Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka : The Ascent

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Sigiriya Rock, the Eighth Wonder of the World
Sigiriya Rock, the Eighth Wonder of the World

Sigiriya Rock is probably the most singular geological formation in Sri Lanka, and encompasses one of the more remarkable archaeological sites. It has a history that has all the elements of a classic drama, with a central character straight from Shakespeare’s pen. It is simply an awesome tourist experience that should not be missed. For maximum enjoyment, however, make your ascent of the rock at dawn.

The rock known as Sigiriya is located 22km north-east of Dambulla in the North Central Province. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, it towers more than 200m over the surrounding plains and has been visited by tourists for over 1,000 years. Even today, though the rock has weathered, its former opulence and greatness as a magnificent palace can still be seen in the form of beautiful paintings, ancient graffiti and symmetrical gardens.

Buddhist monks inhabited Sigiriya from the third century BC, but it was only after parricidal King Kassapa’s usurping of the throne in 487AD that the palace and gardens were built and the rock fortified. It took seven years to complete and was effectively abandoned after Kassapa’s death in 496 when his brother Moggallana, the rightful heir, returned the throne to Anuradhapura. After this monks inhabited it again until 1155AD.

Arriving at the Sigiriya complex, follow the moat around to the western gate, the main entrance, and buy your ticket from the office near to a small Archaeological Museum. Cross the Outer and Inner Moat bridges and pass the thick ramparts to enter what has been described as Asia’s oldest landscape garden that stretches from the main entrance all the way to the wooded foot of the rock.

The well-kept symmetrical Water Gardens consist of the remains of four L-shaped pools either side of the main walkway, which were once used for bathing, each one connected by underground channels. Surrounding these pools are four fountains, still active during the rainy season, which are fed by gravity from the moats and demonstrate the early sophistication of the design here.

Walking further along you will notice other pools and moated islands on either side. The larger pools would have had pavilions built on their flat surfaces acting as dry season palaces, which were connected by bridges. The niches on the rocks are evidence of this.

Further along the main pathway you pass the Octagonal Pond before reaching the Boulder Garden at the base of the rock. This garden consists of winding paths around natural, fallen boulders that would once have held many buildings. To the north, you can see Preaching Rock, so-called because of the tiered platforms that would have been used by orating monks. Also you can see the Audience Hall, named because of a throne carved into the rock at one end, and the Cistern that both form one part of a huge split rock.

Heading through the trees, the stone steps beginning your steep climb are soon visible. The stairways will take you up and to a second checkpoint where you will have to show your ticket.

From the checkpoint a spiral staircase takes you to one particular highlight of Sigiriya: the beautifully painted Sigiri frescoes, seen best towards the end of the day. These paintings of graceful bejewelled ladies offering flowers are possibly the earliest surviving examples of a Sri Lankan form of classical realism. Located about 100m above ground level and under an overhang, they have been protected in a depression in the rock from the wind and rain. There are 22 frescoes, still gleaming in their brown, ochre, amber and red shades of tempera colour. In Kassapa’s time there were about 500 frescoes, which would have been a magnificent sight from the water gardens below. The paintings are believed to be of apsaras, heaven-dwelling nymphs, and are similar in style to the rock paintings at Ajanta in India. You cannot use flash photography here.

Coming down an exit staircase you then go along a metal walkway, 14m below, taking you past the Mirror Wall. Because the wall was coated with lime plaster, it has an extraordinary polished shine that gives it its name. It was once clearly covered with graffiti written by visitors dating from the sixth century, though a lot has faded now and some of the wall has broken away. Inspired by the beauty of the maidens painted above, visitors inscribed their poems and thoughts on this pearly wall. Written in ancient Sinhala, this graffiti has been very important for experts studying the development of the Sinhala language over the years.

Sigiriya Ecocultural Tour Guide Association (Setga) have an information desk (Hotel Rd, open 8am-6pm daily) with brochures on the area’s fauna. (source: lonely planet)

Passing the Mirror Wall you will come once again to some stone steps that this time start to curve around to the northern side of the rock, eventually taking you to the Lion Terrace where you can buy cool drinks and snacks.

The huge lion’s claws through which there is a stone staircase to continue your climb, is possibly the most significant feature of Sigiriya, and gives the rock its name. Si, is shortened from sinha meaning lion, and giriya means throat. Originally the entrance to the rooftop palace was through the throat of a huge brick lion, according to what is written in the graffiti. Now only the gigantic carved claws remain of what must have been a truly astounding sight in its day.

You begin the short but steep final climb over the rock face to the top (notice the ledges in the rock that would have been used as guard posts), through the original stone stairway and up metal steps supported by a handrail to the summit, to observe the breathtaking 360-degree panoramic views. Pidurangala Rock is to the north, and to the south are the Sigiri Wewa and Mapagala Rock, which are also worth exploring. To the east is the yet-to-be uncovered Eastern Precinct and the view west is over the symmetrical gardens below.

On the summit are the remains of the Royal Palace built for the King Kassapa. Although few ruins remain you can see a pool, an eastern, sunrise-facing throne constructed from solid rock, and remains of what would have been many buildings and royal gardens covering altogether an area of around 1.5ha.

Descent from the top of the rock is much easier and quicker. You go down the same way you came up until just below the second checkpoint when you keep to the left-hand path that takes you down to the car park and exit. On your way from here stop at the Cobra Hood Cave, dating from possibly the third century BC that has a painting on the ceiling, and a drip ledge at the top that looks remarkably like a cobra hood from a distance.

Sigiriya is best when there are less people, so go either early morning or later in the day, avoiding public holidays. The ticket office is open from 7am but if you buy a ticket the day before you can enter earlier than this, which I would recommend. You can get guides from the entrance, there are many, and there are ‘helpers’ that can assist you in climbing the rock. It is very important to take with you sun cream, a hat and some water.

After the long climb, you’ll probably be feeling quite hungry so for a good rice and curry lunch with a good view of the rock go to the Sigiriya Rest House (Ceylon Hotels Corporation, 411, Galle Road, Bambalapitiya, Colombo 4. Email:; Tel: + 94 (066) 223 1899), 400m from the rock (turn right out of the precinct exit). It is a reasonable choice for a room and you can buy your tickets for the rock from here.

By Emma Boyle

Also See

Map of  Sigiriya Fortress

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Travel Directions to Sigiriya

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