western side, and building outside it other ramparts of brick and of earth. His soldiers may have camped in the intervening space between the main sima on the southern, western and northern sides and the outermost rampart of earth. Further, the vast eastern area (hundreds of acres of which are still to be excavated) beyond the rock could have served secular purposes and housed the entourage of the kind as well, when the royal party was sojourning in Sigiriya during the course of building operations there.

It is responsible to conclude from the foregoing critical look at the medieval Mahavamsa compiler's references that the story of a palace on the summit of Sigiriya cannot be taken as true. Archaeological evidence too will be considered in the sequel which would support this conclusion.

To recapitulate, it is unlikely that any building works of Kassapa of a religious nature devoted to the cause of Mahayanist Buddhism, which was considered unorthodox and rival to the Mahavihara, would have received any eulogy in the Mahavamsa.

The truth regarding the summit was not mentioned in the chronicle because the idea of giving any prominence to non-theravada Buddhist activities would not have appealed to the compiler of the Mahavamsa. It would have been more convenient to obliterate the memory of Kassapa's support of rival Mahayanist sects by "converting" his religious endowments (particularly on the summit) to secular and palatial constructions in the chronicle that was compiled many centuries later. The gap of seven centuries between the events at Sigiriya and their alleged recording at the hands of the Mahavamsa compiler would have added to the facility of misrepresenting the truth "for the serene joy and emotion of the pious", the stated purpose of the chronicle.

Archaeological evidence

I propose to consider now the archaeological record to enable one to understand better the meaning of the monuments of Sigiriya.

Bell excavated the whole of the summit, roughly oval in plan, to uncover the architectural and other structural remains there about three and a half acres in extent. He reported at least two periods of superposed building construction in several places, and a maximum of five periods in the gardens uncovered in the eastern half of the summit. The summit slopes down from the North and (where we gain access to it) to the South and from the Western side to the East.

The whole of this area was put to use for architectural and other constructional purposes. Aficionados of the "palace on the summit" theory have taken the summit in general to be the site of the whole palace of Kassapa and a part of his pleasure gardens, the greater part being taken as sited down below at ground level in the western area (Bell, 1897; Coomaraswamy, 1985; Paranavithana, 1956; Bandaranayake, 1993).

(a) "Palace" on topmost terrace

At the highest level on the western side towards the north end was excavated a rectangular terrace retained by brickwork and walled (43 ft x 24 ft) with steps leading on and into it from the long eastern and western sides. It is paved round the periphery with limestone slabs and the pavement is bordered by the remains of a thick brick wall. This enclosed terrace has been accepted without question by the scholars mentioned above as the palace of Kassapa I. Let us have a closer look at it.

There are no chambers or evidence of any walls within the terrace, no lavatory facilities, no stone pillars, no stone bases (koravakgal) for any long-lost timber pillars, no "holes" for stone or timber pillars in the four peripheral walls; and no roof tiles or fragments of them were reported by Bell who listed the type of finds from his summit excavations, notable among which was a reliquary.

Archaeology, however, required evidence for a tiled roof and supporting pillars to conclude that a palace or any other major building once existed at the site. Bell needed for his theory the existence of a palace on the summit, so he assumed that the pillars would have been of timber and that the roof would have been covered with flat tiles of the Anuradhapura type.

Paradoxically, Bell reported that the Sigirya summit was the scene of monsoon driving wind "resembling a gale". The blinding dust followed by torrential rains necessitated the annual suspension of field work in the month of May. Sigiriya was also affected by the North East monsoon from mid-October till the end of January. How, then, could any tiled roof have withstood such monsoon winds and rainfall on the summit?

The large stone asana which will be referred to below was the only structure which had evidence of a roof or canopy; this was sheltered by the rising rock wall and brickwork revetment upon it which was the backdrop to the asana. The alternate type of roof would have been the annually renewable thatch (pol-athu, cadjan) as in the pannasala of ancient times. After three descending terraces to the southern direction, there is another similar walled platform (54 ft x 18 ft) to which steps lead up from the eastern side. Further, at the south end of the summit there is a rock-cut well or cistern.

"Apartments" and "Throne"

Bell excavated several brick-lined enclosures by the western edge as well as on the eastern side of the summit, and he described these as spacious rooms separated by passages paved with quartz (actually limestone) slabs. Here too there was no evidence of roofing.

At the lower level eastern half of the summit, by one of the enclosures marked by brick walls, at the base of the central ridge separating the eastern and western parts of the summit, Bell excavated a large rock-cut asana with fine basal mouldings (described as a "throne" by writers on Sigiriya). This was situated in the south eastern direction more than one hundred feet away from, and at a much lower level than, the topmost enclosed platform referred to earlier which has been described as Kassapa's palace.

Post holes, square in plan, were found out in the rock for the setting of wooden pillars to support a canopy in the form of a lean-to roof abutting the vertically rising rock behind the asana. This position of the roofed asana is to the leeward of the central ridge which thereby provided shelter from the strong monsoon winds.

This structure is only the final part of the approach from the northern direction to the summit of the Sigiriya rock. Even if it be accepted that Kassapa had built this particular part of the several stairways that led to the summit, it does not necessarily follow that he did this construction for the secular purpose of gaining access to a palace to be built there.

Pokuna and gardens

Further southwards from the enclosure at the foot of the asana, towards the middle of the summit, beyond a couple of enclosures, there is a large roughly rectangular (90 ft. x 68 ft.) rock-cut pokuna(bath, pond) with rock-hewn steps leading down to it from the west and from the north. On the southern and eastern edges this reservoir is paved with limestone slabs and confined by thick brick walls.

Lower still to the south, there are several long narrow rectangular ambulatories with brick walls and connecting flights of steps cut of limestone. Bordering this walk are little ornamental brick square enclosures, probably for flowering plants. Descending further to the south, one enters a rectangular enclosure within which are five small brick lined 'flower beds", the central one being circular and the four corner beds square in plan. Another rock-cut cistern was exposed at the south end of the summit.


To the north-west of the topmost cloistered platform at the highest level of the summit there was a dagoba of modest dimensions which was first reported on by the earliest modern visitors there, two Civil Servants John Bailey and A. Y. Adams, accompanied by G. Wijeyekoon, the latter's clerk. They climbed to the summit on 23 September 1853 and of the Bailey impressions of this perilous adventure make interesting reading (Orientalist, 189, 178). Wijeyekoon's account of the exploration was also published (Monthly Literary Register, 1895,p.) and the existence of the dagoba is confirmed therein. During my period of office, the dagoba continued to exist at the site, and it was marked by stout sticks planted around it. It was referred to by me in the Siyavasa 69 Education Centenary Volume and in the 'Guide to Sigiriya.'

Bandaranayake (1993) is the latest exponent of the theory that the Sigiriya summit holds the palace and pleasure garden of Kassapa I which is there for everyone who makes the climb to marvel at. This theory, which is based on a single late religious literary tradition, is beset with chronological/archaeological questions that the learned Professor does not appear to have considered. It what we see today on the summit, particularly the several gardens, are taken to be 5th/6th century works of Kassapa.1 (as the world is exhorted to believe with written and photographic encouragement in the above-mentioned UNESCO publication), which kings before kassapa 1 were responsible for the four different periods of building activity at the lower levels of the same buildings in this very garden? Elsewhere on the summit, where Bell reported generally two periods/levels of building activity on the same building, who was the royal patron who undertook the original (and lower level of) building work at the same spot?

Archaeological evidence is forthcoming to date a number of buildings on the summit (as well as on the escarpment on the western side and in the western area at ground level). There is to be seen a course of ornamental brickwork with bevelled edges separated on from the other by spaces, and known architecturally as dentils. This form of brick is to be found at the site of Buddhagama ( modern Menikdena) and old monastery not far from Dambulla. The dentils in the brickwork at this site could be dated to about the 12th/13th century. The building with dentils at Sigiriya on the summit is associated with "wingstones" or "balustrades" of brick and stucoon which are reminiscent of those belonging to the 12th century in Polonnaruwa (Palace of Parakramabuhu 1) The Central Cultural Fund Laboratory had dated by thermoluminescence brick work from the western gardens to the 12th - 13th century (personal information from the CCF).

The archaeological record requires us to conclude that (1) the buildings in the so called pleasure gardens on the summit that are to be seen today cannot be attributed to Kassapa 1 regardless of the purpose for which they were built. (2) There is only one level of building reported by Bell at the rectangular platform at the topmost terrace (i.e. west side, northern area); the so-called palace (i.e. this platform) bears no evidence of having been a dwelling or any other tiled-roof building. It was an enclosed platform not unlike a cloister found in early Christian monasteries. (3) These same considerations apply to the "apartments" and "spacious rooms" invoked by Bell on the western and eastern sides of the summit.

If they did have roofs, no evidence has survived for their ancient existence. (4) The aforesaid buildings are more likely to have been meditation platform and pirivena or kuti for meditating monks of a pabbata-vihara in which a dagoba was also situated. (5) The several gardens with their paved pathways and broad walks adorned with flowering plants were the ideal setting for monks to perambulate in meditation (cankamana). There was a plentiful supply of drinking water and a large reservoir of water for ceremonial/ritual washing of their bodies and for bathing.

There was a dagoba representative of the Buddha for the monks and devotees to pay their reverence to. The accumulation of all these possibilities make it reasonable for us to conclude that the summit of Sigiriya rock was devoted to an aesthetically designed Buddhist vihara of the Mahayana persuasion.

(B) "Boulder Garden" on the western escarpment

The western and northern escarpments from ground level up to the Sigiriya rock have several terraces across which approach strairways lead up from these two directions. Numerous large boulders which shelter over a score of caves are fronted by some of these terraces which are suited for meditation walks of Buddhist monks. Two of these caves were prepared by early Buddhists as image houses (two Buddha statues of limestone were excavated), and half the number of caves on the escarpment bear benefactory inscriptions of the earliest Brahmi script recording their offering to the Sangha.

Several of the caves bear the remnants of wall and ceiling paintings of female divinities and floral and other vegetal motifs. A limestone torso of a female deity and numerous terracotta statuettes of female figures similar to the well-known paintings were found in the area of these cave shrines. The top surfaces of the boulders were prepared for the construction of buildings by the cutting of innumerable ledges and grooves. These buildings would have served the purposes of the cave viharas at the same sites.


There are four low-level stone asanas with chastely moulded plinths found in the early excavations in the western escarpment within and outside the caves mentioned above. One asana (in cave No.3B14) is of a different type being higher in level. The low-level asanas in the garden of the cave shrines would probably have serve as dhammasanas, i.e. seats for monks engaged in preaching the Dhamma; also for purposes of meditation while in the seated posture. The rules of monastic discipline forbid monks to use seats higher than eight inches. The high-level asana in the cave shrine might have been used for the offering of flowers and incense.

Dagoba and Vatadage

Towards the south part of the lowest terrace on the western escarpment, Bell (1899) excavated a dagoba and a vatadage (circular shrine). This circular shrine was re-excavated by Bandaranayake (1983) and then described as a circular bodhi-tree shrine (bodigara) of a period after Kassapa 1. At a level on the escarpment higher than that of the Cobra Hood cave, another small dagoba was excavated by me in front of cave No. B 16.

Superposed phases of building activity have been uncovered testifying to the occupation of the monasteries founded on the escarpment from about the 2nd century BC for over a thousand years into the second millennium. This is in accord with the literary record and the epigraphical evidence (Bell, ASCAR 1897, 13) relating to monastic donations to the Sangha before, during, and after the period of Kassapa 1 (5th/6th century AC) up to about the 10th century.

The escarpment, notwithstanding the plethora of cave shrines and ancillary Buddhist remains referred to above, has been publicised by Bandaranayake (1993) as a "boulder garden" and a "terrace garden", a part of what is considered by him as the 5th century royal pleasure gardens.

Disbandment of monasteries

Bandaranayake's theory of the escarpment having been the site of a royal pleasure garden of the 5th century must entail (for its acceptance) the disbandment by Kassapa 1 of the monasteries that had existed there for many centuries. I reiterate that no Buddhist king would have done such a disservice to Buddhism; especially Kassapa 1 the acknowledged donor of Buddhist viharas at Sigiriya. The viharas on the escarpment cannot be identified at present. Among the possibilities are the Dalha and the Dathakondanna viharas which were in existence before the time of Kassapa 1.

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