May 2010


The New Sigiriya Museum: history comes alive
May 2010




Walking on glass - gives the visitor an aerial view of the rock and gardens

Words: Nanda P Wanasundera | Photography: Devaka Seneviratne

A visit to the new Sigiriya museum, one of its kind in Sri Lanka, is interesting, inspiring and intellectual. You do not go through it with a catalogue in hand or a head-set explaining each artifact as you pass it. Rather it is a museum one looks through mind engaged, sensibilities awakened and realizing it effectively though unobtrusively complements the stupendous Rock. Designed and built by Sri Lankans with Japanese aid and expertise, the new museum was opened to the public in August 2009. Its guiding concept was ‘artifact as text'- displayed artifacts being text within the contextual site. The conceptual design of the museum was by Prof Seneka Bandaranayake.

It is not a traditional museum where a monumental building houses artifacts. Rather it was architecturally designed to afford spaces for the contents which accommodate the opportunity for the individual to arrive at his or her own interpretation of the exhibits, plans, models and photographs with a minimum of ‘technical' information. Each gallery would plunge the visitor into direct communication with different aspects of the past. Furthermore, the architectural design was in no way to overshadow, in the slightest, the Rock itself. The museum, the excavated gardens and all else are secondary to the Rock.

One sees the museum only as green sections among the trees as one starts to walk along its entrance path. None of the large trees on site were cut; the museum was designed around them, rising from water. Thus emerged a ‘green building' successfully conserving the archaeological character of the Sigiriya monument and its site. The water below and all around the building represents the moat around the Rock. The building - offices, museum, open air theatre and atrium covering 50,000 sq ft - is on stilts, making allowance for any flooding of the impounded Sigiri Oya which fills the red lotus covered pool and then released, goes its way to irrigate the land.

The architectural concept drew inspiration from the sophisticated design systems apparent in the 5th Century ruins of the Sigiriya monument, the most significant being the unique hydraulic system now apparent in the excavated gardens. Hence the built bubbly cascade of water close to the exit. Also incorporated in the design was the very clearly enunciated ‘green concept' that was inherent in the entirety of the Sigiriya rock palace and pleasure gardens; a vernacular tradition in ancient Sri Lankan buildings.

Within the Museum

The museum is three levelled, to parallel the climb to the summit of the Rock. The visitors' lobby gives standing room access to a short history of Sigiriya presented in the three languages: English, Sinhala and Tamil. You pass to the front atrium where a structured open space frames a stunning view of the majestic Rock. Etched in glass is the story of King Kasyapa from the Chulavamsa (historical record inscribed by a Buddhist monk in the 13th century AD.)

Entrance to the main museum is through an enclosed bridge in the form of a brick archway tunnel, which is an exact replica of an excavated archway to the Rock. This ‘time tunnel' further signifies the visitor's imminent journey back to the 5th century AD.

The first space is the Protohistoric Gallery; the exhibits being excavated artifacts of various sorts from iron implements to pottery and terra cotta heads and figures. A replicated iron smelting kiln proves that iron was used extensively in this region of the Island, probably earlier than the 5th century AD.

The second gallery represents the Buddhist Monastic Period with artifacts of that time. The third section is the story of King Kasyapa. The room dedicated to his achievements showcases Japanese technology at its most precise. Visitors walk on glass panels looking down, first on the water gardens, then on the mirror wall area, the lion's paw and last of all on the summit of the Rock, exactly replicated to scale. The underlying concept was to give the visitor an aerial view of the rock and gardens. It could also compensate those who are unable to make the arduous climb to the summit of the Rock.

A treasured exhibit is an earring. Made of solid gold, it has a purple stone, thought to be a priceless amethyst. The value has not been calculated since it is too precious an artifact to be subject to tests. It is definitely of the Sigiriya period since it resembles the ornaments worn by some of the fresco-women.

The fourth gallery is the mirror wall room with the kurutu kavi or graffiti replicated exactly. Interestingly termed kurutu liyawili (scribbled writings), the graffiti are inscriptions along one portion of the rock face that climbers pass on their way to the summit. They are on-the-spur-of-the-moment inspired short verses (kavi) commenting on the frescoes - some in adoration and even lust, others reprimanding the girls for their immodesty. The ancient script was ‘cracked' comparatively recently and the verses translated to Sinhala and English. The kavi have been exactly copied on a wall surface and presence-sensitized, a couple of them are chanted as you approach for a closer look.

The fifth and last gallery is dedicated to etho-archeology of the Sigiriya region; in it is traced the history of archaeology and findings in Sri Lanka from early on to the present day.

You proceed to a spiral stairway, climbing, which brings you on to the mezzanine floor where invariably gasps are heard, especially from those who have already climbed the rock and halfway reached the wire-mesh enclosed gallery with the frescoes on display. The replication of the rock and the painted frescoes on the rock face is stunningly accurate. On the Rock, to get to this seeing point, one climbs an enclosed spiral stairway that hangs in air. From the viewing gallery looking down you see the tree covered, green ground far below you.

The museum has placed the lovely doe-eyed damsels, most of them holding lotus flowers in their hands and riding clouds in an in-built rock cave. The frescoes were recreated in the museum by Prof. Albert Dharmasiri. Many of the frescoes face a temple on a hill close by, Pidurangala, to venerate the Buddha. Originally the entire Sigiriya rock face, apart from the mirrored sections, was covered with painted apsaras - heavenly women - estimated to be around 500. Of them only 20 are seen today, most clustered together, but some, discovered later, are inaccessible as of now to visitors. The museum, however, replicates this latter group too, including an elderly, and one may dare declare, rather stern woman!

History truly comes alive at the Sigiriya Museum where modern architecture and technology has resulted in creating a truly novel experience.

 

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    The view of the Sigiriya Rock from the Museum

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    Minimal architectural intervention

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    Recreating the unique hydraulic system of Sigiriya

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    The Gallery within the Museum

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    Sigiriya frescoes accurately recreated at the Sigiriya Museum

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