Sigiriya: A Lethal Ambition

64 comments
Asia, South, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, the Rock Monastery

Sigiriya, the Rock Citadel

Chapter 1, Part 2

In ancient Sri Lanka, the kingdom of Anuradhapura continued to flourish, Buddhism developed further, and colossal dagabas were commissioned. However in the mid-fifth century AD Anuradhapura was attacked by the Pandyan Dynasty from southern India who would control the kingdom for about two decades in a period called the rule of the Six Dravidians. The reign of the foreign rulers ended when Dhatusena killed the last of the Six Dravidians and reestablished the kingdom of Anuradhapura soon afterwards.

For more than fifteen years Dhatusena ruled Anuradhapura and built multiple irrigation tanks and canals. He had two sons and one daughter, but it was the second son who became the crown prince for the eldest son was born to a non-royal concubine. Kasyapa, as the dissatisfied elder son was called, found a valuable ally in Migara, the army general who was both Dhatusena’s son-in-law and nephew. Migara had reason to desire the king’s removal, for the murder of his own mother was orchestrated by Dhatusena himself. With Migara’s help, Kasyapa usurped the throne and imprisoned his own father.

The legitimate heir to the throne, Mogallana (Mugalan), fled to South India and planned a strategy to claim what was rightfully his. Fueled by greed and made to believe that Dhatusena had hidden his treasures in a secret place, Kasyapa demanded his father to show him the location. Dhatusena, released from the prison only to reveal the site of his purported treasures, took Kasyapa to one of his man-made reservoirs and told him that its water was the only treasure he had. Blinded by rage, Kasyapa killed his own father.

Kasyapa became an unpopular king, and earned the nickname Kasyapa the Patricide (he was not the only one, though, as there had been more than a dozen of such killings in history). Because of this, and fearing revenge from Mogallana, Kasyapa moved his capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya further south. He did try to make amends by expanding the courtyard of Isurumuniya and improved the condition of the temple by donating grants. But his true focus was building a new palace on top of the Sigiriya rock which would provide him with an unobstructed view in all directions, practically making the new palace in and of itself a fortress. In doing so, he ordered a sangha (a Buddhist monastic community) to evacuate the site, and relocated them to the nearby Pidurangala rock.

A palace would not be complete without beautified surroundings and a multitude of artwork to impress. Hence Kasyapa built a sophisticated irrigation system to supply the pools and fountains in the palace garden. Adorning the new palace with conventional artwork proved to be difficult, naturally, as it sat on top of a gigantic rock. The innovative solution was to install a long wall made from polished porcelain-like material on the outer side of the pathway, halfway up the rock face. Above the Mirror Wall, as the feature is now called, brightly-colored frescoes depicting female figures with different headdresses, complexions and attires were created. In addition, at the base of the final flight of steps to the palace a massive lion head and two paws were constructed.

As Kasyapa had predicted, Mogallana did return to Lanka, bringing along an army he organized during his exile. The rock fortress proved futile in preventing the loss of Kasyapa’s army, partly because Migara defected to Mogallana’s side. Knowing that his fall was imminent the embattled king decided to kill himself with his own sword, ending a brief period when the kingdom of Anuradhapura was ruled from Sigiriya. Mogallana soon moved the capital of his kingdom back to Anuradhapura, and handed over Sigiriya to a Buddhist sangha for use as a monastery once again.

Pond

One of the Ponds at the Royal Garden

Stairs and Fresco

Going up to the Frescoes

Fresco 2

The Maidens of Sigiriya

Fresco 3

A More Weathered Section

Lion Paws

Lion Paws, above Which the Lion Head Once Stood

View 1

View from the Top

Ruins

Waiting for Sunset at the Palace Ruins

Ruins again

Where King Kasyapa Used to Live

View 2

An Engineering Marvel from the Ancient Time

View 3

Millions of Bricks were Used to Build the Palace

Hill

Pidurangala Rock Next to Sigiriya

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

64 thoughts on “Sigiriya: A Lethal Ambition”

  1. A classic tale of palace intrigue, treachery and revenge. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Migara married his own cousin – guess it wasn’t such a big deal in those ancient times. It’s a shame we were so rushed for time at Sigiriya, though we did manage to catch those precious last rays of afternoon sun. What a strange place to build a palace… I imagine the fearful Kasyapa was carried up and down in a sedan chair!

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    • In the past cousin marriage actually occurred quite often, including in places like the US and Europe. Today, however, it’s only quite common in the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, and some parts of Africa. There’s a Wikipedia entry on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cousin_marriage
      I also wish that we had more time in Sigiriya so you could explore the frescoes and the palace ruins. Maybe the next time we go we can stay in the area — and go to Pidurangala as well to cook! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t see the stupas in Anuradhapura on both of my visits to Sigiriya in 2012 and 2015. Maybe you actually can if you use binoculars.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps. Or it was just because of the afternoon light, or my lack of information so I didn’t try to look for them. The next time I go I’ll make sure to look for them in the horizon.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Marie. Even the frescoes themselves were amazing. I read that in the past there were more frescoes. Imagine if that was the case today — must have been really breathtaking!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rebeca says:

    The tale is great and just to think that at that time you can find all that luxury, marble, frescoes, a giant lion: is amazing. I just wish they were more preserved. Fantastic Sri Lanka! By the way, I just heard that now is forbidden to take pictures of the frescoes, I was there 3 months ago and there was no problem about it…

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    • Hi Rebeca. Actually based on what I read when the British first rediscovered Sigiriya, the lion head was still intact. Shame there’s no documented picture of it, otherwise we would have known how it looked like. I didn’t know about the prohibition. Hopefully it’s just temporary!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bama, bagus sekaliiii… tapi liat fotonya saja sudah cape, tangganya itu… ada berapa??? berapa menit sampai atas? *pingsaaan
    Aku masukin Sigiriya ke my bucketlist, tp masih mikir2 soal kuat ga naik keatasnya…

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    • Nah, kemarin itu kan kedua kalinya saya ke Sigiriya. Pas pertama kali tahun 2012 lumayan ngos-ngosan sih. Mungkin kalau ditotal kurang lebih waktu itu satu jam dari bawah sampai atas. Pas kunjungan kedua kemarin waktunya agak mepet soalnya udah hampir sunset, jadinya naiknya lumayan ngebut. 🙂 Untungnya kali ini kondisi badan jauh lebih fit dibanding waktu pertama kali dulu (gara-gara naik sepeda setiap hari ke kantor). Pelan-pelan aja pasti bisa kok. Banyak titik untuk berhenti dan menikmati pemandangan/ambil foto.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Isn’t it amazing what our ancestors were able to do so long ago? When I see the art, the architecture, and the overall cleverness of those who lived centuries ago, it boggles my mind.

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    • Exactly what I feel every time I visit places that were built more than a thousand of years ago. Indonesia gained independence some seven decades ago, and Kasyapa built his palace on top of Sigiriya about 15 centuries ago — 150 decades! It does boggle my mind as well. I will definitely be awestruck and overwhelmed when I go to places like Egypt, Greece and Iran as their civilizations are even much older.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Aki. The view from Sigiriya was really breathtaking. The forests, hills, mountains, just amazing!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bama I think i want to hide away in your backpack and travel where ever you go. Your in depth knowledge and stunning photos makes me feel as though i have sat down to an amazing documentary. Your photo of the lion paws will stay with me for some time. Astounding creation.

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    • LOL. Sue, I’d rather talk to you (or maybe go cycling with you) than hide you in my backpack. 🙂 But thanks! You’re too kind. Actually on my first visit to Sigiriya more than three years ago those lion paws were the very objects I was most impressed with, puzzled to be precise. If only the lion head still stood that would have been even more astonishing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a cool place and stunning setting. That is a fascinating history too. I first saw photos of Sigiriya a few years ago and thought – I gotta go there someday soon.

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    • James told me that you’re moving to this part of the world. 😉 So that trip to Sri Lanka is just on the horizon. Sigiriya really is a cool place. Staying in the area is not a bad idea at all.

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  7. Rifqy Faiza Rahman says:

    Saya melihat Sigiraya ini seperti sebuah negeri dongeng. Dikelilingi perbukitan dan pepohonan hijau yang rimbun. Menyimpan sejarah dari masa lampau, saya bisa bayangkan betapa asyiknya jika kita datang ke sana dan merekonstruksi sejarah, menjadi pribumi di masa lampau. Foto-fotonya teduh 🙂

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    • Sigiriya memang menjadi tempat yang membuat siapa pun yang mengunjunginya jadi membayangkan masa lalu. Bagaimana dulu bata-bata tersebut diangkut ke atas, bagaimana lukisan-lukisan tersebut digambar di dinding bukit batu yang tinggi, bagaimana rupa sang singa penjaga gerbang masuk ke istana, dll. Belum lagi pemandangan ke segala penjuru yang membuat mata jadi adem. Makasih Rifqy!

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  8. Great post Bama! Sigiriya is one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka, and you got some incredible pics from the top! The views are astounding! The history of Sigiriya is fascinating too, but for me it is the climb in the depths of the ‘jungle’ (worrying about crocs, mosquitoes and leopards) that enchants the most! 🙂

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    • Thank you, Lee! It is also one of my favorite places in the country. The first I went there I was blown away by its immensity, beauty, and mystery. On my second visit a few months ago I was still pleasantly thrilled. Did you notice the warning signs of possible wasp attack? A guy told me he was once stung by a wasp (not in Sigiriya though) and it took him weeks to recover! I’m glad that on both visits nothing sinister happened. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did notice some warning signs, yeah. Also the huge hornet nests stuck to the underside of the Rock’s ledges. There are also little mesh cages at ground level for people to run in to , in case of wasp/hornet attacks. I don’t know if they’ve ever been needed, though.

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      • There were some incidents in the past. I wonder if the cages were built before or after the hornet attacks. Anyway, I did see my first hornets further north in Sigiriya. The local guy who came with me reminded me not to make sound.

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  9. Fascinating history and architecture. And beautiful photos. Those frescoes seem similar to the ones in the Ajanta caves. Hoping to see all this in person in August Bama…fingers crossed.

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    • Thank you, Madhu. Exactly! I have yet to visit the Ajanta caves, but from the photos on the internet the frescoes do seem similar with the ones in Sigiriya. Madhu, I really really hope this time you’ll make it to Sri Lanka. It’s just ‘right there’! 🙂

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  10. I think (now after reading this) that I may have made a huge mistake on my last trip. On my way home from the Maldives, I thought about going to Sri Lanka, and planned it. Then, opted for Kerala.
    I have one problem with this place, though. Are THEY sure it was a Lion and not a…dragon? Because lions have five claws. Maybe even that far back in time, they had something like “artistic license”? That, or they ran out of rock.

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    • Well, there will always be next time, Badfish. At least tourism industry in Sri Lanka is not developing as fast as in Myanmar. Compared to my first trip to the island back in 2012 Sri Lanka hasn’t changed much.

      As for the lion, as far as I know dragon is not well-known in Sri Lankan culture. On the contrary, lion is the symbol of the Sinhalese people. The name Sinhala itself came from sinha (lion), hence the mythical lion on their flag. In all ancient Sinhalese sites images of lion are ubiquitous. But in general their interpretation of the animal is quite liberal and not confined to the usual features of a lion.

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      • I’m thinking of visiting Myanmar in a couple months, supposed to be a good time, weather-wise. I’ve heard there might be problems with money, you have to spend dollars (crisp ones?)…did you find ATM’s when you were there? Were you able to get a visa on arrival?

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      • Finding ATM was almost impossible on my first trip to Myanmar in 2012, but now ATMs are widely available everywhere, including in small cities. So that was very convenient. As for visa, actually Indonesians do not need visa to visit Myanmar up to 14 days. The thing is on my second trip to the country I intended to stay 17 days. So I decided to apply e-Visa, which was very easy and quite straightforward. Then on the day of my arrival in Yangon, the immigration lady asked me:
        “How much did you pay for e-Visa?”
        “Ummm, I don’t remember exactly”
        “It’s USD 30, right? Next time you come to Myanmar you don’t need visa. If you overstay you only need to pay USD 3 per day. So for 17 days you only need to pay USD 9. Cheaper for you”
        “Ohhh… thanks!”

        Probably she’s the only immigration officer in the world who actually tells people to overstay. 😀

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      • MAN! That is truly good to know about the ATM’s because the LP Guidebook (a few years old) states that you might find them in a big city but nowhere else and to take bags of crisp dollars.
        You definitely hit the jackpot with that immigration officer. Some of them are just mean with a Napoleon complex. Last summer in Bali, I overstayed, and it was a little hassle at the airport, but no big deal…except for the payment.

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      • Some banks have older ATM, which is strange because the machines were only introduced in Myanmar a few years ago. CB Bank’s ATM only accepts cards with 4-digit PIN, while others accept 6-digit PIN. About crisp dollars that still apply though, and before you leave the country make sure you have one crisp USD 10 banknote to pay the departure tax. I gave a wrinkled one, and the check in staff wasn’t so sure so she had to call her supervisor who later checked and also looked unsure but let me proceed anyway.
        Yea, that immigration officer was one of a kind. I heard so many stories like yours with immigration officers elsewhere around the world.

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      • Thanks for the tip on departure money. I just made all my flight reservations today. It took all day to get it all together, as some flights only operate on certain days. AND, get this, I may want to change one of the flights!

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      • Anytime, Badfish. I didn’t expect you to book your flights so fast! 😀 And speaking of them, I didn’t know we could book domestic flights online. I always thought we had to book them once we’re in the country. Now that’s convenient.

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  11. :((
    kak bama udah sampe sini ajaa, aku cita-cita banget minum ceylon tea di ceylon hahahah
    wisata kuliner ga kak di sini 🙂 mau dong ceritanya kalo adaa

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    • Saya nyobain milk tea paling enak itu ya pas di Sri Lanka. So far belum ada yang ngalahin milk tea buatan sang istri tuan rumah di Kandy.
      Wisata kuliner sih udah pasti, tapi postingannya harus agak sabar yaa, soalnya saya pengen nulisnya secara kronologis sesuai chapter yang saya sebutkan di dua post sebelumnya.

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  12. One of my weaknesses are frescoes… Especially if I can get up close to study them, as you can see the emotion and care of the artist. Of course, seeing such historical pieces as the ones you show here makes me wonder about the life & times of the people themselves back then ~ one of the best feelings to have. Well done.

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    • Frescoes are truly windows to the past, and to me sculptures and reliefs also do just exactly the same. One of the best feelings to have when we travel and explore ancient sites is indeed that curiosity about how life was like hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Some things are different today, but some remain the same. Fascinating! Thanks Randall.

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  13. I wonder how many workers and man hours spent on making millions of bricks just to build the King’s Palace in the past. By the looks of it I think the top of the mountain is rich in clay, so there’s plenty of raw materials around.

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    • It sounds like an impossible task, even with the wildest imagination. But such is human’s perseverance and ingenuity — they are able to make the impossible possible. Maybe you’re right about the raw materials on top of Sigiriya that they might have used for the construction of the palace.

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  14. Aku baru kali ini dapat ulasan agak lengkap tentang Sigiriya. Sesuai perkiraanku, memang istana ini dibangun pada tempat yang tinggi karena dimotivasi oleh ketakutan sang penguasa yang menempatinya. Tapi udahlah bikin istana dan benteng di tempat yang tinggi, akhirnya mati bunuh diri juga ya.

    Aku takjub dengan ukuran cakar singa nya yang raksasa, dan seringkali membayangkan seperti apa rupa kepala singanya serta ukurannya yang pasti luar biasa. Sayangnya, sisa-sisa kepala singa itu sama sekali sudah gak ada ya Bam?

    Ah jadi makin pengen ke Sri Lanka. My next solo traveling, maybe 🙂
    O iya, bulan apa sih bagusnya ke negeri ini. Yang hawanya gak panas gitu 🙂

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    • Ironis sih memang matinya, di tangan sendiri dan di istana yang dia bangun karena alasan keamanan. Iya Bart, sisa kepala singanya udah gak berbekas sama sekali, padahal pas orang Inggris menemukan kembali bekas istana di Sigiriya di abad ke-19, kepala singanya masih ada. Sayangnya mereka cuma mendokumentasikannya melalui tulisan, tanpa sketsa. Jadi sekarang kita cuma bisa mereka-reka dulunya bentuk kepala singanya kayak apa.

      Aku pertama kali ke Sri Lanka awal Juni, dan itu panas dan gerah banget. Yang kedua di awal Oktober, nah itu enak. Kadang hujan sih, tapi secara umum cuacanya kondusif buat foto-foto.

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      • Foto dan sketsa pun gak ada ya dari kepala singa batu ini? Ah sayang banget.

        Hmmm berarti di masa-masa akhir tahun ya enaknya ke Sri Lanka ini? Negara ini dah masuk daftarku, dan semoga bisa segera mengunjunginya. Amiiin 😊😊

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      • Setauku gak ada Bart. Waktu itu aku nemu gambar kepala singa Sigiriya di suatu kuil kuno di deket Kandy. Tapi itu ternyata cuma rekaan sang pelukis aja.

        Eh tapi jangan November deh kayaknya. Itu puncak-puncaknya northeast monsoon, angin yang sama yang menjadi salah satu pemicu banjir parah di Chennai tahun kemarin. Aku kan sebisa mungkin selalu mantau prakiraan cuaca di TV, dan selama November itu di animasi program cuaca Sri Lanka selalu curah hujannya tinggi banget secara pulaunya kan seberangan sama Tamil Nadu.

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      • Sri Lanka agak tricky sih karena meskipun ukuran pulaunya gak besar-besar banget, tapi kondisi cuaca di satu bagian pulau dengan bagian yang lain bisa beda-beda.

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      • Iya ya, waktu itu aku sempat riset untuk diving nya. Di bagian barat dan timur pulau punya musim masing-masing, padahal secara ukuran Sri Lanka gak besar-besar amat.

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  15. Love your stories man! Coming from Sri Lanka, you write it in such a way as if you were there and very poetic too. Thanks for visiting!

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    • Thanks Kris! The photos in this post were taken on my second trip to Sri Lanka, and I fell in love even more with the country. Thanks for reading and leaving such a kind comment.

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  16. Pingback: Rejuvenated in Kandy | What an Amazing World!

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