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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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