Sigiri Maha Wewa and Indian Prototypes
by E. L. S. Dharmatilaka
A man of method, whether pleasure bund, or in the pursuit of bounding ambition, wealth or grandeur, King Kassapa, the builder of the Sigiriya rock fortress, palace and city complex, was also a very successful tank builder in the hallowed traditions of Sinhalese kings. The World Bank in one of its reports refers to the civilization of the Sinhalese as a "hydraulic civilization". In the best traditions of the hydraulic civilization, Sigiri Kassapa built a huge reservoir tank and an irrigation tank complex.
Persons non grata with the Sinhalese Buddhist Monks Historians for his horrific deed of walling up alive his father the King of ancient Sri Lanka, to gain the throne of the resplendant isle and seize its fabled treasure; King Kassapa after fleeing the capital City of Anuradhapura, built not only the Rock Fortress, palace and pleasure gardens and a new well planned and symetrically organized city with zonal divisions, but also re-created the Anuradhapura type hydraulic system to perfection.
Kassapa had asked his imprisoned father the deposed King to reveal his treasure to him, and the King his father a famous tank builder, had then pointed out with his hand toward the mighty Kalawewa built by him and told him "that is my wealth". Not believing him, Kasyapa, let his father die. However, he realised that the wealth of the Sinhalese was indeed the hydraulic system. So he built the SIGIRI MAHA WEWA, stretching for 8 miles out from the foot of the rock fortress. This served as a reservoir to feed up to 400 small irrigation tanks, some built in a cascade system to regulate and ration precious water, during the annual drought season.
It has been said that Pandit Nehru, late Prime Minister of India, when he came to look at Sigiriya, had stated that in his view Sigiri Kassapa, may not have depended solely on the walled fortress for his defence, but would have had another device for his protection. Looking at the abandoned tank at the foot of the rock of Sigiriya, one would think that this tank or Wewa would have been a part of the defence mechanism. But apart from findings of researchers and scholars, I have got to give another opinion.
True, the water filled moats, inner moats and outer moats, filled with pointed stakes and deadly man eating crocodiles would have been a formidable defence, but I recall to mind the fortress of the Rajah of Mysore in India which existed at the time of the advent of the British to India. The fearless Maharajah of Mysore, also called the Tiger of Mysore, had built a mighty and impenetrable portress on the plains of India. He had diverted the mighty Cauvery River, it is said, around this high walled fortress. On a visit to India, I passed over a bridge over the Cauvery River and its width was so breathtaking that I thought it was part of the ocean. An Indian passenger on the same bus that I was travelling in, told me kindly that it was the Cauvery River. The Rajah of Mysore had held out against the British in his invincible fortress. It is fabled that his Secretary betrayed him and helped the British to discover the secret water gate not visible from outside, and helped the British to creep into the fortress at dead of night. In the Rajah’s magnificent palace I saw the painting of the Rajah fallen dead among a heap of the dead, with sword in hand, having fought till the last for his kingdom and fellow men. (The picture shows the Summer Palace of the Rajah.) His main palace was raised to the ground and the foundation dug up in search of his fabled treasure which was never found). However, a gem of great value was said to have been found and inspired the first detective story "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins. The description of the seige of the fortress of Seringapatam in the book is a reference to the seige of the fortress of this Rajah.
Why I write all this is that apart from research, or with its aid, can we surmise that; as Pandit Nehru mused looking at the mighty rock, while visiting Sri Lanka years ago, that the Sigiriya fortress had another even more effective defence? Was it that the mighty Sigiri Maha Wewa wove round the Sigiri Rock fortress, also providing an impenetrable defence? The Capital City, the fortress and the palace on the Rock would all have been surrounded by a huge expanse of water acting as part of its defence mechanism and also its perennial and ready source of water; just as the Rajah of Mysore’s diversion of the Cauvery River did a thousand years later.
Even more close in comparison is the Golconda which I saw in Hyderabad in India. This is also a mighty rock rising sheer from the plains. Here the last of the Qutub Shahis had made his last stand against the conquering Moghuls. While fleeing before the advancing Moghuls, the last of the Qutub Shahis, had been befriended by a shepherd or golla. The shepherd had shown the King the ideal place of defence, this rock later named Golla Conda after the shepherd. (Golla Conda-rock of the shepherd). You may note the similarity of the Indian word Conda and the Sinhala word Kanda meaning rock or mountain. The name was anglicised to Golconda. Standing on the plains of India in Hyderabad, this rock fortress too was invincible. Was there a moat around this rock too? How was the water brought to the top of the rock? I did not inquire about this matter when I visited this place at the beginning of 1983. One day’s reading and browsing in the library of the Indian Cultural Centre in Colombo recently, did not help me to get any information on the Qutub Shahis or the Golconda. I have misplaced the picture postcards of the beautiful tombs of the Qutub Shahis whose architecture is uniquely tasteful and delicate.
This rock has a ledge high above the entrance to the rock itself. There was an opening in the ledge which overlooked the passage leading to the top of the rock. All invaders had hot molten metal poured on them when they tried to force themselves in. Was there such a ledge in Sigiriya once? From this ledge any whispered word or command could be heard at the gateway to the fort where armed guards stood. Are there such accoustice in Sigiriya? Has anyone researched? Cannot we copy this technology now in our defence today? The rocks don’t answer but some Sinhala technologist may, if he has the will! Going back to Golconda, the last of the Qutub Shahis, a very young King of great personal beauty, had held out against the Moghuls until he was betrayed by his own General who showed the secret passage to the palace. Fearing the popularity of the King amongst his subjects he is said to have been secretly poisoned by the Moghuls. He too like Kasyapa enjoyed "the good things of life’’. Beautiful maids and nightingale voiced singers are said to have entertained him on the smooth ledge of the rock which can hold a good number of people, and the voices of the singers are said to have regaled the countryside with music wafted through the night air.
These two parallels though much later than Kasyapa’s do not show the planning out of a city and its environs so meticulously and beautifully carried out in geometrical precision as the Rock fortress, palace and city of King Kasyapa. In 5 years Kasyapa is said to have built a Capital City and Sigiri Maha Wewa and tank complex, a challenging and even impossible task even today! For 13 years he ruled like God King Kuvera, until he was defeated by the enemy without and within. The storm within his mind as he thought of his evil deed the consequence he could not escape he knew as a Buddhist. Also the legend goes he was haunted by something like the ghost of Banquo in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Datusena’s spirit or a mental apparition is said to have troubled him and he fell on his sword to die before capture. He left a formidable legacy, Sigiri Maha Wewa and tank complex, an extensive iron industry, a drainage system, stories of extensive commerce and trade, all waiting now for a Sinhalese to match his style and skill.
The Sigiri Maha Wewa still exists in ruins waiting patiently for the restorer. Is it not the duty of every Sinhala to revive his piece of our hydraulic civilization? The Sigiri Maha Wewa is shown in the Map marked I, and its irrigation complex in Map marked II. In this sparsely populated area, no great dislocation of life is involved in the restoration, quite unlike the evacuation of the entire town of Teldeniya for the Mahaweli Scheme. Anyway some Sinhalese peasants and Buddhist monks have tenaciously hung on to the traditional lifestyle of the Sinhalese, cultivating paddy for sustenance through the "vissicitudes of our long history", and now deserve the hand of help to live the life of prosperous traditional farmers of the time of the Sinhalese Kings of yore. Buddhist temples ranging from the Pidurangala Raja Maha Viharaya to small pockets of Buddhist faith, can be sustained in all its former greatness only if the hydraulic civilization that sustained it is also revived. Some sporadic conservation and restoration has been done to this Sigiri Maha Wewa and its tank complex, but it has only scratched the surface. The Sigiriya Rock Fortress Complex and its well planned out city and hydraulic system will emerge in its pristine splendour only by the restoration of the Sigiri Maha Wewa, which will be a development scheme of great magnitude and national importance and would make significant contribution to national development.
May I quote from the Guttila Kavya, the classical Sinhalese poem by Ven Wettawa during the Kotte period, describing the City of Benares in India, during the time of a previous birth of the Buddha as the great teacher of the Veena. I have attempted a translation of poem Nos. 91, 92 and 93 into English verse, which describes the city of Benares fortified by just such a defence system of ramparts and a gigantic expanse of moated water.
‘’In wealth, in plenty and in prosperity so replete.
That God Sakra’s celestial city it seems in splendour to defeat
Its fame spreading through the sacred and ancient land,
Benares, the golden city on the rolling plains of India, stands.’’
"Was it to contain the overspilling prosperity?
Or to protect the purity of the virtuous city?
That the shining rampart around the city was built
So strong, so invulnerable, so the onlooker felt."
" The encircling lake around the City,
Might it swamp and sink the city?
So might Brahma thinking thus,
Flung around the city a girdling rampart thus".
The poems of Guttile Kavya describe an India, full of village gardens with ponds, blooming with lotuses, water gushing from streams, and in the cities of Ujjain and Benares, elephants sporting in the water spraying water on prancing horses which cool their bodies. I have translated into English verse the 511 poems of the Guttila Kavya and it is now before the Ministry of Cultural Affairs for publication.
All these show that a prosperous countryside and a prosperous peasantry can only be sustained by a plentiful supply of water. The water has to be stored and carefully distributed as in Sigiriya in a cascade system so that overflow from one irrigation tank goes to another, so that no water is wasted. The sad state of the dried up tank in Rajasthan today, and the dried up Sigiri Maha Wewa both tell the same tale, the need for conservation of water for irrigation.
For the sake of the good peasantry of Sigiri I would offer a fervant wish that Sigiri Maha Wewa be restored.