Lady with the Lotus - Sojourn in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

“No flash! No Flash!” It was too late. I had already captured the Lady of the Lotus on film as well as many of her companions, all half nude and gorgeous. I thought the guide would rip the film from my camera. Instead he actually held my left elbow and moved me along the narrow rock trail of Sigiriya and lectured me. “Light destroys color. Picture is 479 AD.” He said the last as ‘Ayedeee’. I felt bad and said that I had moved the setting from flash to auto, but clouds and shade at the instant I took the picture brought the flash. Sorry. I like my color picture better than the black and white one in Ajit Mookerjee’s The Arts of India, 1966! But his is pretty good too. I actually missed the lotus in his picture the first time I saw it.

So where in the world is this place? Sigiriya, or Sinhagiri, or Sihagiri which means ‘lion of the rock’. It is in Sri Lanka. What a wonder it is. Ayers Rock in Australia is grand but this stone, this monolith is huge and appeared black when I first saw the massive rock with the sun behind it. It rises out of the green steaming jungle like a supine lion. It compares to Machu Picchu or the Masada. The latter comparisons are appropriate in that both were places of human settlement, on the rocks, as was Sigiriya.

Our party spent the night in the Sigiriya Village Hotel. The rooms were wonderful, though we did have to ask for bug spray. Buzzing mosquitoes in the room make for whining, irritable, unhappy campers. The next day our gang of four was deposited at the base of the big rock and we began our hike to the top. The first two hundred feet were relatively easy. That is where I got into trouble taking pictures of the naked women. The rest of the climb was up to us. The guide had been up those metal ladders a hundred times and we did not look like the type that would leave a big tip. He glanced up at the top, at the snaking, spiraling metal rungs and ladders that stuck to the face of the rock like clinging ivy. He smiled politely and left, shaking his head and muttering, perhaps some words like pagal amni.

Up, up we climbed. No big deal as long as you don’t look down. Stretches of the climb were steps carved into the rock itself which were shiny with a paten of hundreds of thousands of feet that had polished it since the 5th. Century. On top at last! At one time there was a small city at Sigiriya. There are cisterns and baths, foundations for many rooms, strolling areas, cooking areas, (slave quarters were down below, they had to commute-climb to work each day). The drop-off was something to write home about. It had claimed the lives of quite a few, we were told, including unhappy princesses and concubines left all alone, perched high above the jungle floor, their lord and masters slain in a fraternal war.

The legends of Sigiriya feature Kasyapa, who according to some was a security nut who used the rock as an impregnable palace. Our guide had mentioned that this usurper of the throne of Anuradhapura loved beautiful women. He had five hundred of them, each one more beautiful than the other. And he was really smart; he had their pictures drawn on the rock surfaces, kind of a Playboy fresco thing. Really, that is what the guide said. I think Kasyapa had read about Solomon of old who had a thousand, but had never left any pictures to prove it. Was Kasyapa an ancient historical role model for Hugh Hefner?

Solomon of old, wise old Solomon reputedly had a thousand wives, but that is just a story that emerged from the Old Testament. No pictures please. (Muslim and ancient Jewish guys didn’t like to have other men snoop around in their private zennanah or harems. Some covered up their women so only their eyes could be seen. They had strong religious inhibitions against displaying the female form.) But one of Solomon’s favorites was enshrined in history in the Song of Solomon. His words still have a pretty good ring to them. “Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor... Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins...Thy neck is a tower of ivory... How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights.” Wow!

Kasyapa left no flowery words behind, he paid artists to draw his beauties. The Lady with the Lotus is a knock-out. Let me name her Sita. When I see her there, high on the cliff above the jungle far below I say, “Tell me, female of the forest, who thou be and whence thy birth. Much I fear thou art a Raksha wearing various forms on earth.” (From Romesh C Dutt’s translation - Book 6, The Ramayana, Sita Lost). She holds a lotus flower that I had not noticed at first. Typical occidental reaction, the prurient first, the artistic second and the meaning behind it all, the religious connotations, last. “To the oriental and especially the Buddhist, the lotus flower is sacred and its blossom is filled with meaning. For the occidental this flower contains little more than satisfying beauty.” (William Ward, The Lotus Symbol: Its meaning in Buddhist Art and Philosophy, 1952, page 135.)

The historical version that is least liked in Sri Lanka is the one put forward on
“Think Devil Tower with a health spa on top. “Rising 650 feet out of the ground, this Eighth Wonder of the World, long believed to be the fortress of a mad king, has been revealed for what it really was: a Tantric sex initiation. King Kasyapa had 500 wives. He was a 5th Century Hugh Hefner. Sigiriya was his Playboy Mansion.”

I found it very disappointing to read in this person’s account that he had never even been there. Terrible. Playboy themes sell.

One who did visit at a time when the pictures on the walls were fresh was John Still who in 1907 observed that; “The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery...the largest picture in the world perhaps.” The pictures covered an area, 140 meters long and 40 meters high, and there is ancient graffiti which refers to the 500 ladies in these paintings."

The story goes that later on, this glorious wall of paintings became a disturbance, a distraction. Sigirya had become a religious monastery, and the young monks kept sneaking down to take a peek and neglected their holy books and uplifting thoughts. You have it, most of the best pictures, frescos, were destroyed. That hurts philosophically. Remember the Bamiyan Buddhas that were destroyed because of religious zeal? Amazing!

The gardens at the foot of the monolith are beautifully laid out. In their hay day they must have been stunning, filled with jasmine and rat ki rani; the fair ladies must have taken excursions down from their high life to stroll and sit beside the pools and listen to the birds and watch the peacocks strut. The gardens have three aspects, Water, Cave and Boulders. The water gardens are the most sophisticated in design and water fountains work today that were designed long, long ago. A visit to them will give a grounded perspective to Sigiriya.

I took out my photograph of the Lady with the Lotus from the album yesterday. The Ektachrome colors have faded; she looks pale, washed out. There is only one way to fix it. I must visit Sri Lanka again, this time with a digital camera so I can download Sita and make her my screen saver.
Sita’s Dream
The lotus seed sinks into muck
Sleeps, then awakens from calls of ancient past
Listening, it stirs, shudders open and puts forth
Green tender leaves seeking sun and air

The lotus lies deep within black ooze
Awakens, draws life and strength from dark decay
Raises a brave and jubilant head within a day
Lifts its gold-pink face to kiss the sky

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  1. Anonymous Remy Chevalier said,

    Sep 15, 2007, 10:48:00 PM

    I find it very dissapointing that I haven't been to Sigiriya either... fact is, I fell madly in love with Sigiriya the minute I laid eyes on a picture of it... I wrote what I wrote after considerable research in libraries and websites, discussing it with many authors and scholars... I did this because I cannot afford to just buy a plane ticket and go there... I was hoping that by doing this I would find a way to fund my desire to some day visit... I have had dozens of internet conversations with people in Sri Lanka who had nothing but praise for what I wrote, who have linked my page to their websites... Yes, I'm a journalist, yes, I know how to bring attention to a story... I think if your readers take the time to read my entire page, they will see this wasn't simply exploitative... it was a labor of love. It surely inspired this post on your blog. Then by coincedence, when the tsunami hit, my sister was in Galle with her husband and two children... they were packing their bags to return home to England. A couple hours earlier they were on the beach... I immediately went to my local Red Cross and Save The Childress in Westport, Connecticut... nobody wanted to do anything, so I started a rescue page, which is linked from my Sigiriya page... urging people to donate money directly to organizations on the island, to bypass US based charity organization, and they did... bringing me the thanks of the Columbo Red Cross office... I hope to one day visit... I want to do a fashion shoot there... even if someone else beats me to the punch, I know that the day I go there in person, if I ever can afford the trip, maybe a fashion magazine expense account as art director... I'll feel for the space. I'm glad you enjoyed your voyage and that you were lucky to go there. Don't use your blog to undervalue my work, which has brought a lot of tourism to Sigiriya, helping to preserve it so that others may experience this 8th wonder of the world.
    Be well.

  2. Blogger Nish said,

    Sep 15, 2007, 11:03:00 PM

    Hello Remy,
    Thank you for the comment and this is my reply for your comment.

    After reading your comment I came to understand that you have published your article with good motive. But it gives the negative publicity rather positive. As you may well aware (If you have read enough about Sigiriya as you are claiming) Sigiriya is not a sex oriented. Please read this brief article about Sigiriya which will give you an idea that Sigiriya is something more than sex.

    Anyway I thank you for the good things you have done and I welcome you to Sri Lanka, and see the things yourself.

    Again thank you for commenting and giving your side of the story :)

    I welcome you to Sri La

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