Sigiriya The premier site of the Cultural Triangle, the soaring pillar of rock called Sigiriya doesn’t disappoint, even from afar. For history buff s it has associations with both king and clergy. Art aficionados will appreciate the brilliant frescoes painted high up on its sheer walls. For casual tourists, Sigiriya is simply an awesome sight, with amazing views and impressive archaeological discoveries. Whatever attitude you bring to the rock, you won’t be disappointed. The entire site is quite beautiful, from the lily-pad-covered moats to the quiet corners deep within the water gardens. History From a geologic point of view, Sigiriya is the hardened magma plug of an extinct volcano that long ago eroded away. Peppered with natural cave shelters and rock overhangs supplemented over the centuries by numerous handheld additions and modifications the rock may have been inhabited in prehistoric times. Popular myth says that the formation served royal and military functions during the reign of King Kassapa (AD 477–495), who allegedly built a garden and palace on the summit. According to this theory, King Kassapa sought out an unassailable new residence after overthrowing and murdering his own father, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura. After the 14th century the monastery complex was abandoned. British archaeologist HCP Bell discovered the ruins in 1898, which were further excavated by British explorer John Still in 1907. UNESCO declared Sigiriya a World Heritage Site in 1982. Sigiriya Museum It’s not the spectacular ruins and rock, but this new museum is a show stopper. Using detailed and engaging displays and models, exhibits provide an excellent introduction to the site and explain its cultural importance beyond the obvious natural beauty. The verifi able theory that Sigiriya was always a Buddhist monastery is explained here, although locals insist on the more romantic notions that it was a palace or fortress. Hence the terms traditionally used to describe the various features on the rock city assume it was once a royal palace. Among the artefacts, the large buxom stone deity stands out. Royal Gardens The first major feature once you enter the site proper; vast landscaped gardens include water gardens, boulder gardens and terraced gardens. It’s a beautiful place to wander away from crowds (and you may wish to return here after your climb). Find a quiet spot and listen to the gentle gurgle of water and the songs of birds. The usual approach to the rock is through the western (and most elaborate) gate. This takes you through beautiful symmetrical water gardens, which extend from the western foot of the rock; bathing pools, little islands with pavilions that were used as dry season palaces, and trees frame the approach to the rock. The rock rises sheer and mysterious from the jungle. A series of steps leads up through the boulders at its base to the western face, and then ascends it steeply. The boulder gardens, closer to the rock, feature rocks that once formed the bases of buildings. The steplike depressions in the sides of boulders were the foundations of brick walls and timber columns. The cistern and audience hall rocks are impressive. The base of Sigiriya has been landscaped to produce the terraced gardens. Frescoes Halfway up the rock there’s an open air spiral stairway leading up from the main route to a long, sheltered gallery in the sheer rock face. In this niche is a series of paintings of buxom, wasp-waisted women, popularly believed to represent either apsaras (celestial nymphs) or King Kassapa’s concubines. Modern theory suggests the female forms represent aspects of Tara a bodhisattva and one of the most important fi gures in Tantric Buddhism. They are similar in style to the rock paintings at Ajanta in India, but have a specifi c character in their classical realist style. No one knows the exact dates of the impressive frescoes, though it’s unlikely they date as far back as the 5th century (when King Kassapa reigned). Protected from the sun in the sheltered gallery, the paintings remain in remarkably good condition, their colours still glowing. They’re at their best in the late afternoon light. Flash photography is not allowed. Mirror Wall Beyond the fresco gallery detour, the path clings to the sheer side of the rock and is protected on the outside by a 3m high wall. This wall was coated with a smooth glaze upon which visitors of 1000 years ago felt impelled to note their impressions of the women in the gallery above or so says local legend. The graffiti, inscribed between the 6th and 14th centuries, are of great interest to scholars because they show the development of the Sinhala language and script, and because they demonstrate an appreciation of art and beauty. Lion’s Paws At the northern end of the rock the narrow pathway emerges on to the large plat form from which the rock derives its later name the Lion Rock, Sigiriya. HCP Bell, the British archaeologist responsible for an enormous amount of archaeology in Sri Lanka, found the two enormous lion paws when excavating here in 1898. At one time a gigantic brick lion sat at this end of the rock, and the final ascent to the top commenced with a stairway that led between the lion’s paws and into its mouth. The lion symbolism serves as a reminder to devotees ascending the rock that Buddha was Sakya Simha (Lion of the Sakya Clan) and that the truths he spoke of were as powerful as the sound of a lion’s roar. The 5th-century lion has since disappeared, apart from the fi rst steps and the paws. Reaching the top means clambering up across a series of grooves cut into the rock; fortunately there is a handrail. Summit The terraced top of the rock covers 1.6 hectares. At one time it was covered with buildings, but only the foundations remain today. With its commanding and obvious once extensive development, it is easy to see how legends about a palace or even a fortress could replace the somewhat more mundane reality of the summit being the site of a monastery. A 27m by 21m pond hewn out of the rock looks for all the world like a modern swimming pool, although it may have been used merely for water storage. Dr Raja de Silva, Sri Lanka’s former archaeological commissioner, has pointed out that there is no archaeological evidence of a palace like structure anywhere on the summit. In particular there is a complete absence of stone bases, post holes, visible foundations for cross walls or window sashes, and a lack of lavatory facilities. Instead what you see is an enclosed terrace lying next to the ruins of a dagoba, suggesting it was a spot reserved for meditation. A smooth stone slab (the so-called king’s throne, possibly another meditation spot) sits 30m away from the ruins of a dagoba. Cobra Hood Cave This rocky projection earned its name because the overhang resembles a fully opened cobra’s hood. Generally you will pass by this cave after descending the rock on your way to the south gate and the car park. Below the drip ledge is an inscription from the 2nd century BC that indicates it belonged to Chief Naguli, who would have donated it to a monk. The plastered interior of the cave was once embellished with fl oral and animal paintings.