The Sigiriya Frescoes

The portrayal of the damsels is strikingly naturalistic, showing them scattering petals and offering flowers and trays of fruit — similar in a style to the famous murals at the Ajantha Caves in India, and a world away from the much later murals at nearby Dambulla, with their stylized and minutely detailed religious tableaux. An endearingly human touch is added by the slips of the brush visible here and there: one damsel has three hands, while another sports three nipples.

Shortly after reaching the base of the rock, two incongruous metal spiral staircases lead to and from a sheltered cave in the sheer rock face that holds Sri Lanka’s most famous sequence of frescoes, popularly referred to as the Sigiriya Damsels (no flash photography).These busty beauties were painted in the fifth century and arc the only nonreligious paintings to have survived from ancient Sri Lanka; they’re now one of the island’s most iconic – and most relentlessly reproduced – images.

Once described as the largest picture gallery in the world, it’s thought that these frescoes would originally have covered an area some 140 metres long by 40 metres high, though only 21 damsels now survive out of an original total of some five hundred (a number of paintings were destroyed by a vandal in 1967, while a few of the surviving pictures are roped off out of sight).The exact significance of tin1 paintings is unclear; they were originally thought to depict Kassapa’s consorts, though according to modern art historians the most convincing theory is that they are portraits of apsams (celestial nymphs), which would explain why they are shown from the waist up only, rising out of a cocoon of clouds.

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