Macchu Pichu meets Ayer™'s Rock

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You won’t have seen anywhere like Sigiriya. The island’s single most memorable attraction, the site features the remains of an ancient Sinhalese royal palace built on the virtually inaccessible summit of a towering rock outcrop – a kind of Sri Lankan Macchu Pichu sat on top of the local equivalent of Ayer’s Rock (Uluru).

The rock itself is perhaps the island’s most remarkable natural landmark: a huge outcrop of orange gneiss looming 200m above the surrounding plains. Add to this some of early Sri Lanka’s most interesting historical remains and you have a recipe for a sight as unlikely as it is memorable. Few people regret visiting, although the narrow stairways and paths are often crowded.

The ascent isn’t as physically demanding as you might think when first seeing the rock, although sufferers of vertigo might not much enjoy the final ascent to the summit. It’s best to visit either first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon in order to avoid the crowds and the heat of the day, while the rock itself looks its best in the low early-morning and late-afternoon light.

A bit of history

Sigiriya was created by Kassapa (ruled 475–493), one of early Sri Lanka’s most interestingly homicidal kings. Kassapa succeeded to the throne after killing his father, Dhatusena (allegedly having him bricked up in a small chamber and leaving him to die) and driving Mogallana, his half-brother and rival claimant to the throne, into exile. Perhaps undestandably nervous about the consequences, Kassapa moved the capital from Anuradhapura to a new site at Sigiriya, where he proceeded to create an impregnable citadel on top of one of the northern island’s highest rocks.

Ironically, when Mogallana finally showed up with an army, Kassapa (for reasons not clear) elected to come down from his secure perch and face Mogallana in battle – and was promptly killed for his pains. The capital was soon moved back to Anuradahpura and Sigiriya left in peaceful abandonment – a supreme monument to one of the island’s most infamous rulers.

The ascent

The area around the base of the rock was extensively landscaped during Kassapa’s reign. Entering the site (enclosed by a large moat), you’ll find yourself in the Water Gardens, with four square pools bounding a small “island”. Past here are the more free-form Fountain Gardens, including a miniature twisting “river” and various limestone-faced channels and ponds, plus a couple of ancient fountains – operated by natural water pressure, they still function perfectly after heavy rain.

From here the path starts climbing up through the Boulder Gardens. Wild and picturesque today, the area was once full of small buildings constructed amongst the rocks – you can still see the notches used to support them carved onto many of the boulders. The gardens were also home to a community of reclusive monks both before and after Kassapa’s arrival and a number of caves dotting the base of the rock hereabouts also still bear traces of paintings and carvings – the Deraniyagala Cave and Cobra Hood Cave (both signed) are the most interesting.

Further up (through “Boulder Arch no.2”) a left turn brings you to the Audience Hall (though it most likely had a monastic rather than a secular function) complete with ancient carved “throne” and a beautifully smooth and polished floor made by removing the top of a single huge boulder. Past here, the path climbs up through the Terrace Gardens before reaching the base
of the rock itself.

From here, two antique spiral staircases lead up to a narrow gallery carved vertiginously out of the face of the rock. This is home to Sigiriya’s most famous sight, the celebrated Sigiriya Damsels, comprising a series of exquisitely painted murals showing twenty-odd celestial beauties floating amidst the clouds – their exact significance is unclear, although the fact that all are topless and rather amply proportioned suggests a carnal rather than a religious motive.

Descend the stairs and continue past the Mirror Wall, a brilliantly polished stretch of plaster (ingredients included egg white, beeswax and wild honey). The site remained popular with visitors from the earliest days and many earliest travellers recorded their impressions here – the world’s oldest and most valuable collection of graffiti.

The final ascent starts at the so-called Lion Platform, guarded by a pair of enormous stone paws (the rest of the huge carved lion has sadly vanished). From here, an exposed metal staircase winds up the face of the rock to the summit.

The summit itself it was once entirely covered in buildings, although only the foundations now survive and it’s difficult to make much sense of them, although you’ll notice a large water tank, originally filled using an ingenious system of natural hydraulics. The views, as you’d expect, are superb.


Whilst in Sigiriya, it’s also well worth making the trip up the far less visited Pidurangala rock, directly opposite Sigiriya. There’s a small cave temple plus Buddha at the top, although the main attraction is the stunning view of Sigiriya, and the lines of ant-like people marching up to its summit.

At A Glance

Daily 7am-6pm (last entrance 5pm)


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