In a recent blogpost I namechecked the Rock, aka wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson. Well, here’s a post about an altogether bigger, mightier and more spectacular rock. I’m talking about Sigiriya Rock, an imposing lump of solidified volcanic magma that rises 200 metres above the plains of north-central Sri Lanka.
As a natural feature Sigiriya Rock would be impressive enough. However, what’s made it one of the greatest tourist attractions on the island are the remarkable man-made embellishments added to it in the 5th century AD. This was when King Kashyapa I turned the rock into both an impregnable fortress and a luxurious palace, putting on top of it structures and gardens that were supposedly inspired by the fabled city of Alaka, opulent home of Kubera, god of wealth in Hindu mythology. Kashyapa had a decade-and-a-half to enjoy the security and comfort of this rock-top residence. He reigned from 473 to 495 AD and it took the first seven years of his kingship to build it.
Meanwhile, Kashyapa’s family background had been dysfunctional, to say the least. He slew his own father, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura, and declared war on his brother, the future King Moggallana, who fled to India. Later, Moggallana launched an invasion of Sri Lanka, although his forces never got to test the effectiveness of Kashyapa’s stronghold at Sigiriya. Instead, Kashyapa chose to venture down from the rock and take on his brother in battle on the plains. This decision ended badly for Kashyapa, who was defeated and ended up killing himself rather than be captured. His brother and usurper restored Anuradhapura as the capital and for some eight or nine centuries thereafter Sigiriya was home to a Buddhist monastery complex.
As a science fiction nerd, I’d known of Sigiriya Rock for a long time before moving to Sri Lanka because it’d been an inspiration for the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) by Arthur C. Clarke, himself a long-term resident of Sri Lanka. The novel is about the construction in the 22nd century of a ‘space elevator’, leaving the earth from a terminal on the island of Taprobane – which is a lightly-disguised version of Sri Lanka, though for practical reasons it’s repositioned so that it sits on the equator – and connecting with a space station some 22,300 miles up in orbit. The novel is peppered with flashbacks to the reign of the visionary but demented King Kalidasa, who’s building an extraordinary palace atop a huge rock called Yakkagala. Kalidasa and Yakkagala are obviously fictional counterparts of Kashyapa and Sigiriya and they provide an ironic parallel with the epic story of the space elevator’s creation many centuries later.
© Victor Gollancz
Anyway, recently, my better half and I realised we’d been living in Sri Lanka for four-and-a-half years and still hadn’t visited Sigiriya Rock, so it was surely time we did. At the suggestion of the owner of the hotel we were staying in, at the nearby town of Habarana, we set out in a tuk-tuk at the crack of dawn – good advice, as it turned out. En route, we passed through the local wildlife sanctuary, which is famous for its elephants, although the only evidence of them we saw was a mess of pulverised vegetation strewn across the road that, our driver assured us, had been caused by their passing; and later on the same road, some hefty deposits of elephant dung.
Finally, we were dropped off at the edge of the Sigiriya complex. We walked a little and entered a building housing the ticket counters and a museum, where already queues were forming even though it was barely seven o’clock. Tickets purchased, we crossed an area of gardens at the bottom of the rock. Our plan was to ascend the rock before it became congested with tourists and then explore the gardens after we’d come down.
Rising above belts of trees at the gardens’ far end, the rock was a huge, long slab, slightly crenelated and fissured, its dark-grey surface streaked and grooved with vertical lines of brown. The sun scoured over the centre-point of its flat summit, which meant that in our early-morning photographs a large part of the upper rock was obscured by a circular haze of light. Meanwhile, its massive shadow divided the gardens into two parts, a sunlit area of radiant green outside the shadow and a dull, twilit area inside it.
We climbed the first steps, our surroundings pleasantly wooded and grassy as they sloped upwards to meet the side of Sigiriya Rock proper: a landscape of stone walls, iron railings, terraces, trees, boulders and occasional monkeys. At one point, the steps threaded through a queasily small triangle of space between two huge, propped-together rocks. We also saw the first sign warning us about the presence of stinging insects. In Sinhala, Tamil and English, the sign intoned: BE SILENT – WASPS.
Then we encountered the rock itself and the steps gave way to a horizontal, wooden walkway that veered to the left. The walkway ended at more steps ascending to a small enclosed kiosk where you handed over part of your ticket to see the most famous feature on the rock’s side (as opposed to on its summit). These are the Sigiriya Rock frescoes, paintings of female figures that once were supposed to number some 500 and covered its western face, making it a gigantic gallery. But just a handful of them survive, in fragmented form. We climbed a narrow, mesh-enclosed staircase that spirals up the rockface like a turning drill-bit and emerged into the surviving section of gallery, where I counted 17 figures. Painted onto the sand-coloured canvas of the rock, they fade in and out of view like ghosts flitting in and out of the ether. But the parts of them that remain visible, golden-skinned and clad in colourful costumes and jewellery, are still iconic.
You aren’t allowed to take photographs on the gallery, so instead here’s a modern and rather saucy Sigiriya Rock fresco-themed painting from the wall of our hotel room.
After descending from the gallery and returning to the main walkway, we passed an area of rock known as ‘the Mirror Wall’ because of its smoothness and shininess. According to Wikipedia, it’s thus named because back in the day it was “so highly polished that the king could see himself while he walked alongside it.” It hardly has that quality now but, humped over the walkway, its surface veined, gleaming and strangely soft-looking, this part of the rock seems almost organic.
Around a corner and past more walkways, stairs, railings and scaffolding, we emerged onto a plateau halfway up the rock’s northern side called the Lion’s Paws Terrace. Located here is the bottom of the final series of steps and stairs leading to the summit. This is flanked by a pair of giant, talon-ed, three-fingered paws – hence the plateau’s name – protruding out of a mound of ancient brown brickwork. These might once have been attached to a sphinx-like statue with a lion’s shoulders and head but now just the oddly disembodied paws remain.
The terrace contained many visitors taking a breather before tackling the final part of the ascent – or in a few cases staying put, because they’d decided that the final ascent was beyond them and this was as high as they were going. There was another sign about stinging insects, this one saying: WASP ATTACK AREA – BE SILENT. However, it was offset by a gentler sign giving information about the local bee population: “Bambaras or the Giant Honeybees migrate here; build a social nest on the rock or in a nearby trees (sic), and perform their valuable pollination service when plants in flower require there (sic) service.”
We went up the stairs between the Lion’s Paws. After we’d passed the top of the ruined brickwork, we had to transfer to a series of rickety-looking metal staircases, veering off in one direction for a minute, then veering off in another, and then in another. In fact, the staircases resembled a crazily positioned fire escape on a very high building.
At one point, a lady announced to the other members of her party in front of us, “No, I can’t do this’ and turned and headed down again. However, what we found daunting about this final part of the ascent wasn’t so much the height, which admittedly was dizzying, but our own tiredness. By then we’d already traversed a lot of steps and stairs.
And after all that… The summit of the rock looked surprisingly civilised when we finally arrived. It was a patchwork of tracts of grass and tracts of sandy-coloured paving stones, the patches delineated by low remnants of stone walls; terraces whose sides were contained within braces of smoothed, eroded brown bricks; yet more staircases navigating the various levels that’d been carved into the summit; smallish trees; and in one place what looked like an ancient, square swimming pool, now full of brownish water, although I assume it was actually a reservoir that’d given the palace its water supply. When we descended towards the pool, we saw a couple of dogs mooching there, prompting the inevitable thought: reservoir dogs!
In fact, the maze of terraces, flights of steps, walls and flag-stoned pathways made me think of a structure in an M.C. Escher picture, though a less surreal and baffling one.
Predictably, the views were beautiful. It was like being at the centre of a vast bowl – distant mountains forming the bowl’s sides, an expanse of treetops and occasional lakes and rivers forming the bowl’s verdant and glinting base. Standing on the eastern side of the rock, you got to look across a gorgeous silvery-blue lake that was rimmed and flecked with green, although it was impossible to tell from this distance if the green was caused by lilies, reeds, algae or waterweed.
Some edges of the summit looked over a sheer drop. These were screened off by not-terribly-sturdy-looking metal railings. Not the kindest of employers, King Kashyapa was said to have positioned sentries right on the brink of these precipices, reasoning that their fear of falling asleep and toppling to their dooms would give them the impetus to stay awake, alert and watchful.
When we ventured down again, we had to struggle through increasing numbers of visitors who were now trying to make their way upwards. A few of these visitors deserves fates similar to what Kashyapa’s sleepier sentries would have suffered. One vain and stupid woman caused a serious traffic jam at the bottom steps between the Lion’s Paws because she insisted on posing at length while a friend took pictures of her. Further down, another ignorant woman caused a blockage while she attempted to photograph herself in the middle of a narrow section of steps with a camera-phone and an unfeasibly long selfie-stick.
And when we arrived down in the gardens again, many people were advancing up the central paths towards the rock-steps. Some of the female tourists belonged to Chinese tour parties, were clad in Laura Ashley-style floral-patterned dresses and floppy sunhats, and looked like they’d dressed for a shopping expedition rather than an ascent up a huge brute of a volcanic rock.
So we were glad we’d heeded our hotel manager’s advice. Certainly, go to Sigiriya Rock because it’s a brilliant experience. But go early.