Set in the middle of a forest in Dambulla, Sri Lanka, the Sigiriya Rock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rises 660 feet out of the surrounding countryside. It used to be a refuge for Buddhist monks until the 3rd century BC. But in the 5th century AD, this rock became the epicentre of a power struggle between the sons of the reigning ruler, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura.
His son, Prince Kashyapa, rebelled when he heard that his half-brother Moggallana was declared heir to the throne. He imprisoned his father in a chamber and left him to die, and drove his brother to exile in India.
Kashyapa prepared for Moggallana’s invasion by building an impregnable fortress and ‘pleasure palace’ on Sigiriya Rock (probably derived from Simha Giri or Lion Rock), a volcanic outcrop. This spectacular structure was supposedly built in just seven years.
The Sigiriya Rock is surrounded by ‘water gardens’ — a network of pools, fountains, walkways and water pavilions reminiscent of the Mughal gardens in front of the Taj Mahal.
We start our ascent through the Boulder Garden, made of gigantic slabs of stone, that were frequented by monks before and after Kashyapa’s reign. Walkways and staircases wind their way through natural arches formed by boulders touching each other. Our guide Barie points out the twenty-odd rock shelters and ‘drip ledges’ carved around cave entrances to prevent water from running into them.
He leads us up steep stone steps till we reach an incongruous spiral staircase. This staircase was apparently a ‘gift’ from the London Underground!
Palace of pleasures
We ascend the rickety stairs to a sheltered gallery in the rock face with the famed Sigiriya frescoes. These are paintings of nubile, narrow-waisted women in diaphanous garments with flowers in their hair and holding water lilies in their hands, rising out of a haze of clouds. At one time, there were almost 500 murals. But only 22 remain.
A narrow pathway emerges into a broad platform called the Lion Platform. In Kashyapa’s day, visitors would have had to enter it through the lion’s mouth, but only two gigantic paws and an iron staircase remain today.
An iron staircase anchored to the rock zigzags leads us to the top. The 360 degree view of the rolling hills, the water tank in the distance and the water gardens below — Kashyapa really was monarch of all he surveyed.
Sadly, Kashyapa enjoyed this palace only for 11 years before dying in battle with his half-brother Moggallana. Sigiriya became a monastery again till it was abandoned and then re-discovered by British explorers in the 19th century.