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What is Sigiriya Rock?

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attractions – and with good reason. This ruined, fifth century city has some extraordinary features, including moat and wall fortifications, elaborately landscaped gardens, and a monastery. But it is the two-hundred metre high granite rock that stands out from these ruins that is undoubtedly the star attraction, with its exquisite frescoes and the remains of a royal palace on the summit.

1o amazing things about Sigiriya Rock

4 Main Sigiriya LION Rock Highlights

sigiriya mirror wall

1. Sigiriya MIrror wall

Just past the "Sigiriya Frescoes" , you walk alongside what is known as the “Mirror Wall” — a wall polished so heavily that the king would have been able to see his reflection on the surface. You’ll see names and notes scribbled into the wall, some from as early as the 8th century, by visitors to Sigiriya Lions Rock.

One translated writing reads: “I am Budal [the writer's name]. Came with hundreds of people to see Sigiriya. Since all the others wrote poems, I did not!” Some things never change.

Further graffiti nowadays is strictly banned in order to protect these ancient writings.

Sigiriya lion rock

2. Sigiriya Lion's Paw

At the northern end of the Sigiriya Lion Rock, a narrow pathway emerges on to the large platform from which the site derives its name – Sigiriya (from sinha-giri) means 'Lions Rock'. HCP Bell, the British archaeologist responsible for an enormous amount of archaeology in Sri Lanka, found the two enormous lion paws when excavating in 1898.

The final ascent to the top commenced with a stairway that led between the Sigiriya lion’s paws and into its mouth. The 5th-century lion has since disappeared, apart from the first steps and the paws. Reaching the top means clambering up across a series of metal stairs, but you can still see the original grooves and steps cut into the Sigiriya Lion Rock.

about sigiriya

3. Sigiriya Frescoes

After passing the gardens, you’ll approach a staircase which slowly winds its way up Sigiriya Lion Rock. One section of the staircase will allow you to view some of the ancient frescoes painted on the Sigiriya cave walls. These paintings are similar to those of the Anuradhapura period but have a distinct style in the way the lines and shadows are drawn.

To add to how impressive these ancient Sigiriya paintings are, it’s believe that the original paintings would have covered the entire face of Sigiriya Lions Rock — an area 140 meters long and 40 meters high.

Definitely take the extra few minutes to view the paintings and try to imagine what Sigiriya Rock would have looked like in all its painted glory thousands of years ago. As John Still suggested in 1907: “The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery . . . the largest picture in the world perhaps”

Lion palace sigiriya

4. Sigiriya Boulder Gardens

As you enter Sigiriya Lions Rock, you’ll first walk through a series of beautiful gardens as you make your way to the towering Lion’s Rock ahead.

The water gardens, cave and boulder gardens, and terraces gardens at Sigiriya are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, so be sure to take some time to appreciate them!

Sigiriya Lion Rock History

According to inscriptions found in the Sigiriya caves which honeycomb the base of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, it served as a place of religious retreat as far back as the third century BC, when Buddhist monks established refuge in the locale.

It wasn’t until the fifth century AD, however, that Sigiriya Lion Rock rose briefly to supremacy in Sri Lanka, following the power struggle which succeeded the reign of Dhatusena (455-473) of Anuradhapura. King Dhatusena had two sons, Mogallana, by one of the most desired and finest of his queens, and Kassapa, by a less significant consort. Upon hearing that Mogallana had been declared heir to the throne, Kassapa rebelled, driving Mogallana into exile in India and imprisoning his father, King Dhatusena. 

The legend of Dhatusena’s subsequent demise offers an enlightening illustration of the importance given to water in early Sinhalese civilization.

Threatened with death if he refused to reveal the whereabouts of the state treasure, Dhatusena agreed to show his errant son its location if he was permitted to bathe one final time in the great Kalawewa Tank, of which the construction he had overseen. Standing within the tank, Dhatusena poured its water through his hands and told Kassapa that this alone was his treasure. 

Kassapa, none too impressed, had his father walled up in a chamber and left him to die. Mogallana, meanwhile, vowed to return from India and reclaim his inheritance. King Kassapa, making preparations for the expected invasion, constructed a new dwelling on top of the 200-metre-high Sigiriya rock – a combination of pleasure palace and indestructible Sigiriya rock fortress, which King Kassapa intended would emulate the legendary abode of Kubera, the god of wealth, while a new city was established around its base. 

According to folklore, the entire Sigiriya lion rock fortress was built in just seven years, from 477 to 485 AD.

The long-awaited invasion finally materialized in 491, Mogallana having raised an army of Tamil mercenaries to fight his cause. Despite the benefits of his indestructible Sigiriya fortress, Kassapa, in an act of fatalistic bravado, descended from his rocky abode and rode boldly out on an elephant at the head of his troops to meet the attackers on the plains below.

Unfortunately for Kassapa, his elephant took fright and bolted leading the battle. His troops, thinking he was retreating, fell back and left him to face off the battle. Facing capture and defeat, Kassapa killed himself. Following Mogallana’s quest, Sigiriya Lion Rock was handed over to the Buddhist monks, after which its caves once again became home to religious ascetics seeking peace and solitude.

The site was finally abandoned in 1155, after which it remained largely forgotten, except for brief periods of military use by the Kingdom of Kandy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, until being rediscovered by the British in 1828

Quick tips

How long does it take to climb Sigiriya?

The vertical climb up to the top of Sigiriya Lion Rock is challenging, but not impossible, and will take you anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour (it usually takes me about 45 minutes with a few sweaty breaks). Getting back down is a little easier and should take approximately 20 minutes.

Sigiriya sri lanka

How long does it take to climb Sigiriya?

To begin, you’ll have to head to the ticket booth and pay the entrance fee (US$30 or 4620 LKR for tourists, or 50 LKR for Sri Lankan citizens). Hang onto the ticket as it will be checked about mid-way through the Sigiriya hike.

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When is the best time to visit Sigiriya?

Sigiriya is located in what is known as Sri Lanka’s “dry zone”, which is mostly arid and hot throughout the year. The climate in this region can be extreme from about April to August, with the temperature soaring upwards of 30 degrees Celsius.

So the climb should start early morning or late afternooon. 

The crowds also tend to be smaller in the afternoon as many tour groups visit in the morning (before moving onto the next destination), and there’s also the additional bonus of watching the sunset once you get to the top! Just make sure you purchase your ticket before the entrance closes at 5 PM, wear sunscreen and bring a (large) bottle of water.

If you are climbing the rock in the afternoon, you may need to ensure that you have access to a flashlight (you can also use your phone’s flash function) for the walk back down. There are no lamps to light your way back down, and the ground is extremely uneven, so you need to make sure you can see where you are stepping to avoid injury.

What to wear to hike up Sigiriya

There is no strict dress code to visit Sigiriya as it is not a religious monument. That being said, you should adhere to and respect cultural norms – tank tops, spaghetti straps and shorts are acceptable and you do not need to cover your shoulders and knees (unless you are headed to the Dambulla Cave Temples before or after), but extremely revealing outfits with exposed midriffs and miniskirts are generally frowned upon.

How to get to Sigiriya

Sigiriya is located approximately 3-4 hours by car from Colombo. The town itself can be a pain to get to as there are few direct buses and trains (the nearest station is in Habarana), It is highly recommend saving your time and energy and hiring a private car to take you there whether you are traveling north or southbound during your Sri Lanka itinerary. If you are traveling directly to Sigiriya from Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo then you can either hire an airport taxi which will cost approximately 12,000 LKR (~US$65-70), or ask your hotel to arrange a 1-way transfer.

Climbing Sigiriya Rock

The climb up Sigiriya Rock consists of approximately 1200 steps in total and can be divvied up into a few phases. There are steps all the way to the top, and can get very crowded, steep and narrow in certain sections, so it’s important to pace yourself, rest when needed, and remember to catch your breath. Read on for what to expect at each stage of the Sigiriya hike.

Climb 1 - CLIMB TO BOULDER GARDENS

The first stage of your climb sigiriya lion rock starts at the end of the Fountain Gardens and up to the Boulder Gardens. There are just a few steps that are easy to climb. Many large boulders have rock -shelters beneath them. These were once colorfully decorated. Several platforms in this vicinity may have contained many large open-air pavilions.

View-of-Sigiriya-from-gardens-in-Sri-lanka

Climb 2 - CLIMB TO TERRACED GARDENS

Entering the Boulder Garden via a series of idyllic stairways, some through leaning boulders, you walk towards the Terraced Gardens. More small caves dot the area. These were once richly decorated and furnished with benches for visitors to rest and admire the surroundings. On top of almost every boulder was a gazebo

Sigiriya Sri lanka

You are not allowed to take photos of the frescoes of Sigiriya without proper permission, and there are guards there making sure that you don’t sneak a shot. Nest part is The Lion Gate now features two massive sets of claws that guard the final pathway up to the Sky Palace, and leaves you wondering how majestic and perhaps intimidating it would have looked before the lion’s head disintegrated.

Another very important thing to be aware of is that you should keep your voice down as there are wasp nests around.

Sigiriya 17

Climb 3 - CLIMB TO MIRROR WALL

The first stage of the challenging climb sigiriya lion rock, commences through the Terraced Gardens. There are two massive brick stairways leading up through several terraces to the Zig-zag staircase. This grand staircase leads to the Mirror Wall. At the top of the Zig-zag stairs is a platform where you can catch your breath and admire the scenery

sigiriya mirror wall

Climb 4 - CLIMB TO SIGIRIYA FRESCOES

A narrow spiral metal staircase from the Mirror Wall walkway leads up to the Sigiriya Frescoes located 20 meters above. Painted over 1600 years ago, the frescoes depict the ladies of King Kasyapa’s harem. Dressed in beautiful garments and the finest jewelry, they are well worth your effort to see.

SIGIRIYA FRESCOES Sri Lanka

Climb 5 - CLIMB TO LION STAIRCASE

A narrow spiral metal staircase from the Mirror Wall walkway leads up to the Sigiriya Frescoes located 20 meters above. Painted over 1600 years ago, the frescoes depict the ladies of King Kasyapa’s harem. Dressed in beautiful garments and the finest jewelry, they are well worth your effort to see.

Sigiriya stairs 2

Climb 6 - CLIMB TO SKY PALACE

This is the most difficult part of the climb sigiriya lion rock and may give you jelly-knees and vertigo as you climb up a narrow steel gantry on the exposed side to the rock to the Summit If you look below you, you will see the grooves carved into the rock surface by the ancient builders to provide the footing for the original staircase.

Sigiriya Ruins in Sri Lanka 4 1
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