You’ll need two or three hours to explore Sigiriya Rock; it’s best to visit in the early morning or late afternoon, when the crowds are less dense and the temperature is cooler – late afternoon also brings out the rock’s extraordinary ochre colouration, like a kind of Asian Ayers Rock. The site is best avoided at weekends (especially Sun) and on public holidays, when its narrow staircases and walkways can become unbearably congested. The ascent of the rock is a stiff climb but less gruelling than you might imagine when standing at the bottom of the towering cliff-face, and sufferers from vertigo might find some sections unpleasant. Guides can usually be hired at the entrance, though it pays to ask a few questions to check their knowledge and level of English before committing to anyone.

The site divides into two sections: the rock itself, on whose summit Kassapa established his principal palace; and the area around the base of the rock, home to elaborate royal pleasure gardens as well as various monastic remains pre-dating Kassapa’s era. The entire site is a compelling combination of wild nature and high artifice – exemplified by the delicate paintings of the Sigiriya damsels which cling to the rock’s rugged flanks. Interestingly, unlike Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, there’s no sign here of large-scale monasteries or religious structures – Kassapa’s Sigiriya appears to have been an almost entirely secular affair, perhaps a reflection of its unhallowed origins.

The Water Gardens

From the entrance, a wide, straight path arrows towards the rock, following the line of an imaginary east–west axis around which the whole site is laid out. This entire side of the rock is protected by a pair of broad moats, though the Outer Moat is now largely dried out. Crossing the Inner Moat, enclosed within two-tiered walls, you enter the Water Gardens. The first section comprises four pools set in a square which create a small island at their centre when full, connected by pathways to the surrounding gardens. The remains of pavilions can be seen in the rectangular areas to the north and south of the pools.

Beyond here is the small but elaborate Fountain Garden. Features include a serpentine miniature “river” and limestone-bottomed channels and ponds, two of which preserve their ancient fountain sprinklers. These work on a simple pressure-and-gravity principle and still spurt out modest plumes of water after heavy rain – after almost 1500 years of disuse, all that was needed to restore the fountains to working order was to clear the water channels that feed them.

The Boulder Gardens

Beyond the Water Gardens the main path begins to climb up through the Boulder Gardens, constructed out of the huge boulders that lie tumbled around the foot of the rock. Many of the boulders are notched with lines of holes – they look rather like rock-cut steps, but in fact they were used as footings to support the brick walls or timber frames of the numerous buildings which were built against or on top of the boulders.

The gardens were also the centre of Sigiriya’s monastic activity before and after Kassapa: there are around twenty rock shelters hereabouts which were used by monks, some containing inscriptions dating from between the third century BC and the first century AD. The caves would originally have been plastered and painted, and traces of this decoration can still be seen in a few places; you’ll also notice the dripstone ledges that were carved around the entrances to many of the caves to prevent water from running into them. The Deraniyagala Cave, just to the left of the path shortly after it begins to climb up through the gardens (no sign), has a well-preserved dripstone ledge and traces of old paintings including the faded remains of various apsara figures (celestial nymphs) very similar to the famous Sigiriya Damsels further up the rock. On the opposite side of the main path up the rock, a side path leads to the Cobra Hood Cave, named for its uncanny resemblance to that snake’s head. The cave preserves traces of lime plaster, floral decoration and a very faint inscription on the ledge in archaic Brahmi script dating from the second century BC.

Follow the path up the hill behind the Cobra Hood Cave and up through “Boulder Arch no. 2” (as it’s signed), then turn left to reach the so-called Audience Hall. The wooden walls and roof have long since disappeared, but the impressively smooth floor, created by chiselling the top off a single enormous boulder, remains, along with a 5m-wide “throne”, also cut out of the solid rock. The hall is popularly claimed to have been Kassapa’s audience hall, though it’s more likely to have served a purely religious function, with the empty throne representing the Buddha. The small Asana Cave on the path en route to the Audience Hall retains colourful splashes of various paintings on its ceiling (though now almost obliterated by idiotic contemporary graffiti) and is home to another throne, while a couple more thrones can be found carved into nearby rocks.

Terrace Gardens

From the Asana Cave, you can carry on back to the main path, then head on up through “Boulder Arch no. 1”. The path – now a sequence of walled-in steps – begins to climb steeply through the Terrace Gardens, a series of rubble-retaining brick and limestone terraces that stretch to the base of the rock itself, from where you get the first of an increasingly majestic sequence of views back down below.

The Sigiriya Damsels

Shortly after reaching the base of the rock, two incongruous nineteenth-century metal spiral staircases lead to and from a sheltered cave in the sheer rock face that holds Sri Lanka’s most famous sequence of frescoes, popularly referred to as the Sigiriya Damsels (no flash photography). These busty beauties were painted in the fifth century and are the only non-religious paintings to have survived from ancient Sri Lanka; they’re now one of the island’s most iconic – and most relentlessly reproduced – images. It’s thought that these frescoes would originally have covered an area some 140m long by 40m high, though only 21 damsels now survive out of an original total of some five hundred (a number of paintings were destroyed by a vandal in 1967, while a few of the surviving pictures are roped off out of sight). The exact significance of the paintings is unclear: they were originally thought to depict Kassapa’s consorts, though according to modern art historians the most convincing theory is that they are portraits of apsaras (celestial nymphs), which would explain why they are shown from the waist up only, rising out of a cocoon of clouds. The portrayal of the damsels is strikingly naturalistic, showing them scattering petals and offering flowers and trays of fruit – similar in a style to the famous murals at the Ajanta Caves in India, and a world away from the much later and more stylized murals at nearby Dambulla. An endearingly human touch is added by the slips of the brush visible here and there: one damsel has three hands, while another sports an extra nipple.

The Mirror Wall

Just beyond the damsels, the pathway runs along the face of the rock, bounded on one side by the Mirror Wall. This was originally coated in highly polished plaster made from lime, egg white, beeswax and wild honey; sections of the original plaster survive and still retain a marvellously lustrous sheen. The wall is covered in graffiti, the oldest dating from the seventh century, in which early visitors recorded their impressions of Sigiriya and, especially, the nearby damsels – even after the city was abandoned, Sigiriya continued to draw a steady stream of tourists curious to see the remains of Kassapa’s fabulous pleasure-dome. Taken together, the graffiti form a kind of early medieval visitors’ book, and the 1500 or so decipherable comments give important insights into the development of the Sinhalese language and script.

Beyond the Mirror Wall, the path runs along a perilous-looking iron walkway bolted onto the sheer rock-face. From here you can see a huge boulder below, propped up on stone slabs. The popular explanation is that, in the event of attack, the slabs would have been knocked away, causing the boulder to fall onto the attackers below, though it’s more likely that the slabs were designed to stop the boulder inadvertently falling down over the cliff.

The Lion Platform

Continuing up the rock, a flight of limestone steps climbs steeply up to the Lion Platform, a large spur projecting from the north side of the rock, just below the summit. From here, a final staircase, its base flanked by two enormous paws carved out of the rock, leads up across all that remains of a gigantic lion statue – the final path to the summit apparently led directly into its mouth. Visitors to Kassapa were, one imagines, suitably impressed both by the gigantic conceit of the thing and also by the heavy symbolism – lions were the most important emblem of Sinhalese royalty, and the beast’s size was presumably meant to reflect Kassapa’s prestige and buttress his questionable legitimacy to the throne.

The whole section of rock-face above is scored with countless notches and grooves which once supported steps up to the summit: in a supreme irony, it appears that Kassapa was afraid of heights, and it’s thought that these original steps would have been enclosed by a high wall – though this isn’t much comfort for latter-day sufferers from vertigo, who have to make the final ascent to the summit up a narrow iron staircase attached to the bare rock-face.

The summit

After the tortuous path up, the summit seems huge. This was the site of Kassapa’s palace, and almost the entire area was originally covered with buildings. Only the foundations now remain, though, and it’s difficult to make much sense of it all – the main attraction is the fabulous views down to the Water Gardens and out over the surrounding countryside. The Royal Palace itself is now just a plain, square brick platform at the very highest point of the rock. The upper section is enclosed by steep terraced walls, below which is a large tank cut out of the solid rock; it’s thought that water was channelled to the summit using an ingenious hydraulic system powered by windmills. Below here a series of four further terraces, perhaps originally gardens, tumble down to the lower edge of the summit above Sigiriya Wewa.

The path down takes you along a slightly different route – you should end up going right past the Cobra Hood Cave, if you missed it earlier, before exiting the site to the south.

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