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Sigiriya, The Lion Rock: From Legend to Ruin

A soldier galloped down the palace gardens, the black flag in his hand ripping at the wind. Three women stopped their laughing and splashing in the fountains to watch him pass, smiles dropping. As the rider disappeared through the gates, and the screams started echoing through the stone passageways, a figure, high above the temples and guilt halls, stumbled towards the rocks edge. Two of the women gathered their wet skirts and fled toward the jungle, terror etching their faces and lighting their eyes, and the third stood rooted in the sun-baked grass, wrapping her arms around her trembling body, watching the figure in quiet dread.

She fell to the ground as the Queen’s body plummeted from the 600-foot precipice. King Kasyapa had lost his throne. The battle was lost.

* * *

Eighteen years had passed since King Kasyapa ascended the throne. The fortress of Sigiriya, “the Lion Rock”, was complete, with its lush gardens, water ways, rooms carved deep and high into the rock’s face, opulent quarters and pools gracing its plateaued summit.  It was home to servants and armies, the King’s consort and 500 concubines. Academics, artists, and nobility visited from all corners of Asia, leaving well wishes, poetry, and religious teachings scored into the famed mirror wall. It was a life of luxury, this life of the Mountain King. And yet it was never enough.

 SRI - SR - Sigiriya 2

It was a life built on guilt, on fear, on the blood of his father, his King. Never would he forget the fruitless struggles of his father beating the air, pleading for mercy, as soldiers held him to a wall, cementing him in. His ears would never be free from his father’s muffled screams and desperate pounding that rang from his tomb. Mogallana, his younger brother, he who was named rightful king because of his royal mother, had fled to India. Kasyapa had won, the Kingdom was his. But at what price?

* * *

Mogallana had returned. His army was strong, his desire to avenge his father and seize back his throne, fierce. The battle was to be be short-lived. The battle elephant of King Kasyapa, sensing a swamp, backtracked to reroute. Believing their king was retreating, Kasyapa’s armies deserted him, leaving him to the mercy of his own sword. A single horseman galloped toward the sky palace, pulling a black flag from his saddlebags. As King Mogallana and his troops marched onto the palace grounds, the last of Kasyapa’s wives hesitated only for a moment before joining her sisters 600 feet below her. Today, they would take no prisoners.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So goes the legend of Sigiriya. The story is a haunting one, and has fascinated me ever since I was a child. Of course, there are different theories of what really happened there 2000 years ago – there is now evidence to say it was a good prince Kasyapa who built the palace, a devout son who set out to finish his father’s architectural dream after his untimely death, and there are those who say there was no prince at all, and the rock fortress simply served as an elaborate monastery for the monks of the area.

What we do know for certain is that dating back to the 3rd century BC, Sigiriya is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning. It is breathtaking in its complexity, its beauty, and its location, and is ranked the 8th wonder of the world by UNESCO. It is not to be missed, but best to be prepared for – bring light clothes, lots of sunscreen, water, and the firm ability to say no to “helpers” and “guides” who will happily offer you assistance and questionable fun facts for a considerable fee. The surviving frescoes of Kasyapa’s wives that cover parts of the rock face are in unthinkably good condition and are a testament to the skill of ancient artists. Pictures are allowed in the fresco cave with no flash.

“I never get bored of this place,” I told my friend as we walked down the hundreds of steps.

“That’s because you’re never told the same story twice,” he said, grinning at me.

This may be accurate, but it is magical to be walking around in a space where dramatic history took place thousands of years ago, where facts are fuzzy, where little bits of proof and story unearth themselves every year, weaving together a broader picture, filling gaps with colorful theories. It is truly a space for one’s imagination to run just a little wild.


Sigiriya is located in the central Matale District of the Central Province, Sri Lanka.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre: Ancient City of Sigiriya



Images. All pictures by Stephanie Rubesh.


2 Responses to Sigiriya, The Lion Rock: From Legend to Ruin

  1. Steph Rubesh says:

    Sach, I can definitely do a Kandy write-up! It will be my next project 🙂


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