“I am not in my right senses. Those eyes, those lips and those beautifully wide hips have long been my lure and my cure. Oh, my beautiful lady will you not grace me with a glance?” said Vira Bati.
Vira Bati stood still. His gaze moved up along the rock edifice that was known as the Lion’s Rock or Sihagiriya, former citadel of the ancient King Kassapa who had resided there over 3 centuries ago in the year 4th Century AD. The King lived on the island known as Serendib — by those who visited and Lanka, by those who lived therein. Kassapa had paid tribute to his mother’s people—the Helloli indigenous women of Lanka by painting them on the rock face of this pleasure palace —Sihagiriya. However, Vira Bati had no way of knowing this because a politically motivated account of Sihagiriya now lay on the laymen’s lips — that of a patricide King, a stolen throne and a fortress in the wilderness.
The women’s identity was forgotten but their legacy remained through the frescoes that adorned the Western rock face. It was these that Vira Bati was gazing at. He was seated in the narrow corridor that was made from the rock face, on one side, and the yellow glazed mirror wall on the other. The mirror wall ran the length of the Western face of Sihagiriya and was gleaming in the morning sunlight. The reflection would sometimes capture the images of the frescoes. The women were portrayed in varying poses, adorned in jewellery with large pendants, earrings and armlets. Their hair was piled on top with more adornments and their eyes were drawn in the tradition know as ‘dhigaes’ which means long eyes. Some carried baskets of flowers, some held individual flowers like lotus and kapuru flowers. They appeared to be in conversation, talking to each other and indicating to different things. Their breasts were bare and some wore a flimsy shawl of exquisite weaving — famous during that time. Their bellies were slightly bulging with a narrow waist and wide hips. The frescoes did not feature their legs or feet — only the body up to the hips.
Vira Bati was a scribe from one of the villages close to Sihagiriya. He was commissioned to write official documents and during his free hours he would visit the rock to gaze up at these frescoes. They covered the rock face — almost five hundred in number and were his greatest muse and fascination. As a young man, he started writing praises to these damsels on the mirror wall on request from other visitors. The visitors were from all over Lanka and they were as fascinated as Vira Bati was. Over time, Vira Bati found himself more drawn to these frescoes — it became almost an obsession.
One evening, on a full moon day when the frescoes were illuminated in the dusk, he could almost see their eyes move in the shadows — they seemed to gaze at him. Vira Bati was unnerved. He had heard stories of the spirits visiting places of the past to avenge their deaths but he did not know of any reason they would want to avenge their death from him. So, despite feeling a sense of trepidation and a foreboding of sorts, he stayed on.
As the night grew, sounds from the surrounding forests reached his ears. The wind rustled the trees and the breeze almost whistled in his ear as it swirled all around. It was a full moon night and the light was almost perverse in its intrusion on Vira Bati’s thoughts. He gazed up and saw that the moonlight was hitting the woman holding out her hand, beckoning in invitation. Vira Bati stared.
“Dear Lord, why are you looking at me like that? What have I done to incur your wrath??” he said. The woman merely looked back at him. She seemed to beckon to him again.
“You are a temptress. I cannot indulge in such things – it is not my place. Yet I am drawn to your beautiful eyes…why Lord must you test me so?” Vira Bati was slowly working himself into a trance as he spoke to the women — alive in the moonlight. He fumbled for his stylus, and by the light of the moon, carved the poetry that flowed from his heart — into his hands— and onto the mirror wall. His letters glistened as he drove in each one. It was almost cathartic.
“Oh golden ones, why do you gaze at me like that? Is it because you are missing your King. Do you want to take me and make me a prisoner?” Vira Bati asked.
The women were in the shadows as a cloud had blotted the moon. Suddenly the one closest to him, holding a kapuru flower in her hand, came into sharp focus as the cloud drifted away and the moon shone down in an almost reprimanding way.
“Temptress! I know of your wiles – you who invite me with that amorous flower. I shall not yield for you are not mine and belong to the King Kassapa”. Vira Bati was walking up and down along the mirror wall in a daze. He kept gesturing and saying these things while composing verses and writing them on the wall. The whistling wind did nothing for his state of mind and it almost egged him on as he felt the women were whispering to him through it.
Soon the mirror wall was adorned with hundreds of verses written to the frescoes. Vira Bati was beseeching them to release him from their hold. Eventually, he sat down and rested his head in his hands. He had walked past the frescoes to the lion paws that led to the final ascent of the rock. He sat there and gazed up as the moon continued to glide in and out of a few scattered clouds.
He was due back in his village that night. His mother and sister would be waiting for him. His father, now deceased, had been the village medicine man practicing what was known as Sihala Vedhakam, which was the indigenous medicinal practice of Lanka. Vira Bati had defied the family tradition by moving away from his father’s profession. It was not frowned on because becoming a scribe was a prestigious occupation in a land where few were literate. But in the moment, all these things were forgotten while Vira Bati sat listening to the winds and the whispers of the Sihagiri women. He stayed up on the rock till midnight and then slowly descended to the entrance, curled up in the rock shelter at the base of the entrance and fell asleep.
The next morning Vira Bati was woken up by the streaming sunlight and the monkeys that were calling out and running around. He opened his eyes and gazed at the roof of the rock shelter that was also painted with the same images of the women. He sat up suddenly and remembered the previous night. It was almost like a dream. He quickly looked around and realised that he should be getting back home. His mother and sister would be worried.
Vira Bati ran the length of the pathway, scrambled off the main terraces into the wilderness and through a shortcut that would lead to his village. His mother and sister cried in relief as he entered the house. He apologised profusely for not returning the night before. He said he had been tired with work and had fallen asleep by the tank. He did not know why he lied but felt better than explaining his frenzy the night before. Despite feeling rather sheepish now with the sun blazing down and the gentle breeze in the trees, he still felt a strong tug in his heart towards those women. The forbidden desires of a young heart can often drive one to extremes, he thought. In his case, it was a mere white lie.
That evening Vira Bati stayed away from Sihagiri as he felt he had to focus on his other work. He helped with some household chores and headed out the next morning to his official calling in the main city of Anuradhapura.
While in Anuradhapura, Vira Bati visited the main city centre where the different artisans were selling their wares — there were the Persians with their rugs, the Chinese peddling silks, the Arabs selling musk and perfumes and the local artisans selling pottery, gems and spices. He wandered through the stalls thinking back to the women who were adorned on the Sihagiri rock. They wore the beautiful jewellery, makeup and the silks of these traders. He let his eyes roam and feast in all that was around him but he did not buy anything.
On his return home that evening, he saw the fields where the farmers were growing their produce — rice, vegetables and other grain. As he walked into a side path off the road, he noticed there was a gourd vine that had twisted itself on a purple Butterfly Pea vine. The Butterfly Pea flower was indigo blue and stood out against this white gourd flower. It seemed to be symbiotic. But he was not sure.
This image stayed in his head as he snuck off that evening to mount Sihagiri to visit the frescoes. He had been thinking of various things to ask them. As the wind blew around the mirror wall, and along the pathway, he gazed up in awe and sat down.
“I have come again today o golden damsels. I cannot stay away or pretend you do not occupy my thoughts. Hence, I have crafted my best poetry to sing of your praises as you do not wish to respond to my venerations”. He turned slowly towards the mirror wall and started writing more verses. As he was writing he realised a rather interesting fact — not all of the women were golden in colour. Some were darker — almost a bluish hue. He was immediately reminded of the gourd flower and the Butterfly pea flower. He decided to compare the women to what he saw and wrote a verse about it.
“Are you of this earth or of heaven? Is that why you are blue in colour? Like our Lord Vishnu? Or are you golden like the Buddha? Do you represent the joining of heaven & earth?” He continued to ask questions; He composed poetry as he did. As time wore on, Vira Bati slowly got over his fascination with the frescoes and eventually stopped visiting them. After him, there were others who came over the next few centuries and took to a stylus to converse in words with the art on the rock face.
Even today these verses are still visible — singing the praises of the women that adorn the rock face. No one knows who the women were or who the poets were. Except the winds of time, the sun, moon and stars and the rock face that bore witness to their creation and preservation for over 1500 years. The art and the poetry remain though their creators are no more. And now perhaps the art and the poetry still converse to those of us who view them today.