Conquering Sigirya, Sri Lanka’s historic rock fortress

Sigirya dominated the landscape. A two-hundred metre high rock, jutting up from the flat landscape like a fist. More than just a stone monument, a climb to the top reveals a stunning revelation – the ruins of an ancient kingdom remain on the summit.

Arriving at Sigirya

We admired the stunning red colour as our cheap bicycles rattled themselves to pieces along the gravel approach, bells dinging involuntarily. Thankfully, the bike ride from our hotel in Sigirya town was no more than fifteen minutes.

Drawing of sigirya and landscape
Sigirya rock

Reminiscent of Angkor Wat, a square guardian moat suggested a tantalising taste of the brilliant engineering of an 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.

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, which loomed above. 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.

Halfway up, a spiral staircase led to the frescas, some of the country’s oldest cave paintings, their colours brilliantly preserved.

This area was the seat of King Kashyapa I from 473 to 495, in a short, turbulent reign muddled by patricide and usurping. To reenforce his position, he built his palace on top of Sigirya, for its obvious strategic advantage. The climb passed the mirror wall, a glazed section of wall erected so that the King could admire himself as he passed.

Towards the top, a small plateau provided viewpoints, and a rest. A pair of giant lion’s paws welcomed us up the last part of the climb, 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.

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.

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

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