Sigiriya: Sri Lanka’s ‘Lion Rock’

Emily Goodheart September 27, 2021 0

Sigiriya 'Lion's Rock' in the middle of the forest in Sri Lanka

Natural Habitat Adventures’ Sri Lanka Wildlife Safari explores the pristine natural areas and cultural highlights of this island country. Travelers will have a chance to visit many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, among them the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya.

Lion Rock is an imposing granite outcrop rising 650 feet above the rainforest. King Kashyapa I built his fortress, Sigiriya, here in the 5th century. In some places, the walls of the ancient citadel were 30 feet thick, and with good reason. Kashyapa murdered his father, King Dhatusena, and feared a retaliatory attack by his half-brother and the rightful heir, Moggallana. The fierce usurper and the fortress fell to Moggallana’s army in 495 A.D., after which time it became a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.

Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress in Sri Lanka.

Travelers will spend an afternoon walking among the ruins. Guarding the gateway are two monumental lion paws carved into the edifice on either side of a stairway. The stairway once led through the mouth of a magnificent lion head, but the rockface has long since collapsed. Climb 1,200 stone steps to the top to be greeted by expansive views of the mountains and jungle below. This palace in the sky was envisioned to be a recreation of the mythological city of Alakamanda—the city of the gods in Buddhist teachings. Alakamanda sits among the clouds, so the rock base of Sigirya was painted white to resemble this, and its surface was decorated with paintings of celestial nymphs.

Famous Sri Lankan tourist landmark - lion's paws pathway on Sigiriya rock, Sri Lanka

In Sinhalese tradition, lions are regarded as the mythical ancestors of royalty—Sinhala means “of lions.” 

A fresco gallery reveals these exquisite wall paintings of female figures. Of the 500 depictions, only 22 have survived. Known collectively as ‘The Maidens of the Clouds,’ they are thought to be the ladies of King Kashyapa’s court, portrayed as apsaras, celestial singers and dancers who were symbolic representations of rainclouds and lightning. Here you will also find the Mirror Wall, with transcripts that show the originations of Sinhala, a language spoken by the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. More than 1,500 poems have been written on the wall, including the verse below:

Like geese who have seen a lake, I listened to the message given by her.

Like a bee who has seen full-blown lotuses, the bewildered heart of mine was consoled.

King Kashyapa I constructed his royal palace on the summit of Lion Rock, overlooking elaborately landscaped gardens, among the oldest in the world.

King Kashyapa I constructed his royal palace on the summit of Lion Rock, overlooking elaborately landscaped gardens, which are among the oldest in the world. Walking through the royal gardens, you’ll find tropical fruits such as guava, mango, tamarind, coconut, jackfruit and soursop. Spices including clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper grow, along with cashew trees and lemongrass. As you walk through the water gardens, you’ll see how the palace created an innovative system to collect freshwater via moats, pools and cisterns.

The surrounding forest makes up the Sigiriya Reserve, home to a plethora of birdlife.

The surrounding forest makes up the Sigiriya Reserve, home to primates, reptiles, butterflies and vibrant birds. The Old World monkeys found here include chattering troops of toque macaque, purple-faced leaf monkeys and gray langurs. Endemic birds include Indian long-tailed night-jar, Sri Lankan jungle fowl, emerald dove, brown-capped babbler, orange-headed ground thrush, forest eagle-owl, Sri Lanka grey hornbill and blue-faced malkoha. Crested serpent eagles, white-bellied sea eagles and shaheen falcons can be seen gliding overhead atop Lion Rock.

A purple-faced leaf monkey in Sri Lanka

We will see many other UNESCO World Heritage Sites on our Sri Lanka nature tour. These include the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, Galle Fort and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which is regarded as the most sacred place in Sri Lanka.

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