Today I set off to explore one of Sri Lanka’s most famous highlights – Sigiriya rock, a set of ruins built on and around a striking volcanic rock that towers above the surrounding plains. There is some debate as to whether the site used to be a monastery or a palace, with most historians opting for the latter. In this version, Sigiriya rock was the impregnable palace of King Kasyapa, and was built in around 480 CE. The site was occupied until the 14th century , then abandoned and only rediscovered in 1898.
Many people climb the rock to see the sunrise, but I didn’t want to get up at 5am. After the previous days rain and clouds, I doubted that I would see the sun. Instead, I took it easy, had my breakfast at 8, and only reached Sigiriya rock at 9. I paid the entry fee for foreign visitors of $30 – extremely high by Sri Lankan standards – and walked through some pretty gardens with lily ponds to reach the base of the rock. On the way there I saw a big monitor lizard and a hornbill (a type of bird).
The metal steps leading up to the top of the rock have been improved and climbing up is no longer the terrifying experience it was a few years ago. I was soon at a platform half-way up where a huge pair of sculpted lion paws emerge from the rock, flanking the passage leading further up.
Some people think that there was originally a huge lion head sculpted into the rock, covering the entire face of the cliff. This must have been a magnificent sight, but it has long since collapsed, leaving sheer cliffs that are the home for an unusual travel hazard….
In 2012, many tourists were stung by angry wasps and ended up in hospital. With my thick fur, I wasn’t so worried, but I still climbed in silence as the signs instructed me.
At the top, the palace ruins were exactly that – ruins, with little left standing – but the views of the surrounding countryside were spectacular.
On the way down I visited a sheltered gallery which has paintings of many half-naked Sri Lankan women – all with improbably large breasts and thin waists. It is not known whether exactly when they were painted or who they represent – possible they were the king’s concubines. They were in an excellent state of preservation, but taking photos was not allowed.
I completed my descent and found that it was still only 10.30. I was soaked in sweat, not from physical exertion but from the very high humidity after last night’s storm, so I went back to the hotel and had a shower, a change of clothes and short rest. I asked my driver to take me to nearby Dambulla, a site of worship dating back 2000 years, but now most famous for its caves which house over 150 more recent, but still stunning, Buddha images. On my way I took time to visit an interesting modern temple with a giant golden Buddha.
Then I climbed up to the site of the cave temple. I hired a guide who explained that the first rock paintings dated from the 1st century, and then gave me the dates for each of the most impressive Buddha statues, which ranged from 14th to 18th century. The more recent additions blended in perfectly with the older statues to give a remarkably consistent feeling to each of the five caves.
The quality of the work was breath-taking – when I first saw this reclining Buddha I thought that his pillow must be made from fabric, but on closer inspection it was expertly-carved stone.
The coolness of the caves, near-absence of other visitors and stunning lighting made the caves a memorable experience. I took lots of photos, and then put away my phone to stand still and take in the special atmosphere.
On the way back to Sigiriya, another heavy thunderstorm broke, and I arrived at my hotel in the early afternoon to find that there was yet again no power. I sat reading and writing my blog whilst looking at the relentless rain. After a while I got bored – I needed internet access to publish my text and plan the next steps of my trip, but even when the electricity worked, the guest house rarely had working wifi. I solved my problem by asking my driver to take me to a five-star hotel resort located in a nature reserve in the jungle a bit outside of Sigiriya. The reserve is home to the slender loris, a cute-looking nocturnal monkey with huge, baby-like eyes. The hotel offered a tour to try to spot the shy creatures, but my guidebook said they were only visible when it was dry, so I thought chances of seeing anything were very slim. The persistent rain was getting on my nerves a bit – it was supposed to be dry season in this part of Sri Lanka! Every single day had seen a violent storm break in the mid or late afternoon, and pouring rain all evening after that. It meant that all my sight-seeing had to be crammed into the morning.
Instead of hunting for the loris, I sat by a pretty lake (which apparently was home to wild crocodiles), drank cocktails, posted my blog, and did my planning.
It is nice to try to help poorer guest house owners by staying with them, but when the weather is bad you cannot beat the comfort of a luxury hotel. I also stayed for dinner – the presentation of my curry was lavish, but the content and taste were the same as the cheap place I had visited last night. The price was fifteen times higher though.
After dinner my driver took me back to my modest guest house, to which electricity had still not returned. I undressed and brushed my teeth by the light of my phone, before fumbling around in the dark to plug in my computer and phones – ready for the moment during the night when power might return. Supporting small family businesses is good, but for me the bear necessities of life include electricity and internet.
What a presence the rock must have in person. Perhaps worth a climb for sunrise, but striking at any time of day. Really enjoyed the photos.
The rock looks really impressive although the warning sign would no doubt have put me off climbing it! The cave temple is very beautiful.