After two days bicycling through the hot and dusty plains of North-Central Sri Lanka, my room at the Flower Inn in Sigiriya couldn’t have felt more comfortable. Through my windows I looked out on the charming garden of the guesthouse and by the early evening I was ready to explore the town. I wandered the streets and spoke with locals, occasionally letting my gaze fall upon the 200m flat-topped rock that rose straight up out of the lush, leafy jungle at its base.

The rock mass is actually the hardened magma plug of an extinct volcano that long ago eroded away and is not only one of Sri Lanka’s most impressive geological formations, but also one of its greatest archaeological legacies. With its natural cave shelters and rock overhangs, the rock may have been inhabited in prehistoric times. Studies suggest that the rock served as a long-standing Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist monastery built several centuries before the reign of King Kassapa who ruled between AD 477-495. Monks were using it as a mountain hermitage by the 3rd Century BC, and there is abundant evidence to show it had become an important monastery by the 10th Century AD. After the 14th Century, the monastery complex was abandoned, discovered again by British archeologist HCP Bell in 1898. Whatever exact purposes Sigiriya may have served in the past, the visible ruins today suggest a significant urban site complete with relatively sophisticated architecture, engineering, urban planning, hydraulic technology, gardening and art- all on a rock that is so steep-sided, I could hardly imagine climbing it the next morning.

After a pleasant afternoon stroll through the jungle around Sigiriya, I stumbled upon a small village where a group of guys my age were playing cricket. I joined them next to a beautiful pond with awe-inspiring views of Sigiriya and amused them with my attempts at cricket pitching and batting. Together, three of us ventured to their nearby house, set in a lovely jungle setting, where we took a swim in the creek before having tea with the family. I met their mother, older brother, his wife, and their daughter and enjoyed a few cups of tea before returning to the lake for sunset. I hung around chatting with the guys until well after dark, and then attempted to make my departure back to the Flower Inn.

It was then that someone shouted “Elephant!” and I turned around to see a large dark shadow grazing in the pond behind the village which borders a national park. Everyone became very excited at the sight of the wild elephant and together we crept around the house for a better view, the guys constantly reminding me to be careful for such an animal was very dangerous, capable of stomping through the village, desecrating home and killing people, as sometimes happens. We peered out at the pond while the large dark figure moved slowly among the marsh. Villagers used the headlights of their tuk-tuks to illuminate the grey ghostly figure and then began shouting loudly, in hopes of driving it back into the forests. When the wild elephant had disappeared, I too left the village, and retired to my room as if in a dream-like state already.

Early the next morning I walked down the pathway past landscaped gardens towards the looming rock. Sigiriya is an impressive sight, especially from afar, a massive rock rising steeply from the jungle, a mysterious sight as there is nothing even close to its height in sight. First, I passed through the ‘miniature’ water garden, an elaborate network of water pavilions, pools, courtyards and waterways. There are five units in the garden with buildings surrounded by pools with pebbled or polished marble floors covered by shallow, slowly moving water, all laid out in the last quarter of the 5th Century.

Then I entered the next portion of the Water Garden, known as the ‘fountain garden’ where there are four fountains built symmetrically, two on each side. The fountains are fed by the two adjacent moats and water is carried through underground water conduits on the simple principle of gravity and pressure, though an unusual feature is the shallow serpentine stream designed to control movement of the water. The final portion of the Water Garden was built on a higher level with a simple design. There are two ponds- one octagonal on the left and the other ‘L’ shaped. The octagonal pond near the citadel wall separates the Water and Boulder gardens and is actually linked to one of the boulders where a lean-to roof once existed on the drip ledge of the boulder, feeding the lower pond.

Closer to the rock is the Boulder Garden which displays a landscape design of marked contrast to the symmetry and geometry of the Water Garden. Staircases and walkways wind their way through clusters of boulders that once formed the bases of buildings. Natural arches are formed where boulders touch, the walkways passing beneath their arches. Walls built around and on the boulders help retain the natural setting amidst the multi-terraced landscaped gardens and unique stone staircases. It is from the Boulder Garden, in a cave called Aligala, that evidence of 6000 year old prehistoric settlements were found. Thirty caves with drip ledges have been located and eight contain Brahmi inscriptions.

From the Boulder Garden, a long, steep staircases ascends the rock protected by railings, though these wouldn’t have existed until more modern times. About halfway up the rock there are 2 modern spiral staircases that lead up from the main route to a long, sheltered gallery in the sheer rock face. In this niche is a series of paintings of buxom, wasp-waisted women popularly believed to represent either apsaras (celestial nymphs) or King Kassapa’s concubines. Modern theory suggests they represent aspects of Tara Devi, consort of Avalokitesvara- a Bodhisattva and one of the most important figures in Tantric Buddhism. Although there may have been 500 portraits at one time, only 22 remain. Locals believe the paintings to be 1600 years old, depicting women of African, Mongol and Sri Lankan descent.

Beyond the fresco gallery of paintings the path clings to the sheer side of the rock and is protected on the outside by a 3m-high wall which was coated with a smooth glazing making it highly polished like a mirror, hence its name ‘Mirror Wall’. This wall is of architectural and literary importance because of graffiti left by visitors between the 6th and 14 Centuries. 685 of them have been deciphered and published in a 2-volume edition. The graffiti expresses feelings of enchantment with the paintings and surrounding environment, and not only do they show an appreciation of art and beauty, but also the development of Sinhalese language and script.

At the northern end of the rock the narrow pathway emerges onto a large platform from which the rock derives its latter name, meaning ‘Lion Rock’. HCP Bell found the two enormous lion paw carvings when excavating here in 1898. At one time a gigantic brick lion sat at this end of the rock and the final ascent to the summit commenced with a stairway that led between the lion’s paws ad into its mouth. The lion symbolism serves as a reminder to devotees ascending the rock that Buddha was Sakya-Simha (Lion of the Sakya clan) and that the truths he spoke of were as powerful as the sound of a lion’s roar. The 5th Century lion has since disappeared, apart from the final steps and paws, but the massive size of the paws indicate just how large this carving must have been.

Reaching the summit requires clambering up a series of grooves cut into the rock, fortunately now protected by a handrail. The top of the rock covers 1.2 hectares and at one time was covered in buildings, though only the foundations remain. Design of this so-called palace suggests more of a place of residence than a fortress, as previously believed. From the summit there are commanding views of the surrounding farmlands, gardens and the mountains in the distance. Mazes of white marble and red brick staircases are scattered amongst the enclosed terrace. A smooth slab stone (called the King’s Throne) looks out across the surrounding jungle and probably served as a meditation spot. Then there’s the 27m by 21m pond hewn out of rocks. Though it was probably used for water storage, it’s hard not to imagine an exquisite swimming pool with a 2m-wide pathway on 2 sides and the other 2 sides bordered by the slick rock that forms natural walls with staircases etched into the rock allowing for safe and easy entrance.

I sat atop Sigiriya for some time, enjoying the peace and solitude, before descending the rock. Again, only did I see other tourists when I was descending and by then the heat of the day had left them soaked in sweat. I skipped past them gleefully, my head full of visions of ancient civilizations and my mind trying to explain how it could be possible that so long ago they created such an extraordinary place out of a natural wonder such as Sigiriya.

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