Two amiable men in white shirts smile at me when the car approaches the drop point, near the entrance to Sigiriya Rock Fortress ─ probably the most prominent landmark of the island nation of Sri Lanka. As soon as I get off the car, the first man greets me, “Konnichiwa, Japan-san!”. Bewildered for a slight second, then I politely decline his offer and walk directly to the ticket counter while the second man keeps saying the exact same thing repeatedly a few moment later. I always remember what Suresh, my reliable driver in Sri Lanka, said to me the day before that some local guides tend to make up stories about the history of an ancient site, enticing tourists with catchy tales.
In my past travels, local people in different countries thought of me as Malaysian, Singaporean, Chinese, Filipino, Thai, or even Maori of New Zealand. So, now Japanese is officially added to the list. However, the unexpected amusement does not last long. My lightheartedness turns into sudden tense feeling as I reach the ticket counter. A big sign board written in three languages ─ Sinhalese, Tamil and English ─ explicitly warns every visitor about the possible attack from hornets around Sigiriya and the obligation to wear protective mask for visitor’s own safety. Nevertheless when I walked toward the counter I did not see anyone wearing such mask and the lady at the counter did not say even a single word about the threat. Anxiously I walk toward the entrance gate after paying for the rather steep ticket while hoping that visiting Sigiriya is worth all the money I have just spent.
Long before I started wandering to far-flung places, I have read on the travel section of an Indonesian newspaper about Sigiriya. At that time the protracted civil war still engulfed this island nation. But here I am now, walking toward the same monolith that I saw on that page on the newspaper, three years after the war ended.
Getting to the base of the rock is quite easy as I only need to follow a straight dirt path, barren by the sun and countless footsteps of people for centuries. Every few hundreds meters or so, I have to take the steps made from bricks, bringing people closer to the base of the monolith in a subtly sloping terrain. Once the giant ancient volcanic plug is close enough, I can see large boulders flanking the steps leading to the rock. After passing through the boulders, the path leading to the Mirror Wall ─ one of the most important features of Sigiriya Rock Fortress ─ is now clearly visible.
The Mirror Wall is made of a porcelain-like material, so well-polished that anyone walked alongside it could see his reflection, hence the name. Over the time, many visitors scribbled thousands of words on the wall until the authority decided to protect it and keep a safe distance between the wall and visitors’ pathway. Today at the middle of the pathway behind the Mirror Wall, a spiral staircase brings visitors to the few remaining frescoes of Sigiriya. Although it looks old and rusty, the staircase seems to be strong enough to function properly until a few more years to come.
Back in the early 20th century, Sigiriya Rock Fortress was adorned with hundreds of pictures of graceful female figures, painted during the time when the it still served as a royal palace. However when it was converted into a monastery again, just like how it used to be before being used as a palace, most of the paintings were wiped out in order not to be a distraction for the monks. Fortunately a few of the frescoes are still intact, giving present-day visitors a glimpse of how impressive it must have looked back then.
After going down to the Mirror Wall again, I follow the path which leads to the Lion Gate where two giant lion paws flank the final stairs to the top of the rock. Even though the lion face had long crumbled, the sheer size of the paws are a quite remarkable sight, particularly in such height where wind blows rather hard and occasionally creates swirling minor vortex ─ leaving me in admiration for the imagination of the king or architect who envisioned this rock fortress centuries ago. At this point I no longer take heed on the warnings for the possible attack of the hornets.
Climbing the final leg of the stairs, I prepare myself for being amazed for what I will see upon reaching the summit.
Larger than I previously thought, the ruins of the royal palace are truly the evidence of ancient Sri Lankan’s engineering marvel. Multi-story palace with a large bathing pool on the top of a rock with the sweeping view of rivers, mountains and dense forests around it sounds something only a very ambitious king dared to envision. King Kassapa that is, back in the late 5th century AD.
Nevertheless, behind its beauty, Sigiriya was the center of a long rivalry between King Kassapa and his brother, Mugalan, who fled to India for sanctuary. Provoked to fight each other by a former chief or army who had his own hidden agenda, the two brothers contended for the throne of the kingdom. Mugalan was born from a different mother who came from a more noble family than his older brother’s mother’s bloodline. Therefore, despite being the younger son of the former king, he believed that he was the rightful heir to the throne. The rivalry continued for 18 years until Mugalan with the aid of foreign troops from India managed to topple his brother. The new king then restored the palace into a monastery once again.
Serving both as a peaceful retreat and a surveillance post, the ancient palace is now yet to be fully excavated and restored, waiting for the right technology to be invented ─ certainly a great thing for young archaeologists who might start to run out of places to be studied in their field experience.
Having to squat sometimes in order not to be pushed away by the unexpectedly very strong wind, I stay a little longer at the summit only to gaze upon the magnificent view this place has to offer. Not only I am on the top of Sigiriya Rock Fortress, but with no doubt it is also the top of my experience in Sri Lanka.