The Ancient Rock City of Sigiriya
Sigiriya is an ancient city built atop a giant megalithic rock that towers 200 metres above the surrounding landscape. It is located in a remote location in the Matale District of the Central Province, Sri Lanka, and has mystified visitors to the site throughout its long and colourful history. Designated a cultural World Heritage Site in 1982, Sigiriya continues to be a site of research, study and speculation as experts try to unveil the mystery and enigma shrouding this historical site.
It is believed that the environment around Sigiriya has been inhabited since prehistoric times – a rock shelter to the east of Sigiriya shows evidence of occupation going back nearly five thousand years during the Mesolithic period. There is also clear evidence that the many rock shelters and caves in the vicinity were occupied by Buddhist monks and ascetics from as early as the 3rd century BC. However, Sigiriya is most famous for the period beginning in the 5 th century when it was transformed into a palace, fortress and pleasure garden by King Kashyapa (Kassapa).
King Kashyapa, son of Dhatusena, only came to power after he had engineered the assassination of his father and usurped the throne from his brother and the rightful heir, Moggallana. Fearing the vengeance of his brother, Kashyapa had a fortified palace built on the rock of Sigiriya which was reputed to be impregnable. However, it was there that he was defeated after a battle in 495, following which he committed suicide by cutting his throat. After the death of Kashyapa, his brother Moggallana returned the site of Sigiriya to the Buddhist monks where it became a monastery until the 14 th century.
Sigiriya is known to be one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning, showing techniques and technology far more advanced than believed possible for the time. The city layout combines concepts of symmetry and asymmetry to intentionally interlock the man-made geometrical and natural forms of the surroundings. On the west side of the rock lies a park for the royals, laid out on a symmetrical plan; the park contains water-retaining structures, including sophisticated surface/subsurface hydraulic systems, some of which are working even today. The south contains a man-made reservoir, which were extensively used from the previous capital of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. Five gates were placed at entrances. The more elaborate western gate is thought to have been reserved for the royals.
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 140 metres wide and 40 metres 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.
According to local legend, the rock citadel was created by the gods who descended from the sky and was modelled based on the mythical abode of “Kuvera” the god of wealth, and called the “Palace in the sky”. The murals depicting pretty damsels with flowers in hand are held by some to be goddesses, however local archaeologists believe they were the courtesans of King Kashyapa.
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 metres. 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.
Photos - Ancient City of Sigiriya