Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
What is the point of taking something if you can never enjoy it? As I look up at the enormous rock of Sigiriya in front of me, I consider this thought.
Perhaps the man called Kassapa who has brought me to this rock didn’t think this through himself. I say Kassapa brought me here because it was him who made this site significant more than 1500 years ago, according to the chronicles of the time.
His father was the king of Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). It was an opulent empire for its time, developed on an island rich in natural resources with strong trading routes in every direction. Kassapa wanted it for himself.
And so in 477AD he plotted the assassination of his father and then dispossessed his brother of the title. Kassapa became king.
But this was a title born of patricide, of regicide, and of a blindside. Kassapa justifiably expected revenge and he was scared.
This is where the rock of Sigiriya comes in.
King Kassapa I of Ceylon decided to build a fortress to live in at the top of the rock, an enormous natural tower 180 metres high with sheer cliffs on every side.
He moved the capital of the country here. His whole life was motivated, the whole governance of Ceylon changed, a new city was built, by a man who now lived in fear of revenge.
I cross the large moat (infested with crocodiles, I imagine) that was dug in a square around the rock. Surely this would be a strong defensive barrier against attack?
I walk through the ruins of the city on ground level which stretch for several hundred metres from the moat to the base of the rock. Surely this would be full of well-rested soldiers who could fight hand-to-hand with any attackers?
I start the climb up the stairs and then along the horizontal path cut into the side of the rock. It’s relatively steep but not too tiring. Surely it would be easy to pick off invaders forced to move upwards in such narrow paths?
And then I get to the final plateau before the most fortified part of the site – a rock upon a rock on which the main palace is built.
A staircase bordered on both sides by huge lion’s feet carved out of stone sits at the base but it quickly becomes an almost sheer cliff that people would once have had to scramble up on all fours (a simple metal staircase has been constructed for visitors these days).
Surely no invaders could ever survive this climb while guards from above rained down defensive measures?
Well… Things didn’t go quite that way. King Kassapa’s brother did indeed raise an army and attack in 495AD. And he was successful.
He managed to somehow get through all these defenses in a relatively short and violent battle.
Kassapa killed himself when he realized what was happening – some stories say by cutting his throat and others say by literally falling in his sword.
The new fortress city of Sigiriya was given to monks and the capital returned to Anuradapura.
So did Kassapa live his entire reign as King of Ceylon in constant fear? Perhaps.
He certainly was restricted in where he could go and was forced to create a small and isolated city far from most of the country’s society. But, on the other hand, he did the best he could with what he had and turned Sigiriya into a pleasure palace.
It had beautiful pools and gardens, entertainment halls and stunning carvings. The frescoes painted on the walls were particularly colourful and opulent and it’s incredible that you can still see some of them in an isolated cave about halfway up the rock.
So maybe Kassapa enjoyed his time in his fortress and treated it like a constant playground and party. Or maybe he was just trying to find some enjoyment in the stressful life he had brought upon himself.
We may never know exactly. What I do know is that he has left a remarkable monument behind – a real highlight of a visit to Sri Lanka.
Sigiriya is a symbol of the grandeur of the country in the 6th century and the extremes of one man’s journey of murder and betrayal on the quest for power.
If you’re interested in knowing more, there are some good tours that will take you to Sigiriya and explain the history. I would recommend one of the following:
There are lots of affordable and comfortable homestays in the area. Have a look at Sigiriya Amenity Home Stay, for example.
A wonderful but affordable four-star option that I would recommend is the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana.
And for an absolutely stunning hotel, you can't go past Jetwing Vil Uyana with special bungalows.