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|Year and Month||November, 2014|
|Number of Days||One Day Trip|
|Crew||One but ideal for a family outing|
|Transport||Public transport and three wheeler|
|Activities||archeology, Photography, hiking|
|Weather||It was a very hot and shiny day|
|Tips, Notes and Special remark||
|Comments||Discuss this trip report, provide feedback or make suggestions at Lakdasun Forum on the thread|
The staircase of Yapahuwa is one of the most recognizable and reproduced icons of our cultural heritage. However, the actual ruins themselves are visited by only a small percentage of people visiting the cultural triangle. Sharing many similarities with the more famous Sigiriya, the mystique of Yapahuwa is enhanced by its turbulent past, majestic ruins, impressive fortifications and the vivid descriptions left by the travellers of antiquity who visited its kingdom. Its easy accessibility using public transport should make this an ideal location for a one day excursion for photography enthusiasts like me or those who are planning an educational, enjoyable and affordable day out for the whole family. Perhaps the greatest mystery in Yapahuwa is why so few Sri Lankans have actually been there to experience its splendors first hand…
I had a good night’s rest and left home only at 6.30 am to catch the 7.15 am Jaffna bound express from Fort. I got off from the Maho junction by 10.15 am and got to a three wheeler which took me the last 4km to the temple entrance. The three wheel driver name was Sampath (Mobile: 0723850800) and he knew about many archeologically interesting places in the vicinity of Yapahuwa
Passing a recently built arch I entered the archeology site. Today visitors enter the temple through the eastern gate of the ancient ramparts. Once entering the inner city I was greeted by many crumbling remnants of buildings scattered in the temple premises. The main attraction of Yapahuwa is undeniably in its majestic staircase. This magnificent structure climbs the lower southern slopes of the rock to a natural terrace where the Temple of the Tooth once stood.
Standing at the foot of the staircase and gazing up at the rock rising almost vertically for 90 meters above the ground…. I could not but wonder why an ancient kingdom was located here. The answer to this must be sought, deep within the history of our island.
The chronicle Mahawamsa records that a military leader named “Subha” using the Yapahuwa as his stronghold successfully repulsed Magha’s (1215-1236 AD) forces from marching southwards. This would have been no small feat as Magha of Kalinga is said to have led an invasion force of 24,000 soldiers. What was thereafter called ‘Subha pabbata’, “Subhavala” and “Subhagiripura” in honor of this victory was later known as “yaha pabbatha” and currently as “Yapahuwa”. However the reference to Yapahuwa as “Sundara Giri Pavuvva” in the Bodhivamsa in third century B.C during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa provides clear evidence of the locations ancient Buddhist origins.
Yapahuwa reached prominence as the 4th kingdom of Sri Lanka after the chaotic decline of the Damadeniya kingdom. Vijayabahu IV (1271-1272), the last king in Damabadeniya was assassinated by a general name Mitta who was himself killed by the Rajput soldiers within the palace. Thereafter the late Vijayabahu IV younger brother who had fled to Yapahuwa for hiding was crowned as Buwanaikabahu I (1272-1283 AD) in Dambadeniya with the help of the same Rajput soldiers. The king’s initial years of rule from Dambadeniya was troubled by rebellions and invasions from Vanni and North. After overcoming his opponents Buwanaikabahu I moved the royal seat to Yapahuwa for security reasons, thus heralding its golden age.
Buwanaikabahu I conveyed the tooth relic from Dambadeniya to Yapahuwa and gave his patronage to the Sangha, thus succeeding in making his rule was acceptable to the people. The names of surrounding villages such as Daladagama (the village where the tooth relic was kept for a short while during its journey from Dambadeniya to Yapahuwa), Dunupathagama (the village where the kings archers resided), Ullalapola (originally “Ula lana pola”: the place where the offenders were punished) and Makaduwawa (originally “Malkaduwawa”: the village where flowers were supplied to the shrine) provides further indication that Yapahuwa became a well-established kingdom within a short space of time. It is recorded the king sent an embassy to the Sultan of Cairo in April 1283, showing his keen interest in international trade. The influence of which is still visible in the majestic staircase even today s later discussed.
Unfortunately, Yapahuwa was only a royal capital for a short time as it was abandoned after the invading Pandyans of southern India seized the Sacred Tooth Relic. This happened soon after Bhuvanekabahu’s death in 1284. It is said that Parakramabahu-the third, his successor, in 1288 went to the Pandyan court in India and successfully negotiated the return of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It was brought eventually to Polonnaruwa after a brief stint in Kurunegala. Thus the 12 year span of the Yapahuwa kingdom makes it the shortest surviving seat of rule in our history.
Intriguingly, there is no recorded mention of Yapahuwa beyond the 13th Century in our historical sources. After the Fortress was abandoned monks converted it into a monastery which still continues to this date. The caves still containing “Kataram” or drip ledges found as one climbs closer to the top of the Yapahuwa rock and the Kandy era cave temple at the foot of the rock bears evidence to its close affiliation with the Maha Sangha after the 13th century. The first archaeological excavation at Yapahuwa was done by H. C. P. Bell, Sri Lanka’s first archaeological commissioner who held the post from 1810 to 1811. The excavations still continue today and the local residents believe there are many more ruins to be uncovered in the vicinity.
Some of the defense fortifications which played a pivotal role in Yapahuwa being selected as a kingdom are still visible today. The remains of two wall fortifications and the moat extend from west end of the Southern part of the rock and are connected to the other side of the rock resembling a horse shoe. The inner rampart is built on a higher elevation than its outer counterpart. The homes of the ordinary people are speculated to have been between the outer and inner walls while king’s palace, administrative buildings and of course the Temple of the Tooth were within the inner wall. Though smaller in scale these bear many similarities with the fortifications found in Sigiriya. These remain as stark reminders that many ancient seats of rule like Sigiriya, Dambadenya (Maligagala), Yapahuwa and Kurunegala (Ethugala) were selected primarily as defensive locations. A fascinating find was made just outside the inner moat by the Archeological Department when they excavated a stock of rounded stones. These round stones are believed to have been used as missiles.
In today’s era of “shock and awe” tactics of warfare, one cannot but wonder whether these simple ramparts, ditches and moats could really have kept an invading force at bay. However, it is in no uncertain terms that the Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu cautions against attacking walled fortifications in ancient warfare
Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities. The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided……You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked
The famous staircase is constructed in three tiers where a flight of steps lead to a broad landing to be followed by another staircase. The first tier is stark in design and provides an easy climb
The landing at the top of the first flight of stairs provided me a tantalizing glimpse of the entrance to the Dalda Maligawa and the fine examples of sculpture flanking the stairway.
After reaching the first landing, I decided to climb using the alternate path seen to the left hand side of the staircase. This provides a relatively easy climb for someone like me carrying a heavy camera backpack and a tripod. The top of this footpath is connected to the terrace where the temple of the tooth was located.
Those who opt to climb the last stage of the staircase will be faced with a difficult climb. Historians say that the steepness of the stairway and the narrowness of the steps were intended to protect the most treasured item in the king’s possession…the sacred tooth relic. Even with the aid of the recently installed steel railing, these steps can neither be ascended nor descended hastily. Those who have climbed the “Maliga-gala” where the royal abode of Dambadeniya was located would also be familiar with parts of a staircase narrowly constructed with similar intentions. When climbing down these steep stairs one cannot turn ones back to the shrine on top. Hence, the theory that the stairway was designed to avoid the disrespect of turning ones back to the sacred tooth relic. The final part of the stairway leading to the temple of the tooth relic is richly decorated, well befitting a shrine of its importance.
At the base of the final climb I was greeted with two graceful female “doratu palika” sculptures bearing a pot of plenty. Some experts identify these as goddesses Ganga and Yamuna bearing evidence to the Dravidian influence in the architecture in Yapahuwa.
The lions of Yapahuwa are arguably amongst the most iconic images of our past. It is thought that these wide eyed lions with snarling jaws were placed to ward off unwelcome visitors. The image of this lion printed in the countries 10 Rupee currency note, also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Chinese dragons on sale in the newly opened feng-shui shops in the city. The discovery of Chinese porcelain and pottery along with more than a thousand Chinese coins in Yapahuwa provides evidence of trade along the Silk Road. It also indicates that the similarities between the Yapahuwa lion and the Chinese dragon are not coincidental.
Another fascinating proof of links between Yapahuwa and China was recorded by Marco Polo, in his delightful travel log. The venetian traveller describes how the Great Khan of China sent ambassadors to procure from “Seilan” the Tooth, Hair and Bowl Relics and how the Sri Lankan king shrewdly appeased the mighty grandson of Genghis Khan by dispatching two fake teeth. The year of the expedition in 1284 indicate this king to be Buwanaikabahu I of Yapahuwa.
Now it befell that the Great Khan heard how on that mountain there was the sepulcher of our first father Adam, and that some of his hair and of his teeth, and the dish from which he used to eat, were still preserved there. So he thought he would get hold of them somehow or another, and dispatched a great embassy for the purpose, in the year of Christ, 1284. The ambassadors, with a great company, travelled on by sea and by land until they arrived at the island of Seilan, and presented themselves before the king. And they were so urgent with him that they succeeded in getting two of the grinder teeth, which were passing great and thick; and they also got some of the hair, and the dish from which that personage used to eat, which is of very beautiful green porphyry. And when the Great Khan’s ambassadors had attained the object for which they had come they were greatly rejoiced, and returned to their lord. And when they drew near to the great city of Cambaluc, where the Great Khan was staying, they sent him word that they had brought back that for which he had sent them. On learning this the Great Khan was passing glad, and ordered all the ecclesiastics and others to go forth to meet these relics, which he was led to believe were those of Adam.
The balustrade behind the two lions is carved with a majestic gaja simha (a mythical beast with a lions body fused with an elephant head).
Parallel to the balustrade running around the building is a frieze of energetic dancers and musicians. These fading carvings are believed to represent the great yearly procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Unlike Sigiriya, where the palace was constructed at the summit, the Yapahuwa palace was built on a lower level at the top of the staircase. An impressive stone door way, harmoniously flanked by big walls and two exquisitely carved windows greets visitors at the top of the staircase. The joining of stone slabs to make the arch of the doorway and the intricate lion carvings found in the pillars on either side amply demonstrates the mastery of stonework by our ancestors. The main pillars of the porch are composite pillars; each comprises three pillars. At the back of the porch are two more additional pillars. Passing the doorway, one enters the shrine where the tooth relic was venerated. Today only its foundations are to be seen as a result of the destruction caused by the Dravidian invaders and the later plundering by the Portuguese.
There are two bare stone windows on either side of the doorway. These were once decorated with profusely carved stone slabs with holes through which rays of soft light filtered in to the hall. Called the ‘Sivumenduru Kavuluwa’ (perforated palace window); these were adorned with delicate carvings of bacchanalian figures, women, swans and animals. Today, visitors can admire one of the windows in the nearby Yapahuwa museum whilst the other is preserved in the national museum in Colombo. These windows are a highly praised piece of work, accepted as unique and not found anywhere else in the country. The islands first archeological commissioner, H.C. P. Bell acclaimed them as the gem of Yapahuwa sculpture.
The makara-thorana decorated with a kibihi-muna (sneezy faced dragon with a lion face) over the original positions of the windows is beautifully carved. Placed under each thorana is the figure of Gaja-Lakshmi, seated cross-legged and holding a lotus in each hand. Two elephants on either side bathe her with the pots they hold in their trunks. The Gaja Lakshmi carving reminded me of the similar carving seen in the Galpotha next to the Sathmahal Prasadaya in Polonnaruwa.
The staircase is not the only place in Yapahuwa where the lion motif is used as decoration. Beautiful lion carvings stand guard at the base of pillars on either side of the temple entrance. The manner in which their decay and aging seems to somehow add to the aesthetic value of these sculptures brings to mind the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi”. Starkly contrasts with the western notion of beauty as symmetric perfection, “wabi-sabi” nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect…
A couple of attractions not covered in the report, but possible to be explored within the same day to see are as follows
- The remnants of a secret escape tunnel. This is below the paws of the lion to your right hand side as you ascend the stairs. To enter this, one must very carefully step-down from the right side ledge next to the lion and search for the opening.
- Yapahuwa museum located in the public car park at the bottom
- The Kandy era cave paintings in the temple at the bottom of the rock which has been constructed with the approval of King Rajasingha of Kandy in the 18th Century. You must ask the head priest for permission as it is normally kept closed
- Continue climbing to the top of the rock and see a Stupa and pond. The view is also more scenic from the top albeit a few telecommunication towers rising above the tree line.
I took one last look at the lions and promised to come back again before slowly walking down the footpath. The owner of the shop right opposite the road to the temple entrance arranged a three-wheeler for me to go to Daladagama junction. From there I took two more buses to Kurunegala and Colombo respectively. Though it was a long journey seats were readily available and the ride was not bumpy due to the well carpeted roads.
For the briefest moment in the island’s long history, Yapahuwa served as the capital of Sri Lanka. In just twelve short years between the chaotic decline of the Damabadeniya kingdom and the final tragic invasion and carrying away of the tooth relic to India by the Pandyan invaders, our ancestors were able to create a fully-fledged kingdom with trade and diplomatic links as far away as China and Cairo. Today it lies in a seldom visited corner of the cultural triangle almost forgotten by the descendants of its mighty founders. Ravaged by time and forces of history …the lonely ruins of Yapahuwa, though not many, are still cause for fascination. The elaborate stone work, the fusion of art and architecture, of gods, goddesses, animals, mythical creatures, dancers and musicians, columns and structures, make it a simply delightful sight for the lucky few who visit to experience it first-hand. Lulled by its secluded charm, one can truly lose oneself in meandering fantasies of our glorious past. Gazing up at its majestic staircase you too may conclude as the western scholar Rowland Raven-Hart writing in Ceylon: History in Stone (1964) – “that it is like nothing else in Ceylon; nowhere is there such a riot of sculpture with such revelry of stone frozen movement.”