Updated: Mar 29
Located about 175km away from Colombo in central Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress believed to have been built by King Kashyapa in the fifth century. The towering rock stands at nearly 200 meters, surrounded by sophisticated gardens and a large moat. In this article, we take a look at Sigiriya as well as other places to explore in the nearby Dambulla area.
According to historical records, King Kashyapa decided to make Sigiriya his safe haven fearing an attack from his younger brother Moggallana. He built a royal palace atop the rock which was made accessible only through the mouth of a giant lion statue while decorating the rock wall with beautiful frescoes. It's believed that Sigiriya was a Buddhist monastery in the 3rd century before King Kashyapa made it his home. After the death of the King, it is speculated to have functioned as a monastery until total abandonment in the 14th century. In 1831, this ancient city was rediscovered by British Army Major Jonathan Forbes while travelling the country on horseback.
Regarded as one of the earliest examples of urban planning, Sigiriya was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982 and is popular among locals as the 8th wonder of the world.
How to get there
Assuming you start your journey from Colombo, it can take between 30 minutes to 5 hours to reach Sigiriya depending on your choice of transportation. You can travel by bus, a hired vehicle, tuk tuk, or even by plane. If you are not pressed for time, there's also the option of taking the train from Colombo which will be a 5-hour journey.
Looking to get the full Sri Lankan experience? Then opt for a tuk tuk ride which costs around LKR 30 per km while you can even rent one for yourself. One of the easier and more comfortable choices is to hire a car and take one of the two routes leading to Sigiriya. This will take around 3 hours depending on traffic conditions.
Last but not least, you can also take the domestic flight from Katunayake to Sigiriya which is operated by Cinnamon Air. It is the most expensive option, but the most comfortable at the same time. The average flight time to Sigiriya is about 30 minutes.
As you enter the site you are greeted with a series of neatly built ponds and fountains making up what once was a beautiful garden. The water garden at Sigiriya is believed to be one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world built according to a form known as Charbagh. Water is supplied to the garden through a network of underground canals that utilize the water of the nearby lake.
There are two water fountains on either side of the walkway and the jaw-dropping fact is that they are still functioning 1500 years later. These fountains are more active during the rainy season when the lake water levels are at their peak, therefore if you visit Sigiriya from December to February, you'd be lucky enough to see the fountains at work.
The boulder garden is made of serpentine pathways under natural rock formations. Archeologists believe this predates the Kashyapan era and was possibly made by the monks who used Sigiriya as a monastery. Unlike the water garden, the boulder garden is not symmetrical and has a more natural layout due to the existing boulders. It starts near the northern face of the rock and extends towards the south.
It's believed that many boulders had buildings on top of them but have since vanished with time. The few remaining structures have drawings, cave paintings, and slots for the wooden pillars once used in the buildings.
Compared by some to the hanging gardens of Babylon, this is the third and final garden in this ancient rock fortress which has been built using the natural hill at the foot of the rock. Following the pathways of the boulder garden, a number of terraces made out of brick walls lay along the road to the lion staircase. What's fascinating is that the same system used in the water garden below is used in this garden as well. It is thought that this would have been used as a pleasure garden for King Kashyapa during ancient times.
The Lion's Paw
The Lion's paw refers to a large structure carved into the rock on the northern side of Sigiriya. What once was a giant sculpture in the shape of a lion, which was used as the entrance to the sky palace, now remains only as a set of paws. The enormous structure was found by the British archaeologist HCP Bell in 1898, following an excavation. Even if you are not able to see the lion in its full glory today, the detail and precision of the remaining structure is enough to get a sense of the impressive architectural skills of ancient Sri Lankan craftsmen.
Originally this was a rock wall so polished that one could see their own reflection on it. This was not just a reflective rock wall, as it was also used by the visitors of Sigiriya as a writing surface to scribble their names and notes on. Some of the visible notes are as old as the eighth century. These writers included governors, poets, the general public, and even monks. The notes comprised various topics such as love, irony, and their own experiences. These are regarded as the only evidence of poetry from the Anuradhapura era.
Before encountering the mirror wall, you will be met with a part of the staircase that leads to some colorful frescoes painted on the Sigiriya wall. As one of the most notable sections of this ancient city, these paintings are believed to be over 1600 years old. They depict female figures carrying flowers and share some similarities with other paintings of the period. Earlier, it was believed that the ladies in these frescoes were the king's consorts but however, present historians argue the Sigiriya damsels depict heavenly female figures.
Initially, the rock wall was decorated with 500 female figures amounting to a large painting but today only a few of these remain. In 1907, a British archeologist named John Still wrote that the Sigiriya frescoes may have amounted to the largest picture in the world at one point.
Upon climbing the winding stairs carved into the rock face, you have at last made it to the top of the rock fortress. Now it's time to turn your gaze towards the remains of King Kashyapa's palace and wonder in awe how such a massive structure was built in the 5th century on top of a 200-meter high rock. Once an impressive palace complex, this structure has played a major part in Sigiriya being named a UNESCO world heritage site.
A pond, placed at the center of the palace is graced by a throne made of rock towards the north. Facing east, this throne provides a breathtaking view of the surrounding forest area that spreads into the horizon.
If you are keen to know more about Sigiriya and its history, you should not miss the museum located right after the entrance. It's the result of over 30 years of archeological exploration and inside you will find many valuable pieces of information about the ancient city. In the museum, you can see a highly detailed miniature model of Sigiriya.
Other artifacts include various tools, pieces of jewellery, sculptures, and even a human skeleton. You can also view photographs of the many stages of excavation projects at Sigiriya that took place throughout history.
Other Places of Interest in the vicinity
If you are looking for other locations to visit near Sigiriya, you would want to add Pidurangala rock to your travel itinerary. Situated about 2 kilometers from Sigiriya, this smaller rock climb takes around 45 minutes to complete. Pidurangala roughly translates to "offered rock of gold". According to historical records, when King Kashyapa found out about the monks living at the foothills of Sigiriya, he gifted them a monastery made of gold nearby in exchange for Sigiriya.
You can begin the journey from the Pidurangala temple at the base of the rock, and the entrance fee is around 3 USD - considered as a donation to the temple. During your climb to the top, you will encounter the ruins of the old monastery. Among the remains is a large reclining Buddha statue that rests under a cave built into the rock. The rest of the hike consists of some bouldering and climbing that leads to an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding area. You can get a full view of the Sigiriya rock fortress from the summit.
Dambulla cave temple
Also known as the golden temple of Dambulla, this UNESCO world heritage site consists of several caves with great historical and religious value. Believed to be built by King Valagamba in the first century BCE, this cave complex is regarded as the largest and most well-conserved in the country.
The major attractions lay across five caves and each of them contains paintings and statues of Buddha and various deities. The first cave you encounter is named the Cave of the Divine King. The name refers to the belief that Sakka, the king of gods himself has contributed to the paintings inside it. The second cave is the largest and is called the Cave of Great Kings. It is covered with colorful paintings and stands 21 feet tall. The third cave was built more recently, by King Kirti Sri Rajasingha in the Kandyan era. It's called the Great New Monastery.
Dambulla cave temple is surrounded by more than 80 caves and archeological evidence suggests that prior to it being a temple, the caves were inhabited by prehistoric humans.
Hot air ballooning
The weather in the central part of the country is calm and predictable making it an ideal area for hot air ballooning. If you are the adventurous type, or just want to enjoy some panoramic views of central Sri Lanka, this might the activity for you. This is relatively new to Sri Lanka, but you will find that the service providers are highly experienced and follow safety guidelines. The tours are usually 1 hour and 45 minutes long and you can start from Dambulla or Sigiriya.
You can even plan a special occasion such as a birthday celebration or a wedding anniversary involving this activity. The balloons can carry up to 16 passengers so you do not have to worry about space if you are a group of people.
Minneriya National Park
Located about 20 kilometers from Sigiriya, this national park is famous among tourists for its herds of elephants. In addition to the Asian elephant, various species of both domestic and migrant birds call this park home. Other mammals such as endemic monkeys, deer, leopards, and sloth bears inhabit this reservoir park.
The best time to visit Minneriya is during the months of May and October, as in the dry season, elephants migrate there from the Wasgamuwa national park and you'd be able to witness the famous elephant gathering. The nearest city to the park is Polonnaruwa in the north-central province.
As Dambulla is part of the cultural triangle and is home to many tourist attractions in the country, you won't have a hard time finding star-class hotels in the area. Almost all the hotels provide their own experiences involving these attractions.
Jetwing Lake is one such luxury hotel situated in Dambulla. Among their amenities are 24-hour room service, doctor on call, and several wellness facilities to cater to your needs. Their indoor and outdoor games include Croquet, Pétanque, Mölkky and Sjoelen. The hotel provides tours to Sigiriya, Pidurangala, and all the other famous attractions in the area. In addition to that, bicycle tours to nearby villages and the Dambulla market are one of their more unique experiences.
One of the most unique hotels you could come across in Sri Lanka is Heritance Kandalama. It's built to look like a natural extension of the cliff behind it, surrounded by lush green forest. Even parts of the hotel's 1km wide building are covered with layers of vegetation. However, while being friendly to the surrounding environment, Kandalama is still able to provide luxury facilities to its guests. Among its facilities are swimming pools, spas, sports centers, a library, and jewellery/ handicraft shops.
Amaya Lake is another 5-star hotel situated near lake Kandalama. If you want to have a lakeside experience and feast on amazing traditional Sri Lankan meals this is the hotel for you. They offer various activities for the guests such as bird watching, cycling, traditional Sri Lankan events, and wild-life safaris. The hotel contains 101 individual villas spread throughout the property so you can spend your vacation in peace and harmony.
In order to read about other attractions to visit in Sri Lanka Click here.