Have you ever tried to cling onto a railing while climbing a massive rock, hanging on for dear life and praying that you will survive? That’s how the treacherous ascent up Lion Rock begins.
Considered the 8th Wonder of the World by UNESCO, the imposing Lion Rock, or Sigiriya, is one of Sri Lanka’s main attractions, rising 660 ft above the country’s flat central plains. It’s famous for its frescoes of bare-breasted women, which, along with other ancient graffiti, were painted 1500 years ago. The Rock’s prized and tranquil gardens are also the oldest known in Sri Lanka and Asia.
Unfortunately, Lion Rock doesn’t have a peaceful history. It’s bloody past is filled with deception, conflict, treason and malice.
History of Sigiriya:
“He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri
which is difficult to ascend for human beings.
He cleared a roundabout, surrounded it with a wall
and built a staircase in the form of a lion…
Then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold,
like another Alakamanda, and dwelt there like the god Kuvera.”
Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)
In the 5th century, dark and tragic events led to the establishment of Sigiriya, which was the center of the Sinhalese Kingdom for 18 years.
As the story goes, Kasyapa, the illegitimate son of King Dhatusena, feared his younger half-brother Moggallana, the son of an anointed queen, would take over the kingdom and rule Sri Lanka. Kasyapa was also convinced that his father had hidden a large treasure from him, and he demanded that the King reveal the location that held the sum of his wealth.
Disappointed by his son’s demand, King Dhatusena took Kasyapa to Kalawewa to show the completion of an irrigation network and a venerable monk, who had been his teacher for many years. Kasyapa became infuriated and, with the help of the army commander, he ordered his father to be walled up alive in what became his very own tomb. Meanwhile, Moggallana survived Kasyapa’s assassination attempt and fled to India, but he vowed to return one day with an army and rule the kingdom.
Paranoia and anger drove the newly self-proclaimed King Kasyapa to leave Anuradhapura—the traditional Sinhalese capital—to construct his own palace on top of what is now Lion Rock. It was the perfect hide-away and lookout point that could be easily defended by any attack.
Seven years after ascending the throne, King Kasyapa moved into his new fortresses Sigiriya and counted down the days until his brother’s return. Finally, in 495 AD, Moggallana returned from India with an army backed by Sinhalese troops with the intent to take over the throne. Without conceding, King Kasyapa descended from his impregnable stronghold to encounter him in battle.
At a crucial stage in the fight, Kasyapa’s elephant turned in another direction, making his troops believe that he was retreating. Confusion broke out among his soldiers and left Kashyapa defenseless. Flamboyant to the end, Kasyapa drew his dagger, slashed his own throat, raised the blade high in the air and sheathed it before falling dead to the ground.
Upon Kasyapa’s death, Moggallana moved the royal capital back to Anuradhapura. After Lion Rock was stripped of its treasures, it became a Buddhist monastery up to the 14th century and was presumably abandoned thereafter, as there aren’t any chronicles of activity until the Kingdom of Kandy utilized it as an outpost in the 17th century.
It was rediscovered by British Army Major Jonathan Forbes, who stumbled upon the rock and its ruins on an expedition while exploring the jungle. What he saw was that wildlife and vegetation had taken over the crumbling buildings, ponds and gardens. Most of the frescoes on the walls had also faded and fallen off. Proper archaeological work and restoration with government funds began in 1982, and what is visible today is a mere 20% of Lion Rock’s former beauty.
It is difficult to comprehend the absolute splendor of what must have been a mighty fortress 1600 years ago. However, it is still one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning in the world.
Lion Rock is located 3 hours north of the commercial and ancient capital city of Colombo. You’re better off taking the bus or hiring a local driver to travel there. It’s risky to drive on your own in the local traffic, where everyone makes their own rules and lanes. Traffic jams and accidents are becoming more common due to the increase of a mobile population. Trains are a better option and cost $12 from Colombo. All trains and buses stop about 24 kilometers (14 miles) from Lion Rock, and everyone needs to take public transportation from there. It’s a bumpy bus ride and generally packed with locals.
It’s better to get an early start not only to beat the traffic, but the mercury also rises high in the northern part of the country, and there’s a lack of shade for relief. The temperature can easily reach 100° F and climbing to the top may be strenuous for some. It’s about 1200 steps to the top with some narrow and steep, exposed areas. If you’re unfit, it’s better not to attempt to climb the Rock. It can also be busy with visitors, as there’s no limit to how many can go up or down. It may also be slow-going, especially if there are older people who are intent on making their way up.
The easy part is the first ascent through the Terrace and Boulder Gardens, which cover an area along the western side of the Rock. Small and narrow staircases zigzag upward, with barely enough room for one person to pass by.
As you climb up, holding on to the metal handrails, you’ll see the Sigiriya frescoes in a depression of the Rock known as Cobra Hood Cave. These were part of the thick band across the Rock with about 500 semi-naked women, but there are only a few remaining. Nobody knows who painted this amazing artwork, but these women testify to a highly-advanced, Sinhalese civilization at a time when Europe was in the early Dark Ages. The climb becomes a little tougher, because the staircase hangs off the side of the Rock, and you may feel a tad dizzy and uneasy from vertigo.
Are we there yet?
Then comes the final yet hardest part, which comprises of a narrow and totally exposed steel gantry all the way to the top on the side of the Rock. Once you are at the summit, the 360° view of the countryside is remarkably breathtaking, with lush jungles extending to the horizon and the Rock’s famed gardens below.
The gardens of Lion Rock are truly impressive and comprise of three elements: The three Water Gardens consist of channels, pools, ponds and fountains, along with man-made islands and a citadel. The Cave and Boulder Gardens are connected by winding pathways and, at one point, most of the boulders had a pavilion built upon them. A limestone staircase leads visitors through the Terraced Gardens and ultimately on the path to the Lion Gate. The monstrous paws are all that remain of the stone lion that once dominated the entrance.
Safety tips for the climb:
- Watch out for hornets– They are present along the way, so avoid doing anything that will provoke them. The former inhabitants used to attack their enemies by throwing the hornet nests over the edge.
- Beware of tour guides – Let them know upfront that you don’t need their help. NO THANK YOU several times might work, but they won’t give up on you too easily and aren’t shy to ask you for money.
- Beat the heat – go early to avoid the burning sun, which makes the climb a little difficult. You must bring a hat and wear sunscreen!
- Ticket price – There is a huge discrepancy in the admission price for locals ( 50 rupees) and tourists (3000 rupees = $30). It’s so unfortunate that most of the attractions in Sri Lanka cost an arm and a leg for tourists. If the trend continues, they may not have any tourists to climb at all.
- Food and clothing – Bring some food, a rain jacket and some water, since there is nothing to buy along the way. Depending on the season, torrential downpours can be unpredictable, but they’re short. Plus, there is no shelter from the rain, not to mention the heat. You may also encounter gusty winds at the top of the rock.
- Watch out for monkeys – Please do not provoke the monkeys or feed them because they can become aggressive. Let them be by themselves.
Extra Tip: The best time of year to visit is March.