No doubt one of the most extraordinary historical and archaeological sites of Sri Lanka and the world, Sigiriya Rock fortress is a must see.
The rock was formed from magma of a bygone volcano and sits 180 metres above ground level. Originally used as a monastery by Buddhist monks, the Sigiriya rock became a fortress , when King Kasyapa I fearing revenge by his brother, Mogallana, the rightful heir, decided to build his royal palace here so that no one could reach him.
He transformed this rock to appear like a gigantic captivating white cloud; styling the fortress entrance gatehouse –Lion Gate on the mid-level terrace in the form of a lion, where the feet and paws are visible today; giving his hideaway its name Sigiriya since the Sinhala word Sihagiri means Lion Rock. From this point, you can finally ascend to the summit that houses the gleaming white palace of incomparable beauty. There are almost 1200 steps that take roughly 2 hours to reach the summit.
The rock itself is visibly spectacular with its flat summit and steep sides, looming majestically amidst the jungles around it. The palace built during the 5th century, is an engineering brilliance of the era. The excellent creativity used in the designs and construction is beyond astonishing.
Apart from the fortress complex having remnants of a ruined palace and an extensive network of fortifications, there are Royal Gardens with ponds and fountains. Upon ascension of the Lion Gate and Staircase to the summit, you will come across the Mirror Wall and the famous exquisite muticoloured rock paintings depicting divine and angelic goddesses – Frescoes which have brought universal renown to Sigiriya.
- Royal Gardens of Sigiriya
Inside the western gate of the fortress, exists the Gardens of Sigiriya Citadel which are one of the most significant features of this attraction since it is one of the world’s oldest designs of garden architecture. The gardens are categorised into three types which are water gardens, boulder gardens and terraced gardens.
- Water Gardens
The water gardens are located in the central vicinity of this western side of the fortress. It consists of three different gardens. With the first consisting of an island area enclosed by water, connected to the main precinct by four causeways with gateways fixed at the head of each causeway. It is an example of one of the oldest gardens which are quadrilateral gardens of ancient Persian architecture.
The second gardens consist of two levels with the lower level of gardens having two long, deep stepped pools constructed on either side of the pathway. Leading to these pools are two shallow meandering streams from the upper level. Water draining into these pools is from an array of gentle waterfalls. The large waterfall is supplied by a shallow limestone lined pond which gets water from a series of fountains that are made of circular limestone plates. On either side of the second water garden, there are two large islands which consist of lower palaces built on its flat surfaces. This may have been the royal residences of King Kasyapa and his queen. There are two more islands found at the north and south and were also built in similar fashion as of the island in the first water garden. On an uppermost level than the other two sets of gardens, there is the third set of gardens which consists of a large octagonal pond with a raised platform on the corner. It is approximately 30 meteres in diameter and 110 metres in circumference. It was lined with bricks and had a brick staircase leading into it.
The water gardens were created in equal sections on west and east basis and are connected with an outer moat on the west and the large artificial lake to the south of the Sigiriya rock. An underground network of conduits channelled water into all the pools which are also connected to the moats. On the western end of the first water garden, there are miniature gardens which have many small pools and waterways. These gardens mirror the other as in like exact reflections on either side of the pathway that goes through the centre. Each garden is approximately 90 metres long and 30 metres wide. The layout and structure differ from the other. This indicates that this area was used and improvised over the centuries even after Sigiriya was abandoned as a royal citadel.
- Boulder Gardens
There are several huge boulders that provide shelter below them which were previously used as caves by earlier Buddhist monks and had been abandoned when King Kasyapa had moved to Sigiriya. The King’s workers and associates had wisely derived advantageous use of these caves by creating heavenly gardens in these caves. These gardens stretch from the northern end to the southern end of the slopes along the hills at the base of the Sigiriya rock. Wooden pavilions were built on top of almost every boulder and certain existing markings represent inscriptions for the foundations for these structures.
The essential features of these caves and gardens are the Cobra Hood Cave for it has a unique pattern on its ceiling since the rock has the shape of a head of a cobra and there are some ancient inscriptions on the walls; the King’s Audience Hall with its huge rock throne cleaved entirely from the rock and the Cistern Rock which has a big water pond carved deep into the rock.
- Terraced Gardens
Representing a sequence of miniature terraces, these gardens were carved out of the hilly slopes of the Sigiriya Rock. It was created through construction of stone walls with each terrace rising above the other flowing by a coextensive plan around the rock. A limestone staircase paves the way through these gardens and there is a covered path on the side of the rock which leads to the highest terrace where the Lion Staircase is located.
The fresco paintings are found within a sheltered cavity on a long gallery halfway high up in the face of the rock on a spiral stairway. These paintings are full of colour and depict buxom, tiny-waist women who were believed to have represented either apsaras (goddesses), queens or King Kasyapa’s courtesans. The real identities of these ladies are unknown but their legacy remains for over centuries and are still awe-inspiring to every visiting traveller. Protected from the sun and heat in the sheltered gallery, these frescoes have survived in remarkable condition with their colours glowing. They most likely date back to the 5th century during King Kasyapa’s reign.
- Mirror Wall
Originally a white plastered wall, this Mirror Wall is now stained in shades of ochre and orange. It begins at the top of the stairs at the terraced gardens and crosses over 200 metres along a gallery covered with beautiful colourful paintings –frescoes to the northern side of the rock on which the Lion staircase is situated.
The glistening white wall had many inscriptions with thoughts of travellers that visited the rock. They are known as Sigiriya Graffiti today. One such inscription revealed that the white plastered wall was so highly polished which made it reflect the fresco paintings from the opposite side hence the given name – Mirror Wall. This wall has been well preserved for over 15 centuries which clearly give s proof to the great artistry of the craftsmen of that era.
- Lion Gate
The Lion Gate rests on the mid-level terrace of Sigiriya Rock. The paws and staircase are all what remains from what was once a monumental gatehouse built in the form of a sphinx-like lion. It guarded the final entryway to the fortress complex of the king’s sky palace on the summit. The staircase was 35 metres high and 21 metres wide. The remains of the giant paws with its claws which are as tall as a man clearly imply its original size.
It is the only feature specifically mentioned in the ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Culavamsa which refers to it as Sihagiri – Lion’s Rock.
At the base of the stairway which leads up to the entry which was once gilded by heavy doors that opened out from the mane on the lion’s chest. The stairs led from inside the lion’s head, reappeared from behind the head and all the way up to the sky palace on the summit.
- The Summit
The spectacular terraced summit of the Sigiriya rock covers 1.6 hectares. This was where King Kasyapa chose to build his royal residence – the sky palace although only the lower foundations exist today. However it is fitting in reflecting to the past with wondrous thoughts how the king and his people had lived there hundreds of feet above ground. The 360 degree panoramic vistas of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty around are beyond captivating.
How long is the visit?
The entire visit of Sigiriya rock would be about 2 hours including visits to the gardens and water canals. It would be approximately 40 minutes to climb to the top, 1 hour at the top and 20 minutes get back to the ground. The duration mentioned includes ample time for little relaxation especially after the climb, seeing the ruins, taking photographs and absorbing all the views around you.
The site is open from 7 am to 7 pm but the ticket counter closes at 5 pm.
Best times to visit:
The best times to visit the magnificent Lion rock at Sigiriya would depend on the season. The tourist peak season is from December to April and July to October. It is advisable to go to the site by 7 am to beat the heat and also the large crowds or at around 3 pm when the heat is less intense and willing to watch the sunset.
The off season is from May to July. During this time it is quite cloudy, windy and not too hot, therefore you could visit at any time of the day and also it is much less crowded.