Deep in the middle of Sri Lanka, a massive column of rock juts out from the green tropical forest. It reaches 660 feet tall and features frescoes, graffiti, and landscaped gardens. The rock is known as Sigiriya and holds a special place in the island’s cultural history.
It was established as the stronghold of a rogue king over 1,500 years ago, and today the Sigiriya complex stands as one of the earliest preserved examples of ancient urban planning. Ultimately the rock was unable to save its king, but it succeeded in preserving ancient Sinhalese culture.
In 476 CE, King Dhatusena ruled over Sri Lanka. One of his illegitimate sons, Kashyapa, wanted the throne – but knew his full-blood brother Moggallana was next in line. Determined to stake his claim, Kashyapa schemed with the commander of the army to overthrow Dhatusena.
Lore says Kashyapa showed little mercy on his father, walling him up while still alive. But the message was clear, and it sent Moggallana fleeing to Southern India to escape a similar fate. With his dad and brother out of the picture, Kashyapa crowned himself king in 477 CE.
One of his first orders of business was to relocate the royal seat to Sigiriya from the traditional capital of Anuradhapura. It was ambitious and probably somewhat rooted in fear; King Kashyapa had killed the king and driven away the rightful heir to the throne.
In the interest of self-preservation, King Kashyapa immediately began work on his stone fortress, Sigiriya.
One of the most breathtaking features of Sigiriya was the gardens, which consisted of three distinct components: The water gardens, the cave and boulder gardens, and the terraced gardens.
The Rock Palace
The crown jewel of Sigiriya today is the king’s palace complex at the summit of the rock.
Nearly a miniature city in its own right, it consists of a palace, fortified rock fortress, an organized system of cisterns, and various rock carvings and sculptures.
A massive rock wall protects Sigiriya from the east, although details are forthcoming as additional excavation of the eastern quarter is on-going and not yet complete.
King Kashyapa was a very small part of history in Sri Lanka, but the permanence of his rock palace is a testament to the brilliance of early Sinhalese engineering and design. While the Dark Ages plunged Europe into a dearth of culture, Sri Lanka was flourishing.