In the middle of Sri Lanka, a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres high rises from dense jungle. This is Sigiriya or ‘Lion Rock’ – one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning and a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site.
We rode push bikes to Sigiriya from our nearby guesthouse and arrived around 9am on a Saturday … just after half a dozen tour buses had dropped off their customers. A sign at the ticket office warned that there would be no refunds in the event of hornet activity preventing people from climbing the rock. Luckily, the hornets were having a lie in the day we visited, but we later heard that they prevented people from climbing to the top the day after.
The most impressive features at Sigiriya are the three types of landscaped gardens: water, boulder and terraced gardens. The flat, straight path from the moat to the rock leads visitors past the water and boulder gardens, before a steep limestone staircase climbs through the terraced gardens to a covered path midway up the rock. This is where the frescoes and Mirror Wall are located.
Despite being over 1,500 years old, the frescoes, depicting topless Sinhalese women, are in very good condition, due to an overhanging rock which has protected them from the elements. The Mirror Wall was originally covered with a highly-polished lime plaster, said to produce reflections. Over time it has become covered in graffiti, with some messages relating to the women in the paintings dating from the eighth century.
A little further around the rock, a metal staircase zig zags up to the top, passing between two massive rocks in the shape of lion’s paws – hence ‘Lion Rock’. I paused here to let the crowds disperse and started chatting to an elderly Sri Lankan called Tony who was visiting with his daughter and her in-laws. Tony told me that he first came to Sigiriya in the 1950s, on a school trip from Colombo when he was eight years old. The metal staircase only extended part way up the rock in those days and they had to climb the rest of the way to the top using footholds cut in the rock and a rickety hand rail.
As a child, he had been fascinated by the history of the site and still remembered the story. In the fifth century, King Dhatusena ruled over Sri Lanka from the capital, Anuradhapura. One of his illegitimate sons, Kashyapa, wanted the throne but his brother, Moggallana, was next in line. In 477 AD, Kashyapa schemed with the commander of the army and overthrew and killed his father. Fearing for his life, Moggallana fled to India.
Kashyapa relocated the royal seat to Sigiriya and built a lavish capital here. Sigiriya was both a palace and a fortress. The flat top of the rock (covering 1.5 hectares) was home to a palace, a pool and beautiful landscaped gardens, which were watered by an advanced hydraulic irrigation system. At ground level there were more palaces, extensive gardens and a moat with ramparts surrounding the complex, which measured 3km by 1km. It’s obvious why this site was chosen. On a clear day you can see for miles in all directions from the top of the rock – nobody would be able to ambush the King and his army.
In 495 AD, Moggallana, the rightful heir to the throne, returned to Sri Lanka with an army to fight his brother. Legend has it that during the battle Kashyapa’s elephant balked at an obstruction and turned aside. His troops mistook this as a retreat and scattered, leaving Kashyapa open to defeat. After his victory, Moggallana moved the capital back to Anuradhapura. Sigiriya was abandoned and used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Sigiriya is an expensive attraction at US$30 per person, but this doesn’t seem to deter the tourists as it is the most visited historic site in Sri Lanka. You need to be relatively fit to climb the rock as there are 750 steps involved. It can also get very hot at certain times of year, so it’s best to get there as soon as the ticket office opens at 7am. The ticket price includes admission to the museum (which houses one of only two toilet blocks at the site) located just outside of the main gate. The museum displays artifacts and tools excavated from the site, photographs of the excavation, reproductions of the frescoes, and translations of the Mirror Walls’ graffiti. The exhibits are surprisingly sparse, although the few that are there were relatively well labelled and interesting.
We thought the museum would be a good venue for a coffee shop as there’s a lot of free space. They could make a killing as refreshments are in very short supply at Sigiriya Rock. The only sustenance I saw on offer at the site was water and cool drinks being sold by entrepreneurial locals for exorbitant prices. And watch out for the monkeys if you take food – they swung by as soon as we took ours out and we had to put it away again fast!
Here’s my advice if you visit Sigiriya:
- Wear comfortable, sturdy shoes
- Get there early and try to avoid weekends or public holidays
- Take water and a snack
- Take a hat and sunscreen
- Make sure you go to the toilet before you start the climb.
One last note about Tony … as we chatted I discovered that he had lived in Australia for over 40 years. Not only that, but he lives and works in the same suburb as me! I’d love to know what the odds are of that happening!