The carving on this pillar is supposedly the emblem of a local cheiftan in King Parakramabahu‘s Sri Lanka (1153–1186). The pillar is part of the King Parakramabahu’s audience hall (highlighted in the Google Earth screen-shot below) within the Royal citadel of Polonaruwa. Despite it’s elegent stone carvings, the audience hall is not a grand monument but a narrow practical building. It is usually skimmed over by most visitors to Polonaruwa. I would have missed this little detail if the guide hadn’t pointed it out. Yet this building quietly makes a statement about those who built it and the nature of political power in ancient Sri Lanka.
The pillars in the building are set up to enable a late comer to reach — presumably his — assigned place without having to walk down the centre of the hall and distract the proceedings. I find this design “feature” quite endearing. I doubt it meant that ancient Sri Lankans were sloppy with appointments. A planned city such as Polonaruwa and it’s surrounding feats of hydraulic engineering is not the work of sloppy people. Constructing and maintaining the irrigation systems alone required a degree of co-ordinating and self discipline not readily associated with modern Sri Lankans. Yet it is natural that such attention to detail filters down to the placement of pillars in an official building. These were people who saw elegance in functionality, efficiency as well as visual beauty.
The insignia of local aristocrats reminds us of the layers of feudalism that the kings needed to stay in power. A factor often over looked yet is very much alive today. Practically all hierarchal governments rely on an elite tied with feudal links. Whether this group are called aristocrats, party apparatchiks, members of parliament, nomenklatura, provincial councillors, special advisers, corporate executives, trade unionists, NGO intellectuals or anything else is purely cosmetic. They are an immortal layer of society, the political equivalent of gravity. Renewed by revolutions, elections, wars and other tides of history.