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Pilgrimage to the Citadel of Sigiriya

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 centuries ago!

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 devotees 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 worshipers.

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 traveled onward to the Lion Terrace, a beautiful site. Here was once the one path to the climax of this fantastic city, lying 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 multitude 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!