Sigiriya…. the Ajanta of Sri Lanka

By M J Raju
The creative mastermind behind this ‘Lion Rock’ fortress was King Kasyapa, who reigned from 477-495 AD. The son of King Dhatusena, born to a non-royal consort, Kasyapa was keen to prevent his younger half-brother Moggallana, born of royal blood, from ascending the throne.

Kasyapa usurped the throne by committing the crime of patricide, causing Moggallana to flee to India. King Kasyapa reigned for 18 years from Sigiriya – the fortress he built for defence (against a revenge attack by Moggallana) and for the enjoyment of a luxurious lifestyle fit only for a king.
In 495 AD, Kasyapa’s worst fears were realised. Moggallana had raised an army in India, and Kasyapa came down from his fortress to face him in battle at Habarana, some distance from Sigiriya. The story goes that a move by his elephant was mistakenly interpreted by Kasyapa’s army as a retreat. This left Kasyapa alone and vulnerable in the face of Moggallana’s army. Rather than facing defeat the hands of his half-brother, he committed suicide by beheading himself with his sword. On Moggallana’s ascent to the throne, Sigiriya was handed over to Buddhist monks to aid their spiritual journey to enlightenment.
Upon entering the site, visitors cannot help but gasp at the truly awe-inspiring visual and intellectual feast that greets them - the giant rock soaring into the skies, palaces and gardens laid out in geometrical symmetry, large natural boulders, and meticulously carved bathing pools,  ponds and magnificent frescoes.
The vast grounds surrounding the foot of the rock fortress are clearly outlined with the foundations of two summer palaces, a water garden, a terrace garden, and a boulder garden. These gardens merge into each other with ease through pathways and granite steps. Walking through this area, one can only dare to imagine the sheer magnificence of this complex in its heyday with its recreational bathing pools, resplendent ornamental gardens with rich exotic foliage, elegant water fountains, delicate paintings and beautiful rock carvings. This clearly is the work of a monarch who was a perfectionist and one who enjoyed the finer things in life.
The water garden was a walled area created purely for the enjoyment of the king and his 500-strong harem. Royal bathing pools, fountains, and ponds are laid out in geometrical symmetry. The large octagonal bathing pool is given shade by an enormous leaning boulder. Cuts in this boulder are what remain of the ‘diving board’ once attached to it.
A slight but sharp drop in temperature is experienced as one enters the boulder garden. Winding granite stairways, which would have shimmered in the moonlight, are sheltered by cool boulders of different shapes and sizes. A distinct sense of calm descends upon the visitor who walks through this garden. This mélange of caves and boulders was inhabited by Buddhist monks and Brahmins as far back as the 3rd century BC, prior to Kasyapa taking up residence here. Of particular interest are the ancient inscriptions on the caves. The boulder garden leads into the terraced garden through a further network of large granite and limestone steps ascending the rock.
The rock itself, which is an extinct volcano, was carved into the shape of a colossal reclining lion. Today only its gigantic paws remain on either side of the entrance stairway leading up to the summit. In its heyday, the huge open mouth of the lion formed the entrance up to the palace. One cannot help but stare at awe-inspiring sight of this enormous reclining lion soaring above the jungle.
The massive area spanning the western face of the rock displayed intricate paintings of around 500 ‘heavenly’ damsels. The painters of this astronomical mural would have faced a perilous task, as they balanced several hundred feet above the ground on bamboo scaffolding to create their masterpiece. However, only a few of these 1,500-year-old ‘Sigiriya frescoes’ remain today.
The best time to visit the rock is early morning, about 6.30 a.m. as the gates open. This enables the visitor to climb the rock before the crowds arrive and before the heat of the sun gets to you.
From the summit of the rock, you can see the once magnificent royal pool, the throne, remains of the once majestic palace, walk ways and gardens. To the East is the yet uncleared, unexcavated Eastern Precinct, yet to reveal all the mysteries hidden under the soil. On the West is one of the breathtaking views at Sigiriya. You can see the entire garden, its perfect symmetry and the planning that had gone into making it. Try to visualise what Kasyapa would have been looking at, when the garden was well maintained.MF