“He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri
Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)
The Story of Sigiriya
The history of Sigiriya is a story of vision, grandeur, beauty and tragedy unparalleled in Sri Lankan history.
Built nearly 1600 years ago it burst briefly into prominence with breathtaking architecture and art and then quickly faded away and was all but forgotten. Few historic sites in the world have such an interesting tale to tell as the story of Sigiriya..
Sigiriya is located in the Matale district in central Sri Lanka in an area dominated by a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high. It first gained preeminence in about 480 AD when this site was chosen by King Kasyapa, the second monarch of the Moriyan Dynasty of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, as his new royal capital.
In 477 AD Kasyapa overthrew his father, King Dhatusena and had him murdered. Unable to redeem himself with his people for this horrible crime Kasyapa fled the capital at Anuradhapura. He chose the area around the massive column of rock in central Sri Lanka as his new capital.
The site was a foreboding place indeed, teeming with wild elephants, poisonous snakes, leopards, bears, mosquitoes, hornets and other vermin. A vast army of over a hundred thousand men, thousands of bullocks and hundreds of elephants toiled for many years to build a magnificent new city in the forests.
Sigiriya Rock today as seen from across the Tank
The pièce de résistance of the new city was the rock itself. It was the centerpiece of the entire city. Kasyapa and his architects built a royal citadel with ramparts and moats and lavish gardens, ponds and fountains around this looming black rock. They constructed beautiful multicolored pavilions, palaces and halls. They erected grand staircases leading up to the base of the rock and then an unusual parapet wall which precariously hugged the side of the near vertical rock face as it wound its way around the western side of the rock. This wall had such a high reflective luster that it came to be known as the Mirror Wall. They then painted the entire surface of the sinister-looking black rock in a coat of white paint so that it appeared like a massive cloud floating above the tree tops. Then on the western surface of the rock, they had painted the largest portrait gallery in the world. This spectacular gallery consisted of over 500 stunning multi-colored frescoes depicting lightly clad semi-naked females. We know these as the Sigiriya Frescoes.
On a small plateau halfway up the rock, on the northern side, Kasyapa constructed a giant gatehouse and staircase in the form of a brightly colored sphinx-like lion thirty-five meters tall. Through its chest, via an almost perpendicular staircase, was the final ascent to the summit of the rock. It is this feature, the Lion Staircase, that bestowed his lair its name, Sīhāgiri—Lion Mountain (Lion Rock). We know it today as Sigiriya.
Artist's Impression of the Lion Staircase, during the time of Kasyapa
But this was only the beginning. Kasyapa then had millions of bricks and hundreds of thousands tons of other material transported manually 200 meters up a sheer rock face to the summit of the rock to build a gleaming Sky Palace of unparalleled beauty. Visible from miles around it shone radiantly in the sunlight proclaiming to all the power and prestige of the king.
Artist's Impression of Sigiriya Rock, Frescoes and Gardens during the time of Kasyapa
Kasyapa's city was the creation of a genius, the ultimate embodiment of royal power, a microcosmic paradise on earth—Alakamanda, the city of the gods. There he lived in splendid isolation for ten years or so, until finally betrayed he committed suicide (See Kasyapa for more detail).
Upon his death the royal capital was moved back to Anuradhapura. The magnificent citadel was stripped of its treasures and converted in to a Buddhist monastery. Over the ensuring centuries it was progressively abandoned until finally it was consumed by the forests. Kasyapa's city vanished and was soon forgotten. There it lay hidden, beneath thick canopy of forest for centuries until rediscovered nearly thirteen hundred years later by a British army officer out on an elephant hunt.
The ruins of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress seen today are less than twenty percent of the structures that once graced the area. Most buildings were made of wood. Consequently, there is very little evidence of these structures. Those built with stone and brick have survived the ravages of time and provide us a rare glimpse of the opulence and grandeur of an ancient era. Many ruins still lay hidden in the forest and are yet to be discovered.
It is difficult for a modern tourist to comprehend the absolute splendor of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress1600 years ago. Few ancient cities surpassed it for its ecologically-sensitive, grand vision and aesthetic elegance. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning in the world.
When you visit you need to let your imagination roam. Remember that this was meant to be a magical place; an earthly paradise with gardens, ponds, fountains, pavilions, hidden passages, beautiful works of art and a Sky Palace on top of a huge rock 200 meter tall.
Entrance Fee: $30 (also includes entry into the Museum)
This area in central Sri Lanka has been inhabited by humans since at least 20,000 BC. We have very few facts about Sigiriya. We do not know the name of the place before the reign of King Kasyapa. We are not even certain of its name during Kasyapa's lifetime.
An inscription craved in the 5th century, at the time of Kasyapa's rule, found at Timbirivava makes the reference “Maharaja Kasabala Alakapaya” (Kasyapa King of Alakamanda).
The first authenticated use of the name "Sīhāgiri" (meaning Lion Mountain) occurs in the Culavamsa written in the 12th century nearly 800 hundred years after Sigiriya was abandoned as the royal capital. The Culavamsa also refers to Kasyapa's palace as looking like Alakamanda.
So we can only say with certainty that the area was known as Sigiriya from about the 12th century AD.
The proper pronunciation of this name is see-gee-ree-yah.
Climbing Sigiriya Rock
No tour of this historic site is complete without climbing the 1200 odd steps to the summit of Sigiriya Rock. Not only is the view from the top exhilarating; it also gives you a perspective of the sheer enormity of building project King Kasyapa and his architects undertook 1600 years ago.
Climbing to the top is strenuous but not difficult. ....read more
Sigiriya Attractions & Things to Do
There are a number of other attractions and things to do around the area... read more
Sigiriya is centrally located in the Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle area. This makes it an ideal home-base from which to visit other attractions in north-central Sri Lanka.
The author has stayed in these hotels during his frequent visits to the site. He has no affiliation with any of them....read more
Being in the tropics, the weather at Sigiriya is usually hot and humid. Dressing smart will make the experience far more enjoyable.
While the citadel is well sign-posted tour guides can still be useful. They are licensed and know the place well. This can save you a lot of time and frustration getting about. Negotiate the duration of the tour and its price before you start. A good tour should take approximately 3-4 hours. Anything less than that will probably be a direct trip to the summit and back. It is common courtesy to tip the guide if you think he has done a good job.
Safety & Comfort
Sigiriya, more than other historic sites in Sri Lanka, has a number of minor thrills and spills that a visitor should be aware of. These include the climb to the top, dehydration, hornets, elephants and crocodiles. Use commonsense and you will be assured an incident-free visit.... read more.
The Sigiriya, like the rest of Sri Lanka, has a hot and humid tropical climate. The weather in general is unpredictable. Torrential downpours occur frequently. These are usually short-lived and tend to be in the afternoons... read more
Map of Sigiriya
A map of Sri Lanka highlighting the key attractions and a map of the Sigiriya Citadel can be found...here.