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Sigiriya: Palace, Fortress, Regicide

Sigiriya: Palace, Fortress, Regicide
The ruins of a palace built atop a vast rock, Sigiriya is not a place best suited for Father-Son bonding excursions.

The palace fortress, which islander’s call the eighth wonder of the world - Sigiriya Rock – sits on massive lump of granite that is actually a hardened, much reduced, magma plug – all that is left of an extinct volcano. 

Lost in forests, inhabited by hermits monks between the third century BCE and the first century CE, it was exposed by colossal landslides and then selected by King Kashyapa I as the location of a new fortress capital in 477 CE.

Guarding the staircase to the ancient palace six hundred feet above are the two animal paws, rediscovered in excavations in 1898, all that is left of a crouching sphinx-like lion that secured the entrance. Built with bricks and limestone, the lion’s full height was 45 feet. The rest of the creature lies in dust around the site, but even so, it gave its name to the place, “Sigiriya” being the Singhala for “Lion’s Rock.” 

Gazing at it, the most irresistible connection is, of course, to the legendary Egyptian pharaoh, Rameses II, recalled by Shelley in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Sigiriya, like the palace of the King of Kings, is as much a ruin as the lion paws that yet guard it but once at the top, it offers stunning views across countryside, murals, and a two hundred metre ascent and decent on man-made routes that might trouble even an enterprising squirrel.

Having completed the bizarre brickwork that turned his father into a building, Kashyapa’s reaction to the patricide that had left him reviled by subjects and priests alike was not dissimilar to that of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who forsook his capital, for a palace of pleasure he built on Capri. Similar – but not equal, for the new seat of government he built at Sigiriya was in every way grander, more beautiful, and more advanced the Villa Jovis, something of an Airbnb by comparison. Given such flawed beginnings, it is surprising that Kashyapa’s reign lasted as long as it did – from 473 to 495 CE.

Sigiriya’s layout, still manifestly preserved, set the epitome for urban planning, the royal citadel surrounded by an elaborately laid out outer city, with a final circle of three types of gardens around it: water, terraced, and boulder gardens. Ponds, pavilions, fountains and cut pools made up the water gardens. More naturalistic gardens were created around massive boulders that mimicked a artless park with long winding pathways to saunter down. Brick staircases and limestone steps led up to more formal terraced gardens. 

Across it all stretch out double moat and triple ramparts, defendable gateways, and steps in perfect geometric symmetry, locking all the elements of the fortress city together with mathematic precision and elegance and pierced by the massive sentinel sculpture of a crouching lion

The whole site was fuelled by a remarkable hydraulic irrigation system. Rock-cut horizontal and vertical drains, underground terracotta pipes, tanks, ponds, interconnected conduits, cisterns, moats, and waterways channelled surface water to stop erosion and tapped other water sources to deliver water to the huge ornamental gardens, the city and palace - and harness it to help cool the microclimate of the royal residences.

The very walls of the rock and buildings were turned into a vast art gallery, plastered, and painted white and, it is said, covered with over five hundred frescos, twenty-one of which still survive. One wall – the ‘Mirror Wall,’ was so highly polished as to reflect back what faced it. “Wet with cool dew drops,” wrote one bedazzled tourist of the ancient world on the mirror wall itself, “fragrant with perfume from the flowers, came the gentle breeze jasmine and water lily, dance in the spring sunshine.”

Secluded in his pleasure palace, like Loius XIV at Versailles, Kashyapa’s attention, when not sidetracked on his rumoured hundreds of concubines, would have been on perfecting his inimitable home from home. Government, the state – all was doubtless of no more interest to him than in what it might provide by way of resource for his own living. 

Barely two reigns into the dynasty’s rule across the island, and it was already clear that public life was descending into a tropical Potemkin village. The bureaucracy that ran the state, managed its defences, collected taxes, maintained the national water grid, the ports, temples, and roads – languished in faraway Anuradhapura and began a slow decent into the dysfunctional sclerosis that would later bring the whole kingdom down. The fragmentary paws of the Sigiriya lion at the palace’s entrance are darkly eloquent emblem for a state, that for all its magnificence, was hollowing out from within.

But fear, as much as mortar, must have cemented in the stones of his citadel, with its unhindered 360-degree view across the countryside, the perfect eyrie from which to spot an attack from his avenging brother Moggallana. And this, of course, is what inexorably came next. Twenty town years into his reign he would have spotted a gathering dust on the horizon as a Pandian army organised by his bother Moggallana arrived onto the plains of Sigiriya to bring this particular Oedipal story to its end.

His regicidal sidekick and cousin, Migara, had by now changed sides and joined his army with Moggallanas.’ 

Battle commenced. Kashyapa’s army was defeated, and the homicidal hedonist wisely chose to drive a sword through his own body rather than be captured alive.

It was an end not just for this king, but for Sigiriya too. It sank into a desolate retreat for a handful of monks getting so overgrown by jungle through the passing centuries that its rediscovery in 1831 by Major Jonathan Forbes of the 78th (Highlanders) Regiment of Foot was the sensation of the year. Forbes was no ordinary officer. His book, Eleven Years in Ceylon published in 1840, is regarded as a masterpiece and he himself was so obsessed rumours of Sigiriya that he dedicated himself to detection, writing later: “From the spot where we halted, I could distinguish massive stone walls appearing through the trees near the base of the rock, and now felt convinced that this was the very place I was anxious to discover.”

Today the site’s principal features are:



Only a few flakes of paint remain of the plaster and frescos that once adorned the cave.



A small ancient complex close to the site.


FRESCOES - Quite how these frescos have survived this long is a miracle, but half way up the rock on the rock face are the remains of paintings of some especially well endowered women - aspects of Tara, celestial nymphs, or concubines: it remains a bit of a guess over which academics like to argue.



Only the paws remain of a once gigantic lion statue that marked the final ascent to the top commenced with a stairway between a lion’s paws and its mouth.



A wall once coated with glaze upon which much ancient graffiti was found including the ageless comment (on the frescos presumably): “The ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon me.”



A nearby rocky outcrop from which to view Sigiriya itself.



Although at the base of the Sigiriya rock these wonderfully landscaped gardens of terraces and water, pools and islands, steps, and boulders, are best kept for the end as you will need all your energy to climb up: dissipating it before that challenge may have life-shortening consequences.



Almost two hectares large, little remains of King Kasyapa fortified palace but some low foundations, a smooth slab of stone claimed to be part of a throne or meditation spot, the remains of an Audience Hall, and a large tank, cut from the rock. But, if on the lookout for trouble, there is no better place to be. Any approaching enemy army can be spotted with ease.



A well-presented permanent exhibition that is a good place to start.

To arrange a visit please contact the Hotel Office.
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