Rock of charms

22:44, Jan 21 2013
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ON GUARD: The fortress moat is in the foreground.
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WORTH THE CLIMB: The palace ruins at the top of the Lion Fortress provide a stunning view of the surrounding countryside.

Disagreements within families are nothing new and even today in so-called modern societies can result in spilled blood. But for a family feud on a truly monumental scale the story of Sri Lanka's King Kassapa takes some beating.

History is littered with stories of emperors, kings, queens, maharajahs and emirs dispatching various family members in order to seize thrones or to ensure they stay firmly planted on them. But few have left such a spectacular and enduring testament to their quest for power as Kassapa I.

From the 2nd century BC until the arrival of the first European colonists (the Portuguese) in 1505, Sri Lanka was ruled by a series of Sri Lankan kings and occasionally queens. Most based their kingdoms in what are now known as the ancient cities in the central northern part of the island.

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THE COBRA HOOD ROCK: Once used by Buddhist monks, today it is often the haunt of snake charmers.

Although Sri Lanka's medieval royalty surrounded themselves with all the trappings of power and wealth, life was often brutal and short. During the time of the Kingdom of Anuradhapura for example, 15 kings ruled for less than a year, 22 were murdered by their successors, six were murdered by other people, four committed suicide, 13 were killed in battle and 11 lost their thrones and were never heard of again.

Queens could be just as ruthless as kings. Queen Anula poisoned her husband to take the throne and then proceeded to poison each of a succession of five lovers when she tired of them. Not surprisingly, she ran out of willing consorts and after ruling for four months on her own, was killed by her stepson.

Then there was the unfortunate King Subha who used to swap places with a servant who bore an uncanny likeness to the king. This game backfired, however, when the servant, who had clearly developed a taste for a royal lifestyle, had the real king arrested and executed as an imposter. The servant stayed on the throne a relatively long time - four years - before he was murdered.

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HIGHER AND HIGHER: Beginning the final climb to the palace through the giant lion's paws.

So there was nothing extraordinary in the decision by Kassapa in AD477 to murder his father King Dhatusena and claim the throne. Kassapa's mother was a non-royal consort and his father had named his younger son Mogallana (who had a royal mother) the heir.

After Kassapa had disposed of his father, his half-brother fled to India to attempt to raise an army so that he could return to Sri Lanka to reclaim what he believed was his rightful crown. It took him 18 years to do but in the meantime, Kassapa was a busy man.

Knowing that eventually his half- brother would be back with assassination on his mind, Kassapa began building what he hoped would be an impregnable fortress. He built his fortified palace on top of a 370 metre sheer-sided volcanic plug that looms up out of a jungle-covered plain.

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CARE NEEDED: The final, Victorian era, staircase to the summit, is not for the faint-hearted.

Kassapa called his royal capital Sigiriya "Lion Rock" and to reinforce the powerful lion symbolism, the final ascent to the palace was through the mouth of a giant lion carved into the rock face. As he had plenty of time to wait for his vengeful half-brother to come back, Kassapa also created water gardens and commissioned a series of frescoes to be painted along a 150-metre stretch of the rock face. He had not only wanted his palace to be impregnable but to be an earthly version of the heavenly home of the gods of wealth.

This remarkable feat of engineering and artistry is almost as impressive 1500 years after King Kassapa's death as it must have been in his lifetime.

I have visited Sigiriya three times and it's just as awe-inspiring on subsequent visits as it was on the first.

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WOMANLY CHARMS: One of the 21 Sigiriya Damsels, which have been painted under an overhanging section of rock about half way up the mountain.

A moat (about half of which is still filled with water) and ramparts around the base of the rock represent the first line of Kassapa's defensive system. Once inside this however, the emphasis shifts from military matters to pleasure. The main avenue leading to the rock is flanked by a series of stone ponds with polished walls and steps leading down to the water that would once have served as swimming pools for the royal court.

Beyond are the fountains garden where, remarkably, after heavy rain the fountains and artificial streams still flow with water.

It is now that the climb that will eventually take you to Kassapa's palace starts in earnest. Stone steps lead up through the Boulder Gardens, massive rocks, some pierced by archways, that had been home to a community of Buddhist monks before the king arrived.

In the steamy Sri Lankan heat this is a climb to take slowly. Apparently there are 1200 steps all the way to the top; I always intend to check this figure but inevitably lose count. There are plenty of excuses to stop for a breather as enterprising salesmen stake out the shady sections, waving carved wooden boxes, statues and postcards at passers-by. However, the man who sits with a couple of baskets of cobras and metres of sleepy python always sees me put on a burst of speed no matter how puffed I'm getting.

Above the boulder garden, the steps zigzag up a series of original terraced walls to emerge at the base of two spiral staircases (these are of Victorian era construction). If you want to admire Kassapa's bevy of bare-breasted maidens painted on the walls, these rather rickety looking stairs are literally the only way to go.

Today, only 21 paintings of voluptuous beauties remain of what was once a 150m length of frescoes (possibly the world's largest open air picture gallery). No-one is quite sure what the paintings represent: Are they celestial nymphs, symbolic representations of clouds and lightning moving through the mountains or simply Kassapa's favourite courtesans?

Protected as they are from rain and sun, the paintings are remarkably vivid and well-preserved and quite unlike most other ancient art works in Sri Lanka which almost always have a religious theme (and thus no unclothed young women).

Once you've carefully negotiated the "down" staircase, the path to the top continues around the rock, the view of the plains obscured by the Mirror Wall. This is another original feature of the fortress and has a specially polished inner surface made of lime, egg white, beeswax and wild honey. Its shiny surface is covered with graffiti, 1500 years old in some cases. Here visitors over the centuries have written their impressions of the fortress, sometimes even composing poems. A great many concentrate on the charms of the Sigiriya Damsels.

It's then back on to a section of iron walkway and a final long flight of stairs that lead to the Lion Platform. Although sadly, the lion's mouth has fallen into ruin, two enormous lion's paws (complete with lethal-looking toenails) sit astride the final section of staircase.

This is where the climb, so far more physically testing than mental, becomes more a case of mind over body for those of us inclined to vertigo. Here the Victorians have been at work again, bolting an iron staircase to the vertiginous rock wall.

It's a hair-raising climb for those who don't like heights as it's possible to see right through the iron guard rail and down between the treads to the tops of the trees hundreds of metres below. New Zealand health and safety officials would almost certainly have palpitations if they saw the guard rails.

Apparently, the original access to the top were wooden steps affixed to the rock with a solid wall on the outer-side to block out the view. I was slightly comforted by the fact that I was in regal company with my fear of heights. Apparently King Kassapa didn't like heights either which did make his choice of locations either extra audacious or rather lacking in foresight.

However, the climb is worth it (although once was definitely enough for me) as the view from the top is stupendous - a 360 degree panorama of lush jungle, lakes and in the distance, forest-clad mountains shimmering in the heat haze.

The palace ruins still confound archaeologists. Experts believe the higher terraces would have been the site of the palace itself and the buildings on the lower terraces would have housed servants and soldiers. This is a place to let one's imagination take flight and paint scenes of regal splendour in one's head.

There is a pool up here and one of the few definitive facts about the palace is that water was hauled up from the plains below using windmill-driven hydraulics.

It took King Kassapa about seven years to build his astonishing feat of engineering. But 18 years after seizing the throne he heard the news that his half-brother and his army were approaching.

Inexplicably, considering he'd gone to an astonishing amount of effort to make Sigiriya impregnable, Kassapa chose to descend from his fortress, gather up his army - including his war elephants - and engage Mogallana in battle on the plains below.

During the height of the fight Kassapa's elephants apparently panicked about being ridden towards a swamp and stampeded. Unfortunately, his troops mistook this as a sign that their king was retreating and they bolted as well.

King Kassapa was left alone so in a manner befitting his rather dramatic life chose to die in an equally theatrical manner.

He raised his dagger, cut his own throat, resheathed the knife and only then fell dead from his elephant.

A triumphant Mogallana became king but never lived at Sigiriya. Kassapa's palace in the clouds, his Lion Fortress, was left to crumble, its gardens reclaimed by the jungle until its rediscovery in 1831 by a British army major.

NOTES FOR VISITORS

If you visit only one ancient city site in Sri Lanka (and there is an almost overwhelming array of ruins in this area) this would be the one I'd choose.

Try to start the climb early as most of its about 1200 steps are in full sun.

Even if you can't face the final rather frightening flights of stairs to the palace itself, the climb as far as the Lion Platform is well worth the effort.

There are always locals at the bottom of the stairs who will offer to help you make the climb. They do expect a tip for this (between $5 and $10 is fine) so if you don't want to do the decent thing and tip later, politely decline their offer at the start.

These helpers can be annoyingly persistent but equally I've been ashamed by scenes of foreigners shouting rudely at them to go away or simply refusing to tip them after accepting their help.

Some of the helpers genuinely do a good job and many are very knowledgeable about the site itself.

The Timaru Herald