The ruins of the capital built by the parricidal King Kassapa I (477–95) lie on the steep slopes and at the summit of a granite peak standing some 180m high (the 'Lion's Rock', which dominates the jungle from all sides). A series of galleries and staircases emerging from the mouth of a gigantic lion constructed of bricks and plaster provide access to the site.
The story of Sigiriya is the tale of King Kasyapa who ruled between 477 and 495AD. A troubled but visionary king; Kasyapa murdered his father by plastering him up in a wall. Rejected by his people for his crime and tormented by guilt he abandoned his magnificent capital of Anuradhapura and fled deep in the forests of central Sri Lanka. There in an area dominated by a menacing black column of rock 600 feet high he built himself a new capital resplendent with lush gardens, palaces and pavilions.
He transformed the sinister-looking black rock to appear like a huge dazzling white cloud and painted it with beautiful frescoes of semi-naked nymphs. He also build a massive gatehouse in the form of a lion to guard the entrance to the inmost sanctum of his city; the Sky Palace on top of the rock.
Hidden from view and surrounded by his courtiers and harem, Kasyapa lived in splendid isolation. He was, however, deeply troubled by his responsibility for the death of his father. He carried out many good works and observed his religious duties diligently hoping, no doubt, to find some salvation for his troubled conscience.
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Built by an obsessed monarch in the 5th century, Sigiriya or Lion Rock is an astonishing feat of engineering and construction. The most striking portion of Sigiriya, a terracotta and grey core of rock set in the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, rises a sheer 200 metres above a forested plain, its flattened summit sloping gently. A series of moats, ramparts and water gardens — remnants of an ancient city — spread out on two sides of the rock, with the remains of a pair of giant stone lion’s paws still guarding the staircase that leads to the summit, once occupied by a royal palace.
Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, Sigiriya is Asia’s best preserved city of the first millennium, showing complex urban planning around the base of the rock, combined with sophisticated engineering and irrigation skills in the palace perched on the summit. It is considered it to be one of the oldest tourist attractions in the world with visitors recording their impressions in some of the earliest-known graffiti.
For just two decades in the 5th century AD, Sigiriya rose to prominence following a power struggle between two brothers, and an act of patricide that saw the then king walled-up alive by his son, Kasyapa. Fearful that his defeated brother would return from exile to extract vengeance, Kasyapa shifted the capital to Sigiriya and in 477 AD, he ordered the construction of the magnificent city around the base of the rock, and decreed that his palace should stand on top, a fortress that would keep him safe from retribution. Just seven years later, his astonishing palace in the sky was ready, complete with terraces and a complex system of irrigation.
Kasyapa clearly had an eye for beauty. The pleasure gardens include a series of symmetric pools, channels and fountains that still spurt water after 1,500 years. Partway up the rock are the famous Sigiriya frescoes, featuring 21 bare-breasted damsels that may represent celestial nymphs, but were surely modeled on Kasyapa's own consorts. Halfway you'll encounter a pair of giant lion's paws, part of the original entrance, which required visitors to pass through the open mouth of a lion. The summit yields a dramatic vista of the surrounding jungle and contains the foundations of the palace complex, replete with bathing pools.
Rising from the central plains, the iconic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka's single most dramatic sight. Near-vertical walls soar to a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation, thought to be once the epicentre of the short-lived kingdom of Kassapa, and there are spellbinding vistas across mist-wrapped forests in the early morning.
Sigiriya refuses to reveal its secrets easily, and you'll have to climb a series of vertiginous staircases attached to sheer walls to reach the top. On the way you'll pass a series of quite remarkable frescoes and a pair of colossal lion's paws carved into the bedrock. The surrounding landscape – lily-pad-covered moats, water gardens and quiet shrines – and the excellent site museum, only add to Sigiriya's rock-star appeal.