Sigiriya (Lion Rock) sits on an extinct volcano. The magma that spewed from inside the volcano built up on the rim of the volcano over the years.
After it cooled, it plugged the volcano. Life around the rock began to exist and so did tourism millions of years later.
History of Sigiriya
‘Hey look a giant rock’, said a Buddhist monk to another.
‘Yes, so cool. We can build caves and live there’, said another monk.
‘In the name of the great Lord, let’s do that.’
‘Do we need permit for that?’
‘You do not need a permit to live in a cave in 3rd century BC.’
So this is probably how this rock became a shelter for Buddhist monks. Few centuries later Sigiriya became a royal retreat in Central Sri Lanka.
In 480 AD, King Kasyapa, the illegitimate son of King Dhatusena decided that he will be king, not his cousin Moggalina.
So he put the king in a hole in the ground and buried him alive. The intimidated Moggalina fled from Sri Lanka.
First thing Kashyapa did after becoming king was that he laid the foundation stone to his fortress palace for fear of being attacked.
He dug giant moats around the rock and then gained strategic advantage during an attack.
The palace had a 360 degree view and became a busy capital of the kingdom. Yes, he moved his capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya.
One look at the rock is intimidating enough for ameteur climbers. Halfway to the palace, they have carved a pair of extended claws and feet of a lion which intimidates you further.
At the helm, the king constructed an upper palace on the top of the rock and lower palaces down below.
He also constructed gardens at the base of the rock and also at some points to the top.
We know that it is not fully constructed, because it does not have a cricket ground.
Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This 200 meters tall rock has stairs to the top and it takes up to one to three hours for climb, maybe more.
It depends on how fit you are. But it is definitely doable and a must do.
The Lion Rock still has the Lion paws with extended claws, but the head which was carved into the rock is no more there. It fell off and no one found it.
The mirror wall, has ancient graffiti and paintings on it. It was polished so much that the king could see his reflection on the wall.
There is a huge garden to the left of the rock. The structures can still store water which it was designed for.
There are two levels of moat around the rock. You use a bridge to enter the gardens and to the stairway to the top.
Getting to Sigiriya
I used the Monkey Camp as my base to travel here. At the advice of the staff there, I took an early morning bus and reached Inamaluwa junction at 8:30 AM.
I could have reached Sigiriya and started my climb at 9 AM, but there was a traffic hold up because the town was gearing up for a visit from the President of Sri Lanka the next day.
I reached the ticket counter by bus later at 10:30 AM. The climb to the top is chargeable at LKR 50 for Sri Lankans, US$15 for Indians and other tourists pay a painful US$30.
There is an archaeological museum which you can skip or visit after the climb. Some head to the Pidurangala Rocks which offer nice view.
Where to Stay before heading to Sigiriya
The nearest nice small town is Habarana. Most tourists would stay at Cinnamon or other places of accommodation.
You could also consider staying at the Monkey Camp at Polonnaruwa. This will help you visit Sigiriya in the morning and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in the evening.
Climbing the Sigiriya
The difficulty of the climb depends on the stamina and the willpower. If you have a guide or a friend he/she may push you or pull you up.
But if you are alone, you will take it one ‘step’ at a time. After walking through the gardens, there came the stairway.
The stairway too was designed for visitors to rest, take in the view before moving ahead.
Beware of wasp attacks said the caution boards because I read about wasps attacking tourists. I saw monkeys too waiting for tourists to show their food.
I pressed on. It was hot and I immediately started sweating. People advice you to start the climb early in the day. But it was 11:30 already.
Halfway Through the Sigiriya
‘My legs are shaking’, I heard a British tourist tell her friend.
I thought my legs would buckle. I reached the halfway mark and was relieved. But there was still to go.
If you have made it this far, you can somehow make it to the top. Though this is not technically a halfway point, but there is a big area where tourists stop to rest.
There is also a medical facility there. This is the shortest and also hardest part of the climb.
When I reached the halfway mark I was exhausted and wanted to climb down. The steep climb discouraged me. I thought I wasn’t conditioned to climb this.
‘The ancient Sri Lankans were certainly crazy to build a palace up there. I don’t think I can make it to the top’, I messaged Vatsala, my host at the Monkey Camp.
‘It looks bad, but the top gives a beautiful view. You can make it’ she messaged back.
I sat there for a while and drank the water, half emptying my bottle. I made up my mind and I thought I have to finish the climb.
At The Top of the Sigiriya
The staircase was steep and I reached the top after fifteen minutes, all winded up. Imagine the palace, still good, waiting for you.
I spent the next twenty minutes here. The descent was scary. But offers equally good view.
You exit through a row of souvenir shops and some eateries. At Vatsala’s recommendation, I had a nice buffet lunch at the Sigiriya Village before taking a bus back to Polonnaruwa.
She recommended Sigiriya Village because Sigiriya climbers might go there for lunch.
There are nice restaurants that are less expensive at Habarana. I took a bus to Inamaluwa and then another bus to Polonnaruwa.
I looked at the Sigiriya hill again, and made a mental note to come back and do it.
‘Hey, you were right, it is beautiful view from up here’, I messaged to my host from the top.
What Happened to King Kashyapa?
Legend has it that his cousin Moggalina built an army in South India, came to Sigiriya and battled his brother in a place not far from here.
But, why did he not stay in his fortress palace? It was meant to withstand an attack after all.
When Kashyapa’s army retreated, he felt defeated and died by slashing his own throat. But no one is really sure if this story is correct.
Until we find the right answer, we will stick with this story.