Rising majestically out of the flatlands, the huge flat-topped red rock looms large on the horizon. At nearly 200 metres in height, the sheer scale of this geological and archaeological artefact can only be grasped from close quarters. And so, one early morning in February, my 8-year-old son and I set out to explore what Sri Lankans’ term “the eighth wonder of the world.”
Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, is a natural geological feature – a hardened magma plug from an extinct and long-eroded volcano. Itís much more than a grand granite monolith, however. Back in 477 AD, according to ancient chronicle Culavagnsha, King Kasyapa chose Sigiriya as the site for the new capital of Lanka.
Kasyapa's choice may have been in no small part down to the fact that he had just taken the crown from his father, cruelly walling him up alive. Fleeing the old capital of Anuradhapura and setting up somewhere inaccessible and impenetrable was perhaps a good idea in the circumstances.
"Itís hard not to feel important, climbing the steep staircase between these regal paws."
King Kasyapa and his court were not the first inhabitants of Lion Rock. Signs of settlement have been found in the surrounding area that date back some 20,000 years, and to the 3rd century in grottoes and shelters within the rock itself. These more recent settlers were monks, who lived at Sigiriya on and off until the 14th century.
After picking up our tickets at the office, we nosed around the museum (generously funded by the Japanese government). The models really gave us an insight into the splendours of ancient Sigiriya, the scale of the moat, gardens and natural irrigation system, all of which seem inconceivable today.
Tell Tale Tip: On your way out, visit the bookshop to buy a map of Sigiriya. It will come in handy even if you have a guide with you.
Then it was back across the road we had driven along to reach Sigiriya and through the ticket check into the sprawling gardens and ponds. Although very interesting, we were keen to get out of the heat and start the climb. We had also seen a coach of Sri Lankan schoolchildren pull up so were keen to get going.
When we reached the base, we took the first steps up. It was in one of the monkís shelters here that we started our exploration proper – the Cobra Hood Cave within the Boulder Gardens, along the western edge of the rock. So-called because of its resemblance to the snake, the interior of this plastered cave has an inscription the 2nd century from a Chief Naguli, who would have donated it to a monk.
This shelter and others like it were abandoned by the monks by the time Kasapaya came and his landscapers and architects cleverly incorporated them into their organic design. Originally they would have had wooden structures on top of them, the footings for which can still be seen today.
Tell Tale Tip: Climb Sigiriya early in the morning or at the end of the day when it’s not too hot.
From the Boulder Gardens we passed into the Terraced Gardens, which were created on a natural hill at the base of the rock. Strolling up the small stone stairways and past roughly hewn granite walls, we were soon on a landing near the middle of the rock face. And now our ascent of the rock proper would really begin.
From this landing, ingeniously attached to the rock, is a parapet wall concealing a steep zig-zag staircase and walkway. This is the Mirror Wall, which originally had a highly-polished inner surface. Now a rusty-orange hue, it is adorned with visitor graffiti dating from the 6th to the 14th century, written in Sinhala, Sanskrit and Tamil. Some of these are simply ďI was here,Ē others are poems, declarations of love or comments on the frescoes.
What of these frescoes? Originally the whole rock was whitewashed, so that the citadel atop resembled a ‘castle in the sky’ and, in a band around the middle, were 500 paintings of semi-naked women. Of these beautiful maidens, which are thought to be the Kingís harem, only 19 remain, within an indentation which protected them from weathering. Climbing up the handy spiral staircases put in by the British in the 1930s, we were able to view them at close quarters. The colours are surprisingly vibrant and the forms so well rendered, considering that they were painted over 1,600 years ago.
And then on to the summit, first up stone steps put in by the Sri Lankans sometime in the late 1980s or early 90s. These are the most challenging for those shorter in stature, as they’re quite steep, but my son managed them without too much trouble. If you have big feet like I do, you’ll have to make like crab to climb the steps. Then it was time for a short rest on a flat bit of ground, before we went through the structure that gives Sigiriya its name – the Lion Gatehouse.
All that remains today are two impressive and rather enormous clawed feline feet (the claws are as tall as a man), but originally a sphinx-like lion colossus guarded this entrance to the Sky Palace. Itís hard not to feel important, climbing the steep staircase between these regal paws. The original stairs, which zig-zagged within the lionís head are lost, so it was on to the metal gantry – with some trepidation – that we stepped next.
The gantry stairs, which cling to the rock face and meander up to the very top, are somewhat hairy, but by focusing on the next step and methodically plodding ever upwards, we made it to the summit within half an hour. And what a reward!
The summit of Sigiriya is a stepped elliptical plateau upon which the crowning glory, the Sky Palace once sat. While the buildings themselves are long gone, parts of the walls, most of the footings and many intriguing structures remain. We stood in what is thought to have been the Kingís bedroom, a large elevated platform at the north-eastern end. We gazed into the large pond hewn out of the rock and imagined swimming in its cool waters. Just above the pond is a carved stone throne, which we sat upon to take in the stunning views: you can see a long, long way when youíre up what is effectively an ancient skyscraper.
As is sensible on any tall building project, Kasapayaís architects had the foresight to include a metal lightening rod, placing it on top of the small stupa (a mounded Buddhist shrine). With safety in mind, they also build a boundary wall around the circumference of the plateau. We didnít venture near enough to the edge to check if it was still there in its entirety.
Descending the rock was fairly straightforward, step by step by step. Half an hour later we were back at the base looking up. We came down mostly the same way we went up, but took a turning on the left (keep your eyes open to make sure you donít miss it). There we stopped for a refreshing drink before meeting our waiting driver.
Looking up at Sigiriya, even today, without its whitewash, without its buildings and with only 19 resident maidens, it is breathtaking, but what it must have looked like when Kaspaya was in residence is almost impossible to conceive.
Tell Tale Tip: Sigiriya is located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, 20 minutes’ drive from the town of Dambulla and around 2.5 hours from Kandy. Several of our Sri Lankan itineraries feature a visit to Sigiriya, including Elephants, Egrets and the Deep Blue Sea, Forts & Monkeys (great for families), Serendipity & Tea and our special small group departure, Hoppers and Spice.