Saturday, April 15, 2017

Sigiriya: Lion's Rock.

Sigiriya, early morning March 14, 2017

In the middle of the jungle, near the town of Dumballa,  a giganitc monolith appears.      It is so imposing that all the fanciful stories of Sri Lankan gods and demons that Waruna related to us on the bus seem that they could be true.    How could this piece of rock have possibly been formed and placed here without divine intervention? 

 That is the question I ask myself as we arrive the morning of March 14 at the base of  this 200 meter (660 foot) massive column of stone both of historical and archaeological importance.... the third UNESCO listed World Heritage Site we will see on this trip.  

 In order to beat the heat and the crowds wishing to climb this 200 meter stone we are here early.   We are anxious to test ourselves with the 1204 steps up to the top,  to see the view as well as the wall of colorful,  semi clad ladies painted Indian style, the few remaining frescoes left on the rock face.   

According to the ancient chronicle called the Culavamsa, this site was chosen by King Kasyapa ( 477-495AD or common era) to build a new capital and a royal residence.  He built his palace at the top and decorated the sides of the rock with murals.  Fanciful gardens and soldier's quarters dot the land below.  It was both a fortress and a palace.

 Also about halfway up the rock the King has had carved a stairway with the huge paws of a lion.   The sanskrit name "Sinhala" means  "of lions".    Sigiriya then is Lion's Rock.  

 The lower area that we quickly pass contained palaces behind lavish gardens, recreational pools, moats, guard houses and ramparts which protected the citadel.   Now the pools and moats are there and the rest can be determined by the remaining foundations. 

At the top we expect to see the ruins of the palace,  including cisterns and pools.  

The lower pools, gardens and moats have been excavated on one side of the path and the remaining side is still continuing to be unearthed by archeologists.  

After King Kasyapa's death, the capital and royal palace was abandoned and the buildings were then used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. 

Sigiriya Rock, Oriel and Ian walk to base of Lion's Rock passing through ancient gardens

Evidence of ancient moat system, Lion's Rock

According to information from good ole Wiki,  Sigiriya is a world class urban planning site of the first millennium....considered very imaginative and creative.  The design used symmetry and asymmetry to intertwine the geological formations with the man-made one.   We saw this in the steps carved into the rock and in the way the Mirror Wall was constructed. 
On the west side is the royal park including surface and underground hydraulic systems.  Our guide points out how some of them are still in working order today.   As well, there were five original gates.  the western one being the most elaborate and used for the royal entourage. 

 Unfortunately we do not have time to linger in the gardens if we are going to climb before the tropical heat envelops us. 

 So after the gardens, we start the ascent.  Here there are a dozen or so young Sri Lankan  men willing to take our arms to help us up the irregular steps.  Dee alerts us that these are professional "helpers" and if we accept their arm we are agreeing to give them about 15 pounds for their trouble.   We all decide to go it alone. 

 Our guide for Sigiriya started out as a helper himself.  He did that for about 15 years until he learned the history to be told in English  ( and perhaps other languages ) and "graduated" to being a guide only.  

View of surrounding jungle and a Buddhist statue in the distance. First Level atLion's Rock

Zoom in to the Buddhist statue from first level of Lion's Rock

First Level at Sigiriya looking down on gardens

First level , people climbing to see maiden frescoes , Sigiriya

  Soon we arrive at the first level where one finds the wall of mirrors.  The Mirror Wall is now orange in color. When it was built by the King Kasyapa over 1600 years ago it was a highly polished white parapet wall that inched its way along the perpendicular western surface of the rock.  It extended 200 meters along the gallery that was once covered with frescoes and finished at a small plateau on the north side where you find the Lion Staircase. 

Mirror wall at first level of Sigiriya,  photo  by Archeology
This shiny white surface in fact was irresistible as a blank canvas where world travelers over the ages have left their marks. These are known today as the Sigiriya Graffiti.   One marking states that the plaster was so well polished that it reflected the paintings opposite.  

 It is believed that the mirror like quality was accomplished by using a special plaster composed of fine lime, egg whites, and honey.   The surface of the wall was then buffed with beeswax.  

Opposite the Mirror Wall we see the 19 remaining frescoes of voluptuous ladies with their ample bosoms and colorful ornamentations , presumably of King Kasyapa's harem.  This harem idea is validated by the delicate three circle tattoo painted around each of their necks.  

  King Kalayta's by

Although it is forbidden to take photos of the remaining frescoes, one can find them on the world wide web.  It is quite remarkable that they remain intact considering their age and it is understandable why cameras are not allowed.  It is our good fortune that they are still open to the public, in fact.  

Another view of path and gardens leading to the citadel, Lion's Rock

Foundations of a building, First level,   Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

First level, Lion's rock , Sigiriya, Pam in foreground

Here we have climbed to the first level and you can see the Lion's paws on either side of the stairway leading up to the palace foundations and pools.  At one time there was a lion's head as well, but it has long since crumbled.  

Giant lion's feet stand on both sides of the stairway to the palace, Sigiriya

After a short rest at mid level we hesitate a bit.    But actually as Dee points out that the second part is the easier of the two because of railings put in place on both sides of the stair and  she bets we will be happy we made the effort.   

Top of Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

Finally, along with a steady stream of tourists and local school children,  we are at the top and breathe in the jaw-dropping view extending in all directions.   Dee is right.   We start to enjoy a bit of breeze and finally start to take in quite an extensive layout of foundations and pools.  

Top of Lion's Rock showing the foundations of the Palace, Sri Lanka

View from top of Lion's Rock , World Heritage Site. Sri Lanka

The Hooded Cobra Cave with  guard.  Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Cobra Rock,  Sigiriya,  Sri Lanka

After a while we start the descent and we encounter a cobra shaped rock.  Beneath it is the Cobra hood Cave with a lone guard, which we pass.   This cave has evidence of a fresco painted ceiling but we are not allowed to enter. 

In fact in 1907 it was suggested that the whole face of the rock appeared to have been "a giant picture gallery, perhaps the largest in the world."  The original paintings which have been eroded through time, covered most of the western face, an area 140 meters long and 40 meters high.  References have been found of 500 painted women.  Only the 19 now remain.   It is all quite remarkable when you think of when it was built. 

Snake handler with his python , bottom of Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka.

We did it.  I wasn't actually sure if I was in shape for this hike and was pleased to find that although it was a bit tricky at the bottom where the steps are uneven,  the trek is not too physically demanding.  It was an invigorating experience even on a sweltering but otherwise glorious day.  

At the bottom we congratulate ourselves with one of the most deserved Ice lollies (popsicles) money could buy .   The vendor is careful that our wrappers are placed in his box well away from monkey paws.

 I am glad to see that commerce at the base of the rock seems to be regulated with well maintained stalls and the odd post card dealer and snake charmer, "bien sur".     

 And Happy Birthday mon cher Monsieur, my rock, my Sigiriya.  

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