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Taprobane and Ceylon

For dramatic reasons, I have made three trifling changes to the geography of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). I have moved the island eight hundred kilometres south, so that it straddles the equator as indeed it did twenty million years ago, and may some day do again. At the moment it lies between six and ten degrees north.

In addition, I have doubled the height of the Sacred Mountain, and moved it closer to Yakkagala. For both places exist, very much as I have described them.

Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak, is a striking cone-shaped mountain sacred to the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Hindus and the Christians, and bearing a small temple on its summit. Inside the temple is a stone slab with a depression which, though two metres long, is reputed to be the footprint of the Buddha.

Every year, for many centuries, thousands of pilgrims have made the long climb to the 2,240-metre-high summit. The ascent is no longer dangerous for there are two stairways (which must surely be the longest in the world) to the very top. I have climbed once, at the instigation of the New Yorker's Jeremy Bernstein (see his Experiencing Science), and my legs were paralysed for several days afterwards. But it was worth the effort, for we were lucky enough to see the beautiful and awe-inspiring spectacle of the peak's shadow at dawn a perfectly symmetrical cone visible only for the few minutes after sunrise, and stretching almost to the horizon on the clouds far below.

I have since explored the mountain with much less effort in a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter, getting close enough to the temple to observe the resigned expressions on the faces of the monks, now accustomed to such noisy intrusions.

The rock fortress of Yakkagala is actually Sigiriya (or Sigiri, Lion Rock), the reality of which is so astonishing that I have had no need to change it in any way. The only liberties I have taken are chronological, for the palace on the summit was (according to the Sinhalese Chronicle the Culavarnsa) built during the reign of the parricide King Kasyapa I (AD 478-495). However, it seems incredible that so vast an undertaking could have been carried out in a mere eighteen years by a usurper expecting to be challenged at any moment, and the real history of Sigiriya may well go back for many centuries before these dates.

The character, motivation and actual fate of Kasyapa have been the subject of much controversy, recently fuelled by the posthumous The Story of Sigiri (Lake House, Colombo, 1972), by the Sinhalese scholar Professor Senerat Paranavitana. I am also indebted to his monumental two-volume study of the inscriptions on the Mirror Wall, Sigiri Graffiti (Oxford University Press, 1956). Some of the verses I have quoted are genuine; other I have only slightly invented.

The frescoes which are Sigiriya's greatest glory have been handsomely reproduced in Ceylon: Paintings from Temple, Shrine and Rock (New York Graphic Society/UNESCO, 1957). Plate V shows the most interesting and the one, alas, destroyed in the 1960's by unknown vandals. The attendant is clearly listening to the mysterious hinged box she is holding in her right hand; it remains unidentified, the local archaeologists refusing to take seriously my suggestion that it is an early Sinhalese transistor radio.

The legend of Sigiriya has recently been brought to the screen by Dimitri de Grunwald in his production The God King, with Leigh Lawson as a very impressive Kasyapa.

SOURCES AND ACKOWLEDGMENTS | The Fountains of Paradise | The Space Elevator