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Etched in stone

The fortress atop Sigiriya Rock still bears testimony to the exploits of the man who built it — Sri Lanka’s King Kashyapa.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2010 18:55 IST

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

It’s visible in the distance from my hotel room in Dambulla, Sri Lanka, set in the middle of a forest. The Sigiriya Rock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rises 660 feet out of the surrounding countryside. of fields and groves. history has fascinated me for years.

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.

He had two sons — Kashyapa by a non-royal consort and Moggallana by a queen. Prince Kashyapa rebelled when he heard that 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.

Architectural marvel
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. I’m impressed by the hydraulic sophistication achieved by the ancient Sinhalese.

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 me up steep stone steps till we reach an incongruous spiral staircase. This staircase was apparently a ‘gift’ from the London Underground! We ascend the rickety stairs to a sheltered gallery in the rock face with the famed ‘Sigiriya frescoes’.

Palace of pleasures
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.

Experts disagree on whether these women represent apsaras (celestial nymphs) or the concubines of the lusty King Kashyap. Gaggles of schoolchildren giggle at the topless maidens, some with three nipples! At one time, there were almost 500 murals. But only 22 remain.

Barie suggests that some may have been erased by zealous monks who didn’t want to be distracted from their meditations!

We continue walking along the rock face to the “mirror wall”, which was originally coated with egg white, honey and lime plaster to make it so shiny that the king could see his reflection in it.

The 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.

I brace myself for the final ascent. The narrow iron staircase anchored to the rock zigzags its way to the top. When we emerge on top, we finally understand why Kashyapa was so defensive about this place.

The 360 degree view of the rolling hills, the water tank in the distance and the water gardens below — he was really monarch of all that he surveyed.

From this height I realise how elaborately this site has been planned. 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. Kalpana is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.

Getting there
Most major carriers, including Indian, Jet Airways and Sri Lankan Airlines fly to Colombo. To go to Sigiriya, you can either hire a cab from Colombo or hop on to a bus that goes to Dambulla.

From Dambulla, there are hourly buses to the Sigiriya Fortress. The fortress is open every day from 7 am to 5.30 pm. The entry fee is $ 15 (approx Rs 700) for adults and $ 7.50 (Rs 346) for children. 1 Indian Rupee = 2.48 Sri Lankan Rupees.