In the very center of Sri Lanka stands one of the country’s most iconic historical sites, Sigiriya Rock (Sinhalese for “Lion Rock”) — a massive column of rock that doubles as an ancient palace and historical site. From afar, it looks like a simple rock mount jutting out from a sea of greenery; but dig deeper and you’ll unravel the layers that make up Sri Lanka’s rich history and religious heritage.
Throughout time, Sigiriya has been used as a Buddhist monastery, fortress and palace. When Prince Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) moved the country’s capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya in 477 AD, he built a fortress and palace on the rock’s summit, decorating it with lavish pools, elaborate water gardens, and intricate frescoes. The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the prince’s death and it was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Some say that Sigiriya is the heart and soul of Sri Lanka, others think it’s all just part of a myth; for me, it’s the best place to learn about Sinhalese past, present and future. Even as archaeologists and historians continue to debate Sigiriya’s functions throughout time, it remains the most important landmark of the island nation.
Largest Picture in the World
My pilgrimage to Sigiriya began at the foot of the 370-meter high rock, where more than 1,200 steps led me up to the rock’s summit. Amidst the tropical heat, I meandered my way through a maze of grey boulders and lush jungle. Monkeys sneaked around me and other tourists, cheekily peeking at us and posing for photos.
As I climbed higher, views of the surrounding plains came into sight: the vast greenery sprawled beneath our feet, with Buddha statues and stupas poking above the tree canopy. The more steps I climbed, the further the plains stretched.
Eventually, I reached what appeared to be an enormous cave, with colorful frescoes covering its walls. Adorning the rock faces were immaculately preserved colorful paintings of topless women believed to be the ladies of Prince Kashyapa.
One of the first archaeologists who discovered this in 1907 suggested that the paintings could have covered most of the western wall of Sigiriya, an area 140 meters long and 40 meters high. It was said that more than 500 ladies were depicted in these paintings.
“The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery… the largest picture in the world perhaps,” said John Still. Today, most of these paintings have disappeared, leaving behind only the few remaining figures that have been restored to their original glory.
Next to the frescoes, I found yet another interesting spot called the Mirror Wall. Originally this wall, made of brick masonry and white plaster, was so highly polished that the prince could see himself whilst he walked alongside it. Today, it’s covered with verses written by visitors, from as early as the 8th century. People of all types wrote on the wall, on varying subjects such as love, irony, and experiences of all sorts.
The Lion Gate
The narrow steel stairway eventually led to a plateau about halfway up the steep rock face. Flanked by large brick layers that resembled an animal’s legs and paws, this was the famous Lion Gate that gave the fortress/palace its name — Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock.
Prince Kasyapa built this gate in the form of an enormous lion as a defense mechanism to protect his palace from attacks by his brother Mogallana. He had murdered his own father by walling him alive and then usurping the throne which rightfully belonged to Mogallana who then vowed revenge. This was why Prince Kasyapa chose this inaccessible site to be his fortress and palace. Mogallana finally arrived and declared war and unfortunately, Kashyapa’s armies abandoned him and he committed suicide by falling on his sword.
Originally, there was a sculpted lion’s head with legs and paws flanking the entrance, but the head collapsed years ago. Today, the lion’s paws are the most conspicuous feature, greeting you as you enter the doors of this imposing fortress.
A Construction of the Millenium
As I cleared the final stair onto the rock’s summit, my eyes were torn between watching my step and taking in the view before me. It was almost as though the whole of Sri Lanka lay before me, with the island stretching far into the endless horizon. Various shades of green and patches of rose-red earth sparkled under the sunshine, mountains loomed in the distance, blending seamlessly with the water-filled rice paddies and mudpools that had formed after a day of rain.
On the summit itself was a maze of ruins, moats, crumbling terraces and ramparts. The brick outlines of ancient foundations criss-crossing the grassy surface gave a few clues to the many lives this rock has led. As I wandered around the reservoirs and brick structures, I felt like I was transformed back into the heydays of Sigiriya, where concubines lounged around the gardens and military soldiers stood guard by the gates. It was easy to imagine just how elaborate this palace must have been.
I was awed by the scale of it all and puzzled by the secrecy of this fortress, after all it’s no where as famous as Angkor Wat or Taj Mahal, and I had no idea it existed before this visit to Sri Lanka. How could a palace of this magnitude standing high above the plains of Sri Lanka remain so unknown? Considering the busloads of tourists that visit other world-renown landmarks around the world, I’m secretly hoping that Sigiriya stays this way — calm, mysterious and unknown.
It is relatively easy to visit Sigiriya once you are in Sri Lanka. Most people base themselves at Habanara (15km away) or Dambullah (20km) and you can easily catch a train or bus there from Colombo or other parts of Sri Lanka. During my visit, I stayed at the Chaaya Village Habanara which was just a short drive away from Sigiriya and arranged transport through the hotel to get to Sigiriya early in the morning. Click to find out more on how to get to Sigiriya.
The entry fee for Sigiriya is around 30USD for foreigners. Given the scale of the sight and the impressive grounds, this is well worth paying. Be sure to get here early (it opens at around 8am) to avoid the heat. As the day progresses it gets incredibly hot regardless of the time of the year, so you would want to get to the top before that happens. It takes around 4 to 6 hours to see it all.
Disclaimer: My visit was made possible by Cinnamon Hotels, but all opinions expressed above are my own.