March 2013


The Rock Fortress of Yapahuwa
March 2013




IMPOSING: the stone door beckons one to enter the sanctum of the Tooth in the backdrop

Words Manu Gunasena Photography Tavish Gunasena


If the two magnificent lions on guard at the rock fortress of Yapahuwa could break their stony silence today, no doubt they will relate with relish the stirring story of how Yapahuwa Rock became Buvenekabahu's bulwark against the invading Chola forces; 
and how he made it his last stand to save the imperiled Sinhala dynasty of kings.


It was indeed turbulent times to 
have lived in. Polonnaruwa had already fallen sixty years ago and lay prostrate under the Chola jackboot. Vijayabahu III the son of Parakramabahu, the Great, had fled to Dambadeniya where he and three other kings were to rule from 1220 AD. The third king Vijayabahu IV was crowned king in 1270 AD but two years later was killed by his own minister and the crown fell to his younger brother, Buvenekabahu. The air was rife with intrigue, treachery and invasion. And for the young accidental King, Dambadeniya spelt certain doom. Facing the possibility of a mass scale onslaught from the South Indian Army garrisoned at Polonnaruwa and fearing for his own security in the wake of internecine warfare after his brother's murder, Buvenekabahu decamped and settled at the bosom of Yapahuwa Rock to establish his capital.


It was indeed a familiar source of security. Years earlier a military leader named Subha, realising the rock's potential as a strategic point of defense, had made Yapahuwa his stronghold and from its fortifications had successfully repulsed Magha of Kalinga (1214-1246 AD) from marching his twenty four thousand strong army further southward to the Sinhala heartland; and even today the Yapahuwa rock is also referred to as 'Subha Pabbata' or Subha's rock in recognition of its first known occupier.


From the low lying forest plains the wonder rock dramatically breaks ground and soars over 100 metres high, sticking out like a sore thumb for all to see. 
But from its lofty perch it offers a vantage view of the vast expanse below thus providing clear and vital intelligence of any enemy movements. Thus it seemed the ideal bastion to keep the barbarians at the gate from making further incursions. Yapahuwa was not chosen for its attack potential but solely for its defense value; and the ruins that remain reveal by their design and placement, defense as its raison d'être, 
reason for existence.


Along with his court, Buvenekabahu brought with him the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha for it was considered the custom then that, where resided the Tooth Relic, there lay the capital of Lanka. It was the potent symbol of sovereign power and legitimacy of kingship.


Buvenekabahu, now safely ensconced in Yapahuwa, began fortifying his capital. As the first defense he built a moat over ten kilometres long, which completely circled his fort. Upon the embankment he erected an encircling wall and, further infield from the ramparts; he built his own palace next to which he located the Royal Council Chamber, which seated his 
war cabinet.


But the most secure place of all, the pride of Yapahuwa Rock, he reserved for the Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha. It is to Buvenekabahu's everlasting credit, I believe, that where he could have sited his own palace at the epicenter of fortifications, he opted to place himself at risk and stay in the low ground with the sole aim and intent to defend the revered relic rather than leave it vulnerable to the first invasionary wave of attacks. In comparison with the visible efforts made to take all security measures and strengthen fortifications to secure the safety of the Sacred Tooth from enemy attack, the king's palace, lying at the base of the rock in close proximity to the ramparts, seems a sitting duck for any passing Chola force to take pot shots at.

Leading up to this sanctum of the Tooth is the imposing, ornate stone stairway
This one act alone by the King reveals that the design and purpose of the rock fortress of Yapahuwa was not so much as to protect the King's personage but to safeguard, with all the wherewithal that could be commanded, the Sacred Tooth Relic and to prevent the unthinkable happening by letting it fall into enemy hands.


Leading up to this sanctum of the Tooth is the imposing, ornate stone stairway. The first flight of the staircase takes one to the first plateau to face the challenge of scaling the second flight, which is the steepest and the most demanding. Both these flights are functional in design with the steps built narrowly so much so that one has to place one's feet sideways to manoeuver to the top. This strategic device had been used to slow down the advance of any invading troops, giving the defenders ample time to repulse the attack.


Here, having reached the topmost step of the daunting second flight, I pause for rest and breath and look down on what I had climbed. What stares back is a sheer precipice and it is only then I realise how steeply the steps had been built. I gaze ahead and what appears before me is awe inspiring and breathtaking. Miles and miles of forest plains stretch out before me on all sides along with a few paddy fields and then I feel with a tingling sensation what Buvenekabahu must have surely felt at this very same spot eight hundred years ago starring at the same vista with eagle eyes perched on the rock he ruled: the indescribable sensation of invincibility.


I turn and face the final flight to the third and final plateau and I am met with the most beautiful stone staircase I have ever seen, evoking within me an aesthetic sense of joy and appreciation. Where the previous two flights of stairs were Spartan and functional, the final stone stairway is embellished with art in honour of the sacred shrine it leads to. Here the steps relatively widen and at the end of each balustrade are carved two damsels in a welcoming pose over which the famous Yapahuwa Lions ever vigilant, on guard and set to sound the warning roar, and leap in attack to defend Lanka's most precious possession. In these two lions all the security preparations and fortifications made by human hand seem to be embodied in stone and come alive in the wondrous workings of a master sculptor.


Once the forbidding gauntlet of these two lions are passed, on either side of the final steps are the heads 
of two elephants with their trunks rolling out the red carpet of welcome. 
The final step brings you to the entrance of the stone doorway which is flanked by stone walls and pillars and two intricately carved windows depicting women, swans and other animals and figures bearing a bacchanalian touch. A mid 19th Century expedition discovered that one of the windows was in fragments but the other the 'Suvumenduru Kauluwa' or the perforated window was well preserved. Forty five circles have been bored through the stone allowing the sun rays to enter and cast a soft light within the chamber.


Cross the threshold of the stony doorway and you arrive at the site 
where the Temple of the Tooth stood. Alas, nothing of its beauty, its elegance or its grandeur remains today. 
The ravages of time, the Pandyan plunder and the subsequent destruction wreaked by the Portuguese in the 
16th Century, have obliterated all evidence of the majestic structure that had existed here, that had enshrined the Sacred Tooth; and, today, save for a brick built rectangular base delineating its dimensions, the place is starkly bare and bereft of its beauty.


Behind what would have been the temple, the rock continues to soar. On the left hand side is a stony path which leads to the summit. At the top are the ruins of a stupa while nearby is a small natural water pond. As if to compensate the paucity of ruins at the peak, a magnificent view greets one accompanied by a strong but soothing breeze. Archaeologists believe from evidence gathered from six acres of flat land on the rock that human settlements may have existed in pre historic or early historic times (from 1000 BC to 200 AD).


At the base of the rock is a cave temple containing a few Buddha statues and murals. On the right hand side of the entrance to the fort is a rock temple where an image house is located under a boulder that juts from the rock. 
This temple was built for the monks 
who dwelled there centuries ago. 
Today it has only one resident monk.


But after all the fast paced efforts made to transform the rock into a battle citadel of impregnability, Yapahuwa's tryst with history came to a swift end. In 1284, barely twelve years after first setting foot on the crag, King Buvenekabahu died and with his demise, with the loss of his guiding force and star, the rock was soon overrun by the invading Pandyans who plundered and pillaged and decimated Yapahuwa of 
her treasures. Worse. They deplumed Lanka of her greatest possession. 
They seized the Sacred Tooth Relic and carried it away with them back to India to the Pandyan Court. It was only four years later that King Parakramabahu III successfully negotiated with the Pandyan King and restored it to Lanka's custody.


Nearly three hundred years later, Portuguese forces finished what the Pandyans had left half done. They ravished the rock further and razed all buildings to the ground leaving behind them only a few traces of Yapahuwa's glory.


Yapahuwa may have been a ‘here today, gone tomorrow' capital but what was left behind after its ephemeral period of holding centre stage in 
Sri Lanka's chequered history are evidence of a well planned fort of defense, complete with a royal palace, a royal council chamber, an ornate stairway, a magnificent Temple of the Tooth, Buddhist sculptor and art in the caves, and a moat and a wall encircling the entire rock. Due to the exigency existing at the time, it was planned and built within the first two years of its occupation. The entire grand design was executed not in the leisurely stroll of serene peace but in the midst of distant enemy drums thumping war; and thus speaks volumes of the genius of the people who brought the conception to fruition.

 

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    ATRIUM: the stone doorway, the pillars and the lobby before the temple of Tooth

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    FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE: the moat which encircles the entire rock

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    GRAND ENTRANCE: the ornate stone stairway to the entrance of the stone door

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    ROCK OF DEFIANCE: the Yapahuwa Rock soars sky high behind the second flight of stairs

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    THE SENTINEL: an intricately carved pillar stands guard before the stone door

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    THE FINAL ACCESS: the stone door, the two pillars and the two pillars on the final stairway

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    THE MAJESTIC GUARDS: the famous Yapahuwa Lions on either side of the steps dare you to walk the gauntlet

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    MONKS' ABODE: the renovated image house in the Rock Temple

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    THE GRAND DESIGN: the site of the Temple of the Tooth with the stone door

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    WELCOME: carved damsel at the end of the balustrade

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    THE WAR CHAMBER: the Royal Council building situated next to the Royal Palace

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    SHEER DROP: view from the top of the daunting second flight of stairs reveal the steepness of the stairway

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    HIDDEN: the King's palace bow overgrown with grass

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    PANORAMA: view of the vast expanse from the third plateau

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