Perched on a slab of rock that juts dramatically over the forests of central Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is as imposing a sight now as it must have been when it was first built by a fierce king in the fifth century A.D. Meaning “lion’s rock,” Sigiriya (designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982) is accessed by way of passageways cut into the rock face between a monumental pair of lion paws.
The fortress was later swallowed by the forest, and only familiar to local villagers. Outsiders used knowledge of its past, preserved in Buddhist texts, to search for the ancient site. British historians rediscovered its astonishing buildings and frescoes in the 19th century.
Kingdom to colony
Sigiriya was built by the fifth-century king Kashyapa I, who ruled the native Sinhalese dynasty, the Moriya. The imposing fortress was the capital of the Sinhalese kingdom until Kashyapa was defeated in A.D. 495. (Watch: An ancient palatial fortress overlooks this barren desert in Israel.)
After Kashyapa, dynasties rose and fell, their fortunes shaped by internal power struggles and conflicts between native Sinhalese and outside invaders from India.
Various cities held the status of capital after Sigiriya, such as Polonnaruwa. By the 12th century, however, overall control of Sri Lanka progressively weakened. Sinhalese power retreated to the southwest of the island, abandoning the Rajarata region, and the former administrative centers, including Sigiriya, started to fall into disuse.
Sri Lanka’s position in the Indian Ocean made it vulnerable to Europeans looking to expand their control in the region. By the mid-1500s the Portuguese had thoroughly exploited dynastic tensions in Sri Lanka’s ruling elite and controlled much of the island.
A century later the Dutch had replaced the Portuguese as colonial masters, and they were in turn displaced by the British in the late 1700s. By 1815 the Kingdom of Kandy, the last independent, native state on the island, became part of the British Empire.
Knowledge is power
British imperial rule brought civil servant George Turnour to the island. An aristocrat, scholar, and passionate historian, Turnour worked with a Buddhist monk to translate an ancient fifth-century chronicle, the Mahavamsa, from the Sri Lankan Pali language into English. Based on this and other texts, he identified two ancient capitals: Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
Turnour also studied a later chronicle of Sri Lankan history, the Culavamsa, which told the story of King Kashyapa. In the late fifth century, this Sinhalese prince killed his father, King Dhatusena, and seized the throne, usurping his brother, who fled to India. Fearing reprisals, he built the fortress Sigiriya—but in vain: His brother returned, defeating Kashyapa, and Sigiriya lost its brief status as capital.
In 1827 a Scottish officer, Jonathan Forbes, became friends with Turnour, and on hearing the story of Kashyapa and his palace, decided to look for it. In 1831 he set off to where locals told him he would find the remains of an ancient city.
His memoir, Eleven Years in Ceylon, describes “the rock of Sirigi [sic], . . . frowning defiance over the scanty fields and the far-extending forest of the surrounding plain.” As he approached, he could see platforms and galleries carved into the rock. Two of his party managed to scramble some way up but dislodged rocks, “which crashed among the boughs of the trees at a great depth below.”
Unsure as to whether he had found the Sigiriya mentioned in the Buddhist texts, Forbes abandoned the expedition. Revisiting a few years later, he traced the moat that surrounds the gardens at the foot of the rock but did not attempt to climb the cliff face. He doubted that the name Sigiriya was related to lions, as he had seen nothing to support that etymology.
British mountaineers eventually reached the top in 1851, but the task of surveying the site fell to the Archaeological Commissioner of Ceylon, Harry C.P. Bell. His survey at the end of the 19th century has formed the basis of all studies since.
Bell painstakingly ascertained the layout of Kashyapa’s fantastical city as well as detailed the magnificent carving of the lion’s paws at the entrance, which Forbes had not been able to see.
In addition to the elaborate water gardens at the foot of the rock, Bell’s survey also lavished attention on the galleries on the rock face. These are decorated with exquisite wall paintings that have become some of the most prized objects in Sri Lanka’s artistic heritage. A total of 21 surviving frescoes may depict apsaras, celestial singers and dancers. (See also: 40,000-year-old cave art may be world's oldest animal drawing.)
Nearby, also on the walls of the rock face, are well over 1,000 items of graffiti, scratched by monks and pilgrims who visited the site in the eighth to the 13th centuries. These messages from the past can cause a frisson when read by visitors today. One reads: “At Sigiriya, of abundant splendor, situated on the island of [Sri Lanka] we saw, in happy mood, the rock that captivates the mind of all people who come here.”