I spent an eventless evening in the hotel eating the international style buffet and listening to the sanitised entertainment. I woke early next morning to get a head start on most of the tourists and walked down the entrance to Sigiriya. I got my ticket that covered all the World Heritage Triangle and walked across a small moat and through a wall to the lower gardens. A man in a yellow T-shirt started to approach me. I had a guide book, I had all morning and I was quite looking forward to my own company. I tried to shun the guide and keep away from him, but he knew his craft well and caught up with me deftly. He explained that only official guides were allowed in the fortress and that the yellow t-shirt defined his status. I agreed that he could take me around and it was the best thing I could have done. His name was Premadasa and he started to explain about the history of this incredible palace.
For all its grandeur it occupied only a very small period in Sri Lanka’s history. The rulers of Sri Lanka first established their base in Anuradhapura in around the fourth century before Christ. They built massive temples, palaces, monasteries and like. Indeed I was fortunate enough to travel with Flo and Roger to Anuradhapura the following February on my second visit. What amazed me more than the huge temple ruins was that within the World Heritage site area, there were people living in the usual huts with their little backyards. But one wall of their huts would have been made up of some pilfered ornate stone from a temple of some sort, or part of the original walls of a compound or monastery. And at every turn we would see “Stuff” of this sort. Under all sorts of trees, roads, in cow fields, near the dams, there was stuff everywhere. We met some archaeologists who had spent three years digging a single pit, and had had to sift so carefully through the layers because there was 1400 years of history in this centre. Documenting the pit had been a mammoth task, documenting the evidence of the known sites of historical interest was hardly underway and one of the archaeologist put the percentage of known artefacts in the city at no more than 30%. Hidden under the jungle were still untold treasures.
The rulers of Sri Lanka moved on to Polonnaruwa to the south east, which I was planning to visit in the afternoon. Its rule over the whole island lasted nearly three hundred years, but, with the threat of invasions from the Portuguese, Polonnaruwa was abandoned, and the history of Sri Lanka became more fragmented. Many Sinhalese moved their kingdom to the hill country, to Kandy, while Tamils dominated the north and the KotteKingdom, also Sinhalese, took their kingdom to the south west coast.
Sigiriya dates from the period of the last years of the Anuradhapura regime, when Dhatusena was overthrown by one of his consort’s sons, Kasyapa. His true son, Moggallana, fleeing to India, threatened to rise against Kasyapa. Kasyapa built this huge castle atop the rock at Sigiriya, as much as a palacial statement as a fortress. The rock itself forms only the central part of the compound – there was not enough water on top of the rock to sustain a palace all year round, so during the dry season, the courtiers would come down to another palace at the foot of the rock. Sigiriya only had a brief history, as Kaspaya went to battle against Moggallana, missed a turning and his troops deserted him in a swamp. He killed himself. Either Sigiriya was too impractical a place to live or history was already moving on to Polonnaruwa, but it was swept aside in less than forty years. Apparently some monks took it on as a going concern for a few years, but then the jungle reclaimed it and it was only during British Colonial years that the ruins resurfaced. The archaeological finds and remaining structure of the complex are awesome, what it looked like at the height of its power one can hardly envisage.
Premadasa led me through the site in sequence. Although I could have strayed in the lower gardens, once through the boulders at the foot of the rock, the only way was up, passed the mirrored wall to the lions paws, up a precipitous path to the summer fortress at the top.
To understand how Sigiriya managed to survive at all on such a grand scale in the middle of the scrub, one has to understand the hydraulics of the palace. As in any major culture, the control of water was crucial in its expansion. In Sigiriya, the water was generally collected from the rock itself. Rain falling was kept in large tanks gouged out of the solid rock. Some water was allowed down a single culvert etched into the side of the vertical face, and it poured down to the boulder garden below. It then fed into a series of tunnels and aqueducts through the dry season palace, through some water gardens seemingly put there for sheer pleasure, to the Royal Bathing Pools and then on to the moat outside. Every drop of water was conserved and passed through the entire gardens where possible.
I walked with Premadasa against the flow of the water. First we walked through brick lined empty tanks which were once the Royal Bathing Pools. At certain places, stone lined channels fed the water under or along the pathways we walked, and you could see the holes where fountains must have spurted, powered by the head of water created from further up the garden. The sun, rising sharply from the east gave some well defined shadows against the trees. All the time, while walking up the centre of the water gardens, the looming bulk of the rock stared down. Not exactly cuboid, it slopes a little from north to south, but from many angles the wall looked sheer. It was hard to believe that anyone could get to the top. At the end of the flat water garden, the trees covered our path and as we walked into them, I realised we were in a series of boulders, some of which were probably hunks of stone that had fallen off Sigiriya Rock itself. Right and left there were terraces and gardens, but our way led ahead up flight after flight of steps, the boulders crowding in closer and closer as we rose. At one point the stairs led through a narrow crevice formed by two enormous boulders leaning against each other.
We came to the final ledge at the foot of the rock proper, and I took time to glance back at the dry season palace. The regular layout of the gardens was much more apparent from here, but despite a lot of clearing, the margins of the grounds were merging into the scrublands beyond, and they seemed to disappear to the horizon.
The next stage was to climb to the Lion Platform, the ancient entrance to the WetSeasonPalace. To do so, we walked along a narrow path cut into the rock edge. The path becomes protected by a high wall. From a distance it looks like a band of coloured stone in the rock, but as one gets closer, the wall appears to be a concrete addition purely for the safety of the tourists. Only when you get inside the wall do you see its true nature. Here and there are tell tale signs of a glaze that was layered on the smooth surface to act as a mirror. Reflected in the mirror were hundreds of portraits, mainly of semi naked women. A curious sort of prudery or religious aforethought was at work here – the visitors to the palace should not look at these scantily clad ladies directly, but it seemed perfectly OK to look at their reflections. Many wags wrote graffiti in the glaze reflecting (sic) their opinions of the frescoes above them. Many pieces of the graffiti have been translated and reveal some moody, some jealous (from the women visitors) and some saucy impressions.
Only a couple of dozen of these frescoes still exist in reasonable form, but even this is remarkable considering the 1500 years of wear and tear. The wall protects them from the worst of the elements, and similarly to the cave temples in Dambulla, lines were cut in the rock to drip the rainfall off the frescoes. Although some were touched up more recently, the character of the frescoes remains. Circling up a metal staircase I went to view a few of these ladies for myself…. For research purposes of course. Although stylised images of servants and ladies, the curves of the figures, the slightly seductive poses show a slightly risqué side to these decorations. The area curtained off is very small so I did not stay long, and indeed had a hard time getting down as a fool of a guide was trying to force twenty fat Germans up to the crowded platform without giving way to those trying to descend. Premadasa waited patiently at the foot of the stairs for me, taking time out with a cigarette. As we went around, he had a tendency to pose in Men’s clothing catalogue stances as if to prove that he actually owned the place.
The narrow ledge climbs steeply at the end of the mirror wall and opened up to the Lion Platform, a medium sized area about a third of the way up the rock. I was so bowled over by what I had seen so far that I didn’t think anything else would surprise me, but the platform was incredible. Astride a modern staircase shored up by bricks were two enormous stone paws. The height of the claws was over three feet, to the top of the paw was about ten feet. It is thought that when the palace was complete, the whole front of a lion was built of bricks and stuck on the north side of the rock. How enormous this must have been is impossible to comprehend, but the effect was to belittle all guests to the palace – they had to walk up the stairs and into the lion’s mouth to get to the quarters. The lion gave its name to the rock – Sigiriya.
I took time out at this stage to try to take it all in, as I suppose many visitors to the palace must have done so. They had been taken through the lower gardens, walked past these fancy murals and then reached this tremendous structure. They probably needed a swift drink and a trip to the khazi before going up to see the king himself. There were a bunch of floor plans here marking what must have been sizeable anterooms. I went off to one side where a small lily pond sat in a cliff edge garden and looked at the paws from another angle. I still could hardly believe what was there. Lara Croft would have been struck dumb.
Then I looked up and saw the way I had to go. If I was awestruck before I now became frightened. A simple metal staircase zigzagged up the sheer face from the lions paws. We took it steady, I kept looking across at the ever expanding views as we climbed but I tried to avoid looking down. Still, all sorts of people, young and old were climbing behind me (we were still one of the first of the day to reach this point). As we carefully stepped up, I noticed in the rock face were small indentations at regular intervals. This was the original way up, an exposed set of steps which every visitor had to walk up. There seems to be no evidence of any rails or guides, just these simple scratches in the rock. The story goes that the king himself was carried up in a chair – how they kept it steady in the winds Buddha only knows.
With some relief I reached the top (but it was still nagging me that I had to descend the same way). We were now amongst the old wet season palace. It was large – the rock was deceptive in revealing its secrets from below, but it was a wide platform as well as long. Almost every corner seemed to be covered in some foundation, series of rooms, corridors, tanks and gardens stuck on the solid rock base. Again, the imagination had to work overtime to try to understand what it must have looked like when complete – it may have stood a good thirty or forty feet above today’s height – with all the superstructure of grand halls and towers. A kind of Sri Lankan Gormenghast perched high above the jungle. Premadasa and I wandered for a while over the remaining rubble. A few things stood out, first of all, the good geographer in me called me to each corner to see the panorama – and I wasn’t disappointed. Reaching west I could see the summer palace, the formal plan more vivid from above, reaching into the scrub that disappeared miles to the hills on the horizon. To the south jungle gave way to a few tanks and then the hill country beyond, the round rock of Dambulla looking tiny from here. To the north a similar scene, slightly blocked by a lower rounder hill, but a huge scar opened up the jungle not too far away – a neatly tarmacced runway with a bunch of fighter planes grouped at one end. This was the air force base of Sigiriya, right at the front line in the war with the Tamils.
When I looked in on the palace, the large tank at one corner intrigued me. It was so deep and wide, it was fairly obvious that it was for water storage rather than swimming, and I wondered if the roofs of the palace collected the rainwater and it was channelled into this pool. The surplus then went down the culvert to reach the dry season pools. The system seemed so perfect. I sat for a while on the King’s seat, carved out of the solid rock, it was as smooth as the proverbial baby’s. The sun was now high in the sky and I was keen to start the descent before I started to suffer.
Premadasa kept close to me all the time I was up there and he guided me carefully down the stairs, past the paws and the mirror wall. It was getting increasingly difficult to move along this ledge as hundreds of tourist, local and foreign, were trying to get up the other way. I was very glad I had started early.
In the boulder garden we veered away from our original path and into another portion. The rocks had been naturally carved into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes; one was a tall long rock that appeared from one angle like the rising torso of a cobra, the hood fully extended. When we reached the bottom, I was escorted out of the exit gate. Weernsinghe was waiting for me next to all the stalls of hawkers (the WHS had organised the place so well that there were no blemishes like this on the inside of the palace). I paid my dues to Premadasa and was about to head on to Polonnaruwa, but Premadasa asked me if I wanted to see another temple on the small round hill partnering Sigiriya. I looked at Weernsinghe who always put that certain look on his face at these times that said “it’s your life” and I decided I could spare another hour in Sigiriya.