A bird’s eye view. Between a Rock and a Garden Space.
It is a beautiful day as Captain Sampath and his co-pilot Rajiv prepare the Cinnamon Air Cessna 208B for take off. The flight to Sigiriya is short yet the sights along the way are stunning. Blue clear skies contrast with the lush greenery 5,500 feet below. The murky waters of the majestic Mahaweli River glisten as it snakes its way across this resplendent land. Roadways divide geometric rice fields and sprawling coconut and tea estates. We fly over small villages and big towns and race ahead of congested traffic jams below.
Captain Sampath points to the left and there, against a rocky outcrop is the famed Dambulla Rock Temple. A couple of minutes later, the Cessna dips to the right and I get a bird’s eye view of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, standing tall and proud. Thirty minutes after takeoff, we land at the Sigiriya Air Force Base and I hitch a ride to the base of the massive Rock Fortress.
Towering 200m up to the sky, the majestic ‘Lion Mountain’ is a testament to an advanced civilization during the reign of King Kasyapa during the 5th century.
Despite the searing heat of the day, the rock is already teeming with visitors and after paying Rs. 50 for my entrance ticket, I step into the Sigiriya Gardens considered to be the oldest surviving historic gardens in Asia.
Sigiriya is 2,500 million years old dating back in geological times to the Precambrian Era, the earliest period in the Earth’s formation. According to archeological finds during excavations, prehistoric humans occupied Sigiriya and the surrounding area from about 10,000 years ago in early monastic residences that were converted into image houses and shrines post King Kasyapa times.
Kasyapa’s dramatic entry into the political scene commenced when he took control of the throne in 477 AD. Kasyapa was King Dhatusena’s son by a non-royal consort, and together with the King’s nephew and army commander Migara, took control of the throne and subsequently executed his father. Reviled for his patricide, King Kasyapa left the capital Anuradhapura and established his new capital at Sigiriya while his half-brother, the crown prince Moggallana went into exile in India. From Sigiriya, King Kasyapa reigned for the next 18 years during which time he turned this Rock into a veritable royal city with ramparts, moats and gateways, incredibly complex water systems, and beautiful pleasure gardens. He created an almost defensible fortification with an ascent to the summit via the Lion’s Staircase, past a Mirror Wall and the artistic frescos that I see on my way up to the summit.
Along the way, I spy 30 drip-ledge caves, strewn across this beautiful setting with eight of them containing brahmi inscriptions, recording the donation of these shelters to the Buddhist monastic order as residences. Out-marks on these boulders as footing for brickwork indicate that each bolder had a building or pavilion on top of it.
Kasyapa’s reign came to an end when Moggallana returned with 12 companions, raised an army in Sri Lanka and defeated him on the battlefield. According to chronicle accounts, Kasyapa’s forces fled without fighting and the King, seeing that the battle was lost and too proud to surrender took his dagger from his waistband, cut his own throat, raised his dagger proudly, sheathed it, and fell dead.
Moggallana then returned to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya, once again, became a monastery, which lasted until the 16th and 17th centuries.
My ascent to the summit is less daunting than it would have been during the King’s reign, with easily accessible steps, stairways and handrails to assist visitors. At the halfway point I pass the massive Lion’s Paws and the Mirror Wall that has now lost much of its lustre. Its highly polished surface was of literary importance as visitors from the 7th – 19th centuries AD left comments expressing feelings of enchantment at their surroundings.
I come to the world acclaimed frescos that has reduced to 19 female figures from an original 500 that once graced the plastered rock face. They say, the sheer artistry and detail in these drawings are comparable to the Ajanta Cave drawings in India. I spend some time catching my breath and enjoying the view from this vantage point.
About 10 minutes later, I make it to the summit where the 360-degree view is breathtakingly beautiful. It is unimaginable how King Kasyapa built this incredible palace and ruled from this Rock. But I imagine, his reign must have been filled with fascination, royal intrigue and a beautiful sight every morning!
Back down, I venture into the Museum located to the West of the Outer Moat and the Outer Ramparts that blends seamlessly into the surrounding forest and water tanks. Needless to say, I am surprised at how beautifully planned and preserved the Museum is adding to an authentic experience. I enter through a brick tunnel similar to an archway of the Rock and find a treasure trove of various artifacts discovered through archaeological excavations such as a human skeleton, tools, jewels, sculptures and much more. The galleries are also filled with drawings, photographs and interesting information and an actual iron melting kiln and a beautiful purple stone-embedded gold earring.
The displays in the lower gallery have several exhibits on the 12 thematic and chronological divisions; from Prehistoric Sigiriya when humans occupied Sigiriya and the surrounding area from about 10,000 years ago; the Protohistoric transition that shows how humans moved from itinerant food gatherers and hunters to agrarian village settlement; the early Buddhist monastic periods followed by the Pre-Kasyapa period to the third gallery which is solely dedicated to King Kasyapa’s reign, renowned as the ‘Golden Age’ of Sigiriya.
Each artifact and display is carefully presented, displayed and described throughout this fascinating Museum. Ancient images of Buddha carved from crystalline limestone to bronze and terracotta statues of the Bodhisatva, guard stones, hunting and cooking utensils, pillars and decorative tiles, storage jars and pottery, coins and jewelry are on display.
The upper gallery is a replica of the ‘fresco pocket’ with exact reproductions of the frescos found above the Mirror Wall.
I leave reluctantly to catch my flight from the Air Force base, which after one more circle around this Rock heads back to Katunayake and 35 minutes later, I am on the highway, en route to Colombo.