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Sri Lanka: A Land Like No Other (Part 4). The Rock Fortress of Sigiriya



“You absolutely must go to Sigiriya!”, Arthur C. Clarke insisted to me during my first visit to Sri Lanka.  “There are other countries with beautiful weather and beaches, but there’s only one Sigiriya.”  I think Arthur loved this place more than any other in his adopted homeland — with perhaps the exception of his favorite beaches and diving spots — to the point where he featured it as one of the two peaks central to his book, “The Fountains of Paradise (the other being Adam’s Peak, also in Sri Lanka and to be discussed in a future post).  In his office Arthur had large aerial photos of both Sigiriya (showing the terraced ruins on top of this rock fortress) and of Adam’s Peak (featuring the monastery on the peak around “Adam’s footprint".  Based on Arthur’s glowing recommendation and my innate desire to explore new places, I immediately arranged for a car and driver in Colombo and set out on the long day trip to Sigiriya — my first of four visits to this unique place (I would recommend you not do this as a day trip — spend at least one night nearby).


Sigiriya -- Outer Moat

(Outer Moat around Sigiriya, in its day filled with crocodiles)


Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, is located in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle and is close to the Cave Temples in Dambulla.  It’s convenient and easy to combine both Sigiriya and Dambulla into a one day visit, as many people do. Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. It’s a huge rock fortress — a city built on and around a massive monolith that towers over the jungle below.  Why would someone go through the terrific effort and huge cost to built their palace on top of a big rock?  Why would they surround it with elaborate gardens and defenses? Therein lies the story of Sigiriya.



(Entrance to Sigiriya)


In 477 A.D., the king of Anuradhapura was overthrown and killed by his son, Kasyapa (born from a relationship with his consort).  Legend has it Kasyapa buried his father alive inside a wall. The rightful heir to the throne, Moggallana, son of the true queen, fled to India swearing revenge. Kasyapa, fearing invasion from his half-brother, began building what he thought would be an impregnable fortress on the huge rock of Sigiriya.  He did so with style and planned not only on a rock fort but an elaborate city with gardens and fountains — a palatial estate.  When Moggallana returned in 491 A.D., Kasyapa, now living in Sigiriya, rode out at the head of his army on an elephant. Kasyapa bungled the charge, became trapped in a swamp and was deserted by his troops, finally committing suicide by falling on his own sword (I guess a better option than falling into the hands of your enemy).


Sigiriya -- Ruins in the Rock Garden

(Rock Garden Ruins, Sigiriya)


Never a very practical place to live, Sigiriya was quickly abandoned by the Royals in favor of Anuradhapura.   Sigiriya became a refuge for Buddhist monks and gradually fell into disrepair.  It was abandoned over 500 years ago to be rediscovered by British archaeologists during the Colonial period, who were astounded by what they found. The site has been partially restored although none of the ruins have been rebuilt.


It’s best to visit Sigiriya early in the morning or later in the afternoon as it's much cooler then. It can get quite hot on this rock during the day.  Your travel itinerary may not leave you much choice but to ascend during the day so make sure you have sunblock and at least one water bottle with you.  After purchasing your ticket you enter Sigiriya from the West.  You will cross over two moats (that in their day were filled with crocodiles).  Here you’ll encounter an energetic group of young men who all want to be your guide. If you don’t have a guide, hire the best of these (be sure he speaks your language clearly) and try to negotiate a price up front. Usually these guides are happy with whatever you decide to pay — but they will always look disappointed no matter how much you give them — so use your judgment and be fair to them and to yourself (A $10-$15 gratuity is generally more than adequate unless exceptional services is provided in which case up the amount).  A good guide can greatly enhance your time here especially if this is your first visit to Sigiriya.



(The Fountains of Paradise, fed by springs for 1500 years) 


After selecting your guide you continue into the ruins. Throughout your walk, try to think about what this place was like 1500 years ago.  You’ll continue down a long path towards the base of Sigiriya rock which in the fifth century was painted and decorated over its entire western face, although most of these colors have now been weathered off.  On both sides of the path are symmetrical well constructed fountains, part of a water garden (which inspired the title of Arthur’s book, “The Fountains of Paradise"). These fountains are extremely well constructed and remarkably many are still functioning, continuously filled by underground wells. Continue up the path and soon you will enter the Rock Garden and encounter some small ruins near the base of the rock.  There are cuttings into many of the rocks here, possibly where wooden beams were anchored, possibly footholds.  At the base of the rock you will start to climb up a long staircase, past terraced gardens, and enter a long path which is approximately half way up the rock.



(Mirror Wall and the staircase to the damsel frescoes) 


You will pass a security/ticket check area. Beside you on your left is Mirror Wall which still shows some of its original sheen (it was so highly polished that you could see your reflection in it, hence the name). Just ahead of you is a tall spiral staircase which leads to a sheltered cave on the side of the monolith. The stairs are enclosed in a wire cage and are safe, but you may have a sense of vertigo as you ascend them. In any event, climb this stairway to enjoy the oldest best preserved paintings in the nation, the Sigiriya Damsels.  Within this cave is a series of frescoes of buxomic lasses that would do Hugh Hefner proud. These have been painted on plaster and are surprisingly well preserved. The nature of these paintings is controversial — whether they were of real women and part of the king’s harem, or whether they are fictitious (celestial nymphs) is not known. Still, it is remarkable that these paintings, on a delicate plastered cave wall, have survived in such fine shape all these years.



(1500 year old frescoes, the Sigiriya Maidens)


Descend the spiral stairs and continue your walk along Mirror Wall, taking a moment to look for some of the graffiti inscribed here. Some of these inscriptions have been dated to the 6th century.  As you pass the edge of the wall, stop and look west and enjoy the symmetry of the water gardens along the path you entered, as well as the beautiful scenery of the surrounding jungle.  As you round the corner you continue to climb more stairs until you come to the ruins of a large lion, with well preserved claws that are truly impressive carvings.  It is from this platform that Sigiriya earned its nickname of “Lion Rock”.  In its day, a lion’s head would have been constructed onto this rock frame — probably made of bricks and mortar. The lion’s head has decayed and collapsed over the centuries, but it would have been an impressive sight to a primitive and superstitious people.  This Lion’s platform provided entry to the king’s court located at the top of the monolith. Anyone who wanted an audience with the king (when he was in residence atop the rock) would have had to walk through the mouth of the lion to visit his majesty.  I think they would have found this to be a humbling experience.  And after you’re done studying the paws — and perhaps enjoying a cool soda from one of the vendors here — begin your ascent to the top.



(Lion Platform, Sigiriya Rock)


The climb past the Lion’s Platform is up a series of steel staircases, all with secure guardrails. The ascent is steep and you will feel somewhat exposed so if you’re scared of heights don’t look down during this climb (if you have a great fear of heights, skip the summit).  Look at your footing and make your way to the top. Take your time and move carefully — it will be well worth your effort to do so. (Note — the last time I visited Sigiriya we were not allowed to enter the ruins because of dangerous swarming by bees around the area of the Lion Platform, an understandable precaution but a disappointment to my fellow travelers who very much wanted to explore this marvel).


(Pool and ruins at top of Sigiriya Rock)


As you reach the summit of Sigiriya, you will at notice the ruins of old buildings on this fairly spacious 1.6 hectare site, and you will enjoy incredibly beautiful views. Take your time to walk around the summit to explore the ruins. One of the most impressive sights at the top is the large water reservoir, or pond, dug out by hand. Adjoining it is a flat area, presumably space for the king’s throne.  When you feel satisfied with your visit to the summit, you descend via the same route.  Exit towards the parking area.


The last two times I visited Sigiriya I explored the ruins on my own, rather than with a guide, and I enjoyed the freedom to visit this special place on my own time-frame. During my very last visit to the summit of Sigiriya I was completely alone at the top at dusk. I had a pleasant half hour exploring and sitting there all by myself, watching the changing light of the setting sun on the jungle below and just enjoying the experience of being on top of this historic rock. I descended just as the sun hit the horizon. This half hour, alone on the summit of Sigiriya, remains one of the greatest experiences in my travels.  When I shared this moment with Arthur C Clarke (who was by this time mostly confined to a wheel-chair), he was mesmerized by the story and told me how much he envied me this “spiritual moment”.



(View of jungle from top of Sigiriya Rock)


A water reservoir (tank) likes on the southeast side of the rock. There is a small village on the south side of the Sigiriya monolith with basic services.  We stayed at the Hotel Sigiriya, a nice facility with great views of Sigiriya from its pool area.  It was from this location that I enjoyed watching the sunrise and sunset’s changing light alter the colors and hues of the rock face of Sigiriya. Food at this hotel is served buffet style and was fine — but not great.


I can not recommend a visit to Sigiriya highly enough.  It is truly one of the wonders of the ancient world!



 For an extended high resolution slide show of Sigiriya, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.




(Snake Charmer, Sigiriya)




Images (26)
  • Sigiriya, Sri Lanka: The rock face of the monolith would have been painted 1500 years ago.
  • Sigiriya -- Outer Moat: Filled with crocodiles when the fortress was the home to the king
  • Sigiriya -- Water Gardens: Strolling to the monolith through the "Fountains of Paradise"
  • Sigiriya and Water Gardens: These symmetric and beautifully built fountains are fed by underground springs. 1500 years after they were built they still flow, truly a remarkable engineering feat.
  • Sigiriya and Water Gardens: The "Fountains of Paradise". A portion of the elaborate water gardens of Lion Rock
  • Sigiriya -- Ruins in the Gardens
  • Sigiriya -- Ruins on Lower Grounds: The notchings on the rocks may have been hand and footholds. They may have provided support to wooden structures.
  • Sigiriya -- Ruins in the Rock Garden: This platform was built into a cave at the base of Sigiriya. The walls look like they had been plastered and painted in the past
  • Sigiriya -- Terraced Gardens: Beginning the initial climb towards Mirror Wall. Its a long way up with a lot of stairs to climb.
  • Sigiriya -- Mirror Wall: The spiral staircase to the cave containing the Sigiriya Maidens frescoes can been seen.
  • Sigiriya -- Staircase leading to Frescoes
  • Sigiriya -- Frescoes: Painted on plastered walls, this remarkable art has survived for 1500 years.
  • Sigiriya -- Frescoes
  • Sigiriya -- Frescoes
  • Sigiriya -- Frescoes
  • Sigiriya -- Views to Northwest
  • Sigiriya -- Lion's Platform: It is from this carving that Sigiriya received its name, "Lion Rock"
  • Sigiriya -- Lion's Paw: Beautifully carved from the living rock
  • Sigiriya -- Lion's Platform
  • Sigiriya -- View of the Gardens and Entrance: Taken from the Lion Platform
  • Sigiriya -- Stairs from Lion Rock to the Summit
  • Sigiriya -- Summit (pool, ruins and view): The tank allowed for water storage
  • Sigiriya -- Pool at top of Summit: Carved into the rock the pool collects rain water.  Note the beautiful view of the surrounding jungles.
  • View from Summit of Sigiriya: Breathtakingly beautiful!  Once for a half an hour I was alone on the summit at dusk, when I took this photo. It was one of my most memorable travel experiences.
  • Sigiriya -- Snake charmer: Cobra and a boa
  • Sigiriya -- Snake charmer

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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