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Sigiriya rock, the ‘Lion Fortress’ of Sri Lanka

Sigiriya, also known as the Lion’s Rock, stands proudly in the Matale district near Dambulla, Sri Lanka, often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its remarkable architecture, fascinating frescoes, and expansive gardens draw tourists and historians alike, highlighting its profound historical, cultural, and architectural significance.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
The Sigiriya Rock.

This massive rock, nearly 200 meters (660 ft) high, dominates the landscape. Despite being steep, it is still relatively easy to climb up the rock, which could take 30 to 45 minutes depending on various factors.

The rock is surrounded by gardens, ponds, and other structures, with a rich history spanning nearly five thousand years. It is believed to have been inhabited since prehistoric times and was first used as a mountain monastery by Buddhist monks as early as the 3rd century BC.

Sigiriya is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning, with many water gardens.

the Lion's Rock

Sigiriya’s story unfolds dramatically with King Kashyapa’s royal coup, leading to the relocation of the capital and the construction of the rock palace. The king’s life and rule were shrouded in controversy. Born to his father’s non-royal mistress, he had no legitimate claim to the throne. Rebelling against his imprisoned and eventually slain father, King Dhatusena, Kashyapa seized the throne, despite his brother being the rightful heir.

King Kashyapa transformed Sigiriya into a city complex and fortress during his reign from 477 to 495 AD.

Explore the historical richness of Sigiriya and uncover ancient palaces, Mirror Wall secrets, and breathtaking gardens in this insightful journey through time

Most of the elaborate constructions on the rock summit and around, including defensive structures, palaces, and gardens, date from this period. It was converted back into a monastery after the fall of Kashyapa’s reign in 495 AD and later used as an outpost of the Kingdom of Kandy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
Aligala rock shelter to the east of Sigiriya rock.
the Lion's Rock

Sigiriya is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka. Famous for its archaeological significance, historical importance, and unique rock formation.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
Sigiriya frequently graces the pages of Sri Lankan literature, both ancient and modern. It finds mentions in classical Sinhalese texts such as the “Mahavamsa” and “Culavamsa,” chronicling the island’s history. Revered in poetry for its grandeur and beauty, the rock fortress remains a timeless muse.

There were two palaces in Sigiriya, one at the top of the rock and the other at the base. The upper palace was used in the rainy season while the lower one was used during the dry season due to the unbearable heat on the top of the rock. The lower palace was surrounded by vast gardens and several pools and fountains.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
The Mirror Wall and spiral stairs lead to a sheltered depression with the famous frescoes.

The Gardens of Sigiriya are one of the world’s oldest landscaped gardens. They are divided into three distinct forms: water gardens, cave and boulder gardens, and terraced gardens. The Terrace Gardens are located at the base of the Sigiriya Rock and have been compared to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, albeit on a much smaller scale. The upper levels of the Terrace Gardens used to serve as a pleasure garden for the king.

Historic water gardens and innovative engineering that stood the test of time

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
The Mirror Wall and spiral stairs lead to the frescoes. The famous Sigiriya Frescoes, painted nearly 1,600 years ago, are protected in a small, sheltered depression a hundred meters above ground.

The Terraced Gardens lead to the Mirror Wall, which was built 1600 years ago and had a highly polished surface that served as a mirror for the king. It was made of brick masonry and covered in polished plaster. The Mirror Wall has lost its shine over time and is now mostly covered in graffiti and verses scribbled by visitors, some of which date back to the 8th century AD. Despite this, it remains one of the few structures that has stood almost entirely intact for around sixteen centuries.

Sigiriya Frescos
Sigiriya Frescoes.

An ancient graffiti on the Mirror Wall suggests that there were as many as 500 frescoes covering a large section of the western surface of the Sigiriya Rock.

The western side of Sigiriya Rock used to be covered in frescoes made during the reign of King Kashyapa. 18 frescoes have survived to this day and depict female figures. It is believed that these frescoes are either portraits of the king’s wives and concubines or priestesses performing religious rituals. Most of the frescoes were destroyed when the palace was converted into a monastery after King Kashyapa’s reign ended to prevent meditating monks from being distracted.

Sigiriya Frescoes: only eighteen of these survived out of 500.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
A walkway (modern built) connecting the Mirror Wall to the Terraced Gardens.
Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
The Lion Gate and climbing stretch at Sigiriya.

One of the world’s oldest landscaped gardens is the Gardens of Sigiriya

As you ascend past the Mirror Wall, you come across an open space over the rock called Lion Gate. There used to be a massive stone lion at the Lion Gate, which is where the climb to the upper palace is located today. Only the front paws of the lion have survived, while the upper parts of its body were destroyed long ago. The palace was named Sigiriya after this lion. The Sanskrit word Sīnhāgiri, which means Lion Rock, is the origin of the word Sigiriya.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
Pidurangala Rock, Sigiriya.
Pidurangala Rock, as seen from Sigiriya.
Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)

The Sky Palace now only has its foundations left. Featuring a large water cistern carved into the rock used to collect rainwater, it also includes intricate water channels to cool the palace. The palace eventually became prohibitively expensive to maintain and saw no attempts at habitation after King Kashyapa. It was later abandoned and turned into a Buddhist monastery.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
The upper palace complex, also known as Sigiriya Sky Palace, is situated on the flat summit of the rock. According to ancient chronicles, King Kashyapa lived in the Sky Palace. It was said to be similar to the mythical city of the gods, Alakamanda, where the god Kuvera lived.
The lush green vegetation around the rock.
the Lion's Rock
Sigiriya, the 'Lion Fortress' of Sri Lanka
A water cistern cut into the rock on the summit of the Sigiriya Rock. During rain, water was collected here.
Sri Lanka's Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya (Lion's Rock)
Sigiriya Rock summit with Sky Palace ruins and a cistern cut into the rock.
View from the 200-meters-high summit of the Sigiriya Rock.

Sigiriya, with its ancient and timeless charm, transports you to a bygone era.

As you stand at the summit, envision the rainy season clouds embracing the hill, the fountains gushing, and the gardens coming to life.

Sigiriya is a fifth-century fortress in Sri Lanka

Sigiriya, the 'Lion Fortress' of Sri Lanka
The gardens of Sigiriya, as seen from the summit of the Sigiriya rock. What sets Sigiriya apart is the engineering marvel beneath its gardens. The hydraulic power, underground tunnels, and gravitational force behind the water systems continue to function almost 1,600 years later.

Navigating Sigiriya can be overwhelming without a knowledgeable guide as the site is massive with so much to explore. My tour guide shared a quirky anecdote at the end of the tour that the king who built it all never climbed the 1200-plus stairs himself but instead was carried by his servants.

Sigiriya, the 'Lion Fortress' of Sri Lanka
Sigiriya rock is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.

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It all began in my late teens with my father’s Mamiya 35mm SLR camera. Back then, learning photography and becoming a photographer in the traditional sense wasn’t my objective. What truly fascinated me was the power of capturing and preserving moments, allowing me to revisit them later.

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