We awoke to the hypnotic voice
of muezzin calling the devout to prayer. It was a full-moon
poya day, a sacred national holiday. As
the morning mists began to dissolve we decided that there could not be a better
day than this to join the pilgrims for a journey to the Citadel of Sigiriya,
considered perhaps the single most remarkable memory for visitors to Sri
Lanka. From what we had read of the rock's fascinating
history, this was one excursion we couldn't miss.
Heading north and leaving
behind the Kenilworth tea
plantations of Sri Lanka's Hill Country, we soon found the rock fortress of
Sigiriya looming large before us. This massive monolith of red stone rises
600 feet from the green scrub jungle. Stupendous even today, how
overpowering Sigiriya must have been when it was crowned by a palace 15
Ruins of the fabled palace
spread across the very peak of "Lion Rock" -- so-named because visitors
formerly began the final harrowing ascent through the open jaws and throat
(giriya) of a lion (sinha) whose likeness was once sculpted
halfway up the monolith. The paws are all that are left of the huge lion
that once formed the gateway to the fortress.
Within a grotto on Sigiriya's
sheer west face, beautiful bare-breasted maidens still smile from phenomenal
fresco paintings. Asia's oldest surviving landscape gardens surround the
foot of the rock and extend for several hundred yards, incorporating lovely
ponds around Sigiriya's base of fallen boulders.
As we joined the throng in
the long hot climb, the pathways of ancient devoutees were pointed out to us.
Carved into the sheer cliff face were weathered handholds used by past
pilgrims. So many had fallen to their deaths that the British government
constructed a series of stairways to more safely accommodate the numerous
For centuries sightseers have
scaled the citadel to gawk at the Sigiriya Maidens and admire the view. Sri
Lanka's oldest graffiti verifies this. Incised in tiny pearl-like script
into the Mirror Wall beneath the frescoes pocket are prose and poems more
than 1,000 years old. Although most of the ten-foot high Mirror Wall has
fallen, we can still see portions of the original wall distinguished by the
extraordinary coating of polished lime which still today, 1,500 years later,
gleams and reflects like glass.
From this walkway against the
rock face, we climbed a caged spiral staircase to the incredible frescoes
pocket of the Sigiriya Maidens. We had only a few minutes in the presence
of this incredible panorama. This depiction of apsaras,
heaven-dwelling nymphs, was breathtaking.
The pathway toward the rock's
summit lead from the frescoes along the Mirror Wall past a lookout where a
galdunna, or boulder-catapult, still waits to be loosed upon an
attacker's head. From there we travelled onward to the
Lion Terrace, a beautiful site. Here
was once the one path to the climax of this fantastic city, lieing through
the jaws of the menacing beast, and providing a military advantage as well.
Today, we merely walked past well-appreciated soda vendors and climbed
through two clawed paws to reach the steep stairwell and wind-blown railing
that led to the summit.
The entire summit of Sigiriya,
nearly three acres in extent, was once occupied by buildings. Running water
trickled through channels beneath the floor of the moated, colonnaded Royal
Summer House. Bathing pools were cut out of the living room. Below and to
the east, a throne was carved from naked rock.
From here we had a fantastic
vista of the surrounding countryside and the Water Garden at the main
western entrance to the Sigiriya compound. The symmetrically planned ponds
were ornamental and pleasing to the eye. We could see one enormous split
boulder into which a water cistern had been cut on the half boulder still
standing. On the fallen half, a rock throne faced a square, leveled floor.
To the north, the so-called Preaching Rock held tiered platforms for orating
monks. A multitide of miniature niches had been carved into the rock, and,
as this was a poya day, these niches held
the flickering lights of 100 oil lamps. It was a very memorable sight.
We descended from the summit
by a different path than that by which we had ascended; it was a substantially
quicker trip down Sigiriya than it had been going up, cause for some relief
in the 90°+ heat! It seemed that in no time at all we found ourselves
back in the parking lot outside the small Archaeological Museum just west of
the water garden. What an incredible experience!
Aerial view of Sigiriya Rock