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Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya Rock: Caught between a Rock and a Hard Place

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attractions – and with good reason. This ruined, fifth century city has some extraordinary features, including moat and wall fortifications, elaborately landscaped gardens, and a monastery. But it is the two-hundred metre high granite rock that stands out from these ruins that is undoubtedly the star attraction, with its exquisite frescoes and the remains of a royal palace on the summit.

Having already seen photographs of the frescoes at Sigiriya I was greatly looking forward to the visit. What I had not seen photographs of, however, was the staircase visitors have to climb to get to the frescoes. Unfortunately, I have an irrational fear of height – not always a good thing for an archaeologist who researches prehistoric art. I should add, I have never not visited a site or not been able to get up close to photograph or record images because of that fear. Although there have been a few times when it was close!

Walking along the approach to Lion Rock, you pass through the remains of a once beautifully landscaped garden – with pools and terraces. Ahead of the path the two-hundred metre high granite rock looms. And with each step my heart beat louder and faster. At the base of the steps, the initial part of the ascent is by way of a brick staircase, and then it turns into an iron staircase added to the side of the granite rock face. Seeing hordes of people climbing the steps ahead of me did not help either – Acrophobia is after all an irrational fear.

Looking back the climb does not seem so bad, but I do remember being quite relieved when it was over. Seeing those delicately painted frescoes and the amazing wall of graffiti, some having been left by Buddhist monks in the seventh and eighth centuries, and then walking amongst the amazing ruins of the royal palace on the flat topped outcrop (not going too close to the edge, of course), made climbing Sigiriya Rock one of my most memorable archaeological visits.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Sigiriya – Briefly

There is archaeological evidence of religious communities living in the area dating back to at least the third century BC. The ancient city of Sigiriya is a few centuries younger, having been built for King Kasyapa, the son of the previous king by a non-royal consort.

In 477 AD Kasyapa killed his father and seized the throne from his half brother and heir Moggallana. Fearing his brother’s revenge, Kasyapa left the capital city of Anuradhapura and built the heavily fortified city of Sigiriya – the thick walls and moats are still visible (look at the Google map below), and he placed his impregnable palace-fortress on top of the granite rock. That part of the city in which the aristocrats lived was embellished with canals and other water features, as well as beautifully landscaped gardens. In the 11 years of Kasyapa’s time at Sigiriya he built a capital city of exceptional splendour.

True enough, Moggallana came to do battle with the King. During a battle that King Kasyapa did not have much hope of winning, Kasyapa took his own life by cutting his throat. His brother Moggallana obviously became king and reinstated Anuradhapura as the capital. He left Sigiriya to the monks, and of course its eventual abandonment. It was not until the early 1800s that colonial archaeologists found the site, and there are still large parts of the ancient city that have not been excavated.

From early sightings of Lion Rock we know that the fresco panel was originally much larger than it is today. Twenty-two female figures have survived, and together they are often referred to as ‘The Maidens of the Clouds’. The detail is quite spectacular.

The path leading from the entrance to the ascent passes through the terraced gardens. These gardens and their pools with polished marble or pebbled floors, water-courses and fountains were part of the aristocratic quarter of the city.

The original entrance to the palace was on the north side of the rock, and took the form of a large lion, with its front paws, head and shoulders projecting from the rock. The staircase went up between the two front paws and into the mouth of the lion – hence Lion Rock. Today all that remains are the two paws – but these give a good idea of the original size of the sculpture. The so-called ‘lion staircase’ serves as the descent from the summit.

Where is Sigiriya

For 360° panorama photographs: click and drag the yellow pegman onto the map; blue dots will appear on the map; place the pegman on the dots and you will get to see spectacular 360° views of the site of Sigiriya from a number of vantage points. There are even a few dots on top of the rock itself, that not only have great views of the landscape but also allow you a good view of the remains of the brick structures. A few of the blue dots are for photographs taken in front of the painted panels. In fact all aspects of the site are covered. For best results, zoom in on the map and you will see many many more blue dots to choose from.

Visiting Sigiriya:

The closest city to Sigiriya is Dambulla, about 25 kms away.

Although my visit to Sigiriya was part of an organised tour of the archaeological and cultural sites of Sri Lanka, it is as easy to visit the site independently.

There is a reliable and regular bus service to Sigiriya from Dambulla, which can also be reached by bus from other major cities such as Jaffna, Kandy and Trincomalee. The bus from Dambulla to Sigiriya costs about 40 Sri Lankan Rupees, whereas a private auto rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, is about 1000 Rupees.

The cost for entering the site was 3600 Rupees in 2012, but that also includes the museum which is outside the archaeological area. Don’t forget to take water and a hat – water is not available to purchase beyond the gate and ticket office.

Climbing to the top and back down again can be done in just under two hours. Apparently there are 750 or so steps to the top, but there are flat sections, where the walkway is level. And there are places where you can rest.

If you are visiting the site independently, my advice is to get there as early as possible, before the bus loads of tourists arrive. If you are on an organised tour … your visiting time is out of your control – so do not worry, just enjoy the visit. I did, despite the climb!

Archaeology Travel Writer

Thomas Dowson

With a professional background in archaeology and a passion for travel, I founded Archaeology Travel to help more people explore our world’s fascinating pasts. Born in Zambia, I trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and taught archaeology at the universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). Read More

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