Imagine nature's beauty and the artist's sense of drama and its converse: the drama inherent in nature and the artist's creation of beauty. Set them together in one site and that is Sigiriya. The sight is spectacular, to say the least. A high rock boulder rises like a large mushroom 182 meters above the plains. It was this solitary outcrop with nothing nearby that overlooks or overshadows it, that was chosen as the site for a fifth century palace abode, one of the loveliest in the world. The climb up to the palace on the flat top of the boulder is a difficult one and the engineering skills required to relies such a project are quite mind-boggling. It was a fitting dwelling place for Buddhist monks who, in accordance with their tradition, sought out lonely retreats for silent prayers and meditation.
Then came fanfare and royal commotion. Kasyapa, the eldest son of the reigning ruler of the fifth century, feared that his younger brother might inherit the throne. His younger brother, Mogallan, was the son of royal mother while Kasyapa's mother was a commoner. Kasyapa took matter into his own hands, imprisoned his father, whom he later had murdered, and frightened his brother into escaping to India. Alone and unchallenged, but wary of trouble, Kasyapa set about constructing his new palace on the exalted lonely outcrop of Sigiriya. The project took seven years to complete and in AD 477 Kasyapa installed himself in this 'pie in the sky'. Only to lose everything eleven years later to his brother Mogallan who returned from India and defeated him in battle near the modern village of Habarane. Mogallan returned the capital to Anuradhapura, living the monks and nature to look after this beautiful Lions Rock. Kasyapa has been branded by history as a 'parricide' and 'a mad genius'. A visit to Sigiriya only confirms that there must have been something exceptional and singular about a king who ventured to live there.
To the west of the Sigiriya rock face are the Water Gardens, a series of terraced landscaped ponds and fountains. The fountains play on the power of gravity and water is forced out from the moats on either side. From above, the view from the palace of the Water Gardens and the green plains below is breathtaking: the work of an ingenious engineering wizard.
Then comes the approach to the rock face; halfway up the boulder is an overhanging rock pocket. The walls of the Gallery have been plastered and adorned with fifth century mural paintings, the likes of which are hard to find. These world-renowned paintings of sensuous, bare-breasted flower-girls or sky nymphs have been compared to the mural of Ajanta (India). The technique and concept of mural painting at both sites are similar. The drawing was apparently almost freehand, for there are many corrections and changes in the position of hand and body posture to be seen through the over paint. There is also something truly original about this work. The female forms are gifted with heavy, nubile breasts, tiny waists 'hardly greater than the girth of the neck', and long tapering arms like graceful tendrils of creepers. Their perfect oval faces have heavy-lidded sensuous eyes, sharp aquiline noses, full lips, and heads encompassed with elaborate crowns and flowers in the hair. The bright play of colors and bold drawings are truly a marks of the sophistication of early Sinhalese painting. The subject of the frieze is the parade of these opulently jeweled celestial maidens advancing in pairs or singly, to shower sprays of flowers onto the approaching dignitaries (of whom you are one). Today only a few of the maidens have survived the two thousand five hundred years journey in time. There can be no doubt about the celestial origin of the ladies for they are swimming in clouds; in the paintings the heavenly mist rising up to their waists. There can be no skepticism about their sensuous impact either, for further up the picture gallery is the Mirror Wall with burnished, plastered wall covered with poetic graffiti recording the songs of praise of early visitors who were struck by the beauty of the celestial creatures:
Ladies like you make men pour out their hearts,
You also thrill the body, making its hair stiffen with desire.
The picture gallery leads out onto a wide open terrace. Here the rock face was carved in the shape of a crouching lion. The massive paws frame the staircase from which the ascent to the plateau palace begins. The colossal sphinx-like form of the lion (sinha, hence Sigiriya) collapsed long ago. But the idea of a lion entrance and the palace standing atop the lion's back is wonderful, with the faintest touch of the bizarre.
The plateau on top of the hill covers an expanse of over four acres and consists of a ruined Summer Palace where you can see the plots of rooms and stately halls. At one end is a magnificent water tank and other storage reservoirs.
A small Archaeological Museum is situated near the main entrance to the site.
How to get there
Sigiriya is 67 kilometers from Polonnaruwa. There is a resthouse near the site and a few hotels have come up to accommodate visitors who wish to stay, but most people come here as part of a one day tour.
Most visitors arrive at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, which has an international and domestic airport. Colombo is an interesting place to stay with wonderful hotels, sites and museums. Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya are the three points of the tourist golden triangle. There are regular tours and tourist facilities for these sites. Anuradhapura is 206 kilometers from Colombo and 101 kilometers from Polunnaruwa, and Sigiriya is 67 kilometers from Polonnaruwa. There is so much to at these three sites that is worth budgeting for lots of time to enjoy the monuments and to take it all in.