Discover Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

After immersing ourselves in age-old Buddhist art at Dambulla Cave Temple, EZ and I continued our tour of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities with a stop at one of my favorite attractions in the world: Sigirya.

Like many sites in the central province of Sri Lanka, Sigirya is steeped in fascinating history—like, seriously, Game of Thrones status history. On top of that, Sigirya is a stunning sight to behold, a rock monolith rising from the jungle and into the clouds.

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But what is Sigirya? The name means “Lion Rock.” It’s an ancient rock fortress, used by King Kashyapa in the 400s AD for his new capital. From the beautiful grounds below, to the ancient graffiti partway up the rock, to the cave frescoes of courtesans mid-way up, to the giant sculpted fortress base farther up, to the ruins of the palace and monastery at the top of the rock, discoveries await at every level.

The Legend

As the king’s son by a non-royal consort, Kashyapa did not have a proper claim to the throne. His half-brother, Moggallana, was the king’s son by the true queen, and thus, the king’s rightful heir.

But Kashyapa wanted the throne. As the elder brother, he felt he deserved it. So he conspired with Migara, the king’s nephew and army commander, to stage a coup. He walled the king up alive (that feels like a very Game of Thrones move, no?), killing his own father to seize the throne. Kashyapa might have killed his brother Moggallana too, but Moggallana fled to South India to escape a similar fate…and to bide his time until he could exact revenge upon Kashyapa.

Fearing Moggalana would someday return and overthrow him, the rogue King Kashyapa moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, setting up his palace atop the “impenetrable” rock fortress to avoid attack. (Kind of like the Eyrie, huh?)

Still, over time, Moggalana managed to raise an army in South India. Eleven years later, he declared war and defeated his evil half-brother. Legend has it that during battle, Kashyapa’s army abandoned him. Alone and vanquished, Kashyapa took his own life by falling on his sword.

For more details on this captivating legend, check out this site, from which I borrowed the inspired art below imagining Kashyapa’s time:

 

The Grounds

The grounds of Sigiriya feature some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. The path leading to the rock fortress is surrounded by a complex of water gardens, or pleasure pools designed for the royal family to bathe and relax in, along with fountain gardens for showcasing hydraulic waterworks.

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Closer the Sigirya rock, the grounds also hold boulder gardens, which had once formed the bases of Buddhist monastery buildings. The boulders feature strange markings, like strange linear symbols, or step-like indentations. Aliens?

Actually, we learned that the depressions on the boulders had been the foundations of brick walls and timber columns. The markings are the architectural remains.

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From the grounds, EZ and I marveled at the rock fortress looming before us. There appeared to be a few different stairways leading up the rockface (mostly modern metal staircases with railings; in ancient times, people used the limestone stairs carved into the rock, which are now mostly too steep and degraded for safe use, although some have been restored).

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At first we followed the tourists in front of us, but it quickly became evident that the queue on this path would require a long wait. A Sri Lankan guide approached us and offered to show us a “secret stairway,” one with a much shorter line, for $20. That seemed like a steep price, especially since we already knew that other staircases existed. We politely declined and, after a few minutes, left our staircase to explore our other options. As we walked around the base, we soon found a stairway that was much less populated. This one led directly to the frescoes, rather than to the fortress base.

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The Frescoes

The climb up the stairs took some effort, but not nearly as much endurance or exertion as our trek up Adam’s Peak. Still, the climb up Sigirya felt more perilous in some ways, maybe because we could see the sharp drop from the sheer rockface in the daylight. But we could also see the spectacular views, the epic sweep of the lush jungle below.

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Finally, we reached the mid-level cave gallery, where ancient frescoes had been painted on the stone: a series of beautiful, round-breasted women carrying flowers. Who were these women, preserved for posterity? Many believe they were Kashyapa’s concubines; others think they were celestial nymphs.

Taking our time, EZ and I savored each image: the rich colors, the bold contours, the detailed ornaments, the curved shapes. Photography is prohibited at the cave gallery, so I didn’t take any pictures. Still, images of the Sigirya frescoes abound online and in postcards. Here’s a sneak peek, courtesy of Wiki:

Frescoes

Lion Rock

From the mid-level cave gallery, EZ and I took another set of stairs up, passing the Mirrror Wall—a glazed stone wall inscribed with Sinhala graffiti, ancient messages from the 6th to 14th centuries—to the third level, the fortress base. It is here where the meaning of “Sigirya,” Lion Rock, becomes clear: on either side of the stairway that leads to the summit, the rock is carved with giant, formidable lion paws.

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Centuries ago, the top of the rock had been carved with a lion’s head, with the original limestone stairway leading between the lion’s paws and up into his mouth before winding up and around the remainder of the rock. Unfortunately, the lion’s head has long since crumbled away, probably given a lack of structural support. At least the paws remain intact. EZ and I noticed workers perched above one of the paws, restoring and reinforcing the brick (they can be seen in my photo above).

Still, just imagine a monumental lion, towering and presiding like a fierce sphinx. Here is one artist’s imagined rendition, taken from this site, which suggests that the entire sculpture had once been covered in plaster:

Lion head

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The lion’s paws are definitely a cool sight, but this level of the rock also includes an overlook. Here, we relaxed for a bit to enjoy incredible views of the landscaped royal grounds below and the surrounding wilderness.

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At last, it came time for EZ and I to ascend the last staircase to the “palace in the sky.”

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The Palace in the Sky

The top of the rock took our breath away. The terraced flattop is scattered with ancient ruins of King Kashyap’s palace foundations (or ancient monasteries; the debate continues among archeologists). I could only imagine how impressive and embellished the full structures looked in their heyday.

All around us sprawled a vast panorama of jungle, royal grounds, small towns, marshes, Buddhist stupas, blue mountains. What a place to hold court! On top of the world, a palace in the sky…

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Pidurangala Rock

After descending Sigirya back to ground level, EZ and I followed the path to the parking lot, stopping by food vendor carts for a snack of roti and coconut water. As we gaped at a monkey in a tree that was trying to open a Coke bottle, another monkey snuck up behind us and stole EZ’s roti right out of his hand!

These central province monkeys were cunning…and fierce. Earlier, on our way up the staircase we had seen another monkey try to steal a hat off the head of a tourist. We had also spotted a monkey with a  bleeding head, fur peeled off, a patch of raw scalp exposed…he had gotten into a fight with another monkey. I’m telling you, you don’t want to mess with these central province monkeys!

After our snack, EZ and I met our driver in the parking lot. Ten minutes later, we arrived at Pidurangala Rock, also known as the temple rock. This rock is a hidden gem, with only a handful of  locals around. Although lacking the legendary, historical, architectural, and artistic charms of Sigirya, a hike up Pidurangala rock offered its own treasure: dazzling views of Sigirya from a distance.

At the base, EZ and I had to remove our shoes and cover our skin with shawls as we passed by the white temple to reach the trailhead. We also threw in a $3 donation for the temple, a steal compared to the $30 pricetag at Sigirya. Once at the trailhead, we removed the shawls and put our shoes back on.

The hike felt more natural than the constructed staircases of Sigirya. Though the path included a few stone stairways, we mostly hiked on trails and clambered over boulders through woodsy areas. The hike took us only 40 minutes, but the incline and bouldering did pose some challenges.

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About halfway up, we came upon a reclining Buddha statue beneath the shelter of a rock, remnants of ancient monastic structures. And all around us, more beautiful scenery.

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Finally, after boosting and pulling each other over a particularly tricky boulder, EZ and I reached the top of Pidurangala Rock, a vast rocky scape. We gasped at yet another gorgeous vista. It was from here that we captured this stellar shot of Sigirya:

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With the summit almost to ourselves, the expansive splendor of our surroundings felt surreal, dreamlike. Tropical bird calls punctuated the peaceful silence. A sweet respite amid the hustle and bustle of our continuous travels.

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Our day exploring Sigirya had been fun, fascinating, and fulfilling…and topping it off with a fresh perspective from Pidurangala Rock allowed us to truly soak in the wonder. Such a rich experience on so many levels! The striking beauty of Sri Lanka continued to amaze us in all of its myriad forms.

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But our timing here was running out. We would wrap up our trip in this gorgeous island with more royal history and ancient ruins. Next (and last) stop on our tour of the Ancient Cities: Polonnaruwa!


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