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Sigiriya Frescoes

The Sigiriya Frescoes were painted on the western surface of Sigiriya Rock, located in central Sri Lanka. Painted thirteen hundred years ago, they were the highlight of a massive palace complex built in 480AD by King Kasyapa. Today only a few paintings survive, in a small pocket half-way up the rock, about 100 meters above ground.

Protected in this small, sheltered depression a hundred meters above ground, they float effortlessly among the clouds. Some say they are celestial nymphs carrying flowers to shower upon kings and mortals below. Others suggest that they are queens and concubines of Kasyapa’s harem.

The ladies of the frescoes have been the subject of speculation for nearly one thousand six hundred years. They, in turn, have remained silent, smiling enigmatically, their secret intact for over 1,600 years. The names of the ladies and the artists who painted them are lost to history. Their legacy has survived for over half a million days, a testament to the genius of their creators and the king who commissioned them.

Who are the Women in the Sigiriya Frescoes?

The rich adornments, sophisticated clothing, lifelike appearance, vibrant use of color, and the true rendition of facial and anatomical characteristics support the view that the artist drew his inspiration from the ladies of King Kasyapa’s court — his harem. The most telling validation of this view is that they all wear a delicate three-circled tattoo around their necks

The prominent but unobtrusive display of this tattoo, worn with pride, was meant to clearly identify these ladies as belonging to the king. They were ladies of the king’s harem, dressed in their finest. They were to be admired but not touched. For this reason, they were depicted in true form, voluptuous and desirable, but shorn of any earthly sexuality. They were not intended to be titillating. Depicted as supernatural beings they are portrayed with flowers to shower upon humans below. They were intended to evoke a sense of wonderment and to project the opulence and grandeur of Kasyapa the all-powerful god-king. They are a celebration of beauty.

What did Sigiriya Look Like with SIGIRIYA Frescoes?

The Sigiriya complex was completed nearly 1600 years ago. The frescoes were an integral part of the overall awe-inspiring sight and were part of a huge tapestry that extended in a gigantic band around the waist of the rock.

This immense picture gallery of over 500 semi-naked females covered an area of approximately 5600 sq meters. It extended from the top of the zigzag stairway at the Terraced Gardens on the southern end of the rock, to the north-eastern end terminating at the Lion Staircase

WHY WERE THE SIGIRIYA FRESCOES PAINTED?

Sigiriya was the royal capital of King Kasyapa who ruled from 477 to 495 AD. As a result of his unpopularity with the clergy and the citizens of his previous capital at Anuradhapura, Kasyapa abandoned the old capital and set up a new one at Sigiriya.

Unbridled by the constraints of religion he chose to use the vast wealth and energy of his kingdom in creating a lavish masterpiece to himself. Having chosen this site with the massive 200 meter high rock Kasyapa set about creating his vision of mythological city of Alakamanda – the city of the gods. In Buddhist mythology Alakamanda was said to be an exquisitely beautiful city amongst the clouds. 

Thus inspired Kasyapa painted Sigiriya Rock white to appear like a cloud. But a stark white rock would have been an impressive but unattractive sight. So Kasyapa and his architects set about decorating the rock. Having fallen afoul with the clergy Kasyapa choose to decorate his rock with a non-religious theme. What better example of beauty could he behold than the striking women who graced his court?

So the women of Kasyapa’s court were depicted like Apsaras—celestial nymphs showering flowers from above on the human beings below while Kasyapa the god-king lived in his magnificent Sky Palace on top of a cloud.

 

HOW WERE THE SIGIRIYA FRESCOES PAINTED?

Work on the frescoes started after the exterior wide-break wall of the Sky Palace on the summit had been completed. Tens of thousands of pieces of bamboo were transported to the site and assembled into a massive latticework of scaffolding extending from the base of the rock all the way to the summit two hundred meters above. The whole erection was held together with nothing more than rope made from coconut fiber. There were no ladders or safety rails. Access to the working platforms was by clambering up the scaffolding’s bamboo cross members. All raw materials were hauled up by hand.

Stonemasons were the first to commence work on the rock face. They chiseled away at the surface creating a drip ledge. This prevented water from flowing down the natural curvature of the rock and over the area where the frescoes were to be painted.

The plasterers followed the stonemasons. They cleaned the surface and then applied up to three layers of lime plaster. The plasterers and artists worked closely together. The plasterers prepared the surfaces and the artists then painted on the final layer while it was still wet. Because these are fresco paintings and had to be drawn on wet plaster the topmost surface was laid down in new sections each day.

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