Sigiriya In Sri Lanka The Exceptional Stone Stronghold Complex

Complete Guide to Sigiriya in Sri Lanka

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, also known as Lion Rock, is a breathtaking architectural marvel located in the heart of Sri Lanka. This ancient fortress, built in the 5th century CE (AD), sits majestically atop a massive rock formation that rises to about 200 meters above the surrounding jungle.

This was built as the capital city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka by the second Moriya King Kasyapa I. The site is considered as one of the most important cultural landmarks in Sri Lanka and probably most the visited tourist attraction by both Sri Lankan and Foreign tourists alike.

Though magnificent, it was built at the end of tragic happenings, about which we will talk in a few minutes. However, if you are a history buff first and then a traveler, please click here for the historical events leading up to the building, of one of the finest examples of urban planning of that period called the rock fortress of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.

What to see and what to do at the Rock Fortress complex of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka

Sigiriya city was the capital of Anuradhapura the reign of Kasyapa (also spelt as Kassapa or Kashyapa) for 18 years. After which the Capital returned to Anuradhapura. For the next 800 years it was used by the monks and after completely rejected. Soon nature took over the whole place. In the early 19th century, a young Bristish army officer called Jonathan Forbes, while hunting elephants, stumbled upon the ruins of the gardens at the foothill of the Sigiriya rock. The rest, as they say, history was rediscovered and restored.

The remarkable Rock Fortress of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka is filled with a rich history, breathtaking architecture, and stunning art. From exploring the ancient ruins to climbing the seemingly impossible rock to the summit, there’s something for everyone when visiting this magnificent complex.

Here is a complete guide to Sigiriya detailing what to see and do while at the Majestic Palace in the sky complex at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.

First View of the Sigiriya Rock fortress complex at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka

As you approach the main entrance of the Sigiriya Rock Complex, you are greeted by lush green landscapes and the towering rock that stands in the center. You will see a pathway that leads to the base of the rock, surrounded by water gardens and ponds. All these seem to lead your vision to the majestic rock mesa (tabletop or plateau), that seems to magically rise from the ground. There are no other rock outcrops in the vicinity.

Imagine the whole rock is white in colour, like a cloud. Now imagine there are 100s of paintings and frescos of Apsaras and celestial maidens covering a strip of about 10 – 20 Metres high, encircling the rock at the middle part of the rock. You can see in your mind’s eye, these figures floating around, praying, cavorting and dancing. You are probably already in heaven.

It is believed that King Kasyapa wanted to recreate the city of gods, Alakamandawa, with an ornate golden palace on top of the rock fit for Kubera or Kuvera, the god of wealth. He also wanted this fortress with the sky palace to be a pleasure place to entertain his royal guests and friends and their families.

Visit the Water Gardens, Fountains & Ponds

On either side of the dry-weather pathway leading to the bottom of Sigiriya rock, you will see the water gardens. These gardens are considered some of the most sophisticated in ancient Sri Lanka and are dotted with stone and brick structures and fountains, adding to the serene beauty of the complex. The ponds, pools and fountains are symmetrically laid out on both sides of the central path.

The artificial ponds, fountains and canals were used to create a cool atmosphere in summer. The pressure of water for the fountains was created by gravity. The water itself was fed from the rainwater collected by pools, moats, elaborate underground drains and terracotta conduits right from the top of the summit to the bottom most pool. Wow! Think of a gigantic “Rainwater harvesting” and you have it here.

As per the information board, an artificial serpentine stream was created to regulate the speed and volume of water. The more you see it the more you wonder, how did they achieve it 1500 years ago! There were also supposed to be summer palaces (in ruins now) in the center of the ponds.

Marvel at the Octagonal Pond, Moats, Boulder Garden and Ramparts

At the next higher level, after climbing a few steps, on the left side, is the octagonal pond. For some reason it is not duplicated on the other side. On one side of the octagonal pool is a boulder which carries tell-tale marks of a roof over this place, which the ravages of nature have finished.

As you cross the moats and climb on to the rampart, you will come across remnants of the old monastery. It is said that there was a monastery here before the Sigiriya fortress was built and again after when the capital was shifted back to Anuradhapura. While the images are not there in the Image house cave of the monastery, we could still see some paintings and plasters. The info board says that before Sigiriya was made the capital, this was dwelling for the monks and after Sigiriya period this was converted to the image house.

This is also called the boulder garden (boulder rampart) as we can see a lot of boulders strewn interspersed with pathways. This also provides protection against enemy action as one can defend by rolling the boulders on the oncoming army of the enemy.

There are many caves, some of them still sporting faded old paintings on the walls and ceilings of the caves.

Climbing Sigiriya Rock

The climb to the summit of Sigiriya hill, which is about 180 Metres high, starts after entering an archway formed by two boulders leaning on each other. There are about 1200 steps to the top of the rock from the water garden. A series of galleries and stairmatters provide access to the summit, where the famed Sigiriya Sky Palace was situated.

Once you start the climb there are very few places to stop and rest till you reach one of the most significant parts of Sigiriya, the Lion’s Paws Terrace. The climb is moderately difficult but the steps are quite well laid out and once can do this stretch in about 20-25 minutes.

Sigiriya is evolved word from the older Sanskrit word Simhagiri or the tamil word Singagiri. Simha means lion and giri is mountain. However, till now we had not seen anything that remotely resembles the lion or its features. Neither any paintings nor a sculpture of a lion.

It is said that HCP Bell (Harry Charles Purvis Bell), the archaeologist who first excavated this site, had the same question (!). From 1894 to 1898, they excavated most of what we can see today. The above question still persisted.

The Lion’s Paw Terrace

The only part they had not yet excavated was the last terrace before the final climb. The team had already installed iron ladders from the terrace to the top starting from a mound of what they thought was the debris of some earlier brickwork above. (Maybe a gallery). A mound is the most important starting point of any excavation and so they started digging into it and found some hard brickwork.

In his own words, HCP Bell, writes, “When following the curved ground line of the north façade to the massive brick structure, some stucco-covered work was uncovered. This at first seemed to represent very roughly moulded elephant heads – three on either side of the central stairmatter – projecting from the brick work in high relief, life size. Closer examination and the presence of a small boss further back than the ‘heads’ gave the clue to a startling discovery – the most interesting of many surprises furnished during the four season’s work at Sigiriya.

These alto relievos were not a variant form of the ‘elephant-headed dado’. They were none other than the huge claws – even the dewclaw – of a once gigantic lion, conventionalized in brick and plaster, through whose body passed the winding stairway, connecting the upper and lower galleries, towering majestically against the dark granite cliff, bright coloured and gazing northwards over a vista that stretches almost hill-less to the horizon, must have presented an awe-inspiring sight for miles around.

Thus, was clinched forever to the hill the appellation Sihigiri “Lion Rock.” …here then is the simple solution of a crux which has exercised the summaries of writers – the difficulty of reconciling the categorical statement of the Mahawamsa and the perpetuation to the present day to the name “Singha-giri” (Sigiri) with the undeniable fact that no sculpture or paintings of lions exist on Sigiri-gala”.

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