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Among the biggest travel emotions, I can’t help but include Sigiriya, the extraordinary site that brought me into the heart of Sri Lanka.

If the tea plantations made me choose ancient Ceylon as a destination in 2015, this towering volcanic rock inspired me on this journey to the center of the island.

I didn’t like everything, and I wouldn’t certainly visit some of the monasteries and sites a second time (!), but if you decide to travel to the “tear of India” I really recommend you plan a stage in Sigiriya to discover the central region of Sri Lanka.

But let’s get to the point …

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is perhaps best known as Lion Rock and is a spectacular magmatic column more than 350 meters high. In the late fifth century AD, King Kasyapa had his palace built on the ruins of a Buddhist monastery. Sigiriya is the eighth world wonder for Sinhalese people, and I must admit it is an exceptional site.

Given the total absence of shade and the prohibitive temperatures of the country, I suggest you arrange your visit in the early morning or late in the afternoon and start from the museum at the entrance of the archaeological park to fully grasp the value and history of this place that after centuries of neglect was rediscovered in 1907 by Britain’s John Still. In addition to permanent exposure, to fully appreciate the visit, I have entrusted the illustrated booklet Story of Sigiriya by archaeologist Paranavithana, which reveals the mysteries of the rock, making me fantasize as I love to do when visiting such a place!

According to the book, King Kasyapa murdered his father to be crowned king, and fearing the revenge of his brother, he built his palace on this rock that he had fortified and surrounded with a moat inhabited by alligators. To give luster to the kingdom’s new capital, he made it embellish with roof gardens, water features, and hundreds of frescoes still visible, but unfortunately disfigured by not that aware tourists …

As per the drawings seen in the museum and books, Sigiriya resembles the architectural scheme of the Forbidden City, with buildings topped by pagoda roofs and protected by outworks, while the gardens crossed by canals and fountains made me think of a small, antique Versailles. Beautiful!

The not difficult climb to the rock’s summit reveals the spirit of the monastic site that, following the deposition of the king by his usurped brother, was for centuries a Buddhist monastery. Halfway up, you reach a panoramic esplanade on which stood the official entry of the building: the lion’s head that gives its name to the site. Today only the legs are visible, though, allowing visitors to appreciate the ancient fifteen-meter high entrance majesty. Climbing the modern metal stairs that replaced the original brick ones, you get to the roof terrace once home to the royal palace. The view up there is spectacular, as are the old pools. I felt like on the roof of the world …

Viaggio nel cuore dello Sri Lanka

Useful information:

  • the entrance fee is 3900Rs for foreigners and 50RS for Sinhalese, and only half the price is charged for children
  • the site is not a religious one. Therefore you do not need to walk barefoot or cover your shoulders and legs
  • do not forget a bottle of water for the uphill part of the visitors
  • try to be as quiet as possible! All along the route, you’ll see signs asking for silence to avoid swarms of wasps, but I guessed it is only a gimmick to avoid hordes of noisy barbarians …

Piduraryale Rock in Sigiriya

From the summit of Sigiriya, I spotted the younger sister Piduraryale Rock, home to an ancient Buddhist monastery now disappeared. Climbing this rock takes only a few hours, and the view of the Lion Rock from this angle is impressive, but to tell the truth, it’s worthwhile only if you have plenty of time.

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is at two hours drive from Sigiriya (I did it with a tuk-tuk), and it’s a modern city famous for its namesake archaeological park seat of an ancient and powerful capital. The site, a World Heritage since 1982, is huge, and it is undoubtedly one of the best-preserved among those visited during my trip through Sri Lanka.

The ruins are enclosed in concentric walls and scattered among gardens and forest. In the middle stood the royal palace of Parakramabahu I and, further north, the so-called Quadrilateral, home of the most important religious buildings in the country. The Gal Vihara especially struck me: four gigantic statues of the Buddha depicted in different positions, carved directly into the rock.

To the west of the city is the Parakrama Samudra, the largest artificial lake called the Sea of Parakramabahu, which has provided water and protection to the city for centuries.

For historical detail regarding the ancient capital, I suggest you read the relevant page on Wikipedia more reliable than my notes taken casually on-site …

Useful information:

  • the entrance fee is 3250Rs
  • being the site purely religious, you’ll have to cover your arms and legs and take off your shoes. I recommend you wear socks to soften a bit the walk on the gravels surrounding the monuments …

Ritigala Ruins

A must-visit when in Sigiriya are the ruins of Ritigala that made me feel like Indiana Jones for a few hours!

The entrance to this archaeological park is also home to a branch of the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka, asking only a free donation to let enter the very few onlookers wanting to venture to explore this ancient monastery swallowed by the forest.

Everything here is flamboyant: the stone bridges, stairs uneven rising snaking through the trees, the rocks scattered in emerald green, the verses of the monkeys during the visit, the sound of the river…

Apparently, this mountain is also linked to countless folktales. For example, it is said that here grow the Sansevi grass, with the power to cure all human pains and lengthen life. I couldn’t find it 😉

Dambulla, a forced stop when in Sigiriya

Dambulla is a densely populated and chaotic avenue, home to what I spontaneously called “the praise of kitsch,” the glittering Museum of Buddhism that is also the entrance to the most famous rock monastery in Sri Lanka.

The museum is really a sad and poorly exposed collection of icons and vestments. Simultaneously, the monastery under the rock at the top of the hill is imposing with its white colonnades and decorated gables.

The site consists of five cave-shrine with painted ceilings, all well attended by local believers. The outside really impressed me, but I wouldn’t say I liked the caves, and I couldn’t feel the spirituality of the place. It must be said that the entry is so unspiritual that I found it so hard to see beyond it!

Useful information:

  • the entrance fee is 1500Rs
  • the site is a religious one, and control at the entrance is more careful than elsewhere
  • do not forget a bottle of water for the uphill walk
  • if you want to stop by really quickly on your way elsewhere, you can leave your luggage at the entrance of the Temple for the duration of the visit

Visit to the traditional village

Along the road from Dambulla to Sigiriya, there’s a tourist traditional village. It obviously is an attraction designed for Westerners, and many of them might hate the idea, but I liked to see how they still live in rural areas of Sri Lanka, what they eat, and how they move.

The experience costs 2500Rs, and between the ride on typical carts, crossing the river in a canoe, the snack in the hut* and the way back to the base, you’ll have to count a couple of hours.

*if you are not vaccinated against hepatitis A I’d advise against the frugal feast!

Journey into the heart of Sri Lanka

For more practical information on transport, moving on site, lodging, and to discover the rest of my itinerary in Sri Lanka, I invite you to read my post Traveling through Sri Lanka wrote a few months ago.

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Silvia's Trips

Hi there! My name is Silvia and after 15 years between the Paris Opera and the Palau de les Arts in Valencia I now run a boutique hotel in Cinque Terre, deal with tourism management and blogging, sail, horse-ride, play guitar and write about my solo trips around the world. For more info about me and my travel blog check my full bio.