Even before King Kassapa having usurped his father made it his kingdom, Buddhist monks lived in the caves on the rock base of Sigiriya.
In the plateau surrounded by jungles and lakes is a large column of rock rising to 660 feet in height. Arriving there we passed the fortification by parapet walls and the moat to come to the royal gardens beautifully laid with many terraces, ponds and fountains. The first bit of the climb was easy through the belly of the rock, up neat rows of steps. Then we reached the large terrace which marks the half-way point on the ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock. Before continuing, we took a break and surveyed the remaining path in dread and awe. The next flight of stairs was framed by an enormous pair of stone paws. Because of its profile, Sigiriya had long been referred to as the “Lion Rock”, but King Kassapa decided to make the nickname somewhat more literal.
During Kassapa’s reign in the 5th century AD, a massive, 60-foot lion was chiseled out of the rock. The steps which continued up to the royal palace started at the lion’s feet, wrapped around his body and eventually entered his mouth. Today, all that remain are the paws, but they give a good idea of the statue’s scale. It’s hard to appreciate how impressive it must have been 1500 years ago.
The final flight of stairs, hugging tightly to the stone wall, is definitely not for the fainthearted. The wind whipping about madly I clung on to the steel railing, for dear life. If climbing the stable steps of modern steel is terrifying how must they have it been during the time of Kassapa? Notches in the wall indicated where the ancient brick steps would have been placed and the thought of climbing them of all too much for me.
I was relieved clambering up the final bit and having made it to the summit and I thought this to be the highlight of my journey. But I was wrong. The panoramic scenes all around was stupendous – breath holding beauty of lakes and shrub jungles and blue mountains merging into the horizon. At the top of the rock was layered terraces where the palace once stood, complete with a throne carved in stone. Below the rock ledge are caves where the king’s men stood at sentry points vigilant for enemy troupes.
On the western face of the rock are beautiful frescos of ladies (Apsara) naked up to the waist and adorned in jewelry. The women are picking flowers. Some claim they are the royal ladies and others say they are celestial beings floating among the clouds. John Still in 1907 suggested the whole western wall had been covered with paintings of around 500 ladies. Although they appear to be paintings done during the Anuradhapura period they also hold close resemblance to paintings found in the Ajanta caves of North India.
When the enemy invaded the rock fortress, the king who thought it to be impenetrable took his life. After the fall of the kingdom Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
According to historians it was Major Jonathan Forbes who in 1831, discovered the jungle covered summit of Sigiriya on his way back from Polonnaruwa. However serious archaeological work did not begin until 1890s. It was H.C.P. Bell who conducted extensive research on Sigiriya.
Considered the 8th Wonder of the World Sigiriya Rock Fotress was listed under UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1982.