Sigiriya dates back over 7,000 years, through Pre-Historic to Proto-Historic to Early Historic times, then as a rock-shelter mountain monastery from about the 3rd century BC, with caves prepared and donated by devotees to the sangha. The garden city and the palace was built by Kasyapa 477 – 495 AD. Then after Kasyapa’s death it was a monastery complex up to about the 14th century.
The Mahavamsa, the ancient historical record of Sri Lanka, describes King Kasyapa as a parricide, who murdered his father King Dhatusena (The God King) by walling him up alive and then usurping the throne which rightfully belonged to his brother Mogallana. To escape from the armies of Mogallana, Kasyapa is said to have built his palace on the summit of Sigiriya, but Mogallana finally managed to get to Kasyapa and he committed suicide. The most significant feature of the Rock would have been the Lion staircase leading to the palace garden on the summit. Based on the ideas described in some of the graffiti, this Lion staircase could be visualised as a gigantic figure towering majestically against the granite cliff, facing north, bright coloured, and awe-inspiring.
Through the open mouth of the Lion had led the covered staircase built of bricks and timber and a tiled roof. All that remains now are the two colossal paws and a mass of brick masonry that surround the ancient limestone steps and the cuts and groves on the rock face give an idea of the size and shape of the lion figure. Though traces of plaster and pigments occur all over this area, only two pockets of paintings survive. These are in a depression of the rock face, about a 100 meters above the ground level. These paintings represent the earliest surviving examples of a Sri Lanka school of classical realism, already fully evolved by the 5th century, when these paintings had been made. Earlier the Sigiriya style had been considered as belonging to the Central Indian school of Ajanta, but later considered as specifically different from the Ajanta paintings. The ladies depicted in the paintings have been variously identified as Apsaras (heavenly maidens), as ladies of Kasyapas court and as Lightening Princess and Cloud Damsels.
There are also remains of paintings in some of the caves at the foot of the rock. Of special significance is the painting on the roof of the Cobra Hood Cave. The cave with its unique shape dates from the pre-christian era. The painting combines geometrical shapes and motifs with a free and complex rendering of characteristic volute or whorl motifs. It is nothing less than a masterpiece of expressionist painting.
The first sight of Sigiriya makes one wonder… why did I take so long to come here! The famous rock fortress resembles not just the craftsmanship of the local craftsmen but you ask your self how did any body think of this and how did they manage to do it! The experienced traveller knows that the best time to climb Sigiriya would be early morning, so that you could be at the summit when the early morning sun is just spreading through. It is not just the Rock fortress which is the main event but also the breathtaking scenery, the walls & moat and the remains of a royal garden…you just have to take it slow to enjoy this.
Legends of the site’s origins
The Mahavansa, the ancient historical record of Sri Lanka, describes King Kasyapa as the son of King Dhatusena. Kasyapa murdered his father by walling him alive and then usurping the throne which rightfully belonged to his brother Mogallana, Dhatusena’s son by the true queen. Mogallana fled to India to escape being assassinated by Kasyapa but vowed revenge. In India he raised an army with the intention of returning and retaking the throne of Sri Lanka which was rightfully his. Knowing the inevitable return of Mogallana, Kasyapa is said to have built his palace on the summit of Sigiriya as a fortress and pleasure palace. Mogallana finally arrived and declared war. During the battle Kasyapa’s armies abandoned him and he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Chronicles and lore say that the battle-elephant on which Kasyapa was mounted changed the course just to get to a better fighting position/place but the army misinterpreted it as the King fleeing. Thereafter the army abandoned the king altogether. Moggallana returned the capital to Anuradapura and turned Sigiriya into a monastery complex.
Alternative stories have the primary builder of Sigiriya as King Dhatusena, with Kasyapa finishing the work in honour of his father. Still other stories have Kasyapa as a playboy king, with Sigiriya a pleasure palace. Even Kasyapa’s eventual fate is mutable. In some versions he is assassinated by poison administered by a concubine. In others he cuts his own throat when isolated in his final battle.
Still further interpretations have the site as the work of a Buddhist community, with no military function at all. This site may have been important in the competition between the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist traditions in ancient Sri Lanka.