Sigiriya, a.k.a. 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 it is 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 have 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 to the throne. Mugalan converted Sigiriya once 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.
Spot 1: Looking from afar on 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 from afar, 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 is now an important archaeological site.
It takes only about 30 minutes to reach the top of the rock. Midway I found the Pidurangala Sigiri Rajamaha Viharaya Temple and its reclining Buddha. The rock there is also a great spot to view the surrounding area and the jungle. 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 is 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 Sigiriya!
Pidurangala tips and guides:
Reaching the highest point of Pidurangala could be a little bit tricky and dangerous – you will have to climb some rocks.
- Wear the right shoes and bring a bottle of water. It gets hot in the afternoon and it is a workout to complete the hike.
- Don’t stress if you are not confident to climb the rocks to the top, you still get to see the beautiful scenery of the jungle and the Lion Rock from a different angle – though it’s true that the view is not as impressive as the top of the rock.
- It is a cheaper option for budget travelers to view Sigiriya because the entrance fee to the site is about US$30; the entrance fee to Pidurangala is only US$3 (a 1/10 of the price). However, I would still recommend the experience of Sigiriya, you have come all the way to Sri Lanka!
- If you are staying overnight in the area, consider climbing Pidurangala for the sunrise. It has gained popularity among many backpackers and the lighting of the Lion Rock during sunrise is simply amazing. Pidurangala is in the north of Sigiriya, you will get to see the sun going up on the left of the Lion Rock, and the golden ray of light casting on the misty jungle, lakes, and villages.
- As I mentioned, since the rock is located in the north of Sigiriya, it is also a great spot to view the sunset! The sunlight came from the right of the Lion Rock during sunset and the lighting is equally amazing. However, the top of the rock may sometimes get a little crowded in peak season. Especially if you are there with other photographers, they may get up there an hour early and set up their tripods and cameras, and that may make it difficult for others to move around and take photos freely. While fewer people usually get up before sunrise (even though the view is amazing), go up in the morning to enjoy some peace and quiet during the magical moment.
Tickets: LKR 500 per person (US$3)
Opening Hours: 5 am to 6 pm, but visitors may stay a little bit longer on the rock even if the ticket office is closed at 6 pm.
Spot 2: Looking from below in 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 on 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 are located on 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 that acted as an extension and is a refinement of the other three water systems.
Before climbing up the rock, we had a good look at the rock from the ground as we entered the Boulder Garden. The garden is located within 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 roughly concentric terraces that are called the Terraced Garden.
Tickets: US$30 per person
Entering Sigiriya Museum alone (US$5). Ticket to Lions Rock includes a museum.
Opening Hours: 7 am to 7 pm, the ticket counter closes at 5 pm though. It’s possible to visit Lion Rock for sunset viewing, but not for sunrise viewing.
Spot 3: Looking from above on the Lion’s Paw
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 4 pm 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 the 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.
Sigiriya tips and guides:
- What is the best time to visit Sigiriya? Sri Lanka is in a tropical region with year-long hot weather but dry and wet seasons. The dry season is between late December and early April, and it is a better time to visit Sigiriya because you will enjoy a higher possibility of clear sky and sunny days.
- If you are going there for sunrise and sunset viewing, you will have a better chance in March with fewer cloudy days.
- It is quite physically demanding to climb up either Pidurangala or Sigirya, wear comfortable hiking shoes, and dress properly.
- On a sunny day, bring an umbrella or hat. Since both sites are sacred places, bring a sarong to cover up, it may also be helpful to stay away from the sun in the afternoon.
- How to get to Sigiriya? The closest town is Dambulla and you can take a bus from there to Sigiriya, the bus departs every 30 minutes and it takes about an hour to get to the rock. It is about another 5 minutes walk to the ticket office once you get off the bus at the final bus stop.
- To have more freedom, hire a tour guide or a tuk-tuk driver. It costs about LKR 600-1000 (depending on your bargaining skills) but I recommend this option as it will save a lot of time traveling to and from the rock, and you don’t have to wait for the bus once you complete your visit. Besides, it’s easier to do so if you are going there to see the sunrise.