On top of Sri Lanka: climbing Sigiriya


The top of Sigiriya is not the high point of Sri Lanka, far from it, really, but when you’re standing on top, a few hundred feet above the lush, green plains, it certainly feels that way. While the area was inhabited going back to the 5th century BCE, the main development of the site began about 1,000 years later when King Kashyapa usurped the throne following a coup. Fearing reprisal from the rightful heir, Kashyapa moved the capital of Sir Lanka to the site at Sigiriya and built up both temples and defensive fortifications on and around the stone summit.

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Kashyapa’s reign was relatively short-lived and after about 20 years the capital was moved back to Anuradhapura. At that point the structures at Sigiriya reverted to their monastic heritage. The history of the sites trails off around the 13th or 14th century and is not picked up again until the early 19th century when a British soldier riding his horse through the jungles happened upon the site. It was not until the 20th century, however, that any significant archaeological efforts were seen at the site.

The layout of the site is considered to be a seminal work of urban planning from the first millennium. There are three levels at the site, with symmetry and asymmetry used to tie the areas together. Additionally there are elaborate decorations on the site, many in the form of frescoes which still exist today and which are very well preserved.

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The park areas at the base of Sigiriya include water, boulder and terraced gardens. The boulders still hide caves that were used by the monks over the history of the site, among other things. There was also a palace at the base.

Beginning the climb up the stairs – and there are plenty to climb – the fresco gallery comes into view. A huge portion of the façade was previously covered by the frescoes, something like 140 meters by 40 meters. Today the area with paintings is much smaller but they are every bit as impressive.

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The paintings of women are impressively realistic and detailed, showing ornately bejeweled women. Some believe the women to be the king’s wives, others suggest they are partaking in religious ceremonies. To me they look more like domestic activities (serving dinner, etc.). One bit of note is that they are almost all facing or pointing towards the temple at Kandy.

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After the frescoes the climb continues to the mid-level area where the Lion’s Gate sits. This face was believed to have historically been carved completely in the shape of a lion. Today it is just the paws which remain. Based on their size, however, and the remnants of the original access stairs which remain it is easy to see how this approach would have been rather intimidating to visitors.

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Up the stairs of the Lion’s Gate and, eventually, one arrives at the summit. The layout atop the summit is only partly "structured" relative to the strict order seen at the base. The main palace area is, unsurprisingly, at the high point of the rock and is a somewhat typical rectangular building.

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Beneath that, however, there are a series of vaguely Escher-esque stairs (really, they were everywhere, though they never managed to twist and turn upside down quite right) across the summit linking areas where smaller buildings would have been.

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There is also a large reservoir up top which is still functional today.

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This is one of several historical sites within the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka and, like the others, the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has helped to protect the site and to develop it in a manner that allows it to support the influx of tourists who flock to it.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

3 Comments

  1. Enjoy your trip report posts as always..
    Looks like they had breast implants back in those days! 🙂

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