Kasyapa of Sigiriya Who Built Sigiriya Rock Fortress?


lotus flow - kasyapa

Photo: Lotus flower in pond at Sigiriya

Kasyapa I (Kashyapa I) was responsible for the construction of Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the most spectacular construction project ever undertaken in ancient Sri Lanka. He was the second monarch of the Moriyan Dynasty. Kasyapa ruled the Anuradhapura Kingdom of Sri Lanka between 477 and 495CE. His story is a tale of cruelty, intrigue, patricide, vision, grandeur, chivalry, betrayal and abandonment.

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Note: We spell this king's name as ‘Kasyapa’, not ‘Kashyapa’ ( ‘…sh…’ is Sanskrit or Sanskritised Sinhala, rarely used in contemporary writing, though the 's' is pronounced ‘sh’).


Early Years

Kasyapa was the son of King Dhatusena. Dhatusena was a youth of royal lineage who had been training for the Buddhist priesthood but cast off the saffron robes of a monk and took up arms to free his people from twenty-eight years of subjugation by foreign invaders.

During a gruelling ten-year guerrilla campaign against the invaders, Dhatusena took up a relationship with a woman of a lower caste. They had a son named Kasyapa. Upon becoming king, Dhatusena discarded his low-caste lover and married a woman of a royal bloodline.

Even though he was the eldest son, because of his lowly birth, Kasyapa was overlooked as heir-apparent. Instead, his brother Moggallana, who was much younger than him, but born of the royal queen/wife, was next in line to the throne.


Kasyapa Murders his Father

Dhatusena earned the wrath of the chief of his army Migara, who was his nephew and also his son-in-law, by murdering Migara's mother, who was also Dhatusena's sister. Enraged by the gruesome murder of his mother, Migara estranged Kasyapa from his father by exploiting Kasyapa's deep-felt resentment for being overlooked as the heir-apparent. Together they overthrew Dhatusena, and Kasyapa seized the throne. Prodded on by a vengeful Migara, Kasyapa ordered Migara to rid him of his father. Migara relished the opportunity to get his revenge on Dhatusena for murdering his mother. After humiliating Dhatusena, Migara had him buried alive in the wall of his prison cell. The younger Moggallana, fearing for his life, fled to India.


Rejected by the People

Kasyapa did not personally kill his father. But the mere fact that he was a part of the plot meant that he had committed a cardinal sin in Buddhism—that of intentionally murdering one's father. Unable to redeem himself with the Buddhist clergy and his people, he grew increasingly fretful. He performing many good works and acts of repentance, but the Buddhist clergy and the people rejected all these. Finally, wary of this rejection, he abandoned his majestic capital city of Anuradhapura and set out to build himself a new capital far away from the disapproving masses. Here he hoped he would find solace for his troubled mind.


The Inspiration for Sigiriya

Photo: View of Sigiriya Rock

The inspiration for Kasyapa's new city was the mystical city of Alakamanda. In Buddhist mythology, Alakamanda was said to be the wealthiest and most beautiful city imaginable. It was a city of the gods built amongst the clouds. Alakamanda was ruled by Kuvera, the god of wealth and plenty. Thus inspired, Kasyapa set about creating his version of an earthly paradise.

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Kasyapa choose an area deep in the inhospitable forests of north-central Sri Lanka as the site for his new city. The most dominant feature of the area was a massive rock, which rose vertically to a height of nearly 600 feet. Here he would build his city and a magnificent sky palace on top of this rock. Kasyapa found his inspiration and the perfect location for his new city.


Kasyapa Builds Sigiriya

Photo: Artist's impression of Sigiriya with Frescoes

Monarchs of Sri Lanka were usually constrained by their Buddhist faith from indulging in acts of self-indulgence. Consequently, there are no significant structures in Sri Lanka built in the glorification of a king. Having being rejected by the religious establishment, however, Kasyapa no longer felt bound by these constraints. He chose, therefore, to use the vast wealth and resources of his kingdom to create an extravagant masterpiece for himself.

The centerpiece of the new city was the royal citadel with beautiful tropical gardens with extensive water features. He painted the once sinister-looking rock white and then created a spectacular multi-colored tapestry which we know today as the Sigiriya Frescoes. He built a massive gatehouse and staircase, the Lion Staircase, to guard the final entrance to his gleaming white Sky-Palace in the clouds.


Kasyapa's Idyllic but Tormented Life

Surrounded by his royal court and his harem and far away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city Kasyapa lived an idyllic existence at Sigiriya. He encouraged the arts and enjoyed poetry. However, being a sensitive man, he was deeply troubled by his responsibility for the death of his father. We are told that he diligently carried out his religious duties, no doubt hoping to find some salvation for his troubled conscience.


Confrontation between Kasyapa and Moggallana

Photo: Royal war elephant

In about the fourteenth year of Kasyapa's rule, Migara, angry that Kasyapa did not permit him to conduct a large religious festival, secretly switched his allegiance from Kasyapa to his younger brother Moggallana. On hearing this news, Moggallana, who had been languishing in India, clandestinely returned with a ragtag collection of friends and hangers-on and set up camp in a distant part of the country.

When Kasyapa got wind of his brother's return, he decided immediately to confront Moggallana head-on. Ignoring the dire warning of his soothsayers who predicted disaster, he left the relative safety of his fortress at Sigiriya to confront Moggallana.

He had reason to be confident he had a large army controlled by Migara, his brother-in-law and accomplice.


The Death of Kasyapa

Mounted on his mighty war elephant, the king led his army into battle. Migara followed close behind. Sensing a swamp ahead of him, Kasyapa turned his elephant away to find firmer ground. At this very moment, Migara put his defection plan into play. He signaled the army to retreat. The king's grand army broke and fled.

Abandoned and alone, Kasyapa unsheathed his jewel-encrusted dagger and placed its cold blade against his neck. Quickly he drew it across his neck and slit his throat. All was quiet now. The royal elephant stood listless; its magnificent trappings strained crimson with the king's blood.

Moggallana, still respectful of his fallen older brother, accorded him a royal cremation. The stupa at Pidurangala is believed to mark the spot where Kasyapa was cremated.

Related Article: Pidurangala Rock Temple — Resting Place of the King who built Sigiriya?


Epilogue

Kasyapa was a much-maligned but gentle ruler. There are no records of any other transgressions committed by him. He was an artistic soul caught up in dynastic intrigue, deceit, and betrayal.

We do not know if he found solace in the afterlife. We do know, however, that his masterpiece at Sigiriya has stood for over a one thousand six hundred years and brought him immortality.