The Ancient Rock City of Sigiriya: Fit for a King and Built by the Gods
Rising majestically 650 feet (200m) above the Sri Lankan landscape, Sigiriya is an ancient city built on a megalithic rock that has puzzled visitors for centuries. This remote wonder, located in the Matale District, is designated a cultural World Heritage Site and continues to intrigue experts who seek to unravel its mysteries. From the fortress and palace to the pleasure garden, Sigiriya's history is steeped in intrigue, making it a fascinating site for research, study, and speculation.
5,000 Years of History
Archaeological evidence indicates that the area surrounding Sigiriya has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with rock shelters dating back almost 5000 years to the Mesolithic period. Moreover, many rock shelters and caves in the vicinity were used by Buddhist monks and ascetics from as early as the 3rd century BC. Despite this rich history, Sigiriya is perhaps best known for its transformation into a palace, fortress, and pleasure garden by King Kashyapa in the 5th century.
The Rise and Fall of King Kashyapa
King Kashyapa was the cunning son of Dhatusena. Kashyapa's thirst for power drove him to engineer the assassination of his own father and overthrow his rightful heir, Moggallana. Fearing retribution from his vengeful brother, Kashyapa retreated to the towering rock of Sigiriya, where he built a seemingly impenetrable palace fortress. But his reign was short-lived, as Moggallana's forces overtook the fortress in a battle that saw Kashyapa take his own life. After his demise, the site was returned to the peaceful hands of Buddhist monks and became a monastery for centuries to come.
5th century Buddhist fresco wall paintings of Sigiriya rock fortress in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. Source: Dmitry Chulov / Adobe Stock.
Advanced Engineering at Sigiriya
The engineering and construction techniques at Sigiriya were far ahead of their time. The city was built with a highly sophisticated water management system, using surface and subsurface hydraulic systems to supply water throughout the palace and gardens. In fact, some of these water-retaining structures are still functional today, a testament to the advanced engineering skills of the builders.
Another remarkable feature of the city layout is the way it combines symmetry and asymmetry to interlock man-made geometrical forms with the natural surroundings. The west side of the rock, for instance, features a park designed for the royals, laid out on a symmetrical plan. The park is adorned with beautiful water features and fountains, which were supplied by the water management system. The overall effect is one of harmony between man-made and natural elements, which creates a sense of serenity and tranquility.
The south side of the rock contains a man-made reservoir, which was extensively used in the past capital of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. The reservoir demonstrates the advanced engineering skills of the builders, as it was constructed to collect rainwater from the surrounding hills and store it for use during the dry season. The reservoir was also part of the city's water management system, and it helped to supply water to the palace and gardens. The overall design of the city reflects the importance of water management in ancient Sri Lankan society and showcases the sophisticated engineering and construction techniques used at Sigiriya.
The Man-Made Reservoir at Sigirya rock fortress. Source: Aleksandar Todorovic / Adobe Stock.
The Lion Rock
Known as ‘Lion Rock’ in English, the name of the monument indicates the way in which visitors used to begin their final ascent to the top - through the open jaws and throat ('giriya') of a lion ('sinha'). Various caves surround the site, intricately painted and depicting scenes of hundreds of women, the meaning and purpose of which remains a mystery. The frescoes once covered an enormous area some 460 feet (140m) wide and 130 feet (40m) high, making it one of the largest murals in the world. More than 500 women were once depicted, some shown like celestial beings descended from above on clouds.
The lion paw entrance at Sigiriya. Source: surangaw / Adobe Stock.
Built by the Gods
The legend surrounding Sigiriya adds to the mystical aura of the ancient site. According to local belief, the rock citadel was not just a feat of human engineering but a divine creation, modelled after the mythical abode of Kuvera, the god of wealth, and called the "Palace in the sky." This story reflects the awe and wonder inspired by Sigiriya's towering rock and the architectural marvels atop it.
Archaeologists still don’t know why such a massive effort went into building a city on top of this giant rock. While many have argued it was for protection, others have maintained that it still doesn’t justify the mammoth and near impossible task of dragging building materials to a height of 200 meters. In ancient traditions, building on top of high mountains or rocks was in line with the concept of reaching to the heavens. A hilltop palace was probably viewed as a gateway between our world and the world of the gods.
Top image: Aerial view of Sigiriya, Lion Rock, Sri Lanka. Source: Anton Petrus / Adobe Stock.
By Joanna Gillan
BBC (2021). Sigiriya: Sri Lanka's ancient water gardens. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20211205-sigiriya-sri-lankas-ancient-water-gardens
Sigiriya Fortress Official Site. Available at: https://sigiriyafortress.com/
UNESCO: Ancient City of Sigiriya. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/202/