Conquering Sigirya, Sri Lanka’s historic rock fortress

Sigirya, an ancient fortress situated on the top of a colossal 200-metre high column of rock, is sometimes considered the eighth wonder of the world.

It’s a geological wonder, a fascinating archaeological site, and a challenging hike, all rolled together. Sigirya is the must-see destination in Sri Lanka. Simply put – it’s amazing.

Getting to Sigirya

Sigirya town didn’t look like anything special. A few hotels, maybe a corner shop, and a great elephant lumbering down the road, giving rides to tourists.

Like many visitors, we were staying in a nearby hotel that offered everything – rooms, meals, tours, and free bicycles to reach Sigirya. We had arrived by car transfer from Colombo, but many buses also run to Sigirya (it’s one of Sri Lanka’s most famous sights, after all).

Just fifteen minutes down the road, we admired the stunning red rock that towered above us. Meanwhile, our flimsy bicycles rattled themselves to pieces along the gravel approach, bells dinging involuntarily.

Sigirya dominated the landscape. A two-hundred metre high rock, it jutted up from the flat landscape and towered over the treeline like a stone fist. More than just a stone monument, we were looking forward to finding the ruins of an ancient kingdom on the summit.

Drawing of sigirya and landscape
Sigirya rock

Reminiscent of Angkor Wat, a square guardian moat was the tantalising first taste of the brilliant engineering of the ancient civilisation. The comparison to Angkor Wat felt fitting; ancient, mysterious, awe-inspiring, regal, powerful; the legacy of a once-mighty world, stone and solid.

The royal gardens

Tickets cost $30 from the visitor’s centre, where we parked our bicycles, lowered the stands, and padlocked them to a pole. A small monkey eyed us suspiciously. From here, we proceeded on foot.

A stone causeway of red sand and crumbling bricks cut an arrow-straight path to the rock. Square plots of grass, tiered water pools and low brick walls once formed the groundwork of small water gardens, decorative lawns, and shrines. The approach itself is a wonderful sight to admire.

The climb

At the base of Sigirya rock, a yellow sign warned us of killer wasps nearby. A bizarre, yet probably important warning. At its base, a pair of house-sized boulders crashed against each other, forming a natural gateway. The climb to the top began with steps of brick and rock, and when the way became too high and too treacherous, steel steps took over.

Sigirya Frescoes

Halfway up the climb, a steel spiral staircase leads up to the frescoes, a series of rock paintings. They are Sri Lanka’s oldest known cave paintings, and although many are lost forever, those that remain are in a remarkably good condition.

The frescoes are of female figures, but their identities are unknown; they are thought to be either of the king’s ladies, or religious figures.

The mirror wall

Nearby the frescoes is the mirror wall, constructed by King Kashyapa I, so he could admire himself as he walked by. They are made of highly polished white plaster, although today the wall is dull and orange, and doesn’t offer much reflection.

The wall is roped off from people touching, as many people have graffitied the wall (the oldest graffiti going back to the 8th century)!

Lion rock (and lion paws)

Towards the top, a small plateau provided some wonderful viewpoints, and a chance to rest. Staircases still led to the top of the rock, and they passed between a pair of giant lion’s paws. A lion’s head was also in place in the early days of Sigirya, but this has long since been lost. The last part of the climb was a shaky steel handrail and metal stepping plates that curved around the side of the rock, leading to the top.

Alongside this last staircase were the remains of the old staircase, a terrifying path of chiselled grooves carved in the rock. Walking this route in ancient times must have been a stomach-lurching experience, and I tried to imagine how the builders hauled all the bricks to the top to build the palace, and how supplies and water was brought up this treacherous route.

At the top of Sigirya Rock

Illustrated sketch top of Sigirya

After about an hour and a half, we reached the top. The brick foundations of the ruined kingdom were still in place, with staircases, walls and gardens still in their original spot.

The view was astounding. Below us were the shapes of the water gardens. The forests were stretching out to the horizon, blurring into the mist, punctuated by clearings and reflective lakes; we saw the shadows of clouds darkening over patches of forest; and way in the distance, craggy peaks turned blue by the illusion. Just wonderful!

Back at the bottom after climbing down, we celebrated with a much-needed bottle of ice cold water from a stall. As we sat on the grass, we entertained a curious lizard that had come up to visit us.

A quick history of Sigirya

Sigirya fortress was the seat of King Kashyapa I (often Kasyana I) from 473 to 495. His short, turbulent reign began with the murder of his father Dhatusena, and the usurping of the throne from the rightful heir, his older brother Moggallana. Together with Migara, the general of the army, he seized control of the country, whilst Moggallana fled to South India.

Terrified of counterattack from his brother, the paranoid Kashyapa I moved to Sigirya, and fortified the already well-fortified rock with walls and ramparts. But his reign wouldn’t last, and the unpopular ‘Kashyapa the Patricide’ was abandoned by his army, was defeated by Moggallana after a battle on the plains of Sigirya, and cut his throat with a dagger.

Moggallana I turned Sigirya into a Buddhist monastary after the fall of Kashyapa I. The site appears to have been abandoned, and doesn’t reappear in historical records until the 16th century, where it was used as an outpost by the Kingdom of Kandy.

As European colonisation spread through (then) Ceylon, the British inevitably rediscovered Sigirya. In 1831, Major Jonathan Forbes, a British soldier, came across the ruins, and word spread, attracting the attention of archaeologists.

Harry Charles Purvis Bell, a Ceylon-based British archaeologist, started the first excavations of the site. Major archaeological work began in 1982 by the Sri Lankan government, the same year it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Have you been to Sigirya? What did you think of the experience? Let me know in the comments below!

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