The story of Sigiriya is one of vision, grandeur, beauty and tragedy unparalleled in Sri Lankan history. Built 1,600 years ago, it burst briefly into pre-eminence with breathtaking architecture and art and then in a mere 18 years it faded into oblivion and was soon forgotten. Few historic sites in the world have such an interesting tale to tell as that of Sigiriya.
Why Sigiriya was Built
The story of Sigiriya is the tale of King Kasyapa who ruled between 477 and 495AD. A troubled but visionary king; Kasyapa murdered his father by plastering him up in a wall. Rejected by his people for his crime and tormented by guilt and fear he abandoned his magnificent capital of Anuradhapura and fled deep in the forests of central Sri Lanka. There in an area dominated by a menacing black column of rock 600 feet high he built himself a new capital resplendent with lush gardens, palaces and pavilions. He transformed the sinister-looking black rock to appear like a huge dazzling white cloud and painted it with beautiful frescoes of semi-naked nymphs. He also build a massive gatehouse in the form of a lion to guard the entrance to the inmost sanctum of his city; the Sky Palace on top of the rock. There, hidden from view and surrounded by his courtiers and harem, Kasyapa lived in splendid isolation. He was, however, deeply troubled by his responsibility for the death of his father. He carried out many good works and observed his religious duties diligently hoping, no doubt, to find some salvation for his troubled conscience. Finally, betrayed, by those he trusted, he committed suicide.
At the time the story of Sigiriya was unfolding in 477 AD, Sri Lanka had one of the most advanced and prosperous civilizations in Asia. It sat at the crossroads between Asia and West. Ships of many nations called into it ports and trade with far off lands such as Egypt, Roman and China prospered.
A number of key events took place in other parts of the world which put historic context to our story.
At about this time the Vandals sacked Rome and Europe began its slow inexorable decline into the Dark Ages. The Gupta Empire controlled most of northern India and the magnificent art works at the Ajanta Caves commenced. These in turn had a significant influence on paintings in at Sigiriya. It was also the time that an erotic compendium known as the Kama Sutra was first complied. In China, Buddhism was taking root; and in Mexico, the city of Chichén Itzá was being founded. Most of the rest of the world lay in cultural slumber.
Having decided to move his capital, King Kasyapa had a grand vision. He would build his city to emulate Alakamanda. In Buddhist mythology Alakamanda was the beautiful and prosperous city of the gods. It was said to exist in a faraway place at a great elevation. Its ruler was Kuvera, the god of wealth and plenty.
It is from this legend that Kasyapa gained his inspiration. He would harness the vast wealth and resources of his kingdom to recreate Alakamanda on earth. It is for this reason that Kasyapa choose a location deep in the inhospitable forests of Sri Lanka. The only significant feature of the area was a menacing black rock which rose majestically 200 meters into the air. He, Kasyapa, would transform the rock to appear as though it were a cloud. On its summit he would build a magnificent palace and rule like a god-king.
The site chosen for the capital was a foreboding place indeed; teeming with wild elephants, poisonous snakes, leopards, bears, mosquitoes, hornets and other vermin. Kasyapa was fortunate. He was the king of a extremely prosperous kingdom. He also had a huge workforce of highly skilled laborers and artisans to do his bidding. An army of over a hundred thousand men, thousands of bullocks and many hundreds of elephants toiled for years to build a magnificent new city in the forest.
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 treetops. Then on the western surface of the rock, was 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 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, which in later time bestowed the place its name Sīhāgiri — Lion Mountain (Lion Rock). We know it today as Sigiriya.
Upon Kasyapa's death the royal capital was moved back to Anuradhapura. The magnificent Sigiriya Citadel was stripped of its treasures and converted in to a Buddhist monastery. Over the ensuring centuries it was progressively abandoned and then finally completely deserted. Slowly it was consumed by the forests and disappeared into the mists of time; forgotten, a mere footnote in history.
In time Sigiriya became a grim and foreboding place. At dusk, clouds of bats sallied forth from their lairs into the night sky and wild animals roamed its crumbling pavilions, ponds, and gardens. The beautiful Sigiriya Frescoes faded and fell away. The palace in the sky had long ago crumbled and been carried away by the wind. For centuries, no human set foot on its summit.
By 1815 the island was annexed into the British Empire. In 1827, a young British army officer named Jonathan Forbes arrived for duty in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and was "immediately attracted to the jungle by the novelty of elephant shooting." Forbes had befriended George Turnour, a British Civil Servant, who had been deciphering ancient Sri Lankan chronicles. As a consequence he was well aware of the fact that a lost city lay buried in the forests. While on an elephant hunt in 1831 Forbes stumbled upon the ruins of Sigiriya.
Forbes describes how he and his companions ventured through the thick undergrowth and clambered up the dislodged steps of a series of winding stairs that zigzagged up the side of the rock and onto a walled gallery (the Mirror Wall). They proceeded along this gallery for about a hundred meters before, giddy from heat and exhaustion, they were forced to withdraw. Forbes returned in 1833 to continue his exploration of the site, noting that the projecting rock above the galley "had been painted in bright colors."The of course were what was left of the Sigiriya Frescoes. Serious excavation of the site commenced in 1895.
This area of Sri Lanka has been inhabited by humans since at least 20,000 BC. However we do not know what the place was called before the time of Kasyapa. We don't even know its name during Kasyapa's lifetime.
An inscription from the tenth year of Kasyapa's rule, found at Timbirivava, makes the reference Maharaja Kasabala Alakapaya (Kasyapa King of Alakamanda). Two inscriptions attributed to King Mahinda who ruled between 956 and 972 AD found at Vessagiriya in Anuradhapura uses the name Kasubgiri. A literal translation of this word would be Kasyapa of the Mountain. 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. Therefore 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.
Sigiriya was the largest and most sophisticated single construction project ever undertaken by the ancient Sri Lankans. 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 Fortress 1600 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.
Imagine this was a magical place; an earthly paradise of lush gardens, ponds, fountains, and brightly colored pavilions. Its centerpiece was a huge rock which appears as though it were a large cloud tethered to earth festooned with a spectacular work of art, the Sigiriya Frescoes, which harked up to a Sky Palace on top of a 200 meter tall rock.
No holiday to Sri Lanka would be complete without a visit to Sigiriya - Kasyapa's masterpiece.
History records the magnificence of Sigiriya, only once, in these few terse words.
"He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri
which is difficult to ascent for human beings.
He cleared 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)
How Sigiriya Rock was Formed
The Sigiriya Rock is the remains of a hardened magma plug from a long-eroded volcano. The summit is nearly 200 meters above the surrounding plain. It was formed over two billion years ago when the area around Sigiriya was rife with active volcanoes. Hot molten lava from the earth’s inner core spewed out onto the surface forming numerous mountains of varying size.
Over the ensuring years the volcanic active ceased. Natural erosion by wind and rain slowly eroded the outer surface of the volcano exposing its solidified magma core. The 200 meter exposed lava plug is only the tip of a solidified lava shaft which extends deep into the earth’s surface.
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