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Sigiriya narratives : tellers of stories, writers of histories - 

(Excerpts of a talk given by Prof. Gananath Obeysekera at the Gratiaen Awards presentation event held on June 1, 2002)



According to the Mahavamsa, Kasyapa I, in fear of his brother, fled to the great rock of Sigiriya. “He cleared the land round about, surrounded it with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion.” Hence the name of the rock: Sigiriya, Sinhagiri, Sihagiri, meaning “the lion rock” perhaps having the extended meaning of “the lion city.”

It is in the spirit of someone crossing academic disciplines that I speak here to question conventional notions of history, story-telling and myth, blurring these boundaries, so to speak, by juxtaposing the account of the reigns of Dhatusena and his descendants with information collected by me and my research assistant L. A. D. Tissa Kumara from contemporary villagers in and around Sigiriya during the year 1987.

the classic narration

Let me begin with the classic narration of Sigiriya in chapter 38 of the Mahavamsa entitled "The Ten Kings" dealing with the reign of Dhatusena followed by the next chapter on "The Two Kings" which is about Kasyapa and Mugalan (Mogallana). Chapter 40 is missing, the only one in all of the one hundred chapters that constitute the three Mahavamsa texts. The first ten couplets of chapter 38 deal with the takeover of Anuradhapura by Tamil rulers and the emergence on the scene of Dhatusena, son of an ordinary householder belonging to the Maurya (Moriya or "peacock") clan. This is followed by a very interesting story about the early life of Dhatusena (couplets 11-28). It says that a certain householder, Dathanama of the Maurya clan had two sons, Dhatusena and Silatissabodhi, by a woman of the same caste.

The next fifty couplets deal with Dhatusena vanquishing the Tamils and assuming the kingship of Sri Lanka. The greatest importance is given to his good works. He constructed eighteen irrigation reservoirs (misleadingly labelled "tanks"), built eighteen temples, had hospitals for the sick and the lame, restored the integrity of the Buddhist monkhood, and instituted a variety of religious festivals. The king's greatest achievement was the construction of the great reservoir, the well-known Kalaveva. After the good deeds of the king are scrupulously listed in some detail, the text reverts back to story in couplets 80-115, such as the following.

Dhatusena had two sons, Kassapa (Kasyapa), by a mother of unequal birth, and the mighty Mugalan, by a mother of equal caste, and also a charming daughter, who was dear to him as his life. On his sister's son he bestowed the dignity of senapati and gave him his daughter (to wife). Without blame (on her part) he struck her with his whip on the thigh. When the King saw the blood-stained garment of his daughter and heard (of the affair) he in his wrath had his nephew's mother burnt naked. From that time onward (his nephew) nursed hatred against the king), joined Kassapa, awoke in him the desire for the royal dignity, estranged him from his father, won over his subjects and took the ruler (Dhatusena) prisoner alive.

His younger brother Mugalan fled in fear to India biding his time. Meanwhile the senapati, Migara, urged Kasyapa to seek his father's treasures. The deposed king told Kasyapa's henchmen to take him to the bank of the Kalaveva reservoir. There Dhatusena disrobed, bathed in its waters, drank some and told the king's henchmen, "This here, my friends, is my whole wealth." When the king was informed of this, he was enraged and ordered Migara to kill his father. "Thereupon the brutal (senapati) stripped the king naked, bound him with chains and fetters in a niche in the wall with his face outward and closed it with clay."

According to the Mahavamsa, Kasyapa I, in fear of his brother, fled to the great rock of Sigiriya. "He cleared the land round about, surrounded it with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion." Hence the name of the rock: Sigiriya, Sinhagiri, Sihagiri, meaning "the lion rock" (perhaps having the extended meaning of "the lion city.") After this Kasyapa felt guilty for his parricidal acts, and built several temples in his own name and that of his two daughters and also began to practice the dhutangas, extreme ascetic practices mentioned in the great meditation manual, Visuddhimagga.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, his brother Mugalan arrived in Sri Lanka, collected an army, and marched toward Sigiriya. Kasyapa met him in the plains below. "When the two hosts fell on each other like two seas that have burst their bounds, they fought a mighty battle. Kassapa espying a great stretch of swamp in front of him turned his elephant to seek another road. When his troops seeing that, with the cry: 'Friends, our commander here flees!' broke up in disorder, the troops of Moggalana cried, 'We see their backs.' But the king with his dagger cut his throat, raised the knife on high and stuck it in the sheath."

The Mahavamsa then goes to narrate the events that followed: the reign of Mugalan (eighteen years), his son (nine years) and grandson (nine months); the usurpation of the throne by Silakala, an affinal relative, and the reigns of his descendants.

stories collected from informants

In this lecture I want to focus on the death of Dhatusena, juxtaposing the Mahavamsa account with those stories I collected from informants in 1987.

If the Mahavamsa assumes a discourse known to the public, from which source does this discourse come? In my view from exactly the kind of source that stories come from, that is, from the oral tradition of folk and from popular stories of the Buddha and other compendia of edifying tales.

Let us, listen to Battagurunnanse, a specialist of the cult of planets and demons from the drummer caste, tell us his story.

When Kasyapa was a young prince, King Dhatusena built the Kalaveva. He inaugurated the building of the bund by saying "namo" and putting on the first (shovel of) earth. But he refused to offer a human sacrifice (to Bhairava, the god of the underworld). He was, thus, fearlessly building the reservoir bund when he came across an arahant meditating there. The king was getting special machines to put earth on the bund, pata, pata, pata-like. And he thus buried the arahant under the earth. He had in effect offered a human sacrifice, and he could now proceed with the building of the bund. The core of this story is the monk meditating on the bund and Dhatusena burying him as a human sacrifice necessary for the inauguration of a project. The latter idea is widespread even today, and people will say that the inauguration of an irrigation project, or even the construction of a major bridge, or the finding of a treasure - anything that involved the earth - requires a human sacrifice to Bhairava.

Though it is impossible to date Battagurunnanse's story, I think his and others I have collected come from a tradition of myth that has circulated in this isolated forest region for a long historical time.

Now let us get back to the myth of the human sacrifice and consider this interesting variation by Appuhami of Talkote.

There is also a story in "history books" - it is not a lie - that when the Kalavava was being built there was a hermit meditating on the bund. He was a good hermit (arahant) true to the precepts. He was asked to move but he did not. He had achieved the state of meditative trance. The king told his followers to bury him with earth. But no one can kill such a person. So he left by the powers of dhyana he had acquired (that is, he flew through the air invisibly). There is no way that anything could happen to him even though he was covered with earth. It is also said that the king got the earth under which the hermit was buried to be trampled by elephants.

Storyteller Appuhami, a good Buddhist, is telling us that though the king thought he offered the hermit as a sacrifice, this was an illusion since you cannot really kill someone with such vast supernormal powers. Even so, King Dhatusena, by Buddhist karmic logic, had it coming. Appuhami continued:

It is said that the king had done two grievous wrongs. What are these? He burnt the old lady alive, the mother of his nephew (that is, his own sister). Again another act not second to the former, he got the hermit covered up with earth and the earth pounded over by the feet of work-elephants. These are true events I mention. It's karma. It is a karma that can never be removed (by expiation or merit making).

hidden discourse

If indeed the hermit did not die, the sacrifice given to Bhairava was quite useless! The debate on karma - Dhatusena will be punished for his horrendously sinful acts - and the debate on the necessity for a human sacrifice go together in popular versions.

My argument that the Mahavamsa version contains a hidden discourse on a popular debate about a sacrificial victim must contend with the fact that the word used in the Mahavamsa is bhitti which everyone nowadays translates as "walls." Yet Soratha's authoritative Sinhala dictionary has a second meaning of bhitti as ivura or bank or embankment, or kandiya, a raised earth structure.

It should be noted that the wider meanings of bhitti resolves the simple pragmatic problem of physical dimensions, that is, the impossibility of immuring a person in an ordinary house wall. This debate in turn forces modern histories to substitute "palace wall," since palaces ought to have walls large enough to incorporate a corpse! But the historian's version fails to recognize a major Sinhala prejudice: who would think of burying a king in a palace wall given the terrible fear of the ghosts of the dead and, one would think, of the father's ghost?

An important question remains unanswered: why does not the Mahavamsa plainly say that the king was immured in the Kalavava bund? To do this, however, is to give recognition to the un-Buddhist act of a human sacrifice.

A blunt statement that Dhatusena was simultaneously the sacrificial victim and at the same time was the one who reaped his bad karma was made by another informant, Kiri Banda (50 years), a school teacher of Kumbukkandanvala, near Sigiriya.

While Mugalan was repairing the Kalavava, it started to break several times. I am telling you this as best I know. When it broke thus, it was considered necessary to offer a human sacrifice. Now Kasyapa wasn't the son of a royal princess; that was Mugalan. Kasyapa decided to complete the bund by burying his father underneath.

This account does not make sense outside the context of the previous story by Appuhami: the bund had to be constantly repaired because the sacrifice to Bhairava was not really made. Hence Kasyapa offers a substitute human sacrifice - his own father! The karmic misdeed has come full circle, for Dhatusena is buried in the bund in the same way that the meditating monk was buried. The story emphasizes the utter symmetry between the two acts, both held together by karmic retribution. Incidentally, this is one of the very few stories that break the strong hold on the Sinhala imagination regarding the traitorous and cruel cross-cousin, Migara.

The immediate provocation for the murder was the demand for the king's treasures by Migara and Kasyapa. Now we are faced with another neat irony: Dhatusena goes up to the Kalavava reservoir and tells his son's henchmen: "This here, my friends, is my whole wealth."

double irony

Note that Dhatusena himself says that his real treasure is the Kalavava reservoir; since it is necessary to have a sacrificial victim for its proper operation, and the first victim was an illusory one, Dhatusena now in effect offers himself as (or makes himself) the sacrificial victim in the double irony that my reading of the text exposes. Moreover, once Dhatusena's statement is given a literal interpretation by his killer, the text reveals a further irony.

A ritual sacrifice to Bhairava (or any sacrifice for that matter) requires a ritual purification of the victim. This Dhatusena inadvertently does himself when he decides to "bathe in the Kalavapi (Kalavava) and then die." Needless to say, my argument here and in the next section, does not deal with what occurred in history but rather what occurred in the construction of history.

Building 'Sigiriya' in 18 years - a 'fiction' not a forgery

In this section I shall discuss further the relevance of the folk tradition for understanding historical texts and briefly consider the antiquity of the particular folk tradition I am dealing with. One of the most complete stories in my possession is by a physician P. Kiribanda (84 years) from Kalundava village. Owing to its length I cannot discuss it here except to mention that it deals with Dhatusena's earlier years, his amours with a Tamil woman from who he had a son, Kasyapa; the death of this lady and his marriage to a Sinhala woman whose son was Mugalan. It also emphasizes the stepmother's discrimination against Kasyapa.

The rest of the story is close to the Mahavamsa version, except that it describes Migara's wife's adultery with a palace official, the husband finding this out, and beating her. Dhatusena then seeks his son-in-law to punish him but he flees; therefore the king displaces his rage and burns Migara's mother (his own sister, or half-sister) alive. The later events are also close to the Mahavamsa, except the conclusion which deals with the return of the brother, Mugalan, the battle between the armies of the two brothers, and the final suicide of the king. Let me present Kiribanda's own version of this fascinating conclusion.

Mugalan came back and sent messengers to Kasyapa to enter into battle. But that time Kasyapa had a dream during the day and tried to run away. His two queens restrained him. "Don't heed such things," they said. But he couldn't sleep owing to the sorrow he felt for the sin he had committed. He used to get into a fright and run.

It was at this time that Mugalan sent his two emissaries. The emissaries told the king that he must go fight his brother but the queens urged him not to go. He said, "I shall not let him be. I'll eat him up," and descended the rock. And with his army he is now going to confront Mugalan. Sigiri-Kasyapa went in front of his elephant. Now he saw the vision of his father, dead, with his head bent, broken, in front of him, like a shadow, or an illusion. This must have been an apparition (avatara). In order to avoid his father's ghost he turned his elephant around and his army thought, "Now he is lost and retreating," and they all ran away. This was between Sigiriya and Anuradhapura.

Now Kasyapa thought, "If he captures me he'll kill me or if not I'll be killed by an assassin." So it is said that he severed his head with his own sword and fell down. The moment his two queens heard about it they jumped to their deaths below, according to what we have heard.

I have analyzed elsewhere the profound psychological significance of this part of the story, especially the apparition of the dead father appearing before the guilt-stricken parricide at the onset of battle. Here I want to emphasise the concluding scene where the two queens jumped to their deaths from the mountain top of Sigiriya. Many storytellers referred to this event, though they disagreed about the number of wives involved - one, two, five hundred! Some mentioned interesting details: when Kasyapa died his followers raised a white flag and the queens saw this sign and jumped to their deaths below.

Proof that at least the conclusion of this story might well be very ancient came from my reading of the Sigiri Graffiti edited and translated by Paranavitana in his monumental two-volume study. Almost a dozen of the graffiti poems have references that are relevant to our present discussion, and I shall list a few of these (the numbers and translations are Paranavitana's).

No. 18

Why is this rock dear to her who, having been aggrieved as the king died and having spoken to this and that corner, appears as if she is hurling herself from the summit of the rock.

No. 20

Hail! We ascended the rock and looked at the golden-coloured one on the rock wall of Sigiriya. How does she remain there I wonder - she who is like those falling from the summit of the rock? (This suggests that there were at one time paintings depicting the suicide of the queens).

No. 22

You reside on the rock, thinking (as it were) "We do not see a desirable man even though we reside here this length of time without having died when he died." No. 73

Heaven, indeed, is not enough (for these damsels). So (thinking), did not the king leave them here and die. (But) did not the damsel fall down from the rock by the force of the wind and run (into the midst of) the flowers and tender na leaves (which are) in the vicinity.

No. 92

I am Tindi Kasub. I wrote (this). (Your) heart did not break, either. Lightning did not fall on you. Oh! What is a death as cruel as this? Your heart (indeed) was hard.

History and Chronology

When we read Kiribanda's narrative we know what these and numerous other graffiti poems implicitly refer to. It seems obvious that the present residents of the villages around Sigiriya neither had access to the graffiti nor could read them. It is therefore very likely that we have tapped in the stories of our informants an ancient tradition of story telling.

One of the key issues that emerge from the Mahavamsa history is how Kasyapa could have built Sigiriya within a period of 18 years.

Historians and archaeologists have greatly admired Kasyapa for having built Sigiriya in the first part of his reign of 18 years. Now this reckoning is probably outright false and it is not unlikely that Kasyapa reigned for much longer. A long reign is not only consonant with the psychology of the parricide - the shift from hedonism to asceticism - but also fits in nicely with the conventions of practical Buddhism where renunciation and ascetic practices in old age are normative.

As far as Dhatusena's patriline is concerned the number 18 is a kind of "fiction" but not a forgery or falsehood. This has implications for the history of the period by compelling us to recognize that the chronology of that line maybe historically suspect. This recognition not only applies to Dhatusena alone but to all members of his patriline. In which case the reference to Kasyapa in the Chinese chronicles now receive considerable plausibility.

Geiger notes: "According to Chinese sources another embassy came from Ceylon to China, sent by King Kia-che, i.e., Kasyapa, in the year 527 A.D." Geiger says that "it is impossible that this could be Kassapa I," because according to him Kasyapa reigned in 478-96 CE (473-91 according to the University of Ceylon History). It is no longer necessary to postulate that the Chinese made a mistake in identity, because it was perfectly possible for Kasyapa to have been alive, if not well, in 527.

History tellers as story writers

In my examination of the stories I noted that these versions are a product of a debate on karma, on religion and on the necessity for a human sacrifice. Thus one story tells us that the meditating monk was buried under the earth as a sacrifice to Bhairava; another argues against it - how can you really kill an arahant with supernatural powers? If so, another might say a sacrifice was not really offered and the Kalaveva bund is not going to hold; not to worry says another story, Dhatusena himself was buried in the Kalaveva bund and served as the much-needed sacrifice.

Not all stories give all the details; there is some discourse that is hidden in each. But one story helps to surface the discourse hidden in the other. Debate then points to the contentious discourses that erupt in history.

This is clearly evident in the folk versions that I collected. For example, some texts mention the enmity of the brothers, but others say that Mugalan had no intention of killing Kasyapa. The debate here is obviously provoked and complicated by kinship values that emphasized fraternal love and solidarity. Herat Hami (66 years) of Siyana village has a story that nicely illustrates this:

Now Mugalan came back. He sent a message to the brother to face him in battle on such and such a day. Then accompanied by his retinue from there (India) he advanced into battle. When he came to the lake of Hirivadunna, he spread white sand over it and sent a message to Kasyapa to come to battle on such and such a day. Kasyapa advanced with his force, riding his elephant... In spite of the white sand Kasyapa's elephant got stuck in the mud. The elephant turned around to extricate itself and Kasyapa's followers thinking that the king was retreating also fled. Kasyapa now thought: "I am sure I'll get killed by my younger brother, better to kill myself." He then cut his throat with his own hand and died. And when he was about to do that his brother, Mugalan, shouted, "Brother, please don't," but it was too late.

Some informants stated that after his victory, Mugalan gave Sigiriya and the monasteries around it in charge of Mahanama, his granduncle, the author of the Mahavamsa, and then returned to India. A few said that Mugalan stayed on in Sigiriya while others insisted that he went back to the capital city of Anuradhapura - which is what the Mahavamsa says. Not a single informant gave the Mahavamsa version that Mugalan was a cruel person nicknamed the raksasa (demon) because I suppose it does not fit well with the prevalent village view of him as the loving brother.

The Mahavamsa account therefore reflects another debate about Mugalan unknown to contemporary folk culture. However, one modern story invented by the great scholar and myth-provocateur Paranavitana develops the Mahavamsa view of Mugalan in a totally unexpected direction, namely, that he was called "demon" because in his anger he gritted his teeth and showed his canines (and also killed, mutilated or banished his brother's supporters.) Paranavitana weaves the Mahavamsa idea into a long and elaborate story. Mugalan was called demon because he emulated Kuvera, king of the demons, and actually put a mechanical gadget into his mouth so that the canines clearly protruded and terrified the beholder.

Not to be outdone by the Mahavamsa Paranavitana makes Mugalan put the leading householders of Anuradhapura into the fire alive. He had picked up these nasty habits (including the mouthpiece) during a sojourn among a group of cannibals in the wilds of Sir James Frazer's Malaysia, Paranavitana's favourite land. Mugalan had apparently better taste than these cannibals and did not actually eat the householders. But then this version of Sigiriya is one of the many circulating in newspapers and scholarly and not so scholarly books, the most popular theme among them is the idea that Sigiriya itself was the origin of a great civilization headed by one of our five headed ancestors, Ravana.

And this must surely remind us that history writers are also tellers of stories and perhaps there is more history to our village story tellers than there is among our history-tellers. (@Sunday Observer)


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