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Sri Lanka: A Land Like No Other (Part 5) Sigiriya

Sri Lanka —  5) Sigiriya

“You absolutely must go to Sigiriya!”, Arthur C. Clarke insisted 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, 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 thru 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.

Entering Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Entering Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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).

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 is 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 $10.00 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.

si"The Fountains of Paradise", the water garden of Sigiriya. After 1500 years, they still work.

“The Fountains of Paradise”, the water garden of Sigiriya. After 1500 years, they still work.

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.

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.

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 and a booklet of their translations exists. 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.

Mirror Wall and the spiral staircase leading to the Gallery of the Damsels. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Mirror Wall and the spiral staircase leading to the Gallery of the Damsels. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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).

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”.

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.

To see exceptional views of Sigiriya please visit the images at this website. The photos take awhile to upload but allow you to explore Sigiriya with 360 degree views and are the closest thing to being there that I’ve seen.

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

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