A field trip to one of Sri Lanka's best and oldest tourist attractions, Sigiriya

Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, an island nation located just underneath the Indian subcontinent, is home to many natural wonders and boasts a civilization going back thousands of years.

From pristine beaches in Trincomalee and Galle, the plains of Yala to the mountainous Nuwara Eliya, the country offers a wide variety of environmental attractions for those looking for a break from the humdrum of everyday life.

The Sigiriya Rock on which the ruins of the palace of King Kashyapa stand. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

The Sigiriya Rock on which the ruins of the palace of King Kashyapa stand. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

There are many locations of historic value that provide glimpses into the proud and sophisticated people the present inhabitants of the country call their ancestors.

Sigiriya is a place that offers the best of both worlds, excellent views of a lush natural landscape combined with a marvel of ancient Sri Lankan architecture.

I had the pleasure of visiting Sigiriya for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s one of the few places I had not visited during my school days.

Walking through the area is made difficult during the day by the relentless heat and sun.

Left: View of the gardens from the top of the rock. Top right: Water Fountain. Bottom right: One of the many pools. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

Left: View of the gardens from the top of the rock. Top right: Water Fountain. Bottom right: One of the many pools. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

That day, I met a tourist group from Germany, as they were taking a break from walking before entering the area’s palace ruins. They mentioned that the heat was only bearable because of the cooling wind, a constant throughout the journey to the top.

If one is to look up Sri Lanka and places to visit, undoubtedly, one of the first search hits would be Sigiriya. It is the name given to the huge rock on which Sri Lankan King Kashyapa built his palace.

Surrounding the rock are water gardens and many pools built for the pleasure and use of the king. The plumbing technology used in the constructions deserves special credit. During the rain season, a series of water pools and tanks placed around and along the rock feed the pools and water fountains found in the bottom. The plumbing is such that the water from the different pools do not mix together.

The moat. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

The moat. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

The outermost walls that surround the area drop down to a moat that at one time was filled with crocodiles. Even today, descendants of the crocodiles that guarded the moat live on, even though not in the grand numbers of before.

Walking through the lavish gardens and the ruins of the palace, it is impossible not to feel a sense of wonder at the sheer effort it would have taken to build such a unique monument.

A tourist from China, Yan Yi, commented on the grandeur of the gardens, saying: "It must have taken a great effort to design and build such a garden all those year ago."

Upon finishing the stroll through the picturesque gardens and surrounding pools, it was time for the daunting task of climbing to the top of the Sigiriya rock. There are about 1,200 steps to the top and with strong gusts of wind from the side of the rock, the journey was tiring. It was all I could do to hold on to my cap. Almost lost it to the wind when it got blown away; luckily for me, there were school children who had come for an outing who caught it before it got blown off the side of the rock.

About halfway up, visitors will be treated to the world-famous frescos of Sigiriya. There are many theories about who the beautiful women in the paintings are. Some say they were the ladies of the court while other say they are goddesses or nymphs. I was sad to find out there is a strict no photo policy. Yet, it was a great pit stop, time to admire the talents of the artists from a bygone era. It is said that the frescos lined the entire way up the path leading to the palace on top of the rock, giving the visitor the feel of entering the heavens, beckoned by the goddesses or nymphs.

The Lion’s Paws enclose the staircase leading to the castle. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

The Lion’s Paws enclose the staircase leading to the castle. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

Just before the top of the rock, visitors can marvel at the entrance to the palace. The ruins left show the great paws of a lion. This is all that is left of a complete lion torso, with doors that opened through its mane.

Historic records and ancient graffiti carved into the walls of the stairs leading to the palace inform that the Lion structure survived for many centuries after the palace was abandoned.

The ruins of the palace stand testament to the once great structure that rested on the foundations. One can only think about King Kashyapa and the security he felt from the excellent vantage point atop the Sigiriya rock, for he did have a lot to worry about.

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A brief history of King Kashyapa:

Kashyapa was the son of King Datusena of Anuradhapura, born to a woman of lower caste. Even though he was accepted by his father and had a place in the King’s Court, the throne was to be passed to a younger half-brother, Moggallana. Spurred on by King Datusena’s army chief, Migara (who himself had grievances with Datusena), Kshyapa took part in a coup. The coup ended in the death of King Datusena, who was killed by being entombed alive in a wall. Prince Mogollana fled to India for his safety.

Left: The foundations of the castle. Right: The central bathing pool at the top of Sigiriya. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

Left: The foundations of the castle. Right: The central bathing pool at the top of Sigiriya. Credit: Kushan Costa/GYV

Kshyapa, the first of his name, ruled Sri Lanka from 473 to 495 CE. Perhaps plagued by guilt for murdering his father, Kshyapa left the capitol of Anuradhapura and set up his rule in Sigiriya. He would be the only monarch to call Sigiriya his capitol.

Mogollana came back for his throne with an army gathered from India. There are several accounts about the exact nature of the defeat faced by Kashyapa. A popular story passed orally in the country is that, while Kshayapa was travelling to face the army, he came across a muddy area. When he turned his elephant to go around it, his military forces deserted him, thinking he is retreating.

However, the truth is that, Gen. Migara was involved with the army giving up. Historic records paint a picture of King Kashyapa’s last moments: After realizing that his forces are abandoning him, he raised his dagger to the sky, slit his own throat and put the dagger back in its holder, dying on his war elephant.

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I like to think that Kashyapa found some solace in his palace in the skies. He was spurred on by many factors but regretted the murdering of his father. In the end he was able to provide Sri Lanka with a wonder of architecture that would tell his tale for thousands of years to come.

Cover credit: Selling Pix