"The Competition Heats Up" — by MJ Pramik

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Knuckles Mountains from Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Knuckles Mountains from Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

“The Competition Heats Up”

 by MJ Pramik

 
“Well, is it? Is Sigiriya the Eighth Wonder of the World?” I detect a hint of cynicism, mixed with a whisper of pride, in Shirly Fernando’s question. I’m dripping from the descent from on high in the 86 degrees Fahrenheit temperature and 90% humidity on a well-turned out, bright blue-sky day in central Sri Lanka.
The previous day and night, “unseasonal” (a routine word these days) monsoon rains had drenched the grounds of the somewhat hidden Kassapa Lion’s Rock Inn and the countryside surrounding Sigiriya. From the open-air patio of the Kassapa Lion’s Rock Inn, Sigiriya loomed up out of the ground, determined, alone in the distance. An evening walk up the muddy, pot-holed red dirt road bordering the three-star hotel revealed a shadowed, reddish-beige, mountain island, beckoning across the scrub plain. Shaped like a bread loaf, outcrops of dripping trees and greenery, slashes of black rock, and gouges from monsoon waterfalls were visible if you squinted and held your focus for several minutes.
Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the ruins of a capital palace of King Kassapa I (477-495 AC), whose brief reign commenced upon assassinating his father Dhatusena (walled into the palace bulwark for a slow death) and the flight of his younger brother Moggallana to India where he bided his time. Dhatusena, builder of many “wewas” or tank reservoirs, had ruled from the ancient nerve center of Anuradhapura while Kassapa moved to build the Sigiriya (Lion’s Rock) fortress above the forests. Kassapa embedded fresco galleries of buxom painted women thought to depict Tara the Mahayana goddess worshipped as the great savior, and staircases cascading out of a lion’s mouth and between its giant paws. The 21 “Maidens of the Clouds,” many of which have been preserved in splendid colors in an overhang gallery, inspired Sinhalese graffiti and poems admiring the creation of these damsels. Kassapa patronized the Buddhist monks and built a vast city of grottos, ponds, cisterns, and rock gardens, both at ground level and up to the terraced top of Lion’s Rock.
The rock palace that was Sigiriya was to be impregnable. Kassapa, hearing of Moggallana’s return from India in 495 AC, descended from the fortress to crush his brother. In an encounter with a bog, Kassapa atop of his elephant was isolated from his fleeing army. Seeing he would be captured, he “fell on his sword” said guide Shirly Fernando, approving of this outcome. Upon Kassapa’s death, Moggallana restored Sigiriya to the Mahayanist Buddhist monks who initially inhabited the site, thus ensuring the decay of its splendor.
The morning’s ride over the rutted main road to the main gate of Sigiriya rocked the Nissan Bluebird Selphy. Once through the leaning boulders demarking entry, I stride upward. Slowly: I thought I was in good physical condition. However, the direct ascent of 600 feet up from the grounds challenges any visitor’s cardio health—particularly with the high heat and humidity. Emptying two water bottles and soaking a nylon backpack through and through, I climbed up the stairs, paying homage to the Cloud Maidens; the rich greens, reds and ochers have held their mystique despite the monsoon of time. Past two barefoot workers scrubbing the metal mirror wall with steel brushes the size of toothbrushes, we continued upward. Reaching the landing at the lion’s paws, I sat with the macaques by the palace walls to gather strength. Guide Shirly elected to chat with colleagues at this level since he’d “climbed it for the past 30 years” leaving me to ascend in solitude. Well, along with tourists from Britain, Australia, Russia, France, Sri Lanka and the forest’s resident monkeys.
The palace gardens, overgrown, showing bulwark designs, and a large stone seat signed “The Throne” mesmerized us all for hours. Sitting under my bohdi tree, I watched the mountains facing east change colors, found my hotel afar off among the trees, and enjoyed the cooling breeze. Later I would learn the throne label did not apply for the stone seat; most likely it was where a teacher would instruct fellow monks or novices in Buddhist practices and readings.
Back to Shirly’s question. Many sites have won the label of the Eighth Wonder of the World, so now they are duly categorized. Natural places. Pre-1900 creations. Post-1900 creations. People: only one here and that would be Andre the Giant (19 May 1946 to 27 January 1993). Andre was a Bulgarian-Polish born French and American professional wrestler and actor. Never heard of him? Neither had I.
Sigiriya falls in the Pre-1900 category, competing with the likes of the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Machu Pichu in Peru, the Taj Mahal in India, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the moai statues of Easter Island belonging to Chile, and the Great Wall of China, among others. From my perch atop the rock with its panoramic 360-degree view of open sky, rain forests and the Knuckles Mountains to the East, Sigiriya definitely tops the two United States entries. I’ve dined on pizza and ice cream beneath the Brooklyn Bridge on such a sunny afternoon and climbed to the top of the torch in Miss Liberty. The Great Wall of China, visited in 1995 with my two young daughters, is long and continuous. Compared to these three contenders, Sigiriya takes the trophy for now.
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