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Sigiriya, the lion rock in Sri Lanka

13/04/2020 1.283 Views

Located in the center of Sri Lanka between the cities of Dambulla and Harabane, Sigiriya is a gigantic 370 m high rock. Former monastery, then royal capital and then Buddhist monastery until its final abandonment, Sigiriya is a place filled with the magnificence of a lost civilization.

The history of Sigiriya

Before its time of glory, the site of Sigiriya was used as a monastery since at least the 3rd century BC.

Sri Lanka, after 26 years of the 6 Tamil kings of South India reign (the Six Dravidians), is finally united by the 1st king of the Moriya dynasty, Dhatusena, crowned king of the Kingdom of Anuradhapura in 463 AD. As a great builder king, Dhatusena contributed greatly to the improvement of the agriculture of his country, through the construction of large reservoirs of water and the progress of irrigation during his reign.

Dhatusena had two sons: the eldest, Kassapa I, son of a concubine, and the second, Moggallana, son of the royal 1st wife and therefore rightful heir to the throne. Their sister was married to their cousin, the son of King Dhatusena’s sister, who was called Migara and also held the position of army general.

To summarize this yet very short paragraph, we thought you would like to see the situation illustrated as simply as possible:

It is not clear whether Kassapa always coveted the throne, but one imagines that as the eldest son but not the heir to the throne, the possibility of preventing his younger brother from becoming king has always been possible. It was when the sister of the two princes and her mother-in-law, sister of Dhatusena, quarreled that the outcome came. Following this dispute, King Dhatusena ordered his own sister to be executed, but Migara, to avenge his mother, urged Kassapa to overthrow his father to become king. Finally, Kassapa rebelled, had his father buried alive and exiled his brother Moggallana, who swore to return for revenge.

He was crowned king in 473 AD and apparently could not get rid of the fear of seeing his brother return. Traditionally described as paranoid and willing to do anything to protect his throne, Kassapa I decided to move the royal capital from Anurâdhapura to Sirigiya.

The reason behind the choice of Sigiriya is linked to the 370 m high rock, already fortress in itself, capable of protecting the king and his court. Even if it exists more flattering descriptions of King Kassapa I, signs of his extreme vigilance can be found with for example the installation of 2 rows of walls and ditches in the South and East, as well as the tiny guard posts including that any drowsiness or inattention led to the fall of the sentinelle. Apart from the walls and ditches, the fortress was protected by the jungle that the guards could guard from the top of the rock, where the king and his court lived for 18 years.

Except that during these 18 years Mogallana, the prince exiled in India, was raising an army to regain his throne. He first arrived at the ancient capital Anurâdhapura (empty), then found his brother’s trace in Sigiriya.

Seeing him arriving from the top of “his” rock, Kassapa I ste up all the strategies he elaborated while waiting for his brother, but, had not thought of provisions. Mogallana therefore surrounded the city and quietly waited for the food supplies to run out. Defeated by the fatigue of the siege (a week), Kassapa I surrendered to his brother who executed him directly. Mogallana therefore regained his throne and reinstalled the capital in Anurâdhapura, leaving Sigiriya abandoned.

It is said that the site was used as a monastery until the 14th century, then was definitively abandoned, until its rehabilitation by the government in the middle of the 20th century.

The lion’s paws of Sigiriya


Originally, a lion statue about ten meters high, guarded the entrance of the fortress.

Today, only the paws remain, quite monumental though, to give an idea of the size of the original statue that gave its name of lion rock to the site. It is thought that before the steps crossed the lion’s mouth, which would be a representation of the sacred word of Buddha.

The gardens of Sirigiya


Sigiriya Gardens are considered to be among the oldest gardens in the world.

They are marvels of creativity and ingenuity, especially considering the period (5th century) in which they were designed. Decorated with ingeniously placed ponds, fountains and trees, the gardens must have been paradise of greenery during the reign of Kassapa, and are still considered as a real technical prowess. With the buildings still present on the site, the gardens are a must-see for your visit.

The irrigation system of Sigiriya


What makes Sigiriya even more special is its very advanced irrigation system for its time and very ingeniously designed, to supply, remember, a royal city perched on a rock several hundred meters high.

For the development of the hydraulic system, Kassapa used the large water reservoir built by his father, located about 10 km from the city. The water carried to the top of the rock with only the hydraulic system (without any additional assistance from the human hand) fed the swimming pools, fountains and the king’s court.

The ladies of Sigiriya


The ladies of Sigiriya are a fresco depicting young women, thought to have been part of the court of Kassapa, or then representations of Apsaras.

Of the 21 representations that have come to us, 10 of them are perfectly preserved. This fresco has an invaluable archaeological value, as it is the only representation of women from the medieval era of Sri Lanka.

The mirror wall of Sigiriya


This wall has the particularity of being so smooth and shiny that it is said that at the time the king could see its reflection.

The wall is covered with inscriptions left by visitors over time, the oldest of them date back to the 8th century, showing that the site has long been a tourist attraction. Nowadays, the government that ensures the protection of the site, strictly forbids any new inscription.

(You don’t really see it in the picture, but the wall is after the spiral stairs).

Our recommendations


The steps :
In all the visit descriptions of Sigiriya, the ascent of the steps is omnipresent and for good reason, there are about 1,300!

The access to the site is indeed almost as when it was created and the steps are inevitable. If you are accompanied by young children or elderly people, do not hesitate to take a day off before or after your visit to rest from or for this very physical getaway! 

Also avoid strollers, think about taking a walking stick if it helps, and take breaks!

The height :
The 360-degree view is absolutely stunning, however, Sigiriya remains a high site. 

In addition, climbing the stairs can be difficult for people suffering from vertigo. If you are subject to vertigo, we simply advise you to pass your turn for this, as the risk of collapsing would be quite high.

The sun :
Despite some areas of shade and freshness, the heat can quickly become overwhelming, so don’t forget your essentials: sunscreen, hat and sunglasses to protect you!

The hornets :
Known as the “Sigiriya Guardians”, the hornets have made Sigiriya a territory they do not seem to want to give up despite the government’s efforts. We do not yet count any deaths or serious accidents related to hornet bites, but bring some ointment and be vigilant against them!

The duration of the visit :
1 day is normally necessary and sufficient for the visit of Sigiriya, but as for any country subject to sometimes overwhelming heat, we advise you to arrive as soon as possible to start the climb of the steps at the freshest hours. In addition, arriving early will probably help you to avoid the arrival a little invasive of the usual tourist buses.

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