Sri Lanka: The palace of the lion king

A Sri Lankan king built himself an awe-inspiring fortress, says Alex Robertson

The Sigiriya rock fortress. Photo / Alex Robertson

As I climbed the stairs to the top of Sigiriya – Lion’s Rock – I couldn’t help feeling a little pang of jealousy toward King Kashyapa, the illegitimate ruler of Sri Lanka from 473 to 495AD. He built a palace atop the massive inselberg that thrusts skyward from the plains of the Matale District in central Sri Lanka but, reportedly, never scaled the heights for himself: he was always carried up by slaves.

With the temperature in the early 30s and humidity in the vicinity of soaking, just to look up at the monolith from the palace gardens broke me out in a sweat. If only the water gardens and natural pressure fountains were still working, I could have cooled off a little.

Kashyapa killed his father, King Dhatusena, and assumed the throne, scaring his half-brother, Mogallana, into exile in India. In his paranoia, he moved the capital from the sprawling Anaradhapura to the easily defended Sigiriya, even constructing three walls with moats containing man-eating crocodiles.

No one would ever take it by force.

Kashyapa took his own life when his army deserted him on the battlefield facing Mogallana. Apparently it was all a dreadful mistake – he lost control of his elephant and headed off in the wrong direction: his people thought he wasn’t up to the fight and figured that they weren’t, either.

Mogallana returned the throne to the former capital, leaving the fortress to holy men who weren’t too concerned with the upkeep of the vast palace and it gradually fell to rack and ruin.

In its heyday, Sigiriya lived up to the name, with a giant lion’s head constructed in brick from about halfway up all the way to the very top of the rock. The gaping mouth served as the entrance to the main palace structure sited on the flat-topped behemoth.

The head is long gone, but two huge paws sit either side of what’s left of the stone stairs that once led past giant teeth, winding their way up to the elaborate villas, gardens and pools of the palace proper.

Here, the king could escape the oppressive heat and watch his concubines bathe and frolic in the shade of trees safe in the knowledge that should an army survive the crocodiles, they surely could not climb to the top with armour and weapons in any great hurry. Not in that heat.

Kashyapa loved his harem so much that he had them immortalised in frescoes that, amazingly, survive to this day: these half-naked ladies vibrantly dance across the rock surface in a display of (dis)graceful ageing.

I imagined these pretty young things admiring themselves in the mirror wall – a terracotta-coloured mud wall that warps around the mound at about half way up. The surface was covered in paint that contained albumen (egg white), making it reflective. The wall retains some of its lustre, despite centuries of graffiti scratched across the face.

That these fragile elements have survived one and a half millennia is even more astounding considering more permanent structures have since fallen into disrepair: stone steps are mostly replaced with rickety metal ladders; stone and brick walls are gradually being resurrected to allow a glimpse of their former glory.

The final ascent to the apex is a nerve-racking affair as the entire swaying-in-the breeze structure seems to be fastened by just a few pins drilled into the rock.

The heat makes it doubly difficult, forcing the sweat glands into overtime.

Once the beast is conquered, however, the temperature and humidity drop a degree or two and it’s time to take a breather in the shade of one of many trees littering the palace ruins.

A pool reflects the clouds in its green water on the edge of the world as the plain stretches hazily into the distance in all directions, interrupted occasionally by the odd mountain.

The formal gardens appear even more perfect from this height: the linear pathway leading to the steps continues way into the distance to a standing Buddha of some later era.

As I admired the view that Kashyapa himself would have once enjoyed, that little pang of envy hit again.


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