Sigiriya in Sri Lanka is one of the most dramatic sights in the world. The first time I saw a drone photograph of the magnificent fort on the internet, my heart had lusted after it. Imagine a pancake-flat plain that is covered with seasonal shrubby greens and some tangly groves of trees on which silverback monkeys perch. Occasional herds of wild elephants roam those plains for water and in the dry season, it is one vast, flat parched sheet of land. Now imagine, you are a traveler who is roaming those plains; the sun blazing overhead, the pitiless blue sky bringing forth the dull headache and your plain sore eyes hurting from the dust. The harsh sun gives out shimmery mirages that play visual tricks when suddenly you see a sheer vertical rocky outcrop rising dramatically in the middle of the flat world. How would you react? Would you believe your eyes or would the sheer spectacle of a vertical fort rising like a spectre in the middle of the wild plain make you pinch yourself in disbelief? Such is the enigma of Sigiriya and it is one see-it-to-believe-it kind of a place.
Table of Contents
What is Sigiriya and where is it located?
Touted as one of the most valuable historical monuments of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is an ancient fortress and a palace complex. It is perhaps the most visited tourist destination in Sri Lanka and is a sight to behold on misty mornings. Located in central Sri Lanka between the towns of Dambana and Habarane, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sigiriya is the most popular day trip from Kandy and it forms a part of the cultural triangle. The fort complex is perched on a massive rocky plateau rising 370 meters above the sea-level and half the thrill of visiting Sigiriya is climbing to its summit. Also known as the “Lion Rock” owing to its massive paw-like carvings, Sigiriya rock plateau is formed from the solidified magma of an extinct volcano and looms over the surrounding wildlife-filled forests. The flat-topped gneiss plateau site can be divided into two sections: the rock itself, on whose summit King Kassapa built his principal palace; and the area around the base of the rock that was the home to elaborate royal pleasure gardens as well as various monastic remains pre-dating Kassapa’s era. The entire site is an intriguing combination of wild nature and high artifice that is further enhanced by the delicate paintings of the busty Sigiriya damsels that adorn the rock’s rugged flanks.
You may also like: A VERY RELAXING WEEK IN KANDY
The beginning of Sigiriya legacy and the story of a royal feud
Though perhaps the only highlight of the ill-fated Kassapa rule, it was because of him that the rocky plateau of Sigiriya rose to prominence. The era was in the middle of the fifth century BC when Sigiriya found itself embroiled in Sri Lankan royal political storms that arose due to the power struggle following the reign of Dhatusena of Anuradhapura. King Dhatusena had two sons, Mogallana and Kassapa. While Mogallana was an heir from the most pre-eminent of his chief queens, Kassapa was a son from a lesser consort. Kassapa, however, was born with a burning ambition and upon hearing Mogallana being declared as the heir apparent, he rebelled viciously as his half-brother. Kassapa forced Mogallana into exile in India, imprisoned his father and threatened to kill him if he refused to reveal the whereabouts of the state treasure. The poor old king Dhatusena agreed to show its location upon one condition: that he be permitted to bathe one final time in the great Kalawewa Tank, whose creation he had commissioned. Dhatusena’s request was granted. While he was standing in the tank, the old king poured its water through his hands and announced bravely to Kassapa that the water alone, was all the treasure he possessed. He then revealed no further. Kassapa obviously was far from pleased by his father’s revelation and ordered him to be walled in alive.
Recommended Read: KANDY SLOW TRAVEL GUIDE
The fall of Sigiriya
Meanwhile, news of Mogallana itching to return from India to reclaim his inheritance reached Kassapa’s ears and the paranoid king in order to be ready for an invasion, constructed a new palatial residence atop the Sigiriya Rock. The construction was a combination of a pleasure palace and an impregnable fortress, with a new city spreading around its base. If legends are to be believed, the entire incredible construction took just seven years to get completed. Mogallana, as promised, returned to reclaim his inheritance in 491 and he came with a vast army of Tamil mercenaries to help him in his cause. Kassapa, despite the benefits of his impregnable fortress, took a fatalistic military decision that resulted in his eventual defeat and death. With Kasappa’s death, the glory of Sigiriya too fell from favour and Mogallana upon his reconquest handed it back to the Buddhist monks. The grand complex once again became home to religious souls seeking peace and solitude. After this handover, Sigiriya slowly slipped into obscurity and the site was finally abandoned in 1155 until re-discovered in recent times.
Suggested for you: DAMBANA ON A WHIM
The Sigiriya beauties are its highlights
The main entrance of the Sigiriya Rock Complex is located on the northern side of the rock. It was originally constructed in the form of a huge stone lion, whose only remnants today are the massive paws. Nothing else of the body survived and the lion rendered the site the proud name of Sigiriya (a word originating from Sihagri meaning Lion Rock). The most beautiful part of Sigiriya in my eyes is its western wall. It is almost completely covered by frescoes created during the reign of Kassapa. Only eighteen frescoes have survived today and these depict either Kassapa’s concubines or celestial nymphs rising out of beds of clouds. These famous beauties are shown doing sweet womanly chores like scattering petals and offering flowers and trays of fruit and bear striking resemblance to the famous murals at the Ajanta Caves in India.
You may also like: THE ELUSIVE VEDDAS OF SRI LANKA
A unique combination of wilderness and architectural marvel
The famous feature of Sigiriya is the Mirror Wall. In the olden days, the wall was originally coated in highly polished plaster made from lime, egg white, beeswax, and wild honey and it shone so thoroughly that the king could see his reflection in it. Today, only a section of it survive and the wall is covered with inscriptions and poems written by the visitors of Sigiriya, the oldest of which date back to the 8th century. The inscriptions or the ancient visitors’ reviews prove that Sigiriya has been drawing travelers throughout centuries and one look at its spectacular setting easily explains why. It is just not the jaw-dropping appeal of the famous golden-hued granite fortress but also its beautifully laid out palace gardens that create a unique charming ambiance. It is believed that the gardens of Sigiriya are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. A wide arrow-straight path leading from the entrance takes one to the rock and a pair of broad moats protects the fortified site. The famous Water Gardens lie within the two-tiered walls inside the Inner Moat and it contains several pools set in a picturesque manner. Beyond lies the elaborate Fountain Garden that is considered to be an architectural marvel of its time. Water is fed into the network of artificial waterways of the Fountain Garden with the help of pressure-and-gravity principle and the mechanism works till today.
Sigiriya reveals itself slowly as you climb higher
Beyond the Water Gardens, the main path ascends through the Boulder Gardens. Constructed out of huge natural boulders, these massive rocks served as footings or scaffoldings and have monastic rock shelters honeycombed within their depths. Several of these rock shelters or monastic caves have frescoes, carvings, and faint inscriptions inside them, some of which date back to the second century BC. The main path climbs steeply from here and goes through the Audience Hall (Boulder Arch n.2), Asana Cave (Boulder Arch no. 1) and reaches the Terrace Gardens via flights of walled-in steps. Views start getting majestic from here as the brick and limestone structures of the Terrace Gardens drape down the base of the Sigiriya Rock. Majestic views usher at the beginning of a steep climb and your breath gets shorted as you wheeze past the Sigiriya damsels and the Mirror Wall. Beyond the Mirror Wall, the walled-in steps turn into an iron walkway that is bolted on the sheer rock-face. The famous Lion Platform lies further up the steep flight of limestone steps and from here a final staircase flanked by two massive carved stone paws takes you directly to the summit.
The famous Lion Platform and a poor rich king
Most people give up by this stage and take rest in the shade near the massive lion paws. As you sit there, perched high above the sea-level next to gigantic stone structures, you cannot help but see through the mind of a power-hungry, paranoid, megalomaniac king that was Kassapa. His ambition blinded him into ruthlessness and his giant-sized conceit lead him to choose a massive lion – the most important of Sinhalese royal emblems – as his mascot. Kassapa badly wanted to be the ruler and he chose the larger than life portrayal to establish his importance and overcome his questionable legitimacy to the throne. I thought about Kassapa and his likes in the world as I sat on the Lion Platform to catch a breather. Kassapa’s story seemed like the typical tale of the poor, rich king and if only power or money could have brought happiness, Sigiriya might have continued to flourish. However, that was not to be and Sigiriya was fated to become what it is today; a symbol of a mortal’s ruthless ambition, desire for power, the pitfalls of such vices, and the stereotypical ending of the victory of good over evil.
The final torturous climb to the summit
The final section to the summit ascends from the Lion Platform and though the narrow iron staircase, bolted to the vertical rock-face makes most climbers nervous, the views from the top are worth the walk. The summit expands after the torturous climb and this was where Kassapa had constructed his palatial complex. In the olden time, the area was covered with buildings though only their foundations have survived till today. The remnants of Kassapa’s dreams do not reveal much of its former glory and only the stupendous views of the Water Gardens take your breath away. The descent takes a slightly different route that goes past the monastic caves at the base with the exit located in the south of the site.
Bedazzled or let down by Sigiriya?
Sigiriya ends as abruptly; as phantasmagorically as it starts and leaves many visitors with a sense of deflation. The entry fee to Sigiriya is around 30USD per person and the payment is by cash only. There is always plenty of debate amongst travelers as to whether the steep entrance fee for Sigiriya is worth it. The proceeds of the ticket sale go into the Central Cultural Fund, which takes care of the maintenance, research, and conservation of monuments and sites all over Sri Lanka. However, as I mentioned, the torturous climb to the summit with the expectation of seeing glorious ruins that go hand in hand with Sigiriya’s fantastic history is kind of a let-down as one comes face to face with bare-bone foundations of Kasappa’s royal homes. But it is what that has been handed over to us as a moral lesson and if the ticket price suits your budget, then a visit to this unique and interesting site is a must on your first Sri Lanka trip.
Follow the rest of the Sri Lanka series here
- WHAT I LOVED ABOUT SRI LANKA
- COLOMBO TRAVEL GUIDE
- MIRISSA DAYS
- THE STILT FISHERMEN OF KOGGALA
- GALLE OFFBEAT THINGS TO DO
NOTE: In view of the security situation in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of terror attacks on 21 April 2019, the updated travel advisory states that the security situation in Sri Lanka is gradually returning to normal with the lifting of curfew & restrictions on social media and the opening of schools. Foreign nationals travelling to Sri Lanka are advised to be careful and vigilant.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE