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Kandy, Sri Lanka
August 18, 2006
From journal A Sri Lanka Itinerary
May 10, 2006
We rose even earlier than usual (5:45am) today to get to the rock fortress of Sigiriya as early as possible. We had been told that the tour groups began arriving at 8am, so we wanted to be there before them, and also since we had a tough climb to make to get to the top of the rocky outcrop, the earlier, the better. Unfortunately when we got to the bus station at 6:40, we were told that the first bus wasn’t until 7:30. Luckily a three-wheeler driver offered us an excellent price to take us there ($3.50 for the half-hour ride; we had been told the previous day that it would cost $15), so we went with him and got to Sigiriya at around 7:10.
We befriended some Taiwanese Buddhist nuns last night at the guesthouse, so they came along, too.
Sigiriya is a cliff-top palace/fortress built by the local king in the 5th century A.D. Its incredible location and the great views alone make the climb worthwhile, but there is more to Sigiriya than that. There are two obvious highlights on the way up, the first of which are the fifth-century frescoes of naked women, which are amazingly well preserved and look like they could have been painted yesterday. Their positioning in a sort of cave, sheltered from the elements, halfway up the cliff is why they have been more or less untouched since being painted. The second highlight is the sculpture of an enormous lion’s paws that form the entrance to the top part of the climb. When built 1500 years ago it was a complete lion; now only the two paws remain. The toes on each paw are about as tall as a small child, so the whole thing would have been absolutely monstrous when built.
The ruins on top of the rock were not spectacular, but the one part I really liked was the ‘royal swimming pool,’ cut from the rock itself.
We went back to our base in Dambulla and managed to catch a little festival on the main street, where colourfully dressed children were drumming and dancing through town. We rested during the middle of the day and set out again this afternoon to check out the famous caves at Dambulla, a short walk from our guesthouse. These turned out to be among the biggest highlights of Sri Lanka in what is already a long list after just six days. Inside are many Buddha statues and wonderful frescoes dating from the 15th to 18th centuries. The frescoes were not as old as those at Sigiriya, then, but there were many, many more at Dambulla and the artwork was fantastic.
So, it’s been another great day for us here. Tomorrow we are heading to see the Aukanna Buddha and then going to cultural city of Kandy in the afternoon. I imagine there has to be faster internet connection in Kandy, so I am hoping to put up some photos tomorrow night (as was the case yesterday, again I find myself typing at the Golden Temple in Dambulla).
That’s all for now from Sri Lanka.
From journal Sri Lanka: Back on the Sub-Continent
June 2, 2003
Popular history has it that Kassapa I, a wicked and self-indulgent king, built the place in c477-485AD as a fortified pleasure-palace to rival that of the God of Wealth, and a hideaway from which he could be safe from a half-brother who was his sworn enemy since Kassapa killed their father and usurped the throne. A visiting wiseman read his fortune and told him that he would die but not at his brother's hands but, after Kassapa had lived for 18 years in his fortress-palace, his brother attacked. Descending the hill, Kassapa mistakenly believed that his supporters had abandoned him and fell on his sword in despair.
As you arrive in the car-park, swarms of guides will approach the car and it's worthwhile taking up the services of someone (though they can be in rather a hurry to rush you back down again so be firm if you want to stay at the top and look at the view or watch the sun start to set and get them to point the way (different from the way up) and say you'll make your own way down). Make sure you've got some water - it's a fairly hard, hot climb and anyone selling water will rip you off royally.
Having crossed the moat, you start through the 5th century water garden (a UNESCO-funded restoration - it has been a world heritage site since 1998). Water was a scarce and precious commodity in this dry zone but it is cunningly channelled through rocks, pipes and waterways to satisfy the bathing pools, fountains and garden-irrigation, with pumps, believed to have been wind-powered, conducting water to the very summit.
Climbing from the base beneath the Cobra Hood Rock (an overhanging rock decorated with flowers and paintings), you start to climb through Elephant Gate towards the Fresco Gallery. It's as well not to rush - a vertiginous climb on a somewhat rickety British-made 1938 wrought-iron spiral staircase awaits (though the staircase has been scheduled for "updating" for some time now). The glorious frescos of bare-breasted water nymphs (apsaras) were commissioned for Kassapa to enjoy in private, some distance from his wives, concubines or religious advisers - none of whom would have understood their merit. (Sadly, their views were shared by the monks who succeeded Kassapa in occupation and who did away with some of them, or by a religious nutter who took a knife to the walls in 1967 and destroyed a number of them as blasphemous; these days, only 21 of the original c500 remain in tact and are unfortunately roped off. You also can't photograph them with flash - anyone breaking this rules is dealt with very fiercely so don't try - choose your time of day accordingly (and see attached photos for proof that you can get a fairly good snap) or buy some postcards).
From there, pass by the (over-rated) "mirror wall" created with a blend of lime, honey and egg white and which still maintains a slight sheen but is usually so busy that you can't see anyway and is not worth hanging around for at any rate. This leads you to the halfway pint of Lion Terrace for a quick breather before tackling the big pull to the top. At the penultimate level, you enter the last staircase through the paws of an enormous lion - sadly this is all that is left of him but this gives you some idea of sheer scale. Indeed, the whole rock is named after him - "sinha"=lion/"giriya"=throat became "Si-giriya" and one can only assume that, when he was still intact, you ascended through his paws and into his throat.
At the top, you realise why the exertion has been worthwhile - 370m above the green plains, you can see not only a 360 degree panoramic view to compete with the best but also the remains of the fantastical palace which Kassapa commissioned for his
pleasures - a swimming pool (ask yourself how they got the water up here), a granite throne, leisure areas for his concubines, gardens and terraces.
You come back down via the lion but split off through the audience chamber where Kassapa sat with his advisors and meted out justice until you come back down via the Cobra Hood for another well deserved drink. You leave the garden across the moat, and can visit the museum (including artefacts from the Sigiriya excavations, including the findings from the urn burial sites a few miles away) and giftshop. The site opens at 6:30am (as ever, an early start will get you there before the crowds though you may have to sacrifice the sunset).
From journal Ancient Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka
by Close to Home
December 1, 2000
When you arrive you will find many locals willing to "guide" you through the fortress. Accept their help- whether the information they provide is factual or strictly fantasy, their stories and tidbits of information really make the place come alive. Just remember to give them a good tip, as it will most likely take you a couple hours to explore the entire fort. Also remember that as you're climbing, guardrails and danger signs may not be as apparant as similar places in the States. Be careful- the top is over 600ft high!
From journal Sri Lanka- Land of Buddhas, Tooth Tombs, and Eleph