In the center of Sri Lanka, an immense column of rock rises out of the forest surrounding it. The rock is nearly 200 meters (660 feet) tall and is home to the ruins of a fortress as well as an ancient palace complex. It was constructed during the reign of King Kasyapa, which lasted from 477 A.D. to 495 A.D. This site is called Sigiriya, which means Lion Rock. After the king’s death, the palace was abandoned, but was later used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. After this period, no records are found on Sigiriya until 300 years later when it was used briefly as an outpost of the Kingdom of Kandy.
The Sigiriya rock itself is a hardened magma plug from an extinct and long-eroded volcano, similar to the Devils Tower in Wyoming. Archaeologists believe that this region has been inhabited since the third century B.C. King Kasyapa chose this site for his capital because, with the 360-degree view from the summit, it would give him an advantage if attacked. After several years, plans to create a palace complex on the top of the rock finally came to fruition, and the complex became a major palace as well as a fortress. The plans called for an upper palace on top of the rock and lower palaces at ground level.
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The king had lavish gardens built throughout the complex. The gardens, one of the most beautiful aspects of Sigiriya, consist of three sections: the water gardens, the terraced gardens, and the cave and boulder gardens. Of the three gardens, the terraced gardens seem to grab the most attention from visitors. These landscaped gardens are among the oldest in the world, and tourists are able to follow the paths through the gardens to the palace at the top of the rock.
Nearly all the visitors strive to reach to the top of Sigiriya where the king’s palace complex is located. There is a stairway made of stone that leads from the bottom of the rock to the top.
About halfway up, there are two lion paws that were part of a massive lion with an open mouth. The open mouth is the entrance to the palace. Today only the lion paws remain.
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The Cobra Hood Cave contains paintings more than 1,500 years old. These frescoes, protected from the elements by the cave, depict Sinhalese maidens performing various tasks. Archaeologists do not know if the images show religious rituals or if they depict the numerous wives of the king.
One fascinating feature of the site is the Mirror Wall. Situated on the western side of the rock, the Mirror Wall was a brick wall covered with white plaster so highly polished that it could produce reflections. As time passed, this wall became a graffiti board, covered with messages from the various visitors to Sigiriya. Some of the Sigiri Graffiti has been dated as far back as the eighth century A.D. With so many visitors wanting to leave a message, the tradition was discontinued and the wall is now undergoing protective restoration.
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Today, the palace complex is one of the best-preserved examples of urban planning. The fact that Sigiriya still exists for visitors to explore is a testament to the innovative engineering and design used in the building of the palace/fortress.
The Sigiriya Museum has exhibits of tools and other artifacts found during the excavation of the site. It also contains photos and reproductions of the exquisite frescoes found in the Cobra Hood Cave. Additionally, translations of the graffiti from the Mirror Wall are available for viewing at this museum.
It is amazing to see how an untouched rock can be transformed into a living complex as well as an impressive work of art. A visit to Sigiriya should definitely be a part of any itinerary when traveling to Sri Lanka.