A fortress of fear

The enormous rock on which an ancient king built his fortress is impressive – but why was this leader so scared he had to hide himself up here?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


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.

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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.

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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.

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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?

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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?

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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?

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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?

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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.

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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.

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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.

Visiting Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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:



If you base yourself in Sigiriya, you’ll be able to also easily explore other sites in the cultural triangle.


If you’re looking for a backpacker place, Roy’s Villa Hostel is going to be one of the best options.


There are lots of affordable and comfortable homestays in the area, such as Sigiriya Amenity Home Stay.


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.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Sri Lankan Airlines and Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

6 thoughts on “A fortress of fear”

  1. Well there’s a bit more to the story. Kassapa didn’t die at Sigiriya, he went to meet his brother’s army on the plain and died in battle. I’m guessing he was pretty much screwed if the place got surrounded.

    Kassapa is generally portrayed as a villain and his father is portrayed as a very benevolent servant of the people, which might not be very truthful. Kassapa’s mother was a concubine, whereas his brother was borne by the official queen. So even though Kassapa was older, he was not going to inherit the throne. Dhatusena did other nasty stuff like cutting off the nose of a woman whose son was Kassapa’s best friend and also happened to be general of the royal army. So this general convinced Kassapa to overthrow the king and take the throne.

    As you mentioned, after Kassapa died, his brother gave Sigiriya to the Buddhist clergy, which explains a large part of why Kassapa’s brother and father are portrayed as good people whereas Kassapa is the baddie. The history of medieval Sri Lanka was always chronicled by buddhist monks. So often we see kings who gave gifts to the clergy treated with the utmost respect. These monks don’t seem to find any contradiction between Buddhist teachings and how Dhatusena was a man who held a harem and mutilated a woman.

    • Fantastic – thanks for all the extra information. I’ve done a bit more reading since your comment and I’ve come across a couple of versions of events (I guess that’s not too surprising seeing as it was a long time ago!). This battle on the plain you mention seems to be the most common story, including how his own army betrayed him! You also make me feel a bit sorry for him now with all the other details of how cruel his family was to him…

  2. A good article.You almost cover the story about Sigiriya.I too went to Sigiriya last December.Yes it was an amazing.Everyone who explore ancient technology should visit annd explore Sigiriya Lion Rock.


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