From Kandy I headed north in search of a new wonder to explore. Kandy had left me a little down trodden and I required something to reignite my wanderlust. My new wonder would come in the form of the small town of Sigiriya located in the Northern Matale District in the central province, some three hours away nestled between Dambulla and Habarane. Sigiriya is 175km away from Colombo, a little far out for some tourists to venture despite it being home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Lion Rock.
A Brief History Lesson…
The town of Sigiriya is named after Sigiriya Rock (Lion Rock). The large red rock column resembles a miniature Ayers Rock. Standing proud at 200m it juts out of the jungle. Lion Rock is one of Sri Lanka’s most remarkable sights to see but it is much more than just a “rock”. Back in Sri Lanka’s history it served as a Buddhist monastery from the 3rd century BC up until 477CE when the site was chosen by King Kasyapa for his new capital. Impressively his palace was built on top of the rock over his reign of 477-495CE. Half way up the northern side of the rock upon a small plateau a large lion was built and carved marking the main entrance and thus giving Sigiyira its name.
The western wall of Sigiriya was almost entirely covered in frescoes, created during the King’s reign. Some frescoes have survived to this day. The frescoes depicted nude females and were thought to be performing religious rituals. One of the most striking features of Sigiriya is its Mirror Wall, today you would hardly notice it, but in the reign of the King it was polished so highly that he could see his reflection in it. Today, the lion’s feet have survived over the many years but the upper parts have been destroyed. The grounds around the rock are surrounded by vast landscape gardens, canals and alleys, which are all enclosed by a defensive wall.
Upon the King’s death the palace and capital was abandoned leaving it to return to the monks for their Buddhist monastery up until the 14th Century AD.
The Europeans led by British Army Major Jonathan Forbes first discovered Lion’s Rock in 1831 when they accidentally stumbled across it when enroute to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Yet the excavations only took place here in the 1980’s.
It’s 06:15 as I lock the door behind me to my guest house room which backs onto a small stream, only the jungle around me is awake but then it never really sleeps. A few of the local primates eye me suspiciously as I walk past leaving them to cause mischief in my host’s garden. I walk the narrow dirt track which is wet under foot after last night’s deluge of rain, carefully dodging snails as large as my fist as I go. One hundred metres on I reach the main road which runs through the small town. The town consists of a handful of eateries and one convenience store. Pure bliss for those wanting to escape the craziness of modern day life. I turn right heading in the direction of the entrance to Sigiriya Rock. I’m joined by a few stray dogs; they follow close to my heels for a short while in the hope of food, and when those ones give up, I’m joined by others. Like all over Sri Lanka that I have travelled stray dogs are plentiful but completely harmless. My followers run off to the side of the road to see what commotion is occurring. Two other strays are cautiously circling and barking at an object lying in the dirt. I wander over to take a closer look; it’s a large snake. It’s already dead.
By 06:45 I’ve walked the long driveway to the ticket office of Sigiriya Rock. The UNESCO site opens at 07:00, it’s a Sunday and from my research this place will later on be heaving mainly with locals and a handful of tourists. At 07:00 sharp the ticket office opens and I can purchase my ticket, it equates to approximately £23.00, a surprisingly hefty fee for a site in Sri Lanka; the tourists’ fee, locals pay a fraction of the cost. I march on through the grounds, along tree lined avenues and around the boundary wall and moat. I’m grateful to be here early, it’s already pushing 30 degrees and once the sun breaks through the early morning haze it will be punishingly hot. Sigiriya is teeming with wildlife; stray dogs laze in the dirt, whilst monkeys swing in the branches and large lizards crawl through the thick blades of grass.
Crossing the moat I enter into the landscaped gardens of Lion Rock. Straight ahead of me the red rock looms large, dominating my view and ever so slightly intimidating me. Not overly fond of heights I know I’m going to have to navigate the iron stairs that wrap tightly around the rock on the final hurdle. Pushing that thought aside for now I head on. Lion Rock is one of those destinations that is only accessible for the able bodied; I ascend countless steps, my thigh muscles burning and lungs tight against the humid air, I stop many a time to catch my breath. Halfway up I reach the plateau. Staring back the view is pretty special.
At this halfway stage I also meet the Lion; or at least what is left of the Lion. It’s at this stage I really appreciate the magnitude of what Lion Rock is and wonder in awe how on earth all those hundreds of years ago they came to build a palace upon this rock. Looking up at the daunting metal steps that I would have to scale, I did feel slight gratitude that I, at least had these! Climbing the steps carefully one by one I stuck as close to the rock edge as humanly possible, I tried to keep my eyes averted skywards and with my best effort I avoid looking down at the pieces of cardboard that had been wedged under the metal where it was eroding away at the rock!!! Beneath the metal steps (that us tourists are fortunate enough to have) you can see worn steps in the rock; which I can only imagine was the original way up!
I am the first to reach the top of Lion Rock on that Sunday morning. I look around me in amazement; I’d seen some photos online but these hadn’t quite prepared me for the scale of what is up here, or the questions of how did they build up here? I allow myself a good hour to wander around and appreciate the ruins as well as the magnificent views that Lion Rock offers. The ruins of the palace cover the whole of the top of the rock, a large area on different levels. Being that there are only ruins left, one needs to use imagination to think how this extraordinary place would have looked all those years ago; but what a view that would have been from your bedroom window!
Let my photos attempt to give you a taste…
Descending the metal steps is slightly trickier than the original ascent, as by now many people were making the climb up. There is not a great deal of room to pass by each other, especially when I didn’t want to be close to the drop! I didn’t pass any tourists, it was all Sri Lankan’s who seemed extremely excited to be here. Many of the older ladies were making the climb barefoot! Once I’d navigated these steps I breathed a sigh of relief, at the same time cursing my fear of heights. The rest of the steps back down were straight forward, and with the sun now beating strongly down upon me I was extremely thankful to be finished the upward climb.
Backdown off the rock I walk through the landscaped gardens, wandering in and out of the raised levels, small walled areas and ponds, appreciating the creativity that had gone into this incredible place so many years ago. A short while later, feeling my tummy growl and seeing that it was now 10:00, I decide that I had most definitely earned my breakfast. Suitably satisfied with my mornings adventure I set off for the town to dine at Pradeep.