Sigiriya: Sri Lanka’s mysterious rock

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Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka

How could an ancient civilization have flourished on the summit of this monolith? How were building supplies, food and people transported up its near vertical walls? Why was this spot chosen? These questions go through my mind as I climb the vertigo-inducing staircase bolted to Sri Lanka’s famous rock—Sigiriya (Lion Rock). Much of Sigiriya remains a mystery, but the enormous rock rising above the jungle is one of Sri Lanka’s most fascinating and dramatic sites.

A little history

The established but debated theory is that the summit of Sigiriya served as a fortress for King Kasyapa I who reigned from 477 to 495 A.D. Kasyapa was a son of King Dhatusena by a lesser queen and hence his right to the throne was weak. He managed to seize control by overthrowing and murdering his father. Fearing retribution from the rightful heir—his half brother Mugalan— he sought an unassailable new residence at Sigiriya. Kasyapa reigned from his rock fortress for 18 years until Mugalan defeated him and converted Sigiriya into a Buddhist monastery complex that lasted until the 13th century.

Now, let’s go for a sweaty walk to the top…

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Avenue and royal garden leading to the base of Sigiriya rock

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A series of inner and outer moats surround the complex

The Royal Gardens

It’s 4:00 p.m. when our guesthouse host drops us off at the entrance to Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s still hot as hell, but the crowds are going home and sunset promises to be spectacular. We contemplate the history of this epic site as we walk the long avenue through the royal gardens. The beautiful water gardens, which also served as moats, are recognized as one of the oldest landscape gardens in the world.

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Natural boulder arch that starts the climb to the summit

The Boulder Garden

At the end of the avenue, the geometric symmetry gives way to a boulder garden and a natural rock arch that begins the climb up Sigiriya Rock (1200 steps to be exact). Next to these modern steps, we can see the support structures of the monastic buildings that once abutted the boulders.

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The stairway passes by the mirror wall

The Mirror Wall and Frescoes

A metal staircase takes us up the first portion of the sheer wall. Mike’s not too happy but at least he’s distracted by the mirror wall—a huge wall originally coated with a smooth glaze and polished to a mirror-like sheen. Legend has it that King Kasyapa greatly admired his own reflection in this wall. Scholars now study the graffiti that visitors engraved on the wall between the 6th and 13th centuries. Apparently, many of the over 1000 pieces of scribbled verses are impressions of the art found in the rock gallery just above the mirror wall—5th century paintings of buxom women believed to be deities or the King’s concubines. Today, you can still admire the gorgeous frescoes at Sigiriya, but photography and graffiti are forbidden.

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The Lions Gate

The Lion’s Paw Terrace

There’s a short reprieve from the steep staircase at the Lion’s Paw Terrace, where the site derives its name. Sigiriya means “Lion Rock”. All that remains today are two enormous lion paws, which give us a good indication of how large the lion statue must have been. It’s a popular spot for photos before the next (and final) set of scary-looking stairs.

The Summit

We need to use our imagination to conjure up what this hilltop fortress and gardens must have looked like; only the ancient cisterns and low foundations of structures remain standing. Nonetheless, it’s incredibly atmospheric and the views are outstanding. After a walk around the ruins, made even more delightful by the monkeys’ antics in the cistern turned swimming pool, we find a quiet perch and watch the sun set over the jungle.

I realize now that to get a real sense of how imposing the ancient fortress must have been you need to see it from above, so I’ve included the photo (not mine) on the left. Incredible, isn’t it!

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Monkeys use the cisterns as swimming pools

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Looking down at the entrance avenue and gardens

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Monkeys love this ancient site

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Sigiriya is surrounded by jungle

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I had no idea that monkeys like to play in swimming pools

The view from Pidurangala

The next morning, we trek up to Pidurangala, a rock outcropping about one kilometre from Sigiriya. The marvellous view of Sigiriya from the peaceful summit of Pidurangala is the icing on the cake. With the exception of a tricky scramble at the top, the 30-minute hike is pleasant with a nice surprise near the midway point: a 12.5 m reclining Buddha.

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Sigiriya as seen from Pidurangala

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View of the staircase to the Sigiriya summit

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Reclining Buddha halfway along the Pidurangala hike

I continue to contemplate how a fortress could have been built on such a difficult site more than 1500 years ago. Even with today’s modern engineering, it would be an enormous undertaking.  Back at our guesthouse, there’s a poster depicting what construction might have looked like. It’s mind-boggling and makes our visit all the more impressive.

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Sigiriya, Pidurangala or both?

This is a common question. If you have the time, energy, budget and interest then definitely visit both. We’re happy we did. Sigiriya is amazing but very expensive ($30 U.S. admission) and it’s busy. If ruins aren’t your thing or you prefer just getting a marvellous view of Sigiriya without the crowds, then Pidurangala (about $3) is a great option.

Where to stay in Sigiriya

I need to give a shout out to Harini Villa. This affordable, comfortable, spotlessly clean guesthouse is run by a lovely family who helped us arrange several excursions in the area. Breakfasts were great and the curry dinner was one of the best we had in Sri Lanka. It’s only about a 20 minute walk (hot walk!) to the Sigiriya entrance, but tuk tuks are readily available.

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Writing in my journal at Harini Villa

Next Post: Dambulla Cave Temples and some overlooked gems

Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , | 18 Comments

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18 thoughts on “Sigiriya: Sri Lanka’s mysterious rock

  1. Pingback: Sri Lanka’s magnificent cave temples: Dambulla and Mulkirigala | Writes of Passage

  2. Beautiful! It reminds me of the Greek Meteora Monasteries without the jungles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an amazing place! I would gladly climb all those stairs.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loooved Sigiriya, in both of my visits there. The first time it was midday and I remember it was particularly a sunny day. The spiral staircase was in a bad condition back then, and I got nervous as I carefully stepped on its rusty steps and handrail. If I fell, there was nothing between the staircase and the ground. Fortunately it was in a much better condition the second time I went there, probably thanks to the increasing number of foreign tourists coming to Sri Lanka. I haven’t been to Pidurangala, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thankfully, the staircase looked to be in really good condition when we were there earlier this year. I can well imagine that it would be scary if this was not the case as in your earlier visit.
      Pidurangala is definitely worth a visit if you get to Sri Lanka again. Though it does not have the grand evidence of ancient life as in Sigiriya, the caves around the site were apparently used by monks over 2000 years ago. And, the view to Sigiriya is outstanding.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Really fascinating. Out of curiosity went to Wikipedia to find out how tall it is. 200m. Maybe you said that already! Wiki had this comment that is interesting: “The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the king’s death. It was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.[1] Sigiriya today is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. It is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning.”

    Ancient urban planning! Wow.

    Very educational and enjoyable post!
    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad my post piqued your interest in this fascinating place. The ancient urban planning and landscape gardening are such cool aspects of this place. The brochure I picked up at the site said it was converted into a Buddhist monastery and used that way until the 13th century (a one century discrepancy from the Wiki info, but who’s counting!).

      Like

  6. The climb up looks a bit daunting. Nice views though – of the climb, summit, and monkeys!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. amazing….. so huge ……. beautiful capture….

    Liked by 1 person

  8. We were surprised and impressed with Sigiriya after so many travelers told us it wasn’t worth it. Glad you went and liked it yoo. Love the monkey pics especially jumping into the pool! Can’t wait to see your Dambulla pictures!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I also wonder how many people slipped and fell to their demise back in the day. Today it is safe with the stairways and carved walking areas, but it must have been treacherous, especially during the rainy season.

    I really like the silhouetted photo of the monkeys.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh ya, can you imagine! I guess only the young, agile and fearless made the trip up and down that rock. I tried to find info on what the ancient route up to the summit was like but didn’t have any luck.
      Glad you like my monkey photo. I took a whole bunch and this is my fave.

      Like

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