No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. Sigiriya Rock is one of Sri Lanka’s wonders, and it’s a must-see attraction on any visitor’s itinerary. Sigiriya, meaning Lion Rock in Singalese, is an ancient city in the central Matale district of Sri Lanka.
It’s easy to spot this two hundred meters high rock as you drive through the Matale district; it dominates the skyline! Although nowadays the fortress is mainly ruins, the lure of Sigiriya is really the hike to the top and the awesome views that accompany it. The palace ruins are surrounded by an extensive network of fortifications, water gardens, boulder gardens, reservoirs, moats, and alleys. It will take you a good half a day to explore them all.
What’s the history of the Sigiriya rock?
In the 5th century, King Kashyapa chose to build his new capital upon this rock. He built his palace at the top of the rock and decorated the sides with colourful frescoes. On a plateau halfway up, he built a gate, guarded by a statue of a lion. This gave rise to the name Lion Rock. You can still see the remains of the lion’s paws, although its head is long gone. After the death of King Kashyapa, the capital and royal palace were both abandoned, before being used as a Buddhist monastery up until the fourteenth century. It is now one of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites and the most visited attraction in the country.
Once through the entrance gate, you will find yourself amongst the fortress’s gardens. The gardens are lovely to walk around, especially as there are many monkeys to entertain you! Try not to bring any food with you, as they might try and rob you! My advice would be to complete the hike to the top first, before exploring the gardens.
To reach the top of Sigiriya, you will need to climb 1200 steps. Even though it sounds daunting it’s not that hard. We saw many older people doing it, and there are many places to stop and catch your breath. The trick is to take regular breaks, and let’s face it, with all those photos to be taken, how could you not!
Halfway to the top, you have the option to climb a spiral staircase, which leads to the beautiful frescoes and the mirror wall. These magnificent frescoes are housed inside a sheltered area, set against the sheer rock face. During Kasapya’s reign, the western wall of the fortress was almost entirely covered in frescoes, but today only eighteen remain. The frescoes depict naked women (who are believed to be Kasyapa’s wives, concubines, or priestesses) performing religious rituals. It’s pretty amazing that they still appear almost untouched after all these years.
The mirror wall
Next, you will reach the mirror wall. The mirror wall used to be so polished that the king could see his own reflection when he walked alongside it. The wall is now covered with inscriptions and poems written by the visitors to Sigiriya. All of these inscriptions date from before the 8th century. This suggests that Sigiriya was a tourist attraction well over a thousand years ago. These days it is strictly forbidden to write on the wall.
Note: Since our visit in 2015, the photographing of the frescoes and the mirror wall has been banned.
As you reach the last set of stairs before the top, you will come across the huge lion paw carvings. They are impressive, making you imagine how big the lion head must have been.
As we made our way through the last set of stairs, we came across many wasp nests clinging to the rock-face. Signs warned tourists to be quiet, so as not to disturb them. That was a little unnerving!
When we finally made it to the top, we were greeted by spectacular views and ancient temple ruins. The summit covers an area of 1.6 hectares, and we spent a while walking around the remains of the palace, enjoying the gardens and the views over the surrounding countryside. There’s a large pond made from solid rock that looks like it would have been a lovely swimming pool for the king. I bet a swim in it would have been amazing back in the days, especially with that view!
The Cobra Hood Cave
On our way down to the south gate via the Boulder Gardens we came across the Cobra Hood Cave. This rocky projection is shaped like an opened Cobra’s hood. Hence its name. The interior of the cave used to be embellished with many floral and animal paintings but of course with time most of those disappeared. Only a couple of faint paintings now remain.
How much is Sigiriya?
The entrance fee to the fortress is not cheap, 4200 rupees (US$30) for foreigners and includes entrance to the Sigiriya Museum. While Sri Lanka is normally quite affordable, tourist attractions seem to be quite pricey, especially for Asia.
Where to stay in Sigiriya?
We stayed at the Aliya Resort and Spa for two nights, which was very close to the rock. The resort offered a great view of the rock itself from the reception area, and main restaurant and bar. But the best part was its huge infinity pool. From there you can sip a cocktail, staring out at the rock, or hang out after a morning of hiking!
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Tips for an enjoyable hike
- Go as early in the morning as you can; it opens at 7 am. Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll beat the heat too!
- Remember to bring lots of water, you will need it. It gets pretty hot once the sun rises higher in the sky.
- Wear sturdy shoes (no flip-flops). Some sections are quite slippery, so shoes with proper grip underfoot are more suitable and more comfortable.
- Take many breaks along the way, enjoy the scenery, take pictures, and drink water. It will make the hike a lot more enjoyable.
- Stay somewhere with a pool, so you take a refreshing dip after your big day out!
- If you have an extra day in the area, why not hike the Pidurangala Rock. It’s nearby and a lot less crowded. Plus, you’ll find a great view of Lion’s Rock from the top!
Don’t forget the Dambulla Cave Temple
Only 17 kilometres away from Sigiriya, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that shouldn’t be missed, the Dambulla Cave Temple. The Dambulla Cave Temple is a monastery and is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. It is set under a vast overhanging lava rock and consists of five caves each with many statues of buddhas, intricate religious paintings and wall murals. The caves are very atmospheric and well worth the climb. From the top of the temple, you get a beautiful view of the region and a view of the Sigiriya Rock in the distance.
You can get to the Dambulla Cave Temple by bus or tuk tuk from Sigiriya.