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  11. Sri Lanka: Sigiriya –...

Referred by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World, this ancient palace and fortress complex is a place of significant archaeological importance

Sigiriya is located in the heart of Sri Lanka between the towns of Dambulla and Habarana on a massive rocky plateau 370 meters above the sea level.

Sigiriya rock plateau, formed from magma of an extinct volcano, is 200 meters higher than the surrounding jungles. The fortress complex includes remnants of a ruined palace, surrounded by an extensive network of fortifications, vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys and fountains.

The area surrounding Sigiriya has been inhabited for several thousand years. In the 3rd century BC, the rocky plateau served as a monastery and it was not until the 5th century AD that King Kasyapa had the bright idea of constructing a royal palace on top of the rock. After his demise, Sigiriya once again became a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century when it was completely abandoned and fell into disrepair.

The palace and fortress complex is recognized as one of the finest examples of ancient urban planning, which has resulted in it being recognised in 1982 as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A distant view of Sigiriya Rock,
View of Sigiriya rock fortress

We approached Sigiriya through the formal pools and gardens. For many years these lay buried under layers of soil but slowly the archaeologists have been excavating the site to reveal a vast area that lay before the entrance to the palace on top of the rock.

Located on the western side of the rock, the gardens of Sigiriya are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world; there are water, cave and boulder gardens, and also terraced gardens. Hidden within the gardens is a complex hydraulic system, consisting of canals, locks, lakes, dams and fountains as well as surface and underground water pumps.

In the rainy season, all channels are filled with water, which begins to circulate through the whole area of Sigiriya. The fountains of Sigiriya built in the fifth century, perhaps, are the oldest in the world.

Around these gardens are several levels of fortification that were built to protect the fortress from invaders; including some imposing walls and moats, some of which were filled with crocodiles.

The castle rock
The gardens at Sigiriya
The ponds and irrigation systems

To get to the top of Sigiriya means climbing many stairs. There are 1,200 steps before you reach the Lion Rock fortress on top of Sigiriya rock, but that sounds harder than it is. There are several platforms that break up the steps and allow for a little break if you need it. The start of the climb begins once you pass through a natural gate made from some very substantial rocks.

A natural rock gate
There are 1200 steps to reach the top

About half-way up there is a natural break some very splendid frescos hidden in a natural alcove in the rock. The murals are reached by climbing a spiral staircase (yes more stairs) but are well worth the effort!

Climbing a spiral staircase to reach the frescos

At one time the whole of the western wall leading to the palace was decorated with paintings, today only 18 of these frescos remain. The frescoes depict nude females and are believed to be either the portraits of Kasyapa’s wives and concubines or priestess performing religious rituals.

The murals themselves are slightly naughty, as they show the bare breasts of the maidens. I am not quite sure what the Buddhist monks thought of these. But I for one appreciated them as they are exquisite and wonderfully preserved. If you are lucky enough to travel with a good guide there are some interesting stories behind these paintings. Photography is not allowed so the images below are from the official tourism website for Sigiriya.

From the murals, you have to descend another spiral staircase and pass along the Mirror Wall section of the path. This wall, in the time of King Kasyapa, was heavily polished so he could see his reflection. Today, only the wall survives (no polish) but it does have painted inscriptions and poems written by the visitors of Sigiriya, some dating from the 8th century. So, tourism to this spectacular monument is not a new thing – it has been happening for over a thousand years!

You also get some great views from here down on the terrace gardens and further below to the main formal gardens.

The trail moves along the face of the rock
Views from about halfway up Sigiriya Rock
Terrace gardens about halfway up Sigiriya rock

From the end of the Mirror Wall, another set of stair takes you further upwards, bringing you to the palace’s main entrance, located on the northern side of the rock. This entrance was carved in the form of a huge stone lion, which gave the palace its name of Sigiriya, originating from the word sihagri – Lion Rock.

Today, much of the carving has been lost, with only the two large stone feet surviving. From here there are even more stairs to the very top of Sigiriya.

Lion entrance to the top

The top of Sigiriya is relatively flat. From here you get spectacular 360-degree views onto the surrounding jungle and you can understand why someone would want to build their palace up here. As well as the amazing views there are the excavated ruins of the former palace. Sadly, not much remains except for some foundations – which requires some imagination to get an idea of how this place would have looked in its prime.

The views from the top of Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka
The remains of the palace atop of Sigiriya Rock
Feels good to reach the top

The way down follows some of the same paths up, so you will pass by the crowds on the way up. You are likely to meet some non-human residents of Sigiriya rock fortress – the monkeys. They are generally dismissive of the tourists but sometimes can be a little bit mean and look threatening. Best to stay out of their way. 

The way down is a lot easier than the climb up. At the bottom, there is plenty to explore in the gardens and some spaces that were used as living quarters.

A rock resembling a cobra
Royal sleeping quarters
Safetly back down to terra firma

In Summary … 

  • Sigiriya is an incredible place and should be on everyone visiting Sri Lanka must-do-list.
  •  The climb is physically challenging but for most reasonably fit and able people it is nothing too hard and the frescos and views from the top make it all worthwhile.
  • You can do you do a self-guided tour but we recommend finding yourself a local guide who will bring to life the history and culture of this UNESCO listed World-Heritage site.
  • Go early it will be cooler than the middle of the day and less crowded

Planning your visit

Location:Between Anurandhapura and Dambulla, central Sri Lanka
Website:https://www.sigiriya.info/
Hours:7:00 AM – 04:00 PM
Admission Fee:$30US for foreign nationals

Note: The Sigiriya Rock Climb is strenuous but not difficult. There are 1200 steps to the top. The climb will take you between 2-3 hours depending on your fitness and the crowds at the time.

Best time to visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a variety of different tropical climates where rainfall periods and amounts of precipitation determine the distinction between a rainforest climate, tropical Savannah climate and tropical monsoon climate. Sri Lanka can be visited year round, however because of the two rainy seasons there is a lot of confusion as to when is the best time to visit. Here is a peek into the various monsoon periods: You have the Yala Monsoon; this means rain in the west, southwest and inland from the end of April to September. The other is the Maha Monsoon; this means rain on the east coast from October to March.

Are you planning to travel to the west and south coasts or inland? Then you have the highest chance of pleasant weather from December to March. Are you going to the east and north coasts? Then you have the highest chance of good weather from April/May to September.

Places to visit close by

1. MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK

Set in the heart of the popular cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, Minneriya National Park is mostly known for its incredible elephant migration, which is one of Asia’s finest wildlife experiences. During the drier months of June to September, as many as 300 elephants congregate in the Minneriya National Park around the ancient Minneriya water tank (which dates back to 3rd Century AD), taking advantage of the receding waters that provide an important water source.

2. POLONNARUWA

Some 800 years ago Polonnaruwa was a bustling commercial and religious centre for the Chola dynasty, as can be seen by the amazing density of ruins of temples, palaces and other buildings. In the early 13th century the city’s glory faded and it was abandoned. The capital moved to the western side of the island where Colombo is today. In 1982 Polonnaruwa as added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

3. RANGIRI DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE

Dambulla Cave Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site close to Sigiriya and about 50 miles north of Kandy. Its five chambers hold over 150 statues of Buddha and other prominent Sri Lankans from the time of kings. Amongst its greatest treasures are the stunning murals that cover its walls and ceiling. Well worth the effort to visit.

Where to stay in Habarana / Sigiriya

1. HABARANA VILLAGE BY CINNAMON

Offering bungalow-style rooms surrounded by greenery, Chaaya Village Habarana is a 15-minute drive from Minneriya National Park. The hotel features an outdoor pool and facilities for tennis, volleyball and badminton.

Chaaya Village Habarana is an hour’s drive from Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. Driving from Bandaranaike International Airport takes 6 hours.

Featuring wooden furniture, the air-conditioned rooms at Chaaya Village Habarana come with private terraces. Each room has a TV with cable channels, a safety deposit box, and tea/coffee making facilities.

Azmaara Spa provides a range of treatments, from massages to manicures and pedicures. The hotel offers tours such as hiking in the Ritigala jungle or riding an ox cart in Hiriwadunna.

2. HABARANA ECO TREEHOUSE

If you are looking for something more unusual then you might want to consider the Habarana Eco Treehouse. This is not exactly a treehouse, as it is not in a tree, but it is in the air on stilts. To get to your room you have to climb up a rustic ladder – this is not one for those who are wobbly on their pins or suffer from vertigo.

The accommodation itself is basic, but there is electricity and hot water.

Food is prepared by the owners and are delicious local dishes.

 

3. IL FRANGIPANE

Located in Sigiriya, 1.1 mi from Sigiriya Rock, il Frangipane provides accommodations with a restaurant, free private parking, free bikes and an outdoor swimming pool. 2.7 mi from Pidurangala Rock and 0.7 mi from Sigiriya Museum, the property offers a garden and a terrace. The air-conditioned rooms provide a garden view and come with a wardrobe and free WiFi.

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