The story of Sigiriya is one of vision, grandeur and tragedy unparalleled in Sri Lankan history. Built 1,600 years ago, by a brilliant but tormented king, it burst briefly into pre-eminence with breathtaking architecture and art and then quickly faded away into oblivion and was soon forgotten. Few historic sites in the world have such an interesting tale to tell as that of Sigiriya.
The story of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka is the tale of King Kasyapa who ruled between 477 and 495AD. A troubled but visionary king; Kasyapa murdered his father by plastering him up in a wall. Rejected by his people for his crime and tormented by guilt he abandoned his magnificent capital of Anuradhapura and fled deep in the forests of central Sri Lanka. There in an area dominated by a menacing black column of rock 600 feet high he built himself a new capital resplendent with lush gardens, palaces and pavilions.
He transformed the sinister-looking black rock to appear like a huge dazzling white cloud and painted it with beautiful frescoes of semi-naked nymphs. He also build a massive gatehouse in the form of a lion to guard the entrance to the inmost sanctum of his city; the Sky Palace on top of the rock.
Hidden from view and surrounded by his courtiers and harem, Kasyapa lived in splendid isolation. He was, however, deeply troubled by his responsibility for the death of his father. He carried out many good works and observed his religious duties diligently hoping, no doubt, to find some salvation for his troubled conscience. Finally, betrayed, by those he trusted, he committed suicide.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress, now just a sinister-looking black rock, once appeared like a huge dazzling white cloud floating above the surrounding forests. The sides of this huge 600ft column of rock were painted with beautiful frescoes of semi-naked nymphs. A massive gatehouse in the form of a lion guarded the entrance to the innermost sanctum of the city – the Sky Palace on top of the rock. Built in 477AD it burst briefly into pre-eminence with breathtaking gardens, architecture and art and then faded away and was forgotten for over 1500 years. Imagine this as a magical place —an earthly paradise of lush gardens, ponds, fountains, and brightly colored pavilions. No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to Sigiriya - King Kasyapa's masterpiece.
At the time the story of Sigiriya was unfolding in 477 AD, Sri Lanka had one of the most advanced civilizations in Asia. It sat at the crossroads between Asia and West. Ships of many nations called into it ports and trade with far off lands such as Egypt, Roman and China prospered.
A number of key events took place in other parts of the world that put historic context to our story.
At about this time the Vandals sacked Rome and Europe began its slow inexorable decline into the Dark Ages. The Gupta Empire controlled most of northern India and the magnificent art works at the Ajanta Caves commenced. These in turn had a significant influence on paintings in at Sigiriya. It was also the time that an erotic compendium known as the Kama Sutra was first complied. In China, Buddhism was taking root; and in Mexico, the city of Chichén Itzá was being founded. Most of the rest of the world lay in cultural slumber.
Having decided to move his capital, King Kasyapa had a grand vision. He would build his city to emulate Alakamanda. In Buddhist mythology Alakamanda was the magnificent city of the gods. It was said to exist in a faraway place at a great elevation. Its ruler was Kuvera, the god of wealth and plenty.
It is from this legend that Kasyapa gained his inspiration. He would harness the vast wealth and resources of his kingdom to recreate Alakamanda on earth. It is for this reason that Kasyapa choose a location deep in the inhospitable forests of Sri Lanka. The only significant feature of the area was a menacing black rock which rose majestically 200 meters into the air. He, Kasyapa, would transform the rock to appear as though it were a cloud. On its summit he would build a magnificent palace and rule like a god-king.
The site chosen for the capital was a foreboding place indeed; teeming with wild elephants, poisonous snakes, leopards, bears, mosquitoes, hornets and other vermin. Kasyapa was fortunate. He was the king of a extremely prosperous kingdom. He also had a huge workforce of highly skilled laborers and artisans to do his bidding. An army of over a fifty thousand men, thousands of bullocks and many hundreds of elephants toiled for years to build a magnificent new city in the forest.
The pièce de résistance of the new city was the rock itself. It was the centerpiece of the entire city. Kasyapa and his architects built a royal citadel with ramparts and moats and lavish gardens, ponds and fountains around this looming black rock.
They constructed beautiful multicolored pavilions, palaces and halls. They erected grand staircases leading up to the base of the rock and then an unusual parapet wall which precariously hugged the side of the near vertical rock face as it wound its way around the western side of the rock. This wall had such a high reflective luster that it came to be known as the Mirror Wall. They then painted the entire surface of the sinister-looking black rock in a coat of white paint so that it appeared like a massive cloud floating above the treetops. Then on the western surface of the rock, was painted the largest portrait gallery in the world. This spectacular gallery consisted of over 500 stunning multi-colored frescoes depicting lightly clad semi-naked females the —Sigiriya Frescoes.
On a small plateau halfway up the rock, on the northern side, Kasyapa constructed a giant gatehouse and staircase in the form of a brightly colored sphinx-like lion thirty-five meters tall. Through its chest, via an almost perpendicular staircase, was the final ascent to the summit of the rock. It is this feature, the Lion Staircase, which in later time bestowed the place its name Sīhāgiri — Lion Mountain (Lion Rock). We know it today as Sigiriya.
Upon Kasyapa's death the royal capital was moved back to Anuradhapura. The magnificent Sigiriya Citadel was stripped of its treasures and converted in to a Buddhist monastery. Over the ensuring centuries it was progressively abandoned and then finally completely deserted. Slowly it was consumed by the forests and disappeared into the mists of time; forgotten, a mere footnote in history.
In time Sigiriya became a grim and foreboding place. At dusk, clouds of bats sallied forth from their lairs into the night sky and wild animals roamed its crumbling pavilions, ponds, and gardens. The beautiful Sigiriya Frescoes faded and fell away. The palace in the sky had long ago crumbled and been carried away by the wind. For centuries, no human set foot on its summit.
By 1815 the island was annexed into the British Empire. In 1827, a young British army officer named Jonathan Forbes arrived for duty in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and was "immediately attracted to the jungle by the novelty of elephant shooting." Forbes had befriended George Turnour, a British Civil Servant, who had been deciphering ancient Sri Lankan chronicles. As a consequence he was well aware of the fact that a lost city lay buried in the forests. While on an elephant hunt in 1831 Forbes stumbled upon the ruins of Sigiriya.
Forbes describes how he and his companions ventured through the thick undergrowth and clambered up the dislodged steps of a series of winding stairs that zigzagged up the side of the rock and onto a walled gallery (the Mirror Wall). They proceeded along this gallery for about a hundred meters before, giddy from heat and exhaustion, they were forced to withdraw. Forbes returned in 1833 to continue his exploration of the site, noting that the projecting rock above the galley "had been painted in bright colors. "These of course, were what was left of the Sigiriya Frescoes. Serious excavation of the site commenced in 1895.
History records the magnificence of Sigiriya, only once, in these few terse words.
"He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri
which is difficult to ascent for human beings.
He cleared roundabout, surrounded it with a wall
and built a staircase in the form of a lion…
Then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold,
like another Alakamanda,
and dwelt there like the god Kuvera."
Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)
This area of north-central Sri Lanka, around Sigiriya rock, has been inhabited by humans since at least 20,000 BC. However we do not know what the place was called before the time of Kasyapa. We don't even know its name during Kasyapa's lifetime.
An inscription from the tenth year of Kasyapa's rule, found at Timbirivava, makes the reference Maharaja Kasabala Alakapaya (Kasyapa King of Alakamanda). Two inscriptions attributed to King Mahinda who ruled between 956 and 972 AD found at Vessagiriya in Anuradhapura uses the name Kasubgiri. A literal translation of this word would be Kasyapa of the Mountain. The first authenticated use of the name Sīhāgiri (meaning Lion Mountain) occurs in the Culavamsa written in the 12th century nearly 800 hundred years after Sigiriya was abandoned as the royal capital. The Culavamsa also refers to Kasyapa's palace as looking like Alakamanda. Therefore we can only say with certainty that the area was known as Sigiriya from about the 12th century AD.
The proper pronunciation of this name is see-gee-ree-yah.
It is difficult for a modern tourist to comprehend the sheer splendor of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress 1,600 years ago. Few ancient cities surpassed it for its ecologically-sensitive, grand vision and aesthetic elegance. The ruins visible today are less than twenty percent of the structures that once graced this royal compound. Many ruins still lay hidden in the forest and are yet to be discovered.
The Sigiriya Citadel, more commonly referred to as the Sigiriya Fortress, occupied an area of approximately two and a half kilometers in length by one kilometer in width. Built around the massive 200 meter tall Sigiriya Rock, it was resplendent with gardens, ponds, pavilions and palaces. Surrounded by two moats and three ramparts, it was predominately a royal residence, not as a fortress.
The compound is divided into two precincts. The Western Precinct, located on the west side of the rock, occupies an area of approximately 56 hectares (138 acres). It is bisected into northern and southern sectors by a broad boulevard from the main entrance. Each half follows an echo design. That is to say, each side is a duplicate of the other. The boulevard culminated in a number of stairways which lead to the Sky Palace on the summit.
The Western Precinct was the private preserve of the king, his harem and royal household. Incorporating formal and informal styles it represented an idealized version of nature, a picturesque recreation of paradise. Eye-catching gardens, ponds palaces, pavilions, large and small, halls, gateways, galleries and towers were scattered throughout the landscape. These in turn lead to winding paths, natural boulders and slopes which were ingeniously incorporated to create a series of views and tableaus. Large staircases then lead to the Mirror Wall, the spectacular Sigiriya Frescoes (which once covered the entire western face of the Sigiriya Rock), the Lion Staircase and finally the breathtaking Sky Palace on top of this 200 meter high rock.
The Eastern Precinct (not open to tourists) is located on the eastern side of the rock is largely unexcavated and overgrown with forest. No major archaeological ruins have been found there suggesting that the buildings in this area were predominately made of wood and were for the king's entourage and courtiers.