The Ancient City of Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Sri Lanka. If you ever visit the country, you will be sure to see photos of Sigiriya in one form or another. Photos of a huge mound of stone (usually shot from above), or of a painting of a woman, are sure to be displayed in one or more restaurants or tourist bookstores around the country. What that essentially spells out is “visit Sigiriya” – and surely you must obey.
Sigiriya is renowned for a large stone (yes, I’m not kidding). You might be wondering why a large stone gets a World Heritage status, but what might look like a common large stone, may indeed surprise you.
It is said that the city might have a history dating back to prehistoric times. After that, around the 5th Century BC, the huge rock (which is supposedly magma from a volcano) was used to house passing Buddhist monks as a monastery.
Somewhere around the 5th Century AD, King Kashyapa, the illegitimate son of King Dhatusena, usurped his father’s throne and walled up his father alive. King Kashyapa became the ruler, though that honour rightfully belonged to King Dhatusena’s legitimate son Moggallana. Fearing an uprising from Moggallana, King Kashyapa moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigirya, protecting the latter with a fortress. The rock/stone itself had complex constructions around and on top of it such as palaces, gardens, pools and other defence walls.
In spite of his elaborate safety precautions, King Kashyapa was finally defeated by his half-brother Moggallana, who had fled to India and had begun planning his strategy. According to legend, King Kashyapa impaled himself on his sword after defeat.
After Moggallana’s ascension to the throne, the capital was moved back to Anuradhapura and the rock fortress was turned into a Buddhist monastery again until the 14th Century, after which it more or less fell into abandon.
Today Sigiriya is one of the most visited sites in Sri Lanka and for a very good reason.
Sigiriya is easily accessible from the bigger city of Dambulla (which is again one of the UNESCO World Heritage places in Sri Lanka, with the Golden Temple and the Dambulla Caves. You can decide to stay in Dambulla and see both Dambulla and Sigiriya quite comfortably.
Tickets into the World Heritage Site of Sigiriya are very high indeed ($30 for a single entry). This price is half for Indian citizens (I guess that’s because India took Buddhism to Sri Lanka).
Before you reach the ticket counter though, be prepared to walk for about 15-20 minutes from where the bus from Dambulla stops (there’s no bus stand there – it’s just like the middle of nowhere). But this walk is beautiful, and you can see some lovely green parks and moats (also see the signs around the moats which say that the waters are crocodile-infested). That will definitely curb your wish to check out the moats.
The huge rock of Sigiriya will already be well in your sight on a clear day because it is a rather large mound – really hard to miss.
Once you reach your ticket counter, which is opposite the entrance to the constructions around the rock, you can start your journey. As you walk towards that huge rock, you will see lots of flattened remains of palaces and gardens and pools. If you have the time, you must see these.
Then, brace yourself for a journey up. Oh yeah, that’s right. I didn’t mention anything about climbing. In fact no one mentions that part.
Let me warn you that if you are scared of heights, you might find the 1500-1600 odd steps quite challenging. And $30 is a lot to pay if you aren’t planning on going up. I am very scared of heights but I somehow braced myself and reached the summit – so I suppose if I can do it – you can do it too.
Even before you actually start climbing, you will see a lot of signs that will make you uneasy. I remember these particularly memorable signs about not making much noise so that you do not attract hornets. Also one that said you must be very careful so as not to attract wasps. Very comforting indeed.
Also, watch out for the awkward steps (without any railings to hold on to). Instead what you get to hold on to is some weird wall railing which is thick and makes you feel even more vulnerable. But the climbing is still not that difficult yet.
Many steps later, you’ll find a spiral staircase going upwards to a place you cannot see. This is a misleading spot. Due to the apparent head-spinning appearance of this place, we almost decided against going up, but we didn’t succumb to our fear. When we were getting strong to go up, a young woman got dizzy and wanted to come back down (which was really a pain because the staircase is really narrow). But after going up, we reached one of the most famous sights in Sigiriya – the frescoes.
Sigiriya has some of the most well-preserved frescoes painted in a unique style. It is said that there were some 500 paintings, but most do not remain now. The frescoes are beautiful and colourful and you will forget about your fatigue for a moment or two.
Near the frescoes is the mirror wall, which is said to have been so polished at King Kashyapa’s time that he could see his face as he passed by. Over the centuries, visitors carved their messages on this wall (but don’t get excited – they’re not in English obviously).
Once you pass the mirror wall, you have more steps to climb, until you reach a rather breathtaking place. Lion’s Paw is a spot more than half the way up to the summit. Two enormous lion paws made of stone guard a path upwards. It is said that at the top of the stairs, a lion’s head was once in place. It no longer exists.
Many people give up at this point because it gets rather challenging from here. The steps from the Lion’s Paw upwards are steeper and more demanding. But if you really wish to see all that Sigiriya has to offer, that final climb is necessary.
After a lot of huffing and puffing, reaching the summit is an experience you are unlikely to forget. There are ruins up on the summit, but not in a discernible condition. You will simply get to see outlines of what must have been old palaces and ponds. But what is most stunning is the view you get from the top. Nothing can beat that – and nothing can beat the feeling of being on the top of the Sigiriya rock.
Mentally prepare yourself for an arduous climb. There are places on greater heights than Sigiriya but the steps aren’t exactly comfortable to walk on and some places are steep. But there’s no actual chance of falling anywhere.
Give yourself about a whole day to see Sigiriya. There’s a lot to see even around the rock itself.
If you’re going to other historical sights in Sri Lanka, keep Sigiriya for the last because you’ll need more resting time after the climb. The other historical sites are less taxing so start off with them.
Wear shoes with a good grip. There were some travellers wearing normal shoes and some monks embarrassed us by walking so gracefully with some slippers, but do this for your own safety.
Start off early in the morning otherwise the heat will really bother you.
Don’t wear hats – it gets very windy the higher you go and you’re in a position to lose your hat.
If you have bulky cameras, better to put them in your bag and stop along the way to take photographs. Carrying them outside may increase chances of you dropping your camera.
Go slowly – you need to save your energy for the climb. Don’t get intimidated by people walking fast behind you. Some people find the climb easier than the others. However, if you are tired, stop and let the people behind you pass.