According to inscriptions found in the caves which honeycomb the base of the rock fortress, Sigiriya served as a place of religious retreat as far back as the third century BC, when Buddhist monks established refuge in the locale. It wasn’t until the fifth century AD, however, that Sigiriya rose briefly to supremacy in Sri Lanka, following the power struggle which succeeded the reign of Dhatusena (455-473) of Anuradhapura. King Dhatusena had two sons, Mogallana, by one of the most desired and finest of his queens, and Kassapa, by a less significant consort. Upon hearing that Mogallana had been declared heir to the throne, Kassapa rebelled, driving Mogallana into exile in India and imprisoning his father, King Dhatusena. The legend of Dhatusena’s subsequent demise offers an enlightening illustration of the importance given to water in early Sinhalese civilization.
The long-awaited invasion finally materialized in 491, Mogallana having raised an army of Tamil mercenaries to fight his cause. Despite the benefits of his indestructible fortress, Kassapa, in an act of fatalistic bravado, descended from his rocky abode and rode boldly out on an elephant at the head of his troops to meet the attackers on the plains below. Unfortunately for Kassapa, his elephant took fright and bolted leading the battle. His troops, thinking he was retreating, fell back and left him to face off the battle. Facing capture and defeat, Kassapa killed himself. Following Mogallana’s quest, Sigiriya was handed over to the Buddhist monks, after which its caves once again became home to religious ascetics seeking peace and solitude. The site was finally abandoned in 1155, after which it remained largely forgotten, except for brief periods of military use by the Kingdom of Kandy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, until being rediscovered by the British in 1828.
Beyond the Water Gardens the main path begins to scale up through the unusual Boulder Gardens, constructed out of the huge boulders which lie tumbled around the foot of the rock, and offering a naturalistic wildness as opposed to the neat symmetries of the water gardens. Many of the boulders are notched with lines of fissures — they look rather like rock-carved steps, but in fact they were used as footings to support the brick walls or timber frames of the numerous buildings a which were built against or on top of the boulders – complex to imagine now, although it must originally have made an extremely picturesque sight.
The gardens were also the centre of Sigiriya’s monastic activity before and after Kassapa: there are approximately twenty rock shelters hereabouts which were used by monks, some containing inscriptions dating form between the third century BC and the first century AD. The caves would originally have been plastered and painted, and traces of this ornamentation can still be seen in a few places; you’ll also notice the dripstone ledges which were carved around the entrances in many of the caves of to prevent water from running into them. The Deraniyagala cave, just to the left of the path shortly after it begins to ascend through the gardens (there’s no sign), has a well-preserved dripstone ledge and traces of old paintings including the faded remains of various Apsara figures very similar to the famous Sigiriya Damsels further up the rock. On the opposite side of the main path up the rock, a side path leads to the Cobra Hood Cave, named for its strange decoration and a very faint inscription on the ledge in archaic Brahmi script dating from the second century BC.
Follow the path up the hill behind the Cobra Hood Cave and up through “Boulder Arch No.2” (as it’s signed), then turn left to reach the so-called Audience Hall, where the wooden walls and roof have long since disappeared, but the impressively smooth floor, created by chiseling the top off a single enormous boulder, remains, along with a five-meter-wide “throne” also cut out for a hall, though it’s more likely to have served a purely religious function, with the empty throne representing the Buddha. The small cave on the path just below the Audience Hall retains colorful splashes of various paintings on its ceiling (though now almost obliterated by contemporary graffiti) and is home to another throne, while a couple of more thrones can be found carved into nearby rocks.
Carry on back to the main path, then head on up again as the path – now a sequence of walled – in steps – begins to climb steeply through the terrace gardens, a series of rubble – retaining brick and limestone terraces that stretch to the base of views back down below.
From the entrance, a wide and straight path arrows directly towards the rock, following the line of an imaginary east-west axis, drawn straight through the rock, around which the whole city had been planned This entire side of the city is protected by a broad moat enclosed within two-tiered walls. Crossing the moat (which once enclosed the entire west-facing side of the complex), you enter the Water Gardens. The appearance of this part varies greatly according to how much rain has recently been encompassed in the area, and in the dry season lack of water means that the gardens can be a little underwhelming.
The first section comprises of four pools set in a square; when full, they create a small island at their centre, connected by pathways to the surrounding gardens. The remains of pavilions can be seen in the rectangular areas to the north and south of the pools. Beyond this area is the small but elaborating Fountain Garden. Features here include a serpentine miniature “river” and limestone-bottomed channels and ponds. Two preserve their ancient fountain sprinklers –while these work on a simple pressure and gravity principle and still spurt out modest plumes of water after a heavy downpour. The whole complex offers a good example of the hydraulic sophistication achieved by the ancient Sinhalese natives in the dry zone: after almost 1500 years of disuse, all that was needed to restore the fountains to working order was to clear the water channels which feed them.
Shortly after reaching the base of the rock, two inconsistent nineteenth – century metal spiral staircases lead to and from a sheltered cave in the sheer rock face that holds Sri Lanka’s most famous sequence of frescoes, popularly referred to as the Sigiriya Damsels (no flash photography is entertained). These busty beauties were painted in the fifth century and are the only non-religious paintings to have survived from ancient Sri Lanka; they’re now one of the island’s most iconic- and most reproduced – images. Once described as the largest picture Gallery in the world, it’s thought that these frescoes would originally have covered an area of some 140 meters by length and 40 meters by height, though only 21 damsels now survive out of an original total of some five hundred (a number of paintings were destroyed by a delinquent in 1967, while a few of the surviving pictures are roped off out of sight). The exact significance of the paintings is unclear: they were originally thought to depict Kassapa’s consorts, though according to modern art historians the most convincing theory is that they are portraits of Apsaras (celestial nymphs), which would explain why they are shown from the waist up only, rising out of a cocoon of clouds (although even if this theory is true, the figures may, of course, have been modeled on particular beauties from Kassapa’s own court). The portrayal of the damsels is strikingly naturalistic, showing them scattering petals and offering flowers and trays of fruit – similar in a style to the famous murals at the Ajanta Caves in India, and a world away from the much later murals at nearby Dambulla, with their stylized and minutely detailed religious tableaux. An endearingly human touch is added by the slip of the brush visible here and there: one damsel has three hands, while another sports three nipples.
Just past the damsels, the pathway runs along the face of the rock, bounded on one side by the Mirror Wall. This was originally coated in highly polished plaster made from lime, egg white, beeswax and wild honey; sections of the original plaster survive and still retain a marvelous polished sheen. The wall is covered in graffiti, the oldest dating from the seventh century, in which early visitors recorded their impressions of Sigiriya and, especially, the nearby damsels – even after the city was abandoned, Sigiriya continued to draw a steady stream of tourists curious to see the remains of Kassapa’s fabulous pleasure-dome. Taken together, the graffiti form a kind of early medieval visitors’ book, and the 685 comments which have been deciphered give important insights into the development of the Sinhalese language and script; some are also of a certain poetic merit. Sadly, the older graffiti are very small and rather hard to see under the layers of deranged scribbling left by later and less cultured hands.
Beyond the Mirror Wall, the path runs along a perilous-looking iron walkway bolted onto the sheer rock face. From here you can see a huge boulder below, propped up on stone slabs. The rather far-fetched popular theory is that, in the event of an attack, the slabs would have been knocked away, causing the boulder to fall onto the attackers below, though it’s more likely that the slabs were designed to stop the boulder inadvertently falling down over the cliff.
Continuing up the rock, a flight of limestone steps ascends steeply up to the Lion Platform, a large spur projecting from the north side of the rock, just below the summit (vendors sell fizzy drinks here at slightly inflated prices). From here, a final staircase, its base flanked by two enormous lion paws carved out of the rock, leads up to all that remains of a gigantic lion statue – the final path to the summit apparently led directly into its mouth. Visitors to Sigiriya were, one imagines, suitably impressed by this gigantic conceit and by the symbolism of pride – lions were the most important emblem of Sinhalese royalty, and the beast’s size presumably meant to reflect Kassapa’s prestige, strength and his questionable legitimacy to the throne.
The wire-mesh cages on the Lion Platform were built as refuges in the unlikely – event of bee attacks – you can see bee hives clinging to the underside of the rock overhang above, towards the left side of the stairs. The whole section of the rock face above is scored with countless notches and grooves which once supported steps up to the summit: the irony is that, it appears that Kassapa was afraid of heights, and it’s thought that these original steps would have been enclosed by a high wall — though this isn’t of much comfort for latter-day sufferers of vertigo, who have to make the final climb to the summit up a narrow iron staircase attached to the bare rock face.
The king’s Upper Palace is located at the flat top of the Sigiriya Rock. In the middle terrace is the Lion Gate and the Mirror Wall, with its frescoes. The king’s Lower Palace clings to the slopes below the rock. The moats, walls and gardens of the palace extend for a few hundred meters from the base of the rock.
Visitors arrive outside the outer moats, with a magnificent view of the rock rising above the trees in the mid distance. Paths through the complex of moats and gardens lead to the foot of the slope. Stone stairways are found along the steep slope at the base of the rock, winding through the remains of the lower parts of the palace, reaching a terrace that traverses along the lower edge of the vertical face of the rock. The rock above this terrace, known as the mirror wall, was at one time adorned with frescoes, some of which can still be seen, though unfortunately now much are faded. At the end of the terrace beneath the highest part of the rock, the terrace opens out into a substantial courtyard.
From here the climb to the top of the rock is via a modern iron stairway that reaches the rock face through the remains of the original brick gateway, the Lion Gate, now degenerated to a massive pair of brick paws. The ruined paws are all that remain of a huge head and fore paws of a lion, whose open mouth served as the main entrance to the royal palace. The route continues around, across and up the cliff face via a rather airy iron staircase, a modern replacement for the original brick stairway – that vanished along with the lion’s head during the 1400 years since the palace was constructed.
The stairway ends at the highest point of the rock – the upper palace falls away in gentle tiers towards the opposite end of the rock from this point. The ruins of the palace buildings rise only perhaps half a metre above the surface of the rock, but the extensive works cut into the surface of the rock have endured better.