Sigiriya: Around the Lion Rock

HAVING DECIDED TO SKIP a day tour of Kandy in favor of a day trip to Sigiriya, we ride a bus to Dambulla, a town in Sri Lanka’s Central Province. The province is located in a region known as the Cultural Triangle, where the heart of the Sinhalese culture lies. It was here that the early Sinhalese kingdoms flourished, producing some of South Asia’s finest Buddhist treasures.

Dambulla itself has one of those treasures – a series of caves with statues and murals that provide samples of Sinhalese Buddhist art. But since we’re on a tight schedule, we simply use the town as a transit point when we arrive after a smooth two-hour ride from Kandy, hopping immediately on a trishaw for another half-hour ride to Sigiriya.

Sigiriya can be reached from Dambulla by trishaw. Dambulla, the nearest large town, is famous for its caves with statues and murals.
The surrounding area of Sigiriya Rock has wall fortifications and a moat. The moat is filled with crocodiles, according to a guide.
Renovation is undergoing in a part of the moat. Sigiriya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.

We arrive at the entrance of the complex at around 3:00 in the afternoon, which doesn’t leave us enough time to climb the rock’s summit and descend before dark. So, instead, we take the offer of one of the guides resting in a tree shade near the entrance. He suggests touring us in the area around Sigiriya, taking us to spots with nice views of the rock.

It’s not hard to see why Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular sights. This 200-meter-high rock fortress towers majestically over the ruins of an ancient city. According to tradition, this city was founded in the 5th century by King Kassapa, who built a palace on the rock’s summit and decorated its sides with frescoes. The area around the rock is an elaborate complex of landscaped gardens, all enclosed by wall fortifications and a moat, which according to our guide, is infested with crocodiles.

The Sigiriya Rock towers over the area’s dusty plains.
Hot flat lands are the main features of the Cultural Triangle region, although verdant rice fields can also be seen around Sigiriya.
Locals go about their daily routines in a lake with the Sigiriya in the horizon.

Archeological evidence suggests that this area has been inhabited by various religious communities as early as the third century BC. However, it was in 477 AD when the site rose to prominence. It was during this time that Kassapa, the son of a king with a non-royal consort, killed his father and took the throne. Fearing revenge by his brother and rightful heir Moggallana, Kassapa transferred the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya. Here, Kassapa built thick walls and moats and erected his palace at the top of the rock.

Kassapa’s reign wouldn’t last long, however, as 18 years later, his army was overwhelmed by Moggallana’s, and in the ensuing defeat, Kassapa killed himself. With Moggallana acquiring the throne, the capital was then moved back to Anuradhapura.

Often dubbed as the Sigiriya Rock’s overlooked brother, the Pidurangala Rock was once the home of Buddhist monks during King Kassapa’s reign.
A statue of the Buddha with a naga behind it greets visitors at a Buddhist compound at the base of the Pidurangala Rock.

While Sigiriya does justifiably get all the spotlight, there’s another rock nearby that’s often overlooked, but arguably presents climbers with better views (at least according to those who did climb). That rock is the Pidurangala, where Kassapa placed his Buddhist monks.

Near its base, there’s a Buddhist compound with a large dagoba (the local name for a Buddhist stupa) and a white Buddha statue with a naga behind it covering it from the sun.

While the whole tour of the area only provides us a glimpse of the extravagant reign of the king who built the city, it takes us from where most of the tourists are and brings us into the surrounding plains. We do see a handful of other tourists, but as a whole, it feels blessedly desolate after a morning of braving the Kandy crowd.

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