The king fled to the rock and had his empire built there. For seven years, he lived in wealth but also in fear, until his half-brother came to visit him. He saw only one way out and that was to take his own life.
In the middle of Sri Lanka, there is a rock that goes by the name of Sigiriya Rock. It is the most impressive historical landmark of the country and a visit to this place is definitely on your list. Because once upon a time, in the distant past, a magnificent palace for an illegitimate king rose on the rock. You can visit this place, or you can climb to the top. And at the top you will be rewarded with one of the most beautiful views of Sri Lanka. What are you waiting for?
What is the story behind this special rock? Why is Sigiriya Rock called the Lion Rock? And what do you need to know before you actually visit this beautiful place? Read all about it in this article…
History – King Kassapa I flees to the Lion Rock
At the beginning of the 20th century, British archaeologists discovered a ruin on what we now know as the Lion’s Rock. What is the historical story behind this particular ‘ruin’? Actually, there are two stories, of which the story of the Sinhalese king Kassapa I is the most obvious. This story is from the Mahavamsa, an important book on the history of Sri Lanka, written in the fifth century AD.
The Sinhalese king Dhatusena was a popular king among his people. He had brought the country back together and had built an entire irrigation network. But he also had two sons, the eldest of whom, Kassapa was a power-hungry individual. In 477 AD, he and a group of people decided to capture his father and kill him for thirst. He moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya Rock. He did this mainly out of fear of his younger half-brother Mogallana, who would in fact become the new king because of his noble mother.
On Sigiriya, Kassapa had a large, impressive and impenetrable palace-fortress built and large gardens at the bottom of the mountain. The construction of the fort took 7 years and was completed in 485 AD. Kassapa lived there until 495, when his great fear came true. His half-brother returned with an army from India and claimed his place on the throne. Kassapa fled and when everyone abandoned him, he committed suicide out of fear.
Another story that circulates is that Sigiriya Rock has never been a palace fort, but was mainly visited by monks. And that for centuries, before King Kassapa I took refuge in Sigiriya. During your visit, you will also encounter monks who come to visit this holy place. But still, the story of King Kassapa I sounds better, doesn’t it?
A visit to Sigiriya, or the Lion Rock
A visit to Sigiriya is not something you do for 2 hours. Take the whole day to discover this special complex. It is also important to plan your time well. By this I mean that Sri Lanka has a warm climate and it is not wise to climb the Lion Rock around noon. Unless a heavily sweaty T-shirt (and stench) is no bother to you? So do the climb in the morning or afternoon. I climbed the rock myself around 10am and it was perfectly doable. Below is a description of the main attractions of Sigiriya Rock.
The archaeological museum
If you buy a ticket to climb the rock, you can also enter the Sigiriya archaeological museum for free. This is located at the ticket counter. Here, you get an excellent explanation of the history of the rock, as described above. You will also find many objects that have been found on the rock and in the surrounding area. The museum looks a bit bare and grey, but it is definitely an addition to your visit.
Advice/tip: If you want to climb the rock first, read well about this place. Because once you’ve been to the top, I don’t see you climbing up the rock to check out some more historical facts…
The palace gardens
After the archaeological museum you walk towards the Lion Rock and first you pass through the palace gardens. Under the previous king Dhatusena, many lakes and irrigation systems were constructed. In the palace gardens, which were commissioned by King Kassapa I, you can still clearly see the contours of water cisterns and pools. The gardens are also laid out systematically, something you can really see from the rock. And you walk in a straight line to the steps of Sigiriya Rock.
Sigiriya Rock or Lions Rock
Now that you know about this special place, you can make the climb up (or start) yourself. On the way, you will come across a number of key points that make this place so special.
Frescos: A first stop will be at the ancient frescos on the rock. You reach them by climbing an iron staircase. Of the 500 frescoes, only 21 have been well preserved. Who the ladies are on the wall is also a matter of debate. First it was assumed that they were the concubines of King Kassapa, now it is believed that they are the apsaras (heavenly nymphs) with their servants. An apsara is a heavenly spirit in Buddhist and Hindu mythology. You are not allowed to take photos of the frescoes, as these murals seem to be fading away due to climate change and vermin.
The lion’s feet: This is where Sigiriya gets its name from, from the lion. Once, a huge statue of a stone lion is said to have stood guard here at the palace. The large lion was supposed to legitimise the power of King Kassapa I. Unfortunately, there is not much left of the lion and all you see are two giant lion paws. And a lot of naughty monkeys.
The palace: Finally, the last climb to the palace fortress of the late King Kassapa I. The contours of the palace buildings are particularly visible. This is where the unlawful king lived for about 11 years. But the most impressive thing is the beautiful view that you have over the green island of Sri Lanka. That alone is worth the total climb of more than 1800 steps and a height difference of 200 metres. And then you only have to descend…
Practical information for visiting Sigiriya
Are you planning a visit to Sigiriya? Then take a well-stocked wallet with you, because admission to the complex comes down to about $35 per person. It is expensive, but it is worth it. But if you think differently, there is also the possibility to see Sigiriya from a distance. Then go to Pidurangala Rock. This mountain is at a reasonable distance from the Lion Rock and from here you have a beautiful view of Sigiriya and its surroundings. And it is completely free.
Accommodation – Staying in Sigiriya?
A stay in Sigiriya is a good opportunity to spend a day visiting Lion’s Rock and the museum. In addition, this is also a great base to visit one of the two nearby national parks: Kaudulla and Minneriya National Park. There are plenty of accommodations and possibilities in the area and it is also situated in a green environment. What more could you ask for?
Click here if you are looking for accommodation in Sigiriya? Want to read more about Dambulla and the Golden Temple? Read the article Dambulla | Discover the special Golden Temple of King Valagamba.
Transport and your onward journey through Sri Lanka
Looking for your next destination in Sri Lanka? For most bus connections you go first to Dambulla. From here you can further determine your route. To the north you can visit the royal city of Anaradhapura, to the west Negombo and Colombo, to the south Kandy and to the east Trincomalee.
Have you visited Sigiriya or only Pidurangala Rock? And what is your opinion and do you have any special tips and ideas? Feel free to leave a message below.