Interpreting Sigiriya: Confronting Gananath Obeyesekere’s Distortions

Raja De Silva commenting on Gananāth Obēyesēkere: The Buddha in Srī Lankā. Histories and Stories. London: Routledge. 2019 336 pp.

The author [GO], an eminent anthropologist, has rejected the evidence (archaeological and literary)  that I depended on in my interpretation (de Silva, Raja 2002., 155 pp) of the meaning of Sīgiriya and its paintings: that  the site was a monastic complex and the paintings were representations of the goddess Tara.  He has criticized my thesis (1) by resorting to assertions, several untrue and the rest of no merit and (2) by asking rhetorical questions.  He has mentioned without criticism the interpretation of Sīgiriya by Siri Gunasinghe (SG) (2008), his friendly colleague of the Peradeniya University.

SG’s thesis is that (1) Kassapa built a palace at Sigiriya, and was the patron of the paintings, (2) that the paintings do not represent the goddess Tārā, but depict nondescript beautiful women.  It should be noted that (1) above is the unquestioning acceptance of that story in the 13th century literary work, the Mahavamsa (Mhv.) regarding the alleged building activity of  Kassapa I, datable to the 6th/7th century. All the archaeological evidence at the monumental complex, which is to the contrary, has been ignored by SG and GO.

My later study of the many aspects of the Sigiriya paintings (de Silva, Raja 2009.  220 pp) does not seem to have come to GO’s notice; there, I gave a detailed response to the stand taken by Siri Gunasinghe, and described it as a flimsy tissue of untenable conjectures (pp. 175-183).

This is an appropriate place to record the most notable of GO’s assertions and give my comments on them.

Assertion 1.  GO states (2019, p.146), regarding my attitude to the reliability of the Mhv:   ‘Raja de Silva rejects the Mahavamsa totally’.

Comment 1.  What I did state about the Mhv. is (to quote from de Silva, 2002, p. 7) “Considering the pattern of omission of historical facts demonstrated above, it is evident that the Mhv. cannot be relied upon to be an authentic record of secular history in the absence of other corroborative material”. (emphasis   added)

GO’ s assertion, therefore, is not true.

Assertion 2. Furhermore, GO states (p. 1  ‘Gunasinghe does not deny all of the Mahavamsa story as de Silva does. For example, he agrees that Kashyapa established two monasteries in honour of his two daughters and himself’.

Comment 2.  This is a distortion of what I have written (See Comment, above; Sig. & Signif. 2002, p. 9 1.4).  I have not denied the Mhv. story of the religious works of Kassapa I, and I did mention (before Gunasinghe, 2008)  his  building of two vihāras named after his daughters.                                                                       ‘Kassapa built a vihara in the garden known as the Niyyanti Garden and named this vihara too after his daughters (Mhv.              39, v. 14)’.                     

Assertion 3.  GO has commented on my attitude to the Mhv.vis-a-vis my interpretation that Sīgiriya was no pleasure dome, capital, fortress of Kassapa I, but a monastic complex (p.149). His assertions as numbered by me are

  1. Paranavitana’s main hypothsis is that Sigiriya was a cosmic-city modelled on the basis of Kuvera’s palace’.
  2. ‘De Silva’s basic thesis wipes out the Mahavamsa account from the slate’

iii. ‘Kashyapa in this [de Silva’s] account becomes a kind of nonentity’.

  1. ‘The actual monastic complexes were pre and post Kashyapa’

Comments.  3. i.  GO is referring here, with approval, to Paranavitāna’s long paper entitled Sīgiriya, the abode of a god-king (JRAS(CB) 1 n.s., 129 – 183.  But here is the rub:  GO does not refer to my paper (de Silva, Raja 2005, 223 – 240) where  I criticized in detail Paranavitāna’s god-king theory.  This assertion, therefore is of no value.

3, ii, iii, iv. My monastic interpretation of Sigiriya does not entail denying the Mhv. in toto, but only where the compiler writes of a grand palace for Kassapa I on the summit. To explain, let me quote from my thesis (Sigiriya and its Significanc, p. 11)

‘The Mhv. has recorded that Kassapa I built a vihara in Sigiriya and named it after himself and his two daughters.

All these literary records (detailed above) indicate that Buddhist shrines existed on and around the Sigiriya rock  before, during and after the rule of Kassapa I’.

Furthermore, I have conceded there that, as recorded in the Mhv., Kassapa I had  built a surrounding wall, a lion-staircase house, and a vihāra.  I discussed the question of the palace Kassapa I was stated to have built, and concluded (ibid. pp. 12, 13, 14)

‘It is reasonable to conclude, from the foregoing  critical look at the references in the Mhv, that the story of  a palace on the summit of the Rock  cannot be true’

The assertions made by GO have no merit

Assertion 4.   Regarding my interpretation of Sīgiriya as being a monastic complex, GO   has asserted      ‘ On the face of it Raja de Silva’s argument that Sigiriya was a monastic complex is a persuasive one.’

Let’s face it, GO has softened the blow, but the fact remains that he has shown his hand: intrinsically, he has summarily rejected my thesis. I have spent much thoughtful time (Sigiriya and its Signifiance: 5 – 14; 63 – 65)  on the evidence of the literary record, and (ibid: 15 – 62) on the archaeological evidence at the site, to show that Sigiriya is a monastic complex.

GO has not given reasons for his rejection; instead of meeting my arguments, he  has  posed two questions (the second in exasperation), given below, that I am prepared to answer:

  1. i. ‘If indeed Sigiriya was entirely a monastic complex and in general the Mahavamsa extols such achievements, why did it ignore this case, especially because Sigiriya was a combination of both   Mahayana and Theravada according to de Silva?
  1.  ‘And why on earth did they focus instead on Kashyapa?

Comment 4.  i.  The Mhv. did not ignore the case of Sigiriya from the religious point of view.  My Sigiriya and its Significance 2002: 10 shows that  2/3ds of the page  is devoted to Mhv. records of Mahāyāna-Thēravāda vihāras built by several kings at Sīgiriya.

  1. Gott im Himmel! Careful reading of the Mhv. would show that far from focussing on Kassapa I, instead of on Sigiriya (as GO wails)  the Mhv. compiler has recorded works of this king at Sigiriya (See Comment 2 and 3.ii,iii, and iv, above).

The assertions made above, disguised as rhetorical questions, are shown to have no basis.

Assertion 5.  GO has published further critical assertions  about  my  monastic complex – interpretation of  Sīgiriya.  He has stated (Buddha in SL: 150  ‘If indeed Sigiriya was a monastic complex, how does one reconcile the wonderful gardens with its many ponds and  fountains with the ascetic tradition that our author  thinks was characteristic of his version of Buddhism?’  (question      mark included by me).

 Comment 5.  This is another distortion of what I have stated  (Sigiriya and its Significance: 52).  I have not stated that the ascetic tradition was characteristicof my version of Buddhism (at Sigiriya).  To the contrary, I  stated  ‘The terraces of the cave shrines, which have been in occupation for more than a millennium, show  development     (emphasis added) from the initial residential quarters  for ascetic monks to serve larger purposes connected with the introduction of Mahayanist forms  worship  of dagobas, the Buddha and female  bodhisattva statues and statuettes, and the rituals  connected thereto’.

Elsewhere (ibid:106, 123), I have described the abode of Tārā, Mount Potala, with its forested trees bearing fruit, creepers, fragrant flowers, frequented by birds and cooled by water-falls. I have also shown that Sigiriya (taken symbolically as an island) with its gardens, parklands, thickly wooded areas difficult of access, intricate water-ways and fountains, fits the description of Mount Potala; I have concluded that the significance of Sīgiriya is that it was another Mount Potala, the  abode of Tārā.

I have also shown (ibid.: 63 – 65), that literary light shed on ancient viharas shows that they had beautifully laid-out gardens.               ‘                        

Assertion 6(1) GO has criticized (Buddha in SL, p. 150 my detailed identification of the Sigiriya paintings with the goddess Tārā; I had done this by utilizing the known iconography of Tārā (as given in several Mahayāna sacred texts) with such information elicited from a study of the Sigiriya paintings. GO’s view of iconography for this purpose is that

‘We must, I think, be cautious in our interpretation of iconography’.

He goes on to recommend that one should be able to show the resemblance of the Sigiriya Tārās to other Tārās; that one ought to be able to demonstrate that this iconographic representation of Tārā can be verified on the basis of similar archaeological features in the record of South Asia.

Comment 6(1). Since I have not done as he would have wished, he says that the female figures have to be taken on faith as those of Tārā.

This is an example of the difference between the two cultures –  the scientific attitude on the one hand, and the arts and humanities on the other, as descried by CP Snow, the scientific writer. I, having been educated in the scientific attitude, believe that the simplest theory is the best:  it is a fact that n established iconographic features peculiar to Tārā (as stated in sacred books of the Mahayāna Buddhist pantheon) are identical with n of the same features seen in the Sigiriya paintings. I shall be specific for the information of a reader who has not seen my book titled Sigiriya paintings (2009: 96 – 122).  I have identified there ten special iconographic features showing such identity, i.e., n = 10. I have also shown, earlier, that ‘The similarity between Mount Potala and Sigiriya is derived from design. The significance of Sigiriya, then,   is that it was another Mount Potala, the abode of Tara’. – Sigiriya and its Significance 2002: 123

It is safe to take it that these items of identity with characteristics of Tārā are not accidental but have been introduced into the Sigiriya paintings by design, and the paintings represent Tārā.

Besides, the greater the number of paintings there are in which these traits of the Tārā iconography are to be seen, the greater is the confidence in my mind, that the paintings do represent Tārā; and in Sīgiriya, there are to seen many such paintings in the fresco pockets and and elsewhere (24 figures).

There is no need for me, then, to go to other countries for comparison in order to further support my case. See NA Jayawickrama (2002) and Richard Gombrich (2002)  for their approving comments on my thesis.

So, GO is loath to accept my interpretation, which he criticizes.

He takes the step of using euphemistic language to induce readers not to readily accept my reasoning: he warns them to be wary about the usefulness of iconography, i.e., to be cautious about accepting my conclusion (Buddha in SL, p. 150). Thus, he sidelines my interpretation, which is based on iconography, the only way an art critic can identify the (human) subject of an ancient painting that is not named by the artist concerned.

GO’s attempt to devalue the usefulness of iconography in art criticism is baseless.

Assertion 6(2).  GO asserts (Buddha in SL, 150) that there is, for me, an insurmountable hurdle concerning my Tara-interpretation:

‘He refers to Mount Potala as the abode of Tara which is true: but we know that Tara’s consort is Avalokiteśva and he is indeed the main deity in Potala and in most  of Mahayana. There is no mention of Avalokitesvara   in the famed monastic complex of Sigiriya, supposedly   strongly influenced by Mahayana, according to de Silva.’

Comment (2).  I cannot accept GO’s argumentum ex silentio (that there being no mention of Avalokitesvara,  the paintings cannot be of Tārā) for the following reasons.

Though Tārā and Avalōkitēsvara both have their abode in Mount Potala, Tārā who was early recognized an assocate of Avalōkitēsvara and a  bodhisattva gradually  became known as a goddess (“in the seventh century Tārā is established as a deity in her own right, and is  said in particular to save devotees from eight great fears (Paul Williams 2009: 225, which  GO has noted in his biblgraphy);  Miranda Shaw 2006: 314  states  ”Literary sources, too, trace a rapid  expansion of interest in Tara, first as an associate of Avalokitesara and then as an object of reverence in her own right’. Oral traditions  in religious  practice existed for several centuries before they were put down in writings, as shown by AK Coomaraswamy  (1932) 1994: 97.  Thus, hymns to Tārā written down in the  7th century would have been in oral usage  several centuries earlier,  just as much as  the the hymn about Tārā composed  by Matrceta in the time of King Kanishka ca. AC 218 – 151 would have been known and chanted for several centuries before being put down in writing (See Sigiriya and its Significance 2002: 90.  Therefore,  we can take it that when the paintings were done in Sigiriya (ca mid-6th century AC Tārā was being worshipped in her own right ( See ibid. 2002: 107 – 115 on dating of the paintings ),

GO’s complaint that there is no mention of Avalokitēsvara in my interpretation is of no value.

Concluding Comments

The accumulated archaeological evidence unearthed from more than a century of fieldwork at Sigiriya, and reported in the annual issues of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon Administration Report, was used by me (together with evidence from ancient Buddhst literature) in interpreting the meaning of the vast complex: it is a series of Buddhist monasteries. GO has presumed to dismiss this thesis without devoting even one sentence to considering/ appreciating this major archaeological and literary evidence.

I say to GO  in the slightly altered words of Alexander Pope (18th century) :”Know then thyself, presume not Goddess to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man.”


de Silva, Raja. 2005. “Senarat Paranavitana’s Sigiri, the abode of a god-king revisited and reviewed” in Digging Into The Past: 223-240.

Gombrich, Richard. Pers Com. 18-11-2002.

Jayawickrama, N.A. Pers Com. 23-8-2002.


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Filed under accountability, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, paintings, self-reflexivity, the imaginary and the real

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