Rock Kingdom: Sri Lanka’s Rock Monuments are a Bedrock of Culture, Aug 16, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Few places on earth match Sri Lanka for the pervasive sense of an ancient culture. The island’s rock monuments are central testaments to this culture and crucial to feeling its power, and they should be the bedrock of every visitor’s cultural itinerary.

<< Reclining Buddha in Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a glorious array of historical monuments carved out of living rock or situated within rock environments. Sir Lanka possesses a very old civilization, and an equally old faith. More than two millennia ago, at the same time as classical Greece and China’s Zhou dynasty, the Sinhalese people entered the island from India and established a capital city at Anuradhapura.

Shortly after, in 247 BC, the king converted to Buddhism and this isle of astonishing beauty became a stronghold of the faith, remaining so until this very day.

Down through the ages, throughout the island, the Buddhists of Sri Lanka have created monuments, imbuing the landscape with depth and resonance. Some of their works are amongst the finest art in the world. Almost without exception, these finest works are carved out of the very land itself, sculpted from the living rock.

When you travel the island, specially the north central region where the early kingdoms largely established themselves, it is not hard to see how this could have happened. The land is mostly flat, a vast plain, but out of this canvas there arise single rocky outcrops that catch the eye, lone and mysterious. You want to investigate them, and in ages past the Sinhalese must have felt similarly drawn, and not just to look, but to create wonderful shrines and temples.

The island is dotted with monuments of spiritual and temporal power. They are found in the original city of Anuradhapura, in the north of the island, and in the far south at Buduruvagala, in the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa in the centre and at Aluvihara on the edge of the highlands.

Some are living institutions, rock and cave temples that have been nurtured continuously for millennia by Buddhist monks. Others, the fortresses and ancient cities, are abandoned places that have been restored through modern conservation.

Rock is integral to the history, religion and art of Sri Lanka. And there is one thing that makes it even more attractive and evocative to the modern visitor. Almost all the rock monuments stand far from modern urbanization, in a splendid isolation that enhances their historical power. Unlike, say, Rome’s Colosseum or the Tower of London, they are not circled by motor traffic and battered with noise, but stand in silent glory within natural landscapes that are actually less populated than they were in ancient times.

A vertiginous stairway climb takes visitors to a rock-top shrine with great views. Nature and history combine to create the powerful aura at Dambulla, in the north central plain, where a great Buddhist site of painted chambers cowers under a massive granite rock face. Sporting colourful frescoes of the Buddha’s life and 150 Buddha images, five separate cave chambers run for about 200 metres under the great rock face which curves grandly upward. An access terrace in front of the temple, which is about 150 metres above the surrounding land, commands splendid views across the plain.

At Sigiriya in the fifth century, the crazed king Kasyapa built a palace fortress on a stark sandstone mesa that is just 200 metres above the north central plain, lone and imperious - the Lion Rock. The stairway to the top went through the mouth of a huge brick-built lion’s head. Today visitors still climb between two huge lion’s paws, carved out of the rock, but the great leonine head has fallen to the ravages of time.

Sigiriya had a vast complex of buildings on its flat summit, but now only foundations remain, and the vestiges of huge rock-cut water basins. On the wind-swept top, impregnability is newly defined, and wonder at human ingenuity is refreshed. What a conception! What a construction!

If Sigiriya is the most amazing work of man in Sri Lanka, there is no doubt which is the finest work of art. At Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital city of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, enormous yet exquisite Buddha images were sculpted in granite to form Gal Vihara.

Emerging from low cliff face, a group of three figures, one sitting, one standing and one reclining, bear witness to the masterful artistry of this medieval kingdom.   

The Gal Vihara is undoubtedly the high point of Sri Lanka rock art, but it was not the end of the remarkable Sinhalese creativity in using and shaping the natural landscape.

The cave temples of Dimbulagala and Ritigala, Tantirimale rock temple, the list goes on - and even goes beyond man’s hand, if you so believe, in the magical ‘footprint’ rock on top of 2,224 metre high Adam’s Peak.