The mystique of the Lion Rock [5]

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Towering presence: Sigiriya dominates the surrounding landscape. Pic Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Towering presence: Sigiriya dominates the surrounding landscape. Pic Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

IT rises like a brown leviathan ploughing through the green sea of a Sri Lankan forest. Geologically they call it an inselberg or a bornhardt. It’s defined as: “a large domelike residual hill of hard rock, characterized by very steep slopes rising abruptly from the surrounding surface”.

This one rises 200 metres, dominating a wooded plain that had been settled from prehistoric times. Later, in the third century BC, a Buddhist monastery grew on the boulder-strewn lands at the base of the rock. The rock itself, however, remained virgin and inviolate. Then its cold character changed.

Inaccessible refuge

In AD 477, when a king named Datusena I ruled from the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, his eldest son turned against him.

Though Prince Kasyapa felt that he should, rightly, have been designated the Crown Prince, the fact that his mother was a commoner debarred him from royal succession. Frustrated, he revolted against his father, murdered him, and forced Crown Prince Moggallana into exile in India.

Soon after this, however, he realized that his patricidal crime had enraged his people. He fled from Anuradhapura to the wild environs of the rock.

There, driven by his fear, he decided to build an inaccessible fortress-palace on the high crest of the bornhardt. He and his inspired master builders named the great boulder Simha-giri: the Lion Rock.

Many centuries later, when we laid eyes on this inselberg, Simha-giri had become Sigiriya.

Fit for a king

tanding at the base of Sigiriya, on a clear but slightly humid morning, it was difficult to believe what Kasyapa had wrought in a mere seven years. In a series of concentric rectangles, he had created a new capital with a water garden, a boulder garden, an assembly hall, a summer palace, hydraulic works, and a protective moat with the great rock rising as its focus.

The two fortified areas here cover 90 and 40 hectares and protecting the rock is a walled citadel of 15 hectares. This is, arguably, the most elaborate urban site in South Asia from the first millennium. The towering rock, however, presents such a strongly magnetic draw that few visitors spare the time to walk around the remains of the old capital.

We picked our way through the landscaped grounds till we stood looking up at the might of Sigiriya rock blocking out much of the sky with its awesome bulk. Today, the engineers of the State’s Central Cultural Fund have made a pleasant pedestrian road to the bottom of the hill. From here the walk to the summit of the mount is daunting, but rewarding.

It starts through a winding stone stairway cut into the cliff face. As we climbed higher, the flat landscape below grew and widened, cooling the sweat of our exertions. We trod along a narrow catwalk, now fenced for our protection, and stepped past sentry posts built on sloping floors cut out from the living rock.

A drowsy sentry would lose his foothold and plunge into the next world! Clanging up a spiral staircase we came to the famed Sigiriya Murals, better known as the Sigiriya Maidens. Only a few of these paintings of sensuous, crowned women have been left after the ravages of time have obliterated the others. Their beauty is striking and they all seem to be floating on clouds like the legendary apsaras.

Then we were at the remains of the huge Mirror Wall. Once an enormous section of the cliff-face had been given a glossy mirror finish but much of it, today, has been dulled. After a few more steps we emerged onto a terrace. There, before us, was the impressive Lion Staircase.


In its heyday, visitors entered through a 14 metre-high crouching lion: symbol of the power and majesty of the Sinhala people. Now only the two massive forepaws remain, but even they are superbly evocative of Kasyapa’s might.

The Lion Staircase, the Mirror Wall and the Sigiriya Maidens strike us as being carefully orchestrated visual overtures building up to the high and heavenly experience of the royal complex on the summit of Sigiriya. It was, in every way, an incredible achievement. The summit of this rocky eminence has been hand-chiselled into a plateau. There, a series of interlocking and rising terraces have been cut to create an elevated, royal city covering an area of 1.5 hectares.

The upper palace rises at the coolest, and highest, western point, affording horizon-spanning views for the Monarch of All He Surveys. The lower, eastern palace was probably for lesser royalty.

Stupendous project

A marble-paved walk divides the two palace areas. Then there are the palace gardens to the south overlooking the enormous, man-made, Sigiriya Lake. The three sectors meet at a wondrous rock-cut pool bordered by two stone-flagged pavements. Only a vision-obsessed individual could have conceived and executed such a stupendous project. History reveals that the self-centred Kasyapa enjoyed his haven in the clouds for only 11 years.

Then, fortified by the conviction of his own invincibility, he sallied out of his impregnable eyrie and met his half-brother, Moggallana, in the field of battle. His forces were no match for the Indian-trained troops of his rival.

The era of Kasyapa and his palace in the clouds came to an end. After a while the Buddhists established their monastery again and then, that too ceased. Sigiriya was left alone to dream in soaring, solitary splendour. Out of the fabric of those dreams was born the enchanted snare that drew us to Sigiriya on a clear but slightly humid morning in Sri Lanka.

by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Sunday Observer

Also See

Map of  Sigiriya Fortress

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Travel Directions to Sigiriya

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