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Sigiriya: An Incredible Example of Ancient Urban Planning

Written by C. Christian Monson

Anyone who’s ever played king of the hill with their siblings knows just how important it is to have the high ground. Now one of Sri Lanka’s most famous tourist attractions seeing over 1,500 domestic and foreign visitors each day, Sigiriya was actually just that originally: the site of two brothers’ life-or-death game of king of the hill.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sigiriya_Sri_Lanka_003.jpg

Of course, since the brothers were royalty, their hill was a bit more spectacular than your backyard dirt pile. A massive column of rock jutting 180 meters or 590 feet out of the Matale forest in Sri Lanka’s Central Province, Sigiriya became the site of an elaborate city that remains one of the most impressive examples of urban planning in the ancient world.

So was it just a deliberately designed military fortress in the conflict between two brothers? A palace for a playboy king and his many concubines? Or a giant canvas for ancient artists and poets? The story of Sigiriya is one of murder, intrigue and betrayal that has survived over 15 centuries carved, painted and built into the rock itself.

FAMILY FEUD

The area around Sigiriya has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years, and there’s evidence of Buddhist monks using the rocky terrain and its many caves for shelter as early as the 3rd Century BC. In fact, many caves or rock outcroppings in the area feature inscriptions denoting them as donations to various Buddhist sects. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sigiriya-Asana_Cave_(1).jpg

However, the story of the Sigiriya fortress didn’t begin until almost a millennium later when, in the 5th Century, Kashyapa I, son of King Dhatusena, decided he wanted the throne for himself. Dhatusena was an important figure in Sri Lankan history, uniting the country under his rule after driving out Dravidian invaders from India. A kind of savior figure for the people, Dhatusena’s uncle disguised him in a Buddhist order as a child to hide him from the Dravidians, and he started a resistance movement once he grew up. He then revitalized the country by building irrigation tanks and canals, improving agricultural output.

Dhatusena also had a lot of wives and concubines with whom he had a lot of children. Kashyapa was the oldest, but he wasn’t heir to the throne because his mother wasn’t an official royal consort. That honor fell to Moggallana, whose mother was the Queen Consort. 

Kashyapa didn’t find this particularly fair and began scheming to usurp his younger half brother. His chance came when his cousin Migara, who happened to be the commander of the king’s army, got in a disagreement with Dhatusena and agreed to carry out a coup with Kashyapa. In 477 AD, they stormed the royal palace, which was at the time located in Anuradhapura, a city about 70 kilometers or 45 miles northwest of Sigiriya, and took King Dhatusena captive.

Migara and Kashyapa imagined that King Dhatusena had mountains of treasure hidden away and demanded that he hand it over. However, he instead led them to the Kala Wewa, a major water reservoir he had built in 460 AD. One of the largest irrigation tanks in the ancient world, Kala Wewa held some 123 million cubic meters of water, over 32 billion gallons, and fed surrounding farmland via canals until reaching Anuradhapura where it provided drinking water for the population. Dhatusena proudly told his son and nephew that the massive public-works project was the only treasure he had.

Kashyapa was furious. Believing his father was insulting him, he had the king executed. In fact, legend has it that Kashyapa entombed Dhatusena alive in the bund wall of the Kala Wewa.

This ended up backfiring for Kashyapa, though. Dhatusena was a widely popular king, having driven out foreign invaders and invested in his people. As a result, the citizens of Anuradhapura despised Kashyapa for killing him and nicknamed the new king Pithru Gathaka Kashyapa, which translates to Kashyapa the Father Killer.

Arguably an even bigger problem, Kashyapa’s brother Moggallana managed to escape the coup and flee to India where he vowed revenge. Unpopular in the capital and fearing an attack from his brother, Kashyapa decided to move his residence to a more secure location. Sigiriya, with its unobstructed view of the surrounding plains and forests, seemed like the perfect place.

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PLEASURE PALACE

Kashyapa did more than just hide away atop Sigiriya. Instead, he got to planning an elaborate city that was more than just practical, but luxurious as well. It also contained impressive technological features for the time including a man-made reservoir on the south side of the rock and hydraulic systems that powered fountains that still work to this day. Altogether there were five gates with the westernmost reserved for the royals. The site was divided into three primary sections: the base, the mid-level terrace and the top. It was all protected by two moats and two ramparts.

At the bottom of the rock, Sigiriya featured—and still does—some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. Primarily located on the west side of the rock, they represented a pleasure park for the royalty who could walk their lengths and enjoy their beauty. The complex consisted of three different types of gardens: water gardens, cave and boulder gardens, and terraced gardens.

The water gardens were placed prominently in the center of the eastern pleasure park, the main garden built in the style called char bagh. This was an ancient garden form consisting of a large quadrilateral surrounded by water based on the four gardens of paradise mentioned in the Quran. 

The water gardens were purposefully designed to be symmetrical along the east-west axis and connected to the outer moat. Some included fountains supplied by underground water conduits that still function during the rainy season, and one of them even had two artificial islands hosting summer palaces.

The boulder gardens were then built at the base of Sigiriya where the rock column meets the eastern pleasure garden complex. Based on footings cut into the boulders, it appears they once held buildings and pavilions. These were for more than just recreation but also served as high defensive points in case of attack.

Pathways through the boulder gardens then led up the sloping hill at the base of Sigiriya through the terraced gardens, which were formed by brick walls that wrapped around the circumference of the entire rock column leading up a series of terraces until you reach a limestone staircase that takes you to the mid-level terrace.

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The mid-level terrace is defined by the Lion Gate from which Sigiriya, derived from Sinhagiri, Sanskrit for “Lion Rock,” gets its name. The gate passes through two giant lion’s feet into a staircase that leads up to the top of the rock. Originally there was a lion’s head above the gate, but it has since collapsed.

Going up the staircase, you reach the famous Mirror Wall. During Kashyapa’s rule, the wall was covered in a white plaster polished so vigorously that the king could see his reflection in it as he passed by. Past the Mirror Wall, he would then ascend a spiral staircase leading to Sigiriya’s massive fresco gallery, possibly the largest in the world at the time of its creation.

140 meters long and 40 meters high for an area of 5,600 square meters, over 60,000 square feet and bigger than a football field, the gallery included paintings of 500 women, though most have faded or been erased over the centuries. While some archaeologists theorize that the women were religious images, others posit that they were concubines of the king, fitting with the concept of Sigiriya as a pleasure palace.

Finally, on top of the rock sat Kashyapa’s palace complex and citadel, the ruins of which are still there. With elaborate staircases, terraces, water cisterns and military fortifications, it’s theorized that the entire complex took seven years to complete. It served Kashyapa for nearly two decades until 495 when his family history caught up with him.

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FAMILY REUNION

According to the Culavamsa, a historical record of Sri Lanka collected by Buddhist monks over the period from the 4th to 19th Centuries, Kashyapa’s younger half-brother Moggallana, the rightful heir to the throne, raised an army while in India and finally returned to Sri Lanka in 495 to take back the kingdom. Despite Kashyapa’s hill-top fortress and years of preparation, the fight was pretty anticlimactic. 

As he rode out to meet his brother on a battle elephant, Kashyapa changed course to divert his forces in an attempt at gaining a strategic advantage. However, his army interpreted this as a retreat. They turned and ran, leaving Kashyapa abandoned on the battlefield. Too proud to surrender, the defeated king took his dagger from his sheath and cut his own throat.

Moggallana had little use for the pleasure palace of Sigiriya and returned the capital to Anuradhapura. He donated Sigiriya to a Buddhist sect which transformed the rock into a monastery complex. 

Interestingly, it didn’t take long for Sigiriya to become a tourist attraction. Today the Mirror Wall is covered in poetry, most of which dates to the 8th to 10th Century. Based on the verses, everyone from important officials to common citizens visited the rock and left over 1,500 poems, mostly dedicated to the women in the frescoes. Many are beautiful examples of Singhalese literature featuring vibrant imagery and word play:

Like geese who have seen a lake, I listened to the message given by her.

Like a bee who has seen full-blown lotuses, the bewildered heart of mine was consoled.  

Others are light and humorous, reflecting the popularity of Sigiriya as an ancient tourist site:

I am Budal. I came with hundreds of people to see Sigiriya. Since all the others wrote poems, I did not!

Eventually, shifts in political power on Sri Lanka led to Sigiriya’s full abandonment in 1155. The Sri Lankan Kingdom of Kandy briefly used it as a military outpost in the 16th and 17th Centuries, but it was otherwise lost to anything but folklore.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sigiriya_lion_gate_04.JPG

LOOKING FOR A LEGEND

In 1827, Jonathan Forbes, a major with the British Army in Sri Lanka, became friends with George Turnour, a British scholar and historian who had worked with a Buddhist monk to translate and study the Culavamsa. Turnour told Forbes about the story of Sigiriya as told in the book, and Forbes decided to go look for it. In 1831, Forbes found it, but because of the extent of forest growth that had encroached on the site, he didn’t find the Lion Gate or staircase but instead tried to climb the rock face itself. He was unsuccessful at reaching the top.

The full extent of the site wasn’t realized until British mountaineers reached the palace on top in 1851, after which an extensive archaeological survey was carried out by Harry C.P. Bell at the end of the end of the 19th Century. Then in 1982 the Government of Sri Lanka started the Cultural Triangle Project which included archaeological work on the entire ancient city.

Now Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized for its cultural significance to the Sri Lankan people. Millions travel to the site each year to appreciate the incredible examples of ancient urban planning and technology as well as the art and poetry. Plus, regardless of how much is true and how much is legend, the story of the playboy king, his pleasure palace, and the family feud that surrounded it, continues to enthrall visitors today just as it did over a thousand years ago.

SOURCES

“A Magnificent Palace in the Sky.” TalesofCeylon.com. https://www.talesofceylon.com/destinations/sigiriya/tales-of-sigiriya/the-magnificent-palace-in-the-sky/

“Anuradhapura Kingdom.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anuradhapura_Kingdom

“Central Province, Sri Lanka.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Province,_Sri_Lanka#Mountain_ranges

“City Map of Sigiriya.” MaryAnneMohanraj.com. https://maryannemohanraj.com/2019/01/18/city-map-of-sigiriya/

“Cūḷavaṃsa.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%C5%AB%E1%B8%B7ava%E1%B9%83sa

“Dhatusena of Anuradhapura.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhatusena_of_Anuradhapura

“Kala Wewa.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kala_Wewa

“Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashyapa_I_of_Anuradhapura#Acquiring_the_throne

“List of Sri Lankan monarchs.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Sri_Lankan_monarchs

“Map of Sigiriya at the entrance of the site.” Albinger.me. https://albinger.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/sigiriya-map.jpg

“Matale District.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matale_District

“Moggallana I of Anuradhapura.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moggallana_I_of_Anuradhapura

“Sigiriya.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya

“The ‘Lion Fortress’ of Sri Lanka was swallowed by the jungle.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/sri-lanka-sigiriya-fortress

“The Number of Foreign Visitors to Sigiriya Increases by 70 Percents.” BeyondEscapes.com. https://www.beyondescapes.com/blog/the-number-of-foreign-visitors-to-sigiriya-increases-by-70-percents/

“The Six Dravidians.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Six_Dravidians

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