First Published on March 23, 2022
At one end was the bird's eye view of the three landscaped gardens below, At the other end was the giant swimming pool with shades of blue and indigo Past the painted frescoes one had to walk For that was the only way to reach the top of this Sigiriya Lion Rock.
There are various reasons why most of you are familiar with Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka. You might even know it as the Lion Rock Sri Lanka or Sinhagiri. It could be because it is a renowned UNESCO World heritage site or because this rock fortress of Sigiriya is rumoured to have a connection with Ravana. It might also, be for its beautiful frescoes or may be you just know it for its ingenious ancient urban planning. Whatever the reason, I am sure, you have marked Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka as a unique destination to visit.
Climbing Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka was definitely a mind-blowing experience for me. The adrenaline of the hike coupled with the delightful secrets that were revealed with each step had me completely dazed. There are so many details to absorb that even after spending an entire morning, I was hungry for more. In fact, Sigiriya Sri Lanka still haunts me with unanswered questions, its delightful lores and stunning craftsmanship.
Through this virtual Sigiriya rock fortress tour, you will soon experience the same frenzy. You will, in fact, find your own reasons to plan a trip to the Lion Rock of Sri Lanka. For that, I have ensured that the rest of this Sigiriya travel guide includes useful tips and information. So, let’s begin our journey to and see the key Sigiriya attractions.
- 1 What is Sigiriya rock?
- 2 Did Ravana build the rock fortress of Sigiriya?
- 3 History of Sigiriya rock fortress Sri Lanka
- 4 Sigiriya Rock Fortress Facts
- 5 Architecture and Layout of Sigiriya fortress in Sri Lanka
- 6 What are the key Sigiriya attractions? | The Sigiriya rock fortress tour
- 7 The famous Sigiriya Frescoes | Sigiriya Damsels
- 8 Common FAQS on Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress
- 9 Where is Sigiriya Rock Fortress?
- 10 How to reach Sigiriya?
- 11 How tall is Sigiriya Rock?
- 12 How old is Sigiriya Rock?
- 13 Who built the Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka?
- 14 Why is Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka called Lion Rock?
- 15 What is the best time to visit Sigiriya Fortress?
- 16 How many steps are there to climb Sigiriya Fortress?
- 17 What are the visiting hours of Sigiriya rock fortress?
- 18 What are the Sigiriya rock fortress entrance fees?
- 19 Where to stay in Sigiriya?
- 20 Travel and Photography Tips
- 21 Booking resources
What is Sigiriya rock?
Imagine a distinct brown rock rising high over a cover of green forest. That is how Sigiriya rock will appear to you. Geologically, the rocky plateau was formed out of magma from an extinct volcano – millions of years ago. What makes this 180m high rock special is the ingenious construction that has seamlessly integrated the natural forms with man-made structures. In fact, it is this fortress with its grand Lion gate that has given this rock its name – Sigiriya (means Lion Rock). Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka is a prime example of urban planning and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Did Ravana build the rock fortress of Sigiriya?
One of the most common stories that you might come across about Sigiriya Sri Lanka is that the palace on top of the rock was built by Ravana. To be honest, I did quite a bit of digging for I too was quite curious. There appears to be a palm manuscript called Puskola Potha which describes Ravana’s life and a palace on top of a rock – quite like Sigiriya fortress. This palace was called Alakamandava is said to have been built by King Kubera and was of solid gold. It had similar frescoes as found on the current Sigiriya rock – the ladies being described as women belonging to the native tribes at that time. The palace is said to have a Cobra hood cave called Naipena Guhava where Ravana is said to have initially imprisoned Sita. That cave still exists today and has rock paintings depicting scenes from Ramayana.
However, none of this can be archaeologically dated or matched. So, whether Ravana really built Sigiriya in Sri Lanka remains a question. I wonder what you think after this – is it a myth or is there some reality to it? Do remember to add it to your comments at the end of the article.
History of Sigiriya rock fortress Sri Lanka
While you dwell upon the possibility of Sigirya being Ravana’s fort, let’s get down to the documented history of Sigiriya lion rock – the one that has been validated by archaeologists. As per them, Sigiriya rock fortress history goes back to the 5th century. The story begins in the year 477 when King Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura came to power after murdering his own father – King Dhatusena. Since he was the son of a concubine, he was not eligible for the throne and hence, he killed and usurped it. His half-brother and the official heir – Moggallana fled to South India but not before he vowed to get his empire back.
Somewhere this determination of his half-brother instilled fear in Kashyapa and he decided to move out of Anuradhapura to a safe haven. This is where he found the Lion rock in Sri Lanka and decided to build his palace on top of it – such that no one could reach him. Thus, came into existence the mighty rock fortress of Sri Lanka.
Before the fortress came into existence, there were numerous Buddhist monks residing in its natural caves. The monks were sent away the entire rock transformed into a stunning citadel with landscaped gardens at its base, frescoed galleries along its sides, and a grand palace on the top. Kashyapa’s builders used the natural contours of the rock to create defensive mechanisms to make the place impenetrable.
In the year 495, Moggallana returned with an army and called for a battle. Kashyapa’s troops suffered losses and owing to a misunderstanding, abandoned the King. Kashyapa was too proud to admit defeat and committed suicide by falling on his own sword. His death, ended the glory of the Sigiriya rock fortress, Sri Lanka. The new King Moggallana abandoned the grand citadel for his old capital. The rock fortress was re-occupied by the Buddhists and was used as a monastery till the 14th century after which it faded into obscurity.
It was in the year 1831 that a British soldier – Major Jonathan Forbes stumbled upon it while he was riding from Polonnaruwa. Thus, began the rediscovery of this ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. Today, this site has been categorized as the UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress Facts
These facts about the Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka are a complete endorsement of why people visit this attraction. In fact, some of them make your eyebrows disappear into your hairline. Check them out.
- Sigiriya fortress is over 2000 years old. One of the oldest surviving palaces in the world
- There are around 1200 steps that you need to climb to reach the top of Sigiriya lion rock. It is after all almost 200 m high.
- The rock fortress of Sigiriya is considered as one of the oldest and best preserved examples of urban planning. It is often referred to as the 8th wonder of the world.
- The hydraulic system of Sigiriya comprises of canals, lakes, dams, fountains and bridges. It is the oldest one in Asia and still functions today.
- The rock got its name from a stunning entrance gate to the Upper palace of Sigiriya. The entrance gate is in the form of a lion. The name was coined from two Sinhalese words – Singha meaning Lion and Giriya meaning Hill.
- The famous Sigiriya frescoes gallery is 140m long and 40 m high. It is believed that there were over 500 rock paintings in it but today, only 19 can be seen in a smaller area. The rest have faded to obscurity
- Sigiriya lion rock Sri Lanka is famous for a mirror wall. The wall was polished such that King Kashyapa could see his reflection on it. One can still see a portion of it today and has quite a few historical and unique poems inscribed on it.
Of course, the other amazing Sigiriya facts are ones that you can glean from its history – like the life of King Kashyapa, how it was used as a monastery and how it was rediscovered. Time we move on to the actual Sigiriya Rock Fortress tour.
Architecture and Layout of Sigiriya fortress in Sri Lanka
Sigiriya fort is spread across 3 km and has five entrances, of which the one in the West was exclusively for the royals. There are three landscaped gardens before one reaches the halfway point of the rock. This is where one encounters is famous Lion Gate. The palace on top of the rock can be divided into the upper and lower palace while along the sides is the famous fresco gallery. The Sigiriya caves were enhanced as various rooms like there is one which served as the public meeting hall while another one functioned as the resting place for the Kings.
The rock fortress is an engineering marvel where the natural rock has been interlocked with man-made structures to make defensive mechanisms. As mentioned in the Sigiriya facts section, the water system here has cisterns and hydraulic structures that function to date.
There is no particular architectural style that can be attributed to the designs here. From what I can see, there are shades of the typical Mogul char baghs as well as the artistic paintings that go back to the Anuradhapura period. In short, the architecture of Sigiriya rock fortress is one of its kind.
What are the key Sigiriya attractions? | The Sigiriya rock fortress tour
3 km long and 200m high – you can imagine the scale that you need to cover to see Sri Lanka lion rock. Now you also, know why after spending half a day in Sigiriya rock fortress, I say my visit feels incomplete. The mammoth ancient fortress just has so many corners. To ensure that you do not get lost in this place, I have put together this tour that covers all the main Sigiriya attractions. I shall describe them in the order that you will encounter them when you visit Sigiriya Rock Fortress.
Outer and Inner Moats
One is likely to assume that they are crossing a stream as they walk through the west entrance of Sigiriya fort. I did too, except that this isn’t a placid stream but the outer moat that formed the first line of defense. A short distance later, you will see another gigantic moat. This inner moat borders the entire garden area and runs around the rock. Both these moats served a dual purpose.
As is the case with most forts, it acted as the outer defense for the place. In addition to that, these moats were a key water supply to the rest of the Sigiriya fort. The two moats are interconnected to the various water structures in the fort and also, to the large artificial reservoir located to the south of Sigiriya Rock.
Past the moats, you will come across three tiers of landscaped gardens. These include the water gardens, the boulder gardens and the terraced gardens.
Water Gardens of Sigiriya lion rock fortress
I had explained the unique Mogul style of gardens called the Char bagh in my post on Humayun’s tomb. This style of garden has four pathways or waterways that meet at a central point. In the case of Sigiriya fort, the first water garden has been built in this style where four raised paths meet at a central pool. These paths have a small gateway at the end of them. It is believed that this is possibly one of the oldest surviving models of the char bagh style of gardens.
Water Garden 2 has two deep vertical pools on either side of the main pathway. There are numerous narrow streams connecting the pools and a few of the Sigiriya fountains are also, found around them. There are ruins of summer palaces seen on the islands along with these pools. The 2nd water garden also, had a few fountains and thus is referred to as the Fountain garden.
The third Sigiriya rock water garden is at a slightly higher level and consists of an octagonal pool. The pool is against a brick wall that marks the beginning of the fortress wall. In addition to these three main gardens, there is a miniature water garden. This has a network of pools, pavilions and streams. The pools had a floor of pebbles. In fact, there is one more such garden that is being excavated in the Sigiriya fortress.
The best part of these Sigiriya rock water gardens is the way they have used the principle of gravity and pressure to transport water. There are conduit pipes connecting the various pools and Sigiriya water fountains in these landscaped gardens. This is actually what makes the Sigiriya Rock Fortress so unique.
Boulder Gardens at the Lion rock Sri Lanka
At the end of the Water Gardens, begins the ascent to the top of Sigiriya rock Sri Lanka. This is where you encounter the winding route through the boulder gardens. Natural rock boulders form the base of this garden – their native form ingeniously used to create caverns for royal use and defensive structures to protect the fort. Here and there you will find cuts in the rocks – these served as holders for bricks and beams for various structures.
Past the natural rock arches, you will see a few interesting caverns that have similar driplines like the Dambulla caves, outlining their entrances and roof. These served as natural protection from rain and wind. One of these caverns served as the Audience hall that has a five-meter tall throne carved out of its resident rock. Similarly, there is Asana rock cave that has a flatbed and a royal resting cave where the King rested for a bit.
These Sigiriya caves have faded murals within them, depicting scenes from various Buddhist stories. It is believed that the caves were used even before the Sri Lanka rock fortress was built by the Buddhist monks in the area. Of course, later too, after the fortress was abandoned, it became a Buddhist monastery. One well-preserved cave used by the monks is the Deraniyagala cave (named after the person who found it), within which you can find faded frescoes of female figures and flowers.
Terraced Gardens at Sigiriya Sri Lanka
The next part of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress climb is along limestone staircases that either have brick walls along their side or the Sigiriya rock itself. This garden has been laid out in a concentric manner throughout the rock. One interesting attraction of the Sigiriya fortress in this garden is the Boulder arch formed by two rocks. On either side of the arch are caves that were used by the monks before King Kashyapa arrived. In fact, one of them has a Brahmi script that says “Parumaka Kadiya Putasha” – meaning Cave of the son of Chieftain Kadiya. It even has a limestone bench that was used by the monks.
There are several pathways that are closed – maybe because they are a little hazardous now or possibly because they don’t lead anywhere concrete. The last leg of Sigiriya Terraced Gardens is literally along the sides of the main rock. Walking along that covered path gave me this feeling of literally hanging along the sides of the Lion rock. I suppose that is what the Hanging Gardens of Babylon must have felt like!
This is where you can actually see the gorgeous texture of Sigiriya Lion Rock Sri Lanka. And of course, there are those breathtaking views of the water gardens far below.
The Lion Gate of Sigiriya Rock Fortress
A giant paw with humongous nails greeted me as I stepped off the final stairs of the Terrace garden. Flabbergasted I moved to the front of the paw to find another one next to it. A large staircase separated the two paws. This is the famed Sigiriya rock Lion Gate. The two paws are the only things that remain of what was a 35m massive lion with its mouth wide open. The structure was made using brick and plaster – something that you can see for yourself in those giant paws. The Lion staircase is the last leg to the very top of this rock fortress of Sigiriya.
Before you begin your climb up the Lion staircase of Sigiriya rock, look around at the landscape. You are bound to spot the famous cousin of the Lion rock – the Pidurangala rock. A lot of people opt to climb Pidurangala rock to get a view of Sigiriya. However, more on that in another post.
The Sigiriya Palace Complex | The Sky Palace of Sigiriya
The last leg might seem a little scary with its narrow steps and almost a vertical ascent. However, once you emerge on the top, you will find yourself exhilarated instead of tired. At least, that is how I felt when I saw the intriguing ruins of the famous Sky palace of Sigiriya and breathtaking views of the surrounding plains.
The Sigiriya palace complex is now reduced to ruins but there is a clear demarcation that you can see between its upper North palace and the Southern one. The layout with its numerous brick walls and multiple staircases made me feel as if I had wandered into Machu Pichu. Though I have never been there, this kind of layout is what I imagine the place to be like.
Clearly, the sky palace was not built at a single level. What you need to watch out for are the remains of cisterns, a giant swimming pool in the Southern palace and the bird’s eye view of the Sigiriya rock fortress gardens.
Sigiriya Rock Mirror Wall
One of the most unmissable Sigiriya attractions is the Mirror wall. As the name suggests, the wall was made to function as a mirror for King Kashyapa. What makes it different from the modern mirrors is that this Sigiriya Rock Mirror wall is made using bricks and polished with white plaster. Today, however, when you see it, you will find numerous scribbles and graffiti on it. Don’t dismiss them as some ordinary act of vandalism. A majority of these Sigiriya graffiti date back to the era between the 8th and 10th centuries.
Post the decline of the rock fortress of Sigiriya, many of the esteemed visitors including clergymen, governors, famed poets and monks (bhikhus) came by and shared their thoughts by inscribing on this wall. There are over 1500 poems found here, of which around 685 belong to the period between 8th and 10th centuries. These poems are written in either Tamil, Sanskrit, or Sinhalese and clearly indicate the influence of the Anuradhapura kingdom. Some of these, in fact, document the glory of the Sigiriya rock Sri Lanka.
The famous Sigiriya Frescoes | Sigiriya Damsels
If one is asked the question, “which is the key attraction of Sigiriya Rock Fortress in Sri Lanka”, then the most likely answer would be “Sigiriya Frescoes” or the “Sigiriya paintings“. Also, referred to as the Sigiriya Damsels, these ancient rock paintings are one of the key reasons many people even attempt to climb Sigiriya rock fortress.
It is believed that there were almost around 500 different frescoes of various women performing different activities. They covered the entire western part of the Lion rock -an area of 140m in length and 40m in height. The proof of the same has been mentioned in the Sigiriya graffiti on the Mirror wall. Sadly only, 21 of them have been recovered to date.
Sigiriya damsels have been depicted semi-nude and the painting style has been traced to the period of Anuradhapura kingdom. The style has been compared and found similar to the rock paintings found in Ajanta Caves, India. Some believe that these damsels represent the Goddess Tara of Buddhism while the more popular belief is that these might have been the concubines of King Kashyapa. Yet another theory is that these Sigiriya paintings might have represented Apsaras (nymphs). Given that they are right down to the Mirror wall, the whole gallery might have felt as if someone was walking among the Apsaras in heaven.
An important tip here – Photography of the Sigiriya Frescoes gallery is strictly prohibited. There are security guards around who watch your moves and if you are caught, your passport will be seized and you might even be jailed. The harsh rule is to prevent flash photography and damage to the paintings. All the pictures that you see here have been taken in the Sigiriya museum where there is a replica. Again for that, I had a special privilege to capture these owing to these being an official media visit.
Descending down to the last view of Sri Lanka Rock Fortress
The Sigiriya painting gallery which is the halfway point, is the last leg of this tour of the Lion fort. You are almost back to the foothills. One important attraction along the way to the exit is the Asana cave with a few more frescoes and the mysterious Cobra Hood cave.
The Cobra hood cave gets its name from the overhanging boulder that looks like a hooded snake. If you are one of those believers that Sigiriya was indeed Ravana’s lair, then this is the very cave that he used to imprison Sita. When the Cobra Hood Cave was excavated, the archaeologists found 9 skeletons buried in it. Check the picture of the cave in the Ravana’s palace section of this Sigiriya Rock Fortress Guide.
Past the cave, you finally walk through the water gardens – albeit on a different pathway and emerge at the final viewpoint. This is where you see the landscaped gardens, the steps and the fortress on the top – all in one single view. Once I had reached this point, I felt a little sad that my tour of this splendid location had ended. Somehow, I felt I needed to revisit again – and maybe, someday, I will. But for now, a parting note to one last attraction of this place – the Sigiriya Museum.
Many visitors to Sigiriya palace tend to skip the museum. I would highly recommend that you do not miss out on it. The museum is right next to the ticketing office. If you happen to visit the Sigiriya fortress in the morning, then first finish the climb and then take shelter in the museum. You can do the exact opposite if you visit it later in the day.
Sigiriya Museum is perfect to understand the history of the Sigiriya fortress. It even has documents of its early excavations and archaeological finds. One of the best things about this museum is its 3D section that has the Fresco wall recreated. So if you cannot climb the Sigiriya rock fortress for some reason, your next best option is visiting this museum.
Well, that’s all in terms of the grand tour of Sigiriya Rock Fortress Sri Lanka. The next section of this Sigiriya rock fortress guide will help you plan your own excursion here. But of course, you will need to bookmark it for a constant reference, and for that, just pin one of these up.
Before you go, Pin This
Common FAQS on Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress
Where is Sigiriya Rock Fortress?
Sigiriya Rock fortress is located near Dambulla town, in the Matale district of Sri Lanka. It is an ancient fortress that dates back to the 5th century and is now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How to reach Sigiriya?
The closest airport to Sigiriya is Bandarnaika International airport in Colombo. From Colombo, you can get to Sigiriya either by train or by road. If you choose to travel by train, take one to Habarana. This is around 15 km from Sigiriya. The train journey takes around 5 hours from Colombo. Once in Habarana, you can either take one of the regular public buses or hire a tuk-tuk to Sigiriya.
In case you wish to travel by road, then you can either hire a car or take a bus to Sigiriya from Colombo. The route that you can follow is as below –
Colombo – Kelaniya – Kadawatha via A1 highway – Mirigama – Galawela – Dambulla -Sigiriya
The total distance on this route is 168 km and it takes around 4 – 5 hours.
A lot of people tend to visit Sigiriya from Kandy. If you are planning to do so, you can take a train to Habarana and then a tuk-tuk or a bus to Sigiriya from there. Alternately, you can directly take a bus or hire a cab to Sigiriya. The route that you need to follow to Sigiriya from Kandy is as below –
Kandy – Matale- Dambulla – Sigiriya.
The distance between Kandy and Sigiriya is just 90 km and you can cover the same in 2 and half hours.
How tall is Sigiriya Rock?
Sigiriya rock stands tall at 180m high over its surrounding forest. The height of the rock, when described in terms of elevations above sea level, is 349m
How old is Sigiriya Rock?
Geologically, Sigiriya rock is over millions of years old, formed from a volcanic eruption. However, the rock fortress of Sigiriya can be dated back to the 5th century.
Who built the Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka?
The Lion rock fortress of Sigiriya was built by King Kashyapa I of Moriya dynasty in the 5th century. It functioned as his capital till his death in the year 495, after which it became a Buddhist monastery.
Why is Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka called Lion Rock?
Mid-way on the Sigiriya rock is a carved entrance that has a huge Lion. It is this grand entrance that gave the name Sinhagiri to the rock . The Sinhalese word Sinhagiri translates to Lion Rock.
What is the best time to visit Sigiriya Fortress?
The best season to visit Sigiriya is from December to April, when the weather is cooler and the rains minimal. The preceding months – October to December sees heavy rainfall while the rest of the year is extremely hot.
Sigiriya rock is best climbed in the morning when the heat is not too harsh. This would be around 7 am. Alternately, you can attempt a climb and visit at around 3 pm
How many steps are there to climb Sigiriya Fortress?
There are approximately 1200 steps that you will need to climb to get to the top of Sigiriya Rock fortress.
What are the visiting hours of Sigiriya rock fortress?
Sigiriya rock fortress Sri Lanka opens at 6:30 am and closes by 5:30 pm everyday
What are the Sigiriya rock fortress entrance fees?
Sigiriya rock fortress entrance tickets cost USD 30 per adult. The fee also includes the Sigiriya museum. There is no charge for cameras.
Where to stay in Sigiriya?
Anyone visiting Sigiriya can either stay in Sigiriya itself or find a hotel in Habarana or Dambulla. Staying in either of the three locations will allow them to visit all the nearby attractions including Sigiriya fort, Dambulla caves, Pidurangala rock etc. You will find hotels in all possible budgets at these locations. Use the booking resources below to book a hotel in these locations.
I stayed at the Habarana village by Cinnamon for my visit to Sigiriya. You can pick that one or even some of the Jetwing hotels for a luxury or a mid-priced stay. If you are looking for hostels or budget accommodation, I have heard good things about One More Night.
Travel and Photography Tips
- There is no specific dress code for Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka. You can wear anything that is comfortable. I recommend cotton wear and comfortable hiking shoes.
- Carry enough water for your climb to Sigiriya fortress
- There are no shops during your ascent but you will find a few hawkers at the base, when you climb back down.
- Rest Rooms are only at the entrance.
- Photography is allowed everywhere except the Sigiriya rock frescoes gallery and the Sigiriya rock museum. The Frescoes gallery is a strict no no as mentioned in the section above. You are likely to face severe consequences if caught.
- The Sigiriya Rock fortress does not have any audio guides. The place is well marked though, if you choose to do it on your own. Alternately, you can opt for one of the many tours that I have mentioned in the Booking Resources section below.
- Carry a basic kit lens and a wide angle lens for your pictures.
- If you are looking for hotels in Sigiriya itself, you will find plenty of options on Booking.com. You can use this Dambulla hotels link to book one for yourself in Dambulla or try some hotels in Habarana.
- Consider using Agoda.com through this link to get your Sigiriya or Dambulla hotels.
- GetYourGuide has several options for tours to for Sigiriya fortress. You can book them online and get instant confirmation on the site. The options include a day trip from Colombo and Kandy as well.
- Klook.com is another website that provides tours and transfers through online booking. You can consider clicking through this link to book a trip to Dambulla and Sigiriya from Anuradhapura.
- If you use Amazon for your daily and travel needs, do consider going to the site using this link.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
Popularly referred to as a Restless Ball of Energy. My Mom refuses to entertain my complaints about my equally restless daughter & assures my husband that I was born with a travel bug.
I am a Post-Graduate in Marketing by qualification and a travel blogger by passion. Besides travel, I enjoy photography and if you don’t find me at my desk, I would be out playing badminton or swimming or just running. I believe in planning for every long weekend through the year. And when I cannot travel physically, I travel virtually through this travel blog. My travel stories have also, got published on various websites and magazines including BBC Travel, Lonely Planet India and Jetwings. I have recently published my first book – When Places Come Alive – a collection of stories that are based on legends, landscapes, art and culture of a place which is available in both ebook and paperback format.