What is Sigiriya? (with picture)

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Sigiriya is an ancient fortress in Sri Lanka. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1982. It is often compared to the Ajanta Caves in India, also a World Heritage Site.

Sri Lanka lies below India in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka lies below India in the Indian Ocean.

Sigiriya, which can be loosely translated as the Lion’s Rock, was built in the 5th century, under King Kasyapa. It’s thought, however, that the region has been lived in since at least the 5th century BCE, with the caves given over to practitioners of Buddhism in these early centuries.

A palace was built on the site by King Kasyapa, who also built a massive garden complex. After the king died, the site reverted to its Buddhist roots, being used as a monastery for the next millennium, until finally being abandoned sometime in the 14th century. It remained lost until the beginning of the 20th century, when a British explorer, John Still, rediscovered it.

The rock of Sigiriya is a massive magma plug from a volcano which has long since eroded, leaving only the hardened rock of the plug to tower above the surrounding plain. It rises up more than 1200 feet (370m), and offers a remarkable view over the largely flat surrounding area.

Sigiriya is considered a very sophisticated site for the period. It makes use of interesting juxtapositions between asymmetrical structures and symmetrical structures to help the buildings meld seamlessly into the natural geometry of the place. It also includes technologically sophisticated features, such as water structures, both above and below the surface.

The site has four distinct regions. At the top of the rock, on the flat plateau, is the upper palace. Down a bit is the Lion Gate and the Mirror Walls, on a terrace mid-way down the rock. At the base of the rock is the lower palace, built on the slope that leads up to the sheer face. And coming out from the rock, for hundreds of feet, are various walls, moats, and elaborate gardens.

There are three separate garden forms at Sigiriya: the cave gardens, the boulder gardens, and the water gardens. All three are sophisticated in their design and implementation, and they are some of the oldest surviving examples of advanced landscaping from the ancient world. The use of water is particularly impressive and beautiful, with large flat stones set to have water barely covering them in a style similar to modern water features, underground water feeding tunnels, and fountains that continue to operate more than 1500 years after their construction.

The mirror wall is another technologically sophisticated structure at Sigiriya. It was originally conceived of so that the king would look into it and see himself in all his glory. Made of porcelain, it was originally kept polished during Kasyapa’s reign. After his death, it was no longer polished, and beginning in the 8th century visitors to the site began to leave messages written on the rock. These inscriptions have been well preserved, and their messages are still clearly visible.

Sigiriya is one of the most remarkable, and under-visited, archeological sites in the world. It is a site of incredible beauty, designed to embody many of the precepts of the Buddhism that was practiced at the site, and utilizing advanced technologies to demonstrate the genius and power of King Kasyapa. It has been remarkably well preserved, and is a place that every visitor to Sri Lanka should endeavor to see.

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Discussion Comments


@dill1971: My church group visited Sri Lanka and we also got to see Sigiriya. There aren’t enough words to describe the beauty of it. I learned quickly that you should wear shoes with a good grip because the paths are very slippery and muddy at times. Flip flops are definitely not the way to go!

Once you start climbing the steps you reach spiral staircases that lead to the rock face with the painted frescoes. When I visited there, they didn’t allow flash photography in that area. After that, you pass the mirrored wall as discussed in the article. The graffiti dates back to the seventh century.

If ever any of you have the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is a must-see.


@dill1971: You can definitely visit Sigiriya. They are happy to have tourists and even offer guided tours. My college history professor and his wife spent 3 weeks in Sri Lanka. He said that Sigiriya was the most awesome sight he had ever seen.

We got to see pictures of it and it is absolutely breathtaking! He said that the tours start at the base of the rock where the water gardens, moat, pools, and boulder gardens are. He said that they were fascinated with all of that before they ever even started the ascent up!

I just feel fortunate that I got to see all of the Sigiriya pictures since I will probably never have the opportunity to visit there.


I am fascinated with the Sigiriya history. I was wondering if tourists can visit there or is it closed to the public?

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    • Sri Lanka lies below India in the Indian Ocean.
      Sri Lanka lies below India in the Indian Ocean.