Deep within the heart of Sri Lanka, a colossal column of rock emerges from the lush green rainforest. Standing tall at 660 feet, this magnificent rock, known as Sigiriya (see-gee-REE-yah), holds a significant place in the island’s cultural history. With its striking frescoes, graffiti, and meticulously landscaped gardens, Sigiriya stands as a testament to ancient urban planning and the preservation of Sinhalese culture.
Located in the Matale District of the Central Province, Sri Lanka lies just off the southeastern coast of India. This small island, roughly the size of West Virginia, is often referred to as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” due to its natural beauty, unique shape, and warm-hearted people. The region surrounding Sigiriya has been inhabited since the 3rd century BCE, making it an area of great historical and archaeological significance.
In 476 CE, King Dhatusena ruled over Sri Lanka, and his son Kashyapa had ambitious plans to take the throne for himself. Knowing that his legitimate brother Moggallana was next in line, Kashyapa conspired with the army commander to overthrow their father. Kashyapa showed no mercy, walling up his father while he was still alive. With his brother forced into exile, Kashyapa crowned himself king in 477 CE.
Fearing for his own safety, Kashyapa decided to relocate the capital to Sigiriya from the traditional city of Anuradhapura. Construction of his fortress began swiftly, and Sigiriya soon became a thriving center under his rule.
Sigiriya: The Lion Rock
King Kashyapa selected Sigiriya for its strategic advantage in the event of an attack. The elevated position of the rock provided a defensive stronghold with breathtaking 360-degree views. The city began to take shape, and halfway up the rock, a colossal lion carved from stone welcomed visitors while sending a clear warning to potential enemies.
The Sigiriya complex, functioning both as a palace and a fortress, spanned just under two miles wide (3 km) and slightly over a half-mile long (1 km) with five gates. It consisted of a citadel, an upper palace atop the rock, and lower palaces at ground level. Lavish gardens adorned the complex, and to ensure its protection, a moat with ramparts surrounded the entire area.
Frescoes decorate the western side of the rock, alongside the mirror wall, a brick surface covered in a polished white plaster. When it was first constructed, the wall had a reflective quality. Over time, it became a canvas for visitors to leave their mark. Known as “Sigiri Graffiti,” some of these inscriptions date back to the 8th century CE.
One particular inscription, believed to be over 500 years old, humorously declares, “I am Budal. I came alone to see Sigiriya. Since all the others wrote poems, I did not!” This inscription offers a glimpse into the thoughts of ancient visitors and reveals that human behavior hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
The tradition of leaving graffiti on the wall eventually led to its closure for preservation. Today, ongoing restoration work protects the existing ancient inscriptions. In the Cobra Hood Cave, a pocket within the rock, astonishing paintings of Sinhalese maidens engaging in different tasks have remained intact for over a millennium.
One of the most awe-inspiring features of Sigiriya was its extensive gardens, consisting of three distinct components: the water gardens, the cave and boulder gardens, and the terraced gardens.
The water gardens, located in the western part of the complex, were divided into three sub-sections. The first featured a large plot surrounded by water, connected to the main complex by four channels. The second consisted of a path flanked by two long, narrow pools, while circular limestone fountains were fed by an underground aqueduct system. Today, these fountains continue to produce spectacular displays, especially during the rainy season. The second garden also boasted small ponds with ornate palaces on islets, serving as guest quarters.
The boulder gardens, situated west of Sigiriya, featured pavilions constructed on each rock. Visitors pass through these gardens on their way to the rock-top palace. Finally, the terraced gardens, arguably the most impressive, showcased symmetrical design and were connected to the outer moats and man-made lake. An intricate underground conduit network interlinked the various pools and connected them to the lake. Remarkably, these landscaped gardens are the oldest surviving in Asia and among the oldest worldwide.
The Rock Palace
At the summit of Sigiriya, the king’s palace complex stands as the crowning jewel of this extraordinary site. Resembling a miniature city, it encompasses a palace, a fortified rock fortress, an organized system of cisterns, and an array of rock carvings and sculptures. While the eastern quarter of the complex is still undergoing excavation, a massive rock wall already protects Sigiriya from that side.
Fall of The King
In 495 CE, Moggallana, the rightful heir to King Dhatusena’s throne, managed to defeat Kashyapa. It is said that during the battle, Kashyapa’s elephant veered off course due to an obstruction, leading his troops to believe it was a retreat. Chaos ensued, and with no one left to support him, Kashyapa chose a dramatic end. He drew his dagger, slit his own throat, and sheathed the blade before collapsing lifeless. Following his victory, King Moggallana relocated the capital back to Anuradhapura, restoring its historic seat of power.
After the abandonment of the gardens and palace at Sigiriya, a Buddhist monastery occupied the site until the 14th century. Records of activity at Sigiriya between the 14th and 16th centuries are scarce, but by the 17th century, it served as an outpost for the independent Kingdom of Kandy. In 1831, British army Major Jonathan Forbes discovered the overgrown summit of Sigiriya, sparking renewed interest in the site. Archaeologist H.C.P. Bell conducted a small excavation and research project in the 1890s, shedding further light on Sigiriya’s historical significance.
However, it was not until 1907, when British explorer John Still visited Sigiriya, that international discussions and archaeological work gained momentum. In 1982, the government-funded Cultural Triangle Project initiated full-scale archaeological work at the ancient city. During this period, historians discovered evidence of the lion sculpture at the gate, although its head had long since collapsed.
Although Sigiriya’s brief period as a seat of power and its remote location have somewhat relegated it to the periphery of history, it remains a testament to the brilliance of the ancient Sinhalese culture. The complex stands as one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning, while its gardens are the oldest surviving in Asia. Today, Sigiriya is the most-visited historic site in Sri Lanka and one of only seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. Sri Lanka proudly dubs this ancient city “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” a title that becomes increasingly justifiable when considering its advanced irrigation systems that continue to function flawlessly after more than 1,500 years.
Many details about Sigiriya are educated estimations based on archaeological findings, translations, historical events, and folklore. While some uncertainties remain regarding the purpose and construction of Sigiriya, the enduring rock palace is a testament to the ingenious engineering and design of early Sinhalese civilization. During a time when Europe was engulfed in the Dark Ages, Sri Lanka thrived culturally. If there is a lesson to be learned from Kashyapa’s story, perhaps it is that no amount of fortification can protect against unlawful claims to the throne.
Activities, Pop Culture, & Tourism
To reach Sigiriya, visitors can take a bus from Dambulla, the nearest city, located approximately 15.5 miles (25 km) away. Buses run daily, every 30 minutes, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. For those willing to spend a little more, tuk-tuks are available from Dambulla, although they come at a higher price, approximately 20-25 times more expensive than the bus fare.
Visitors should come prepared with good physical fitness as the ascent to the citadel at the summit involves around 750 steps. Most visitors complete the ascent and descent within 2-3 hours. It is advisable to bring bottled water as beverages are not sold inside the park. Unofficial guides can be found near the entrance and offer tours for a small fee.
The museum at Sigiriya showcases photographs of excavations, reproductions of frescoes, translations of the Mirror Wall inscriptions, and original artifacts and tools unearthed from the site. Admission to the museum is included in the park’s ticket price, and it is situated just outside the main gate. Guests from India and Pakistan enjoy half-price admission.
Sigiriya is not the only attraction in the area. North of the complex lies Pidurangala Rock, a popular alternative for rock climbers and those who prefer to avoid the crowds at Sigiriya. Though not as tall, Pidurangala offers breathtaking views of its famous neighbor and the surrounding area. The modern white temple, Pidurangala Sigiri Rajamaha Viharaya, serves as the entrance to the rock. For a small fee, knowledgeable unofficial guides are available to lead visitors to the summit while providing a history lesson.
Beware of wild elephants in the area, especially during the night. These elephants are known to be unfriendly, and fatal accidents involving them are not uncommon.
Did you know? The British band Duran Duran used the plateau of the rock as a filming location for their music video “Save a Prayer.” Lead singer Simon Le Bon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes were reportedly dropped off by helicopter for the shoot.
Sigiriya Early Expedition Photographs (late 1800s-early 1900s)