The magnificent Sigiriya rock fortress stands majestically in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka as a significant UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress is renowned for its frescos and the ruins found along its extensive network of gardens and reservoirs. While in Sigiriya you may also want to visit Pidurangala, a hillock which contains many archaeological sites and affords a unique side view of the Sigiriya rock.
Places and Activities in Sigiriya
The fortress built by King Kasyapa (447- 495 BC) is undoubtedly one of the most visited tourist attractions in the island. The rock, which is believed to be a magma plug of an extinct volcano, rises imperiously (370 metres above sea level) and is visible for miles from all directions.
The immaculately planned and beautifully designed water gardens form an intricate network of underground water distribution that speaks volumes for ancient engineering. This network channels water to the Royal bathing area which can be found on little islands surrounded by moats. There are fountains in these bathing areas, some of which still function. The summit of the rock offers an excellent view of these vast gardens.
The view from this fortress is simply amazing and it is clear why King Kasyapa chose this as the capital city during his reign. The fortress is impenetrable and secure from all forms of ground attack, and provides a 3600 view of the surrounding area.
History of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The fortress was built by King Kasyapa, son of King Dhatusena. Legend has it that the son overthrew his father and plastered him alive to a wall to take the throne. Mogallana (Dhatusena’s other son, and son of the true queen) fled to India for safety, but threatened to return to seek revenge and the throne.
Kasyapa shifted the traditional capital and residence of kings from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya to protect his throne from his brother. The height and structure of this rock made it an incomparably secure place. The remains of the defensive structures, gardens and palaces are still visible to this day. It is said that the king had guards standing on thin ledges to observe any possible attack; and if they fell asleep on duty, they would fall off the rock!
As pledged, a vengeful Mogallana returned to war, and during the battle Kasyapa’s elephant made a turn to gain an advantage. Legend has it that his men thought this deviation by the elephant meant the king was retreating, and abandoned Kasyapa in the battlefield. To save his pride, the king took his own life. Mogallana regained control and returned to the capital of Anuradhapura, converting Sigiriya into a monastery.
Highlights of Sigiriya
Frescoes- The Sigiriya Damsels
While climbing the rock, you will see a sheltered gallery where some of the beautiful ancient frescoes that Sigiriya is most famous for can still be seen. It is believed that the entire face of the rock was once covered with these paintings, most of which do not remain now. There is evidence to suggest that over 500 paintings of women were featured on the face of the rock, of which only 22 now remain. Flash photography is prohibited inside the cave.
The Mirror Wall
Moving on from the fresco gallery, the climb circles the rock face, protected by a 3-metre high wall. This wall is coated with a mirror-smooth glaze and it is said to have been polished so well that the king could see his reflection when he walked by. The wall is made of a type of porcelain, and many visitors have scribbled graffiti on it. The mirror wall is regarded as the oldest graffiti wall in Sri Lanka. However scribbling graffiti has now been banned, so do not be tempted to leave a message! Many of these writings have been translated and scripted so as to facilitate the study of the history of the Sinhala language.
The Lions Gate
The climb then leads to a flat platform before the final ascent begins. Here you enter the ‘Lion’s Gate’ which is the entrance to a staircase leading to the summit. A huge brick lion once sat at the edge of the rock from which the rock derives its name ‘Lion’s Rock’. The staircase was designed to lead from the gigantic paws of the lion and into its mouth! However, today only the lion’s paws remain of this once mammoth structure.
Finally, after completing a somewhat precarious climb, you will reach the summit of the rock to witness a breathtaking view. The remains show foundations of buildings which at one time would have covered the entire surface area of the rock, which is roughly 1.6 hectares. The design and layout along with the splendid view show that the fortress was indeed a Royal Palace. A pond sits at the top resembling a rooftop pool. A smooth slab of flat stone, often referred to as the king’s stone throne, greets the rising sun.
A short distance from the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is Pidurangala, an archaeological site dating back to King Kasyapa’s rule. When the king decided to shift the capital and residency of kings to Sigirya, he had to make arrangements to relocate the monks who were residing in monasteries at the foot of the Sigiriya rock. He set his eyes on Pidurangala which, with its many caves and peaceful environs, was an ideal place of worship. It is believed that this was the Royal Temple where the king would come and worship as evidenced by a beautiful stone paved pathway leading to this temple.
Making your way along this path, you will come across fascinating evidence of ancient architecture in the surrounding landscape and inside the caves. One of the largest reclining statues of the Buddha is found at Pidurangala. It is 48 feet long and it is believed that the king worshiped this statue twice a day from the Lion’s Gate. An adventurous climb then leads you to the top of this rock. The climb may be difficult as the pathway ends halfway through, after which you must cross and perhaps jump over a few boulders as you make your way through a forest. Therefore to make this trek you have to be agile, or at least sure footed.
Overall, the climb is quite steep and challenging but what awaits your efforts is a unique side-view of the Sigiriya rock (otherwise you can only see the wide side of the rock) and the surrounding jungle.
The Minneriya National Park is ideal for a wildlife safari and is located less than an hour’s drive away from Sigiriya. Inside the park is a reservoir built by King Mahesen which is yet another testament to the amazing irrigation network of ancient Sri Lanka. The reservoir acts as a feeding ground for elephants in the surrounding dry zone.
The best time to visit the park is between May and October to witness the large elephant gatherings. Over 300 of these noble beasts laze around, bathe and enjoy the vast natural surroundings.
Treat your eyes to the beauty of the flora and fauna of the park. If you are into photography, do not forget to take your camera.
Travel Tips and Planning Information
- The entrance to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is open from 8.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.
- Tickets are available at the entrance. This supports the maintenance of these sites which are monitored by international agencies to prevent erosion, wear and tear and repair.
- A bus ride to Sigiriya will take up to six hours from Colombo.
- Be mindful of the areas where photography is prohibited because you will be fined immediately.
- Do not get too friendly with the monkeys. They may grab your cameras.
- Sigiriya was once ‘defended’ by swarms of wasps, and though the authorities restrain their invasion, you are advised to seek prior information from locals or your tour guide.
- Sun screen lotions, hats, good walking shoes and socks are recommended.