In the heart of the island of Sri Lanka lies the lost city of Sigiriya. Built on Lion Rock, it is a marvel of engineering and one of the finest examples of ancient urban planning in Asia. Although Sigiriya translates as “small rock”, the monolith is a steep climb to the summit, which is 180 meters above the plain and 349 meters above sea level. It was Sri Lanka’s central political center for only a decade and a half, but the surviving ruins are an important historical site and a popular tourist attraction.
What is the lost city of Sigiriya?
Built in the late 5th century AD during the reign of King Kasyapa, Sigiriya was a fortress. Built as protection from enemies, the city covers several acres, stretching nearly two miles east to west and half a mile north to south. The grounds surround the royal palace and include water gardens, botanical gardens, boulder gardens, a Buddhist monastery, ramparts and moats.
The Royal Palace, which sits on the summit, covers almost four hectares and includes the Lower Palace, the Upper Palace and the Palace Gardens with impressive water pools. The iconic brick and mortar lion paws at the foot of the mountain, symbolizing “Lion Rock,” are still intact, but the lion’s jaw has eroded over time and is no longer visible. How and why they built this compound on a mountain in ancient times is still a mystery; local legends say that the gods built the city as a palace in the sky.
History of the Lost City of Sigiriya
Anuradhapura was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka and is still the capital of North Central Province. However, the parricide King Kasyapa moved the capital to Sigiriya during his reign, fearing an attack from the rightful Mugulan heir. In AD 495, Mugulan brought an army and defeated Kasyapa, seized the throne and moved the capital back to Anuradhapura.
The Buddhist monastery built in the 3rd century B.C. erected eight centuries before the city, the rock gardens remained a thriving complex after the city fell. Under King Mugulan and the reign of his successor, the complex was expanded to include: a chapter house, a bodhghara, a stupa and an image house. For over 600 years after Kasyapa’s defeat, monks inhabited this area until they too left. Lost to history from 1155 to 1831, the jungle swallowed up the deserted site.
What happened to Sigiriya?
After being rediscovered by Europeans in the early 18th century, historians and archaeologists have worked tirelessly to protect the art and architecture on the site. In 1982, UNESCO named Sigiriya a World Heritage Site and stepped up efforts to preserve this piece of history.
In 2009, the Sigiriya Museum opened, a culmination of three decades of archaeological research. It houses galleries of human skeletons, tools, jewels, paintings, sculptures and more. Built in homage to Lion Rock itself, the trees and water are an integral part of the design, and the stairways and terraces resemble a mountain climb.
Visit to Sigiriya
Located just over three hours from the capital Colombo, the site is open to tourists daily from 7am to 5:30pm, year-round. The nearest major town is Dambulla, about 30 minutes away, but you will find that the area is surrounded by restaurants and hotels. Buses leave Dambulla every 30 minutes or you can drive and access the car park through the south gates. The entrance fee for foreigners is USD 30, which also gives you access to the museum.
Plan your trip early in the day, before temperatures soar, and give yourself plenty of time to explore the wealth of attractions. The 1,250-step staircase, culminating in the iconic pass through the lion’s paws, can take two hours to climb and is just a small part of the wonder that Sigiriya holds in store. You’ll want to save time to stroll through the museum and many gardens, marvel at the mirrored wall and see the magnificent fresco gallery.
The west face of the rock used to show more than five hundred of these lime plaster murals, but they have faded over time. However, colorful and stunning paintings of celestial women or women visiting the king’s court can still be seen in the Cobra Hood Cave.
The fact that the lost city of Sigiriya still stands is a testament to the epic feat of engineering and architecture that went into its construction. Although the city was short-lived as a capital, monks inhabited the extensive city grounds for over 4,000 years. The site was an important Buddhist monastic complex and an integral part of the history of town planning. Today, thanks to the work of archaeologists and individuals dedicated to the preservation of historical sites, you can visit Sigiriya and learn about its remarkable history.