Sigiriya. If you ever wondered about how the villains in Bond movies all had their own island or cave or mountain for a palace and whether people like that exist in real life. Well this guy, King Kashyapa, did it already 1500 years ago. After usurping the throne from his half-brother Mugalan in year 477, he moved the capital and his residence from Anuradhapura, its traditional location, to the rock of Sigiriya and turned it into a palace, a citadel, a fortress. A more safe location in case the rightful heir would return. It didn’t help though, in 495 Mugalan returned and defeated Kashyapa. The capital was thereafter moved back to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya was effectively abandoned, completing the Bond-moviesque plot.
Having been abandoned fortunately means that many parts of the old citadel still remain today. Approaching the rock from the west you first have to cross the wide moat surrounding the citadel grounds. The gate here, the royal entrance, has crumbled long ago. Entering here you find yourself at the mouth of royal gardens and the start of a long pathway leading directly to the rock, now looming high ahead. This pathway used to be lined with fountains and cascades feeding the Water Gardens near the entrance of the citadel. Pools and waterways are abundant in the lower areas of Sigiriya, all fed by water flowing from the lake behind to the moat surrounding it.
Closer to the rock you’d find yourself in the Boulder Gardens, where pavilions and houses had been built on top or next to giant boulders, the signs of construction still visible. Further above are the Terrace Gardens, from where onwards the ascent becomes a narrow path.
To climb up to the rock, visitors have to traverse the face of it. Here you’d walk past the Mirror wall, a man-made segment, that stories say used to be polished so smooth that the king could see his own reflection. After Sigiriya was abandoned, people who came to visit began using the wall for writing verses just scribbling about on whatever they felt like. The ones that survive have been dated back to as far as 8th century. Fortunately, further writing on the wall has now been banned. Above the mirror Wall, the entire face of the rock used to be covered in murals. Parts of it still survive where the paintings were sheltered from the elements, to the viewing pleasure of even those less interested in art or history. Who are the ladies depicted on the murals and what they are doing is still up for debate.
Past the Mirror Wall, having traversed the front face of the rock, you finally arrive at the Lion Gate, the entrance to the peak. Only the gigantic paws now remain of this once grandiose entrance. Here visitors to the king would have had to ascend the stairs guarded by a carved lion the size of a 4 storey house – the only entrance to the plateau on top of Sigiriya rock. The entrance, though little of it remains, still conjures up awe-inspiring images of the past magnificence of this place: An impregnable natural fortress overlooking the planes below, guarded by creatures of titanic proportions. A king’s palace with views that stretch to the horizon, exhibiting elaborate works of art, craftsmanship and engineering that people from near and far would come to wonder.
We arrived in Sigiriya late in the evening, and spent some time wandering around before finding a place to stay. The sun was already setting, but its last rays lit up the rock as if by magic. By the time we started looking for a guesthouse, the only things moving on the streets were elephants (with their handlers). We decided to climb Sigiriya first thing in the morning to avoid crowds of tourists and the daytime scorching sun. This gave us the chance to explore the grounds at our own pace in complete solitude, except for the company of several families of monkeys. Only when climbing to the murals did we meet other visitors, but there were still so few of us, that even at the top it felt as if we had the place to ourselves.
The top of Sigiriya rock is covered with pools, reservoirs of water and the foundations of buildings long gone. Walking around from terrace to terrace we tried to imagine what the palace would have looked like 1500 years ago and spent quite a bit of time enjoying the far reaching views down onto the plains. In the distance we spotted the rock of Dambulla and not far from it another colossal standing Buddha, towering tall and white above the thick green carpet of trees. Slowly the numbers of visitors started swelling and by the time we descended, a queue had formed to climb the rock. At the bottom, busloads of people were arriving as we went to get our things and move on.