Sigiriya or Sihagiri, meaning Lion Rock in Sinhalese, is an ancient rock fortress and capital built in the first century AD by King Kasyapa. The palace was built on top of a massive 200 meters high (660 feet) rock column, the sides of the rock are almost vertical making it really hard to reach the top.
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Before King Kasyapa made Sigiriya his capital, the place was already inhabited (traces of people living near the rock date back to the 20th century BC) and the many caves present there were used to serve as Hindu then Buddhist temples. Some inscriptions date back to the 3rd century BC.
In the first century AD, Kasyapa took the throne illegally from his brother Moggallana who fled to India. Fearing his brother’s retaliation, Kasyapa moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya where he was better protected. He lost his life during a battle against his brother, the capital was then moved back to Anuradhapura and the palace destroyed.
The fortress was then turned into a Buddhist sanctuary until the 14th century. When it was abandoned once again only to be rediscovered in the 19th century by Johnathan Forbes.
Excavation works only started in the 1980s. It recently has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Sigiriya main features:
Of the city and the palace, not much remain, no buildings are left standing, only pillars and some part of walls. The foundations are still there so it’s still easy to imagine what the place looked like before.
What distinguishes Sigiriya from the other ruins sites in Sri Lanka are its impressive and incredibly well-maintained frescoes. The archeologists had to do a colossal work to restore the paintings after people vandalized the place, throwing black paint everywhere.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible anymore to take pictures of the frescoes, it would damage them too much. No one is really sure of who these charming ladies are, but researchers tend to say they were the king’s courtesans.
Archaeologists believe the frescoes used to cover most of the rock, only a small portion is left.
The lion gateway
Another impressive feature of Sigiriya is the lion gate, the paws, on each side of the stairs are really well preserved. A full lion used to be there, but only the paws remain.
Another thing, that personally impressed me more than anything else, is the stairs they used to climb up there. It’s not nice stairs like we have today, it’s squared holes in the rock. Here’s a picture so you can have an idea:
And this rock is not even high, can you imagine the people climbing this with 200 meters of emptiness beneath them?
At the top of the fortress, there were several pools, lucky for the servants, they didn’t have to carry the water up. They had built a hydraulic system using wind power to carry the water from the ground level to the top.
The mirror wall
This wall used to be so polished that the king could see his reflection inside it. It is made of bricks and has a polished plaster finish. Now, being so old, you won’t be able to see the mirror effect.
The wall has been “vandalized”, some of the graffitis dates back to the 7th century, some are more recent. Between the 7th century and the 11th century, people who came to visit the place would leave a comment on the wall, often praising the beauty of the paintings or writing some poetry. Not your average vandal. This wall is kind of the first version of Trip Advisor.
There are a lot of ruins at the bottom level and on the way to the top. The water gardens are really nice to stroll by, with still a lot of ponds intact. There are many different ways, at first, to go up. All the paths lead to the staircase to the top, on the way, there are some caves, the most famous one is the Cobra cave and there are also some ruins of official buildings. There’s a lot to explore.
Sigiriya was really a place I was looking forward to visiting, actually, it was the only site in Sri Lanka I knew about. Unfortunately for me, the day I went there was super rainy, I had been waiting for 10 days for the rain to stop but seeing it was never-ending I decided to go anyway. And of course, right the next day, the rain stopped and it got sunny. The only good point about the rain was that the place wasn’t as crowded as it usually is. Apart from the rain, I really enjoyed my day in Sigiriya. It’s a wonderful experience and the place is amazing in so many ways. It always mesmerizes me to see how people lived 2000 years ago and what they were capable of.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress useful information:
- Since 1982, Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The entrance fee is 30 USD for foreigners.
- The site is open every day from 7 AM to 5:30 PM with the last entry being at 5 PM.
- The best time to visit is either early morning or late afternoon, to avoid the crowds and the heat.
- Bring comfortable shoes and something to protect you from the sun. There’s no dress code, you can wear shorts and a tank top.
- The climb takes around 45 minutes, depending on your fitness level.
- There are 1250 steps from the bottom to the top.
Alternative to Sigiriya Rock Fortress: Pidurangala Rock
Many travelers skip Sigiriya and chose to hike Pidurangala Rock because it’s cheaper and less crowded. I would personally advise doing both as the view is better from Pidurangala but you don’t get to visit the palace and see the frescoes, which to me, is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka. You can watch the sunset from Pidurangala, then visit Sigiriya in the late afternoon.
It only costs 3USD to climb Pidurangala Rock. You’ll have to through the Pidurangala Sigiri Rajamaha Viharaya temple (you’ll need to have your knees and shoulders covered) first and pay the fee inside. It takes around 30 minutes to reach the top. Mid-way you’ll find the remains of an ancient cave temple.
How to get to Sigiriya
I went as a day trip from Dambulla, going with the first bus early morning, at 7 am, there’s one every 30 minutes after this. Coming from Dambulla is the easiest way.
Where to stay in Sigiriya
There are plenty of accommodations for every budget to choose from in Sigiriya, just make sure it’s located near the Rock for more convenience. Here are a few options:
AnotherWorld Kingdom Sigiriya: basic backpacker right next to Sigiriya entrance and within walking distance of Pidurangala, camping or dorm, friendly owner, nice outdoor area, restaurant – 4US a night.
Dream Day Home Stay: Great budget homestay, the rooms are super clean, each with its own bathroom and AC, breakfast included, 12US per night – 18 with AC.
The Cattleya Guest House: stunning guest house, well decorated, the rooms look new and are clean, there’s a great garden too, the breakfast is included – 25 USD
Water Garden Sigiriya: surrounded bu paddy fields with a stunning view over Sigiriya Rock, this resort offers luxurious villas (some with their own pool) and quality service. There you’ll find a restaurant, a bar, a spa, and a pool. Prices start at 300 US a night.
Related articles to help you your trip to Sri Lanka:
- Dambulla Golden Caves Temple travel guide
- Kaludiya Pokuna – Exploring a mysterious monastery lost in the jungle
- Everything you need to know before going to Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka bucket list – Must-see beaches
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