The Lion’s Rock rises nearly 200 meters above the open landscape in Sigiriya, some 22 km north-east of the city of Dambulla in central Sri Lanka. The iconic rock may have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and most certainly by monks from around the time of the arrival of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE.

During a period of less than twenty years in the latter part of the 5th century, the rock and its surroundings served as the capital under Kassapa, who had acquired the throne by killing his very own father and ruler Dhatusena, in the then capital city of Anuradhapura. Under Kassapa an elaborate set of elegant gardens was built, and on the summit was his fortified palace. Despite its seemingly impregnable location however, he ended his life after having lost a battle there in 495, this time against his brother Moggallana. The city of Anuradhapura was promptly restored as the Sinhalese capital and the rock returned to the monks.

Header photo: Sigiriya © Jane1e


Sigiriya, Lion’s Rock by Bernard Gagnon (Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0)
Sigiriya, Lion’s Rock by Bernard Gagnon (Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Lion's Claw
The Lion’s Claw (CC License)

The Sigiriya rock sits at the centre of a rectangular planned city partially enclosed by a double set of earthen, moated ramparts. The main entrance is on the west side. At the time of completion in the 5th century it would have been one of the oldest planned gardens in the world, consisting of a summer palace, a pavilion, gardens set amidst a series of ponds fed by water running in canals from a reservoir on the outer city limits.

Closer to the rock are the boulder gardens and at the base the terraced gardens. Before you reach the point of ascent to the rock itself you would have entered another fortified area, that of the citadel, marked by a brick wall around the base of the Sigiriya rock.

The name “Lion’s Rock” comes from the huge lion’s claws at the base of the stairway leading up to the summit. Only the paws remain of what must have been an awesome sight in its time. What is believed to be the remains of Kassapa’s royal palace on the summit are visible on the north-west corner, which is also the highest point, providing great views of Sigiriya.


“Apsaras” Fresco © Hbh
“Apsaras” fresco detail © Hbh

“The Maidens of the Clouds”

Halfway up, about 100 meters above the gardens and protected from the weather in a depression in the sheer rock wall, are the world renowned frescoes of Sigiriya, believed to be of the Apsaras, “The Maidens of the Clouds”. The Apsaras, many in the company of attendants wearing tops and holding a supply of flowers, are depicted dropping these flowers on the earth below. The figures are strikingly three-dimensional, painted in a limited but bold range of colours.

Some of the wall paintings may date from the time of Kassapa’s short reign. Today there are 18 in total, 12 of which are fully intact, representing only a fraction of the original number of paintings.


World Heritage

The Ancient City of Sigiriya, a World Heritage Site since 1982, bears a unique witness to the civilisation of the island at the time of Kassapa’s reign. The significance of the historical events, the planned garden city and the influential rock wall frescoes make the Ancient City of Sigiriya a place of outstanding universal value. (UNESCO)


Header photo of Sigiriya © Jane1e |
Sigiriya “Apsaras” Frescos: © Hbh |
Sigiriya, Lion’s Rock by Bernard Gagnon (Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0)
Reservoir at the summit (pool): © Pklimenko |
Sri Lanka – The Cultural Triangle (Approach Guides 2015)