Learning Sri Lankan History at the Sigiriya Rock Fortress

A perfect day trip from Kandy, Sigiriya contains the ruins of an ancient city and fortress from about 1500 years ago. Seeing the pictures from above, I knew I wanted to check it out. It reminds me a lot of Machu Pichu with stone terrace levels. Since we didn’t have a tour guide, Mike, Hannah and I, decided to stop at the Sigiriya museum first to get a little background information before we hiked up the mountain. Located on the same site, it’s a nice way to start your visit.

As stated by Wikipedia: According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle, Sigiriya was selected by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) for his new capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. On a small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The name of this place is derived from this structure —Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock. The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the king’s death. It was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.


Today, it is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya are considered one of the most important urban planning sites from the first milleium AD. It features gardens, ruins and a moat in front of the famous rock facade. It takes about an hour of climbing steep stairways to reach the top of the plateau. But thankfully, there a few interesting attractions along the way. The first is the fresco paintings from 1500 years ago. Still in beautifully colored condition, the frescos are the remains of a giant mural that may have wrapped all the way across the western face of the rock. All the paintings are depections of women, some making offerings, others playing music or talking to other women. There are various theories about the identity of the women, some saying they were the king’s consorts or women taking part in religious rituals.

Frescos of the ancient women
Frescos of the ancient women

The next famous stop is the Mirror Wall. It derived its name because originally this wall was so highly polished that the king could his reflection while he walked alongside it. For hundreds of years after the original king created this fortress, people came to visit the frescos and pray to the women in the paintings. The worshippers left their wishes engraved on the mirror wall in the hopes their prayers would be granted. Today, you can still see the names or wishes of these ancient people.

The final stop before the top is the Lion Gate. All that remains of the original statue and gate is a pair of massive clawed lions feet. Archeolgists believe the statue may have been carved out of the original bedrock, and reach the peak of the mountain. By the feet that are left, you can imagine the massive scale of this statue. It would have rivaled some of the statues I saw in Egypt if it still stood!

Remaining feet of the Lion's Gate
Remaining feet of the Lion’s Gate

Then up the rickety metal steps you go to reach the top. I would not recommend taking on this feat if you are scared of heights or get queezy from walking up circular steps, because it is quite a hike up a sheer rock face. But once at the top, you get an amazing 360 panorama view of the valley and surrounding mountain ranges. Plus, the ruined city at the top is a beautiful complex of terrace levels and brick mortar work. Archeologists believe the king’s palace was on the top surrounded by a full fortress wall, although I don’t know how anyone would ever be able to attack this place. The rock is so high up and with the steep sides, it would be nearly impossible to attack it, but so easy to defend it.

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Monkeys were everywhere in the gardens before the rock. So cute!
Monkeys were everywhere in the gardens before the rock. So cute!


Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

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