Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Lion Rock rises 360 meters above sea level. While it is not a Buddhist pilgrimage site, it is very important historically and archaeologically and is one of the UNESCO Cultural Triangle sites. As described later in this post, it was also home during separate periods of hundreds of years to Buddhist monastic orders.

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

The Winter Palace at the very top rises another 200 meters from the water gardens at the base of the rock. As usual, when we arrived, Aslam introduced us to another excellent guide, who’s name was Ruwa.

Ruwa explained in picturesque language how the first king of Sigiriya came to built his kingdom here in 477 AD. His name was Kasyapa I. Being the illegitimate son of King Dhatusena I (459-477 AD) by a non-royal consort, Dhatusena had no plans to make him heir to the throne or any kingdom, for that matter. According to Ruwa, one day his father brought Prince Kasyapa to a pool on the palace grounds to tell him what was coming to him. He took a handful of water and threw it up into the air and said, “This is what is yours.” Kasyapa killed him on the spot and fled to Sigiriya to build his kingdom.

In truth, Dhatusena was a despicable character and had many enemies, so Kasyapa had help in dispatching him. His brother, Mugalan, however, who had a legitimate claim to the throne fled to India at the time but eventually came and battled Kasyapa, who committed suicide when it was clear he had lost an important battle. He was the only king who ever ruled Sigiriya.

Sigiriya is one of Asia’s major archaeological sites, with a history extending from prehistoric times to the 18th century. We walked through urban ruins, including architecture, gardens, art, and hydraulic technology dating back to the 5th century AD when Kasyapa arrived.

Historically, Sigiriya goes back much farther in time, to the 3rd century BC when a Buddhist monastic settlement was established in the area, evidenced by 30 rock shelters dated by inscriptions on the rock face, recording the granting of these caves by the crown to the Buddhist monastic order to be used as residences. Then again, for hundreds of years after the Kasyapan empire ended, Buddhist monastics again settled into the area until about the 13th or 14th century.

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

The climb to the top is 1202 steps. Because the steps are broken up into short terraces, it didn’t feel nearly as difficult as either one of us had feared. Halfway up are another set of stairs leading to the Aspara paintings. Originally there were 500 paintings but in 1967 a vandal destroyed all but about 50 of them. Since then security has been very tight.

Aspara Cave Paintings


H.C.P. Bell, the British archaeologist who studied the paintings from 1894 onwards, describes them as portrayals of the ladies of Kasyapa’s court. Senerath Paranavitana suggested that they represent Lightning Princesses and Cloud Damsels in an attempt to identify Sigiriya as a representation of divine kingship, an interesting theory considering Kasyapa’s history. The third hypothesis belongs to Ananda Coomaraswamy, who identifies the women as asparas or celestial nymphs.

Mirror Wall

Just below these is the Mirror Wall, full of very ancient graffiti. Some of it is so old that the language is no longer decipherable and has no relationship to modern day Sinhalese. The aspara paintings brought pilgrims from all over the world, many of whom left messages and poems to the ladies on this wall. One example cited in The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, published in 1993, is this touching ditty,

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka mirror wall




“I am Lord Sangapala
I wrote this song
We spoke
But they did not answer
Those ladies of the Mountain
They did not give us
The twitch of an eye-lid”

Lion’s Paw & Winter Palace

The climb from the Lion’s Paw to the Winter Palace at the top was a difficult, although energizing, climb along very narrow metal stairs with railings attached to the side of the rock. Guessing, I’d say it was about 200-300 steps with no break.

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

The top was spectacular for the views it afforded, where you can see Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura off in the distances. The palace was terraced with the very top housing the main hall going down to the pool, then the kitchens and finally the dance hall at the very bottom.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

In 1978, UNESCO approved a project to safeguard the centuries of cultural achievements of six exceptional sites in Sri Lanka. They called the sites, bounded by Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the Cultural Triangle.

When South Indian invaders sacked the early capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second medieval capital of Sri Lanka, from the 11th century to the end of the early part of the 13th century. The early history of Polonnaruwa, before it became the capital, is a story of reservoirs.

Being located in the dry zone, water was a much needed commodity and no city could ever be built without it. Once the reservoirs were built in the 4th century AD, agriculture took hold and Polonnaruwa became a flourishing city. From around the 7th century the royalty from the then capital Anuradhapura built their residences here on this thriving ancient highway.

On our second day in Sri Lanka, we visited the ruins of Polonnaruwa. When we arrived, our driver, Aslam, introduced us to our hand-picked guide, Nihal, a young man extremely knowledgeable about the ancient cities.

He took us through the museum first, especially explaining about the different buildings that existed and why shown by models. The wood structure has completely burned up, lost in the 13th century after the South Indians invaded during a time of weak kingship. In a period of 50 or so years prior to this there were 20 kings.

Once we were finished getting an education in the museum, we spent about 2 hours walking through the ruins, in astonishingly good shape considering their age. Visit Wikepedia for a more complete chronology and history of Polonnaruwa..

According to the UNESCO publication, The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, published in 1993,

The Buddhist monasteries of Polonnaruva provide the best surviving examples of image shrines, stupas, chapter houses, hospitals and ponds. Three colossal brick-build shrinds: the Thuparama, Lankatilaka and Tivamkapatimaghara, throw much light on teh vaulted viharas (gedige) type described in commentaries from the thirteenth century.

Tooth Relic Shrine of Nissankammala, 12th century

This is a picture of the at least 10 foot standing Buddha off in the distance on the first floor. The Tooth Relic was enshrined on the second floor.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka


Vatadage or Circular Stupa House, 12th century

The conical timber roof was lost to fire in the 13th century, but the stone and brick remain giving testament to the lives of the people who lived and worshipped in this ancient city.

Lankatilaka Image House, 12th century

Originally brick vaulted with stucco exterior. Pilgrims walked up one side of the shrine’s wall (on a narrow staircase (shown on the left), and down the other wall on an even narrower stairway (shown on the right) so they never had their back to the Buddha.



Krivehera or Milk Stupa, 12th century

While the paintings have long since vanished on this stupa, much of the plaster they were painted on remains, which is a feat unto itself.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka


Gal Vihara

This is the “Northern Monastery” founded by one of the great kings, Pakramabahu I and is the most celebrated site at Polonnaruwa. Scanning this colossal trio from left to right we have the sitting Buddha, the standing Buddha and the reclining Buddha. The hands crossed on the chest of the standing Buddha are mired in a bit of controversy, but my UNESCO book says that this “probably” represents the second week after Enlightenment.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Truth be told, Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city nominated as a UNESCO heritage site in 1995. Once this happened, the tourists came in larger numbers. Sitting on the balcony of Villa Santi drinking a cold Beer Lao under a warm sun, watching the city pass by is hard to beat, I’ll admit. I wish I was there right now!
When we visited Luang Prabang in 2002, this small town, sitting on the Mekong River and home to at least 34 wats, or Buddhist temples, still felt a little undiscovered. While walking along the main drag, though, I sometimes felt as though I was in a European city with the French colonial buildings lining the street. There were more dogs than vehicles on the quiet streets with scattered backpackers going into pizza parlors and internet cafes.
Fast forward to 2008 and from what I am reading and learning from people visiting today, this small river town is becoming much more tourist laden.

I suppose I am partly to blame simply due to the fact that I visited there 6 years ago and put up pictures of its beauty and splendor on my web site. And, ok, I was also a tourist. And sure, as much as I’d like it to be so, I know that 60 – 70,000 people who visited Luang Prabang in the last year have not visited my website, so I guess I can’t take even a little bit of the credit, or blame, as the case may be.

However, once I got off the main street and onto the side roads, I saw almost no tourists. Even though I am one, I like being apart and finding areas where I can see and feel, although briefly and surely not as authentically as I would like, daily living in a culture so unlike my own.

How do I know what’s real and what isn’t? This is probably a uniquely American question.

Everything felt real beyond any experience of real I get at home. I walked past houses where grandmas were outside cooking dinner or kids were playing in the schoolyard or monks were walking along the road or sausages were hanging out to dry or any number of things that couldn’t possibly have all been staged for my benefit. It’s truly a ridiculous notion.

This is my dilemma as a tourist and a visitor to another’s home city, though. Being an American I stand out. In some places, although not in Luang Prabang in 2002, I am, ohhh, how to say this nicely, begged upon. The locals see me as a wealthy individual and compared to them I am wealthy. Sometimes I just want to give everything I have, but at the same time I don’t want to perpetrate begging and low-brow marketing (i.e., paying $50 for something that cost someone $0.25 to manufacture because I am completely clueless). This happens all the time and it’s happened to me because I am a sucker and because I hate saying no to people who look like they really need the money.

Anyway, I digress. While we were there a favorite activity was visiting the wats. And even though we were there for 6 days and visited a couple or more wats a day, we did not get to them all. Along the way we met young monks, some joining for the long term and some doing their 3 month service as Buddhists. They were all delightful and curious and respectful, as we were in return. Normally, monks do not talk with women but these were young initiates and I guess it was ok. Besides, we were practically old enough to be their grandmothers. The other reason that we saw so few older monks is that many of them who would have been our age or even a little younger had were lost to the Pathet Lao re-education camps, as was the royal family in 1975.

I did my best to describe each wat with the enormous help of Ancient Luang Prabang by Denise Heywood. I wish I’d had this book while I was there. I hope you enjoy my series. If you ever visit Luang Prabang, know that you will be a tourist but also remember that we are really all one family. The world gets smaller every day and I personally hope that is a good thing.