Monday, September 16, 2013

Travel Monday: Exploring Sigiriya Rock Fortress

The World Heritage City of Sigiriya and its rock fortress is located between Dambulla and Habarana, past the town Kimbissa on the Inamaluwa-Sigiriya Road. Sigiriya was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982.

Early accounts indicate places surrounding Sigiriya and nearby caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks around third century BC.

Sigiriya is renowned as an ancient Sri Lankan kingdom, and more particularly the historic story of the power struggle between the sons of King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura documented in the Mahawansa. King Dhatusena had two sons from two different queens - Prince Moggallana and Prince Kassapa. When Prince Moggallana was named as heir, Prince Kassapa imprisoned his father, stole the throne and, Prince Moggallana escaped taking exile in India.

Out of fear his brother would come for vengeance, King Kassapa decided to make Sigiriya his kingdom. He constructed his royal citadel, both palace and fortress, on top of the 200m high Sigiriya rock over seven years (between 477-485) and also established a new city around its base. He ruled for 18 years from 477-495.

Eventually, Prince Moggallana returned with an army from India to fight with King Kassapa in 491. In the ensuing battle, King Kassapa found himself cornered, facing capture and defeat, so he killed himself. Moggallana became king and ruled from Anuradhapura. He returned Sigiriya to the Buddhist monks, and it was eventually abandoned around 1150.

Local and foreign tourists flock to climb Sigiriya as it houses some famous Sri Lankan art frescoes and comprises a complex of buildings - royal palace, fortified town and water gardens - an example of the unique architectural feats of ancient Sri Lankans.

I've visited Sigiriya three times and climbed the rock fortress twice. The most recent climb was this year with my mother. Both of us thoroughly enjoyed the experience as the climb is fun, there is plenty to see, and the views from the top of the rock are spectacular.

The drive up to the entrance of Sigiriya is quite eye-catching as you can see the unique-looking rock from the distance. Most people tend to start the climb early before it gets too crowded and too hot with the midday sun. Sigiriya opens around 7am.

There are also many lovely vantage points further away from Sigiriya. One of my favorite spots is from Kandalama. If you check out the image below... you can see the shot I took from Kandalama with Sigiriya in the distance. Pretty nice, huh?

The entrance to Sigiriya is well laid out. The ticket office is set back from the entrance gate to enter the Sigiriya complex. There is a car park area as well as public toilets. It's probably a good idea to take a comfort break before the climb. You'll also find many people loitering around this entrance area - they are mainly guides looking for work. Don't be surprised if you are approached by a few of them touting for work.

Please note, if you have driven your car, this is not the place to park your car as you will descend the climb to another area, which isn't the same as this entry point. Usually tour groups or those with a driver can be set down here to purchase tickets and enter the complex, and their driver will drive over to the area where you descend to do the pick up. It is possible to walk all the way back to your original starting point as some do.

It's advisable not to carry too much with you, as you will be walking and climbing up the rock. Both times I've only carried a bottle of water, which I've tucked into my shorts so my hands are kept free.

Upon entry into the complex you follow the wide and straight path towards the rock fortress. There is a broad moat enclosed within two-tiered walls and once you cross you enter the Water Gardens. It won't look watery during the dry season so don't be surprised. However, if there has been rainfall the appearance of the gardens will make more sense. There are a number of pools set in a square connected by pathways to the rest of the gardens. Many walk straight on towards the rock fortress, but it's nice to take some time to explore the Water Gardens, the Fountain Garden and the ancient sprinkler system.

There are some excellent photo opportunities as you keep making your way towards the rock fortress...

After walking past the Water Gardens along the main path you will begin to climb up through the Boulder Gardens. The name is obviously derived from the huge boulders constructed around the foot of the rock fortress.

Apparently there are many caves or rock shelters with inscriptions dating from the third to first century BC, which were used by monks. There are a few places to explore before heading further up. These include the:

  • Deraniyagala Cave to the left of the path, which has remnants of old paintings of various apsara (celestial nymphs) figures similar to the famous frescoes halfway up the rock. 
  • Cobra Hood Cave located on the opposite side of the main path up the rock. It is named for the natural shape of its rock.
  • Audience Hall located up the hill behind the Cobra Hood Cave and up to the left.

You will now have reached the base of the rock. From here you can take a little breather and enjoy the views. It can be a little hot and sweaty at this point due to the humidity, so many people take advantage of the wide area to either have a little sit down or take photos.

As you can see, you get a wonderful view of the surrounding landscape.

And, you meet the unexpected on your trip up! Check out this little cutie we befriended biggrin

After this you walk along a wooden pathway and climb up a little further. There is another checkpoint for tickets to be checked again. 

After this you will find some metal spiral staircases, which you will need to climb up in order to see the famous frescoes of the Sigiriya Damsels or apsara figures located in a sheltered cave.

These art frescoes were painted in the fifth century AD. You may take photos, but no flash photography is allowed. 

Make the most of your time visiting this cave. It can be a little busy and you might feel rushed by others, but if you can, take more time to note the fine details of the frescoes. There are some unusual things to note fi you pay close attention.

Once you emerge and descend from the cave containing the frescoes you will walk along a path running along the face the rock. This path is bounded on one side by the Mirror Wall. This wall is covered in graffiti by medieval visitors to Sigiriya, the oldest dating from the seventh century AD up to the eleventh century AD.

As you continue the climb upwards you will reach the Lion Platform and Lion's Paw Stairway. This area offers a place where you can rest for a bit and purchase drinks if you need to. Note, the prices will be higher than if you were to purchase these down below.

The Lion's Paw Stairway is flanked by two enormous paws carved out of the rock and leads to the final climb up to the rock summit. I've always found the climb up the narrow iron staircase a little precarious on both the ascent and descent, especially when it is windy. There is railing, but not much by way of safety protection if you were to lose your balance.

On the summit of the rock you will find the remains of the fifth century AD citadel. This includes the Palace building foundations and the remains of its landscaped gardens, including a number of ponds which were made by cutting out the rock. There are many fascinating accounts of the use of wind power and a hydraulic system to bring water from the ground level.

The feeling high up on the rock summit is magical. Take the time to enjoy it, especially if it's not too hot once you're up there.

As always, the descent will take you less time, as you've seen what you came to see, and your focus will be on the descent rather than the sights and taking photos. However, if you are interested, there are usually caves and things to see if you're still wanting to explore on the descent.

I've usually spent half a day at Sigiriya... from early morning to midday. After midday it is usually too hot to linger on the rock.

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