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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Three hours with Kassapa - Sundayobserver

Three hours with Kassapa

by Aditha Dissanayake

View of Sigiriya from Pidurangala

No sooner had I landed at the Katunayake airport after almost fourteen hours of traversing through the clouds between New York and paradise i.e home, did I find myself on yet another journey, this time by road, in a seven seater van, to Inamaluwa Korale, in the Matale District. Destination; the rock citadel of King Kassapa, built to vie with Kuvera's Alakamanda and its sister rock Pidurangala.

Having left Colombo long after day-break amidst much teasing whenever we talked about our adventures abroad (eheth ehemada meheth ehemai) and constantly being called (rata giya aththo) the trip otherwise faultless, was slightly spoilt when we started to search for a place to have lunch.

With the buffet closed at Giman Hala, and most other restaurants saying we will have to wait at least thirty minutes till they prepared a meal for us, even though this was Saturday and only two in the afternoon, when the Manager at Hotel Thilanka said yes, they have lunch we sighed with relief. A relief which lasted only for a mere forty-minutes.

That's when the bill came. Seven hundred rupees each, for a meal of murunga, mukunuwenna, pumpkin and fried fish heads followed by a pot of watery curd and a few thin slices of water melon. Here is a place thou weary traveller thee should avoid no matter how parched thy lips are and how empty thy stomach is.

Upon arriving at Sigiriya, as always, I found myself gazing with despair at the flat arid nothingness, the seemingly inhospitable wasteland that met my eye. Then, yes, I found this first impression as it almost always does, is false and misleading. It is true, that this is a harsh bleak land, but one that is neither hostile nor dead.

A land that is not lifeless as the land in Yala or in some areas of Chilaw or to draw from my experiences in the USA, the land seen in Arizona. For, there is water here; in lakes and marshes often frequented by a dozen or so villagers knee deep in water, fishing, not for commercial purposes but for their midday meal.

There is water too in small pits nourished by gentle streams adding colour to the surroundings. Colour! Yes, there is colour here from the ever changing blues and greys of the wind rippled waters to the fresh light green grass striving towards a sky speckled with patches of white. And above all there is life here, birds in great number, groups of brown cattle, mischivous monkeys and elephants.

Elephants, but luckily not on a Saturday evening, and not in the vicinity of Pidurangala.

Though the sun was about to call it a day and return home by the time we reached Pidurangala, we took a chance and started the steep climb to the summit from hence it is believed one could see the best view of Sigiriya. With dusk rapidly enveloping the rock stairways and an eerie silence falling among us it was all too easy to imagine how lonely and secluded the lives of the cave-dwelling monks would have been more than 1,500 years ago.

Dawn on Sunday morning saw us at the foot of Sigiriya. Finally here I was in Kassapa's royal abode. Flinging all the historical details painstakingly unearthed by archeologists across the years, to the four winds I let my imagination reign supreme.

In my minds eye at first, I saw Kassapa as John Abraham in the movie, 'Water', then, he changed into a brave warrier with the same contuours as those of Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart', and finally in his old age I pictured him looking like Clint Eastwood, silent, strong, solitary.

I day dreamt of how he would have received me in his royal meeting room, equivalent in importance to the Oval room in the White House, if I had gone to interview him for the Sunday Observer.

Instead of pen and paper I would probably have had a puskola and panhinda in my hands and I would have been served with wine imported from Egypt in the kind of goblet you see in dramas of Shakespeare.

I wonder if I would have had the courage to ask him why on earth he chose such a massive rock rising more than 180 meters above the surrounding plains, to build his castle. Was this escapism at its best?...would he have English? I stopped dreaming. Even day dreams can be stretched only to a limit.

Yet, even without dreaming, it was easy to picture how beautiful the palace would have been thanks to the paintings on the pockets of the rock on the west side. Visible 1,500 years later in the form of beautiful damsels whose looks had inspired many a traveller to pen his thoughts on the mirror wall.

"This lady was from Nigeria" explained one tour guide to his group of fair skinned middle aged travellers pointing his finger at a painting of a lady whose lips were unusually large. "In those days too there were foreigners at Sigiriya". He added further, exulting in the looks of amazement on the faces of his attentive audience.

Back at home, going through my father's extensive collection of books on Sigiriya I came across the picture of the so called African Lady in the massive publication issued by the Archaeological Survey of Sri Lanka. She was described as an aged lady, the eldest among the maidens who had functioned as the duenna in the harem of King Kassapa.

Upon reaching the summit, at nine in the morning last Sunday, I wondered if Kassapa too would have stood exactly where I was standing and stared at the breathtaking view before him. He would have seen more trees, more dagabas and more tanks than me.

But the sky and the wind would not have changed. He too would have seen the same blue sky. The same wind that ruffled my hair would surely have run her fingers through his as well...Tsk...tsk..the tour guide again. It is hard not to listen to him. "You and I have only one wife.

But King Kassapa had five hundred wives". "Lucky fellow" muttered one listener. "Poor bugger" said another.

The descend down from the summit was easier than the climb up the steep iron stairway, perhaps because familiarity makes distance grow shorter. As I walked through the water garden to the exit I kept bumping into foreigners, old ladies, teenagers, school children in uncountable numbers making a mad dash towards the top of Sigiriya and making an equally mad dash down again to the waiting buses. "You'll see more crowds on Poya Days", said the security guard at the gate.

I think I heard King Kassapa laugh.

P.S Dear Reader, now that I have concluded this series of travel articles, I think the time has come to say thank you for being with me during these past two months. It was good to have shared my experiences with you, good to have received emails and phone calls from you, good to have listened to you when you walked up to me and talked about my articles...good to have had you in my life.

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