Sigiriya, the Lion Rock (alt 363 m), can be seen from a distance of many kilometres, an impressive tabular crag of gneiss rising sheer above the forest like a vessel riding the waves. The top is more than 200 m above the surrounding trees. Kassyapa’s relentless energy, intrepid of a parricide and usurper pursued by heaven, half-brother and many of his subjects leads to the transformation this eagle’s eyrie into an impregnable citadel. There is some difference of view about the exact date when Kassyapa built his citadel, though it was around the end of the 5th century AD. The historians date his reign either to 477-495 or to 495-512, depending on which of two possible chronological systems they prefer.
Long before it became Kassyapa’s capital Sigiriya was regarded as a sacred place where ascetics had their abode. Inscriptions found on the site have been dated to the 2nd century BC. It was not until the end of the 5th century AD, however, that the rock received the name of Sigiriya.
The liberator King, Dhatu Sena, had two sons. The elder, Kassyapa, born of a concubine of humble origins, was a bold and resolute prince; the younger, Mogallana, the son of a wife of high rank, was delicate and hesitant. Unexpectedly, the king designated the younger son as his successor: whereupon Kassyapa, feeling unjustly supplanted – and moreover enjoying the support of his uncle, the king’s general threw his father into prison and withdrew into the forest, where he established a new capital, while Mogallana fled to southern India. When Dhatu Sena refused to reveal where his riches were hidden Kassyapa had him killed. This was the beginning of a long period of civil war in northern Ceylon, during which the new king established an extraordinary new capital on the summit of the Lion Rock. This stronghold was never taken by an enemy, but after a reign of 18 years Kassyapa, tiring of the fratricidal struggle and, it is said, stricken with remorse, decided to submit himself to a kind of trial by ordeal; and in a battle to the death at the foot of the rock he was defeated by Mogallana, who had gained the support of some of the Tamil rulers. Tradition has it that Kassyapa committed suicide when he saw that he had lost the final battle.
The new king gave the accursed place to his great-uncle Mahanama, a monk who lived as a hermit eight leagues away near Lake Kalaweva. Mahanama established a monastery in the caves at the base of the rock, a centre of monastic studies at which part of the Mahavamsa was compiled.
Visitors who are pressed for time often see no more than the Lion Rock itself and the mass of boulders which defend the approach to it, paying no attention to the fortified town, which covered an area of some 70 hectares.
The site of the town extends for a distance of some 1300 m from east to west. It consisted of two districts separated by a tumble of erratic boulders and by the central rock which bore the citadel. To the west was the aristocratic quarter, with military and residential buildings set amid carefully laid out gardens and tanks, covering an area of some 40 ha. Excavation has revealed the foundations and sub-structures of the buildings, enclosed within a double circuit of ditches and brick-built ramparts. In the central area the boulders have been left where they were and fitted into the layout and all over the site erratic blocks have been left undisturbed when they did not interfere with the general plan nor had a defensive function: if the terms were not so anachronistic, it might be said that the planners of the town had tried to create a kind of garden city in a landscaped park. To the east, under the vertical face of the Lion Rock, was the working class district, covering 19 hectares, occupied by the ordinary people who built the splendid royal capital. Since their houses were of simpler construction they have left no visible traces on the surface, and this part of the town has not yet been systematically explored.
Entering the site from the west, are the ditches, the second of which is 4 m deep and 25 m wide. After passing close to the remains of guard-rooms, is the Royal Road which leads to the Lion Rock. At the north and south ends of a rectangular area measuring 175 m by 110 m are the remains of houses, with baths or pools at the four corners. The path leads between two areas covered with ruins and surrounded by ditches into a small open space with baths round the sides, one of them (at the north-east corner) being octagonal in shape.
Scattered about in the tumble of boulders, which is traversed by a maze of little paths, are a variety of structures hewn from the rock cisterns, a bath, a pulpit, seats, a kind of audience chamber with a rock-cut divan, etc. At the foot of the Lion Rock sometimes difficult to locate are some 20 caves or rock shelters which have been used for human habitation. In these more than 680 graffiti have been recorded, most of them dating from the 5th to the 13th century but some of them from before the Christian era.
Sigiriya’s main attraction for most visitors, however, lies in its frescoes, which are thought to be roughly contemporary with the famous Indian paintings at Ajanta (Maharashtra). The Sigiriya paintings, unlike those at Ajanta, are genuine frescoes, painted on a fresh plaster coating, and they are superior to the Ajanta paintings in the vigour of their draughtsmanship and the brightness of their colouring, with its rather vaporous tones. They are in an astonishingly good state of preservation, after more than 15 centuries exposure to the ravages of time and weather.
The frescoes are painted in recesses on the west face of the rock, known as the Mirror. They have no narrative content and cannot be interpreted as illustrating any connected mythological tales: they appear, indeed, to reflect a purely aesthetic delight in beauty, a series of variations on the female form.
It is difficult to be sure about the role or social status of the 21 figures represented, although it has been suggested that those with a light complexion are princesses and the darker-skinned figures their attendants. The figures are life-size, but are represented only as far down as the hips, which are draped in brightly coloured loincloths, so that they appear to be emerging from celestial clouds. They are bare-breasted or covered only with a transparent veil. These strikingly beautiful figures, painted in a style of great purity and with a total lack of affectation or artificiality, are among the masterpieces of world art. We can only speculate on their identity perhaps princesses from Kassyapa’s harem, or the apsaras who are the Indian equivalents of nymphs, or cosmic divinities personifying natural phenomena like lightning or storm, or merely imaginary figures reflecting Kassyapa’s dreams of female beauty.
Those who have seen the fury of the monsoon beating against the Lion Rock can readily believe that the figures represent cosmic divinities and were painted to propitiate these formidable powers. It seems clear in any event that they must have been painted for gods rather than men; for at the time they were painted they could not be seen by ordinary people as we can see them today. We cannot but marvel at the skill of the engineers who built up the dizzy framework of scaffolding and wooden gangways which enabled the artists to do their work on these inaccessible rock faces.
The paintings can now be reached by climbing up a spiral metal staircase, but the narrow gangway which runs along in front of them is too close to the frescoes to afford a proper view of the general effect or to allow visitors to photograph them. The best plan, therefore, is to look at the reproductions in the Colombo Museum or to obtain the UNESCO publication on the frescoes.
The Lion Rock
After seeing the frescoes we come down again to the gallery which runs along the west face of the rock and provides the only means of access to the top. This leads to the so-called Place of the Bees on the north face. Here there is a metal cage, installed by the first archaeologists working on the site to provide protection for 4 or 5 people against attack by a swarm of wild bees. It is situated at the south-west corner of the platform (33 m by 65 m), which is also known as the Lion Plateau. From here there is a magnificent view of the forest, and there are in fact very few bees, for at this altitude (over 300 m) the winds blow strongly, so that the Rock feels rather like an island set in a storm-tossed sea.
To reach the top (363 m) it is necessary to be fit and active and to have a good head for heights. Iron railings and ladders are provided to supplement the steps cut in the rock, but it is still a stiff climb. The summit of the Rock, with an area of about 1 1/2 hectares, is like a dead city, with its ruined palaces, its temples, its cisterns and its large sacred bath.
At first glance the site is a mere huddle of unidentifiable ruins-bare foundations or a few sparse remains of buildings built on a series of terraces at different levels, so that the exploration of the remains means going up and down many flights of steps amid the ruins. The site presented the archaeologists with many problems and puzzles, and it is not easy to establish the function of all the various buildings. There is general agreement about the identification of the Royal Palace, with its easily recognisable baths, cisterns and ritual basin. Facing the rising sun is a magnificent throne hewn from the rock, a kind of divan protected by a roof.
The whole site, with its evidence of a vast expenditure of labour and resources, conveys a powerful impression of the grandeur and also of the fragility of this human enterprise which was to endure for barely more than a decade.
From the top there is, of course, a magnificent wide-ranging view in all directions. To the east, 10 km away beyond a great expanse of forest, is the Ehakulawewa ridge of hills (392 m); to the south is the Erawalagala massif (700 m); and below, to the west, is the regular layout of the lower town.
Surroundings of Sigiriya
Visitors staying in the Sigiriya rest-house, looking on to the Lion Rock, will be able to explore other ancient sites in the surrounding area: 500 m from the Rock, 10 minutes walk east of the rest-house, is the hill of Mapagala (245 m), with ancient ramparts built of large blocks of stone enclosing the remains of buildings which have not been identified but are thought to date from the time of Kassyapa.
2 km from Sigiriya is the hill of Piduragala (320 m), with the ruins of a monastery, a deep cave with half effaced wall paintings and the figure of a sleeping Buddha 13 m long. Nearby are the remains of a small dagaba and of a hall with 40 monolithic pillars 3 m high.
12 km south, in the foothills of the Erawalagala range, is the site of Nuludinapokuna, 2 km from Nikawatawana. The whole region is strewn with the remains of ancient buildings situated near ruined tanks, bearing witness to of the extend cultivation in earlier times. Altogether Sigiriya and the surrounding area are very interesting that if a visitor would only see one ancient site in Sri Lanka Sigiriya will be the best choice.