Sigiriya, a.k.a. the Lion Rock is one of the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Located in the heart of the country, Sigiriya is a 350-meter high rocky outcrop (Monadnock) with a striking profile that overlooks its surrounding plain and forest. Sigiriya is probably the most iconic and well-known landmark in the country and also our first stop to kick off our round-island trip in Sri Lanka. Sam, our guide, drove us to the Lion Rock from Negombo early in the morning and it took almost 4 hours to get there; while we were there, we explored and appreciated the rock from three different perspectives.
The History of Sigiriya
Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s ancient political capitals and the most sensational archaeological heritage site that has also been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The archaeological findings of Sigiriya date back to pre-historic times for more than 5,000 years (in fact, prehistoric humans occupied Sigiriya and the area since about 10,000 years ago, excavations have revealed their ways of life from bone tools, food residues, and human remains). Cave shelters were found around the site that was constructed in the 3rd century BC. These caves were used by monks which has Brachmi rock inscriptions that reveal the development of Buddhism in the early Buddhist period.
Sigiriya is part of a network of similar monasteries at Pidurangala and elsewhere, including the famous Dambulla, another World Heritage site in the area. The rock reached its golden age during the reign of King Kasyapa in the 4th century. While Kasyapa was the son of a lesser queen, he obtained kingship with a palace conspiracy and he executed his father. He made Sigiriya his seat of administration and remodeled Sigiriya based on the mythical Alakamanda of the god Kuvera for his own pleasure. The city’s ramparts, moats, gateways, and a sophisticated water system were built; and a royal palace was erected on the summit during his time. It was with Kasyapa that this rock was made accessible, by adding elaborate sets of pathways and galleries along the steep and precipitous sides of the rock. However, his short-lived reign was ended abruptly by Mugalan, the rightful heir of the throne. Mugalan converted Sigiriya again into a Buddhist monastery. This monastery then lasted for about 800 years – through several phases of development, decline, and resurrection. The complex left behind a rich archaeological record of architecture, sculpture, and fragments of paintings. Sigiriya was eventually abandoned in the 13th century and swallowed up by the forest until it was once again discovered by the commissioned archaeological team in 1894.
Far from the Pidurangala
Before officially entering Sigiriya, we had lunch and visited Pidurangala. I was told the top of the Pidurangala is the best place to have a good view of the entire Lion Rock, and it was true. In the local language, “gala” means rock, and the Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple is a giant rock temple built by King Kashyapa in the 5th century BC. This temple is a Buddhist monastery and now an important archaeological site.
It takes only about 30 minutes to reach the top of the rock. Mid-way I found a reclining Buddha and it was also a great spot to view the surrounding area. The 12.5-meter long Buddha at one time was the largest brick statue of Buddha in the world. The head and torso of the statue were destroyed by treasure hunters in the 1960s but have been reconstructed. Pidurangala is less grand compared to Sigiriya and it’s more difficult to climb. The final part of the climb was quite tricky, visitors literally needed to climb up the rocks to the top part of the rock – and so it required some physical strength to reach there – The highest point of Pidurangala is a pile of rubble which are the remains of a stupa. Once I poked my head out of the cracks of the rock, I was greeted by the magnificent view of the Lion rock as it stood there, embraced by the amazing green. At that moment, I couldn’t wait to get up there!
Down from the Water Gardens
The first part of Sigiriya was a museum and then walking through the Water Gardens. The museum provides some information about the history and archaeological findings of Sigiriya, including the display of paintings and terracotta figurines that were found in the heritage site. The ancient Sigiriya city has a rectangular layout that spans from left to right of the rock. There were high ramparts and deep moats defending the complex and dividing the city into two distinct precincts, which located in the east and west of the rock. The hilly terrain immediately around the central rock is further fortified by a high wall and it is the citadel of the complex. The palace complex is situated on top of the central rock at an elevation of 180 meters from the surrounding plain (and 350 meters above sea level).
The watering Gardens are a striking feature and an important water system of the city plan, and there are four of them. In Water Garden 1, there are four symmetrically arranged L-shaped ponds that form an island in the middle. This is a special feature in ancient garden design, called “Charbagh” and the ponds here is considered to be the most ancient one in the world today. Water Garden 2 is called the “Garden of Fountains” with small ponds, fountains, and serpentine streams; Water Garden 3 is situated at the highest level of the water system, there is an octagonal pond in the north of this garden. The last water garden is a miniature water garden acted as an extension and is a refinement of the other three water systems.
Before climbing up the rock, we had a good look of the rock from the ground as we entered the Boulder Garden. The garden is located within in the citadel that contains boulders of picturesque sceneries. Walked along the pathways, we saw rock boulders that had been fashioned into thrones and cisterns for ritualistic purposes. Among these features in the garden is the Audience Hall. The hall has a five-meter-long main throne and other low-level seats carved out of living rocks. As we proceed, the higher ground at the base of the rock is are roughly concentric terraces that are called the Terraced Garden.
Up above the Lion’s Paw
The Lion Rock has 4 different layers. The top part of the rock is a cap of quartz-feldspar gneiss, and this is where the palace complex is located. To me, the best time to climb the lion rock is in the afternoon at around 4pm because it was way too hot to do so in the afternoon, and the rock captures the best lighting since visitors usually enter the site on the west side and the pathways to the rock summit through the Boulder Garden leads to the southwest base of the main rock.
The winding pathway traverses the western surface of the rock as we climbed up. Part of the pathway is protected by a parapet wall, called Mirror Wall, there, we elevated through the spiral staircase to a cave that showcased some of the damsel paintings in the fresco pocket. The pathway eventually leads to the Lion’s Paw Terrance, which is the starting point for reaching up to the Royal Palace on the rock summit through a gateway between the paws of a huge, crouched, lion figure.
The palace is about 1.5 hectares in size on the summit of the rock consisting of a large artificial pool and other gardens. The palace complex divides into three distinct parts: the outer palace, the inner palace, and palace gardens. A marble paved walk separates the two palaces and leads directly to the massive rock throne, which faces the inner city and ceremonial precinct to the east of the rock. Since we climbed up in the afternoon, we were just in time to reach the top and catch the beautiful sunset. Behind the rock, the forest and Pidurangala also catch the sunlight perfectly and it was a great day to share this special moment with my mother at the summit of the rock – which, by the way, I was extremely proud of her for climbing up there with her fear of heights and a bad knee.