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The fortress of Sigiriya: the Lion rock

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Sigiriya the Lion rock is a natural inselberg rising from the jungle of central Sri Lanka. The caves and cavities of this spectacular rock were used in the third century as a refuge for Buddhist monks. A cobra-shaped rock stretches over the cobra cave, some Buddhist monks lived in this cave already in the 4th century.


But the history of Sigiriya takes shape in the fifth century when the rock becomes the place of the golden refuge of King Kasyapa (477 – 495 AD). Kasyapa, son of King Dhatusena, went down in history for having usurped the throne of his father after having murdered him in a horrendous way: building him alive or according to another tradition making him die of thirst. The half-brother and legitimate heir of the kingdom, Moggallana, for fear of being murdered himself fled to southern India.

The usurper, fearing the return of Moggallana decided to transfer the royal court to the Sigiriya rock. An easier place to defend than the ancient capital of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura. In just 7 years, King Kasyapa built his royal palace by transforming Sigiriya into a fortress with defensive walls, hiding places, secret passages and water and rock gardens. But he is not limited to this. To inspire fear and dread in his enemies, the king gives the rock the appearance of a lion: at the entrance the legs, above the lion’s head half carved in the rock and half made of bricks.


In 495, after 18 years of reign, Kasyapa’s fears turned into reality. The half-brother Moggallana, the legitimate heir of the kingdom, returned from southern India in the command of an army of mercenaries. The decisive clash takes place in the open field in the plain under the Sigiriya fortress, in the battle Kasyapa is defeated and before being captured he kills himself with his own dagger.

The winner Moggallana destroys the Sigiriya fortress and leaves it to the monks. The lion’s mount falls into oblivion for centuries, only by chance in 1831 an English soldier, Major Jonathan Forbes discovers the mountain. In the years around the end of the nineteenth century, the first archaeological research was done on the top of the mountain and the first discoveries were made of this very important archaeological site.

On the top of the rock there is a splendid fortress and the ruins of the ancient royal palace decorated with pomp. Here are also the remains of pavilions, fountains, gardens, swimming pools, cisterns and houses. It appears that the palace was decorated with marble walls embellished with precious stones.

In some caves in the middle of the rock there are the famous figures of the “girls of the clouds” a series of frescoes depicting splendid girls, some of them with bare breasts. The wall below the cave of the “girls of the clouds” is rich in 5th century engravings that represent the first Sinhalese poetic testimonies. In 1982 the archaeological site of Sigiriya was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.



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