Welcome to Sigiriya, the “rock star” destination !
Probably the best example of a fortress during its short-lived era of fame, Sigiriya is today the gem of Sri Lanka. Its stunning story, a mixture of avarice, betrayal, regicide and revenge, is sure to out perform any Bollywood movie plot.
In the fifth century, King Dhatusena ruled over Anuradhapura. He had two sons, Mogallana and Kasyapa. Prince Kasyapa, in his wish to become king, plotted against his father and killed him. After this parricide, the prince expelled his elder brother Mogallana to India. The new king was constantly tormented by his act and decided to leave Anuradhapura. He settled for Sigiriya as a refuge and built an impregnable fortress atop the hill. In his quest for pardon for his heinous regicide, he added temples and offered housing to monks.
This would prove futile as eighteen years later, Mogallana returned with an army, and despite the security of the fortress, Kasyapa and his troops could not survive the siege. Hungry and exhausted, Kasyapa gave up the throne to the rightful king, Mogallana. After taking over the throne, Mogallana gave Sigiriya to the monks but the site was rapidly abandoned.
Surrounded by lush gardens and impressive constructions, it is no wonder that Sigiriya is the most visited historical site in all of Sri Lanka. The area around the village is beautiful and rich in natural diversity. Amongst the savannah and jungle foliage live countless species of wild animals including elephants and monkeys.
How to reach Sigiriya and how to move in and around
Sigirya is 22 km northeast of Dambulla. The village, at the foot of the fortress of the same name, is quiet and peaceful.
The quickest and easiest way to reach the spot is by a private vehicle. If you have to rely on public transport, here are the two options:
By bus: The bus service from Dambulla is frequent and reliable. There is a bus available almost every 15 to 25 minutes. The journey from Dambulla to Sigiriya costs just Rs.14 and lasts about 40 minutes. Buses ply from 5 am to 6 pm and stop close to the rock.
By train: The closest railway station is at Habarana, some 20 kilometres away, which is somewhat inconvenient.
The unmissable tourist attractions in Sigiriya
It is best to make the climb early morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat. The summit offers a stunning view of the surrounding jungles, as the tall gneiss rock dominates the landscape. Also consider visiting the museum before the climb to get some interesting information about the place.
The site is open daily from 7 am to 5 pm (or 5:30 pm depending on the season). Entry costs $30. Tickets are to be purchased from the Archaeological Museum, opposite the entrance. Guides are available around but you will have to ask for their official card to verify their credentials. The climb takes about 30 minutes and is neither for the weak-hearted nor for people suffering from vertigo. Children as young as 9 can do the climb without any assistance provided you do it in stages. Remember to carry enough water and wear proper footwear. Climbing under the rain can be tricky as the steps become slippery.
You can do the climb either early in the morning when the sites opens and enjoy the place for yourself. This option can is feasible if you decide to stay close by. The other option is to start the climb a little late in the afternoon and enjoy spectacular sunsets from the top.
What to see onsite? Royal Gardens
Before you get to the fortress remember to wander around and admire the scores of symmetrical courtyards, terraced gardens, water tanks, canals and swimming pools. The remains of the ephemeral town are surrounded by landscaped gardens that received water from an intricate system of underground tanks. This Water Garden is unique as the engineering used to distribute water in conduits works even today when there is enough rainwater in the upper ponds. There are about ninety-five pools or ponds around here.
Walking towards the rock, you will soon discover fallen boulders that were probably part of ancient structures that have crumbled over time. Among them, the most famous is called "Cobra Hood Cave" because of the shape of the overhanging rock. As you get near the rock, you can spot an octagonal basin on your left with a boulder called Elephant Rock by its side. Guides love to point out to the horizontal crack in this boulder and explain that it served to hold a diving board. You can also admire the Dernaniyagala Cave, one of the twenty-two caves that were used to house guards.
Further up you will pass under Boulder Arch, an archway formed by the two massive boulders, before arriving at the terraced gardens where fruits and vegetables were grown.
The damsels of Sigiriya
These iconic cave paintings are found on the walls of rock shelters. They can be accessed via an iron staircase. If the site is crowded, you may have to wait patiently for a while, as the staircase can only support a limited number of people. The frescoes are to be seen about halfway up the western rock face of Sigiriya, or about 100 meters from the base of the rock. The natural rock depression houses around 21 paintings representing those who have been called Sigiriya Damsels.
The frescoes, discovered in 1831, portray beautiful women in twos, floating on clouds wearing fine jewellery and carrying flowers. No one knows who these damsels were. Were they some of Kasyapa’s 500 concubines? Historians say they may have been paintings of women at Kasyapa’s court, or later Buddhist princesses. Others believe they were goddesses. Till today, no one has ever come up with a credible theory to prove one of these possibilities.
The passing of time has not altered the subtle colours of the women, who remain epitomes of grace that artists in Sri Lanka have managed to capture through the centuries.
As you continue your climb to the top, you walk along the "mirror wall’. The stucco covering the originally was so perfectly polished that you could see yourself. Constructed over 1600 years ago by King Kasyapa, today it looks more orange than mirror-like. The wall here is covered with graffiti, prose and poems written between the 7th and 13th centuries by admirers of the damsels!
The Lion Gate
On your way to the top, before you reach the summit, you come to the entrance to the palace. When it was first built, the entrance was supposed to look like you were walking into the open mouth of a lion. Today, only the paws of the Lion Gate remain, resting on either side of the staircase. The choice of the lion seems quite natural as Sigiriya is supposed to resemble a lion. The view from the Lion Gate is already breath-taking and if your children are tired, you can stop here.
From the Lion Gate, if you climb another 250 steps, you reach the summit where the palace was erected. Very little of the palace remains today and you should use you imagination to picture a royal palace floating at the height of 200 metres above ground measuring 200 metres by 75 metres. If you push your imagination a little further, you can see Kasyapa in his royal pool, relishing the extraordinary vistas from the palace and attended to by scores of beauties.
The view from the top is worth the climb. Enjoy this Sri Lankan version of the Eiffel Tower to the fullest.
A choice of appealing places to visit around Sigiriya
While much focus is laid upon Sigiriya by most guidebooks, not much is said about Pidurangala. Almost everyone who has climbed atop Sigiriya or even seen a photo of the rock from afar has wondered what this conical-shaped hill is about. Welcome to Pidurangala, a virgin area with scenic views to offer.
The peaceful 45-minute climbing experience to the summit comes at a cost of $ 2.50, a lot cheaper than Sigiriya.
The path up to the reclining Buddha is accessible to any individual. The impressive partly uncovered statue is tucked inside the recess of a large rock.
Climbing further up is not a difficult task to anyone unperturbed by the idea of squeezing between boulders equipped with a regular pair of footwear, a hat (that you will have to hold on to due to the winds) and a small bottle of water.
On reaching the almost flat rock, the 360° view is fantastic and breath-taking. You get to see Sigiriya in a different way. It is best to visit the place early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat. If you however plan to be there at around lunchtime, remember that when the temperature is ideal, Pidurangala can offer one of the best picnic spots in Sri Lanka.
Getting there: If you do not have a private vehicle at your disposal, the best way to get there is to get to Sigiriya by bus and then reach the site by tuk-tuk to avoid a 30-minute walk that is sure to wear you down.
Natural attractions to visit near Sigiriya
Angammedilla National Park
Just east of Sigiriya, on the margins of a reservoir named Parakrama Samudra (meaning “Sea of King Parakrama”), the Angammedilla National Park is a wonderful place if you want to get a feeling of wildlife on foot. The park also happens to be one of the newest national parks of the country as the region was deemed a reserve only in 2006. The scenery here is utterly eye-catching with an enthralling mix of birds and animals. People who wish to enjoy the park to the fullest can camp on the site.
Admire wildlife and flora in Sigiriya
Hurulu Forest Reserve
Visiting Sri Lanka is incomplete without the sight of the wild Asian elephants that are native to the island. If you do not have time to travel to the bigger parks, Hurulu Forest Reserve can be a good option to spot these majestic beasts during the wet season. The park is quite small, and so, you do not need to plan an entire day around it. A quick early morning or afternoon trip should be enough. Driving through the well-marked roads, you will surely spot at least a herd or two of elephants, as well as water buffalo, monkeys and eagles.
The best way to visit the reserve is to book a local jeep safari available at the entrance to the reserve. Alternatively, you can even ask your hotel to arrange for one. The price per jeep is around Rs.3500. Drivers may want to charge you per person but this is NOT the norm.
Entry to the park is very cheap (Rs.100 per person). Make sure you do not disturb the animals by getting too close or taking photos with flash. Do remember to pack some snacks and drinks for the ride!
Activities for your children during your travel to Sigiriya
Hot Air Ballooning
A great way to admire the cultural triangle is to go on a hot air balloon ride. As you float through the clouds at a leisurely pace, you are bound to fall in love with the rich and colourful landscape abundant with architectural marvels in this region of Sri Lanka.
Marvellous peacocks, herds of jostling elephants and innumerable deer running wild are just some of the sights waiting to be seized by your eyes and captured on camera.
As you drift around in silence, you realize the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka and the tranquillity that reigns all over.
A ride can cost around Rs.13000 per person depending on the season and the duration. This is a great way to enjoy the marvels of the island nation for both adults and children. It is advisable to dress comfortably. Remember that it is always a little warmer while the sun is out. Also carry a hat or cap to protect you from the heat of the burners. Some companies do not accept very young children. Others allow adolescents and adults to participate in inflating and deflating the balloons.
Archaeological Museum & Travel Information Centre
The Sigiriya Museum opened in 2009 and is where you have to buy your ticket to visit the Sigiriya Rock. Managed by the Central Cultural Fund, it is an archaeological museum, a tourist information centre and a research centre combined in one place. Before you proceed to the Sigiriya Fortress, you can spend some time at the museum.
The place features the result of nearly decades of archaeological research and provides concise information on the history of Sigiriya, from prehistory to today.
Visitors can admire exhibits of various artefacts that were unearthed during archaeological excavations such as tools, a human skeleton, jewels, sculptures, etc. The galleries are also filled with drawings and photographs that allow visitors to travel in time.
Great things to do in Sigiriya
Ride an elephant
A visit to Sri Lanka is truly incomplete without a glimpse of the majestic Asian elephant, indigenous to the island. If you are in Sigiriya, you can reach Habarana where elephant rides are a common tourist attraction, one that must definitely be tried out!
Both children and adults are bound to enjoy this unique opportunity and enjoy the scenic countryside as the pachyderm slowly lumbers! Children might be afraid at first, but just give them some time with these placid, patient beasts and they will be so charmed that they would not want to get off at the end of the ride.
Just sit back and relax to the undulating gait of the elephants and soak in the sights and sounds of the jungles, marshes and farms of Habarana!
The cost of the trips is based on the duration of the ride. It is better to settle for a price before you set off (around Rs.2500 per person). Agree on a full amount including tips for mahouts who will willingly agree to photograph you. If you are carrying bananas with you, you can feed them to the elephants.