An ancient fortress built on top of a giant granite rock formation in Sri Lanka, looming 200 meters above the surrounding landscape, is said to have been built by a 5th-century king to bridge the gap between our world and the kingdom of the gods. The stunning structure is shrouded in mystery to this day.
Sigiriya (or Lion Rock Fortress) is located in the remote Matale District of Sri Lanka’s Central Province and was commissioned by King Kashyapa in the year 477, who had the natural wonder transformed into an impenetrable palace complex after he claimed the throne unlawfully.
Sigiriya or the Lion Rock, an ancient fortress and a palace with gardens, pools, and terraces atop of granite rock in Sri Lanka. (Huey Min/Shutterstock) Aerial view from above of Sigiriya or the Lion Rock. (Stephen Green-Price/Shutterstock) (maloff/Shutterstock)
Kashyapa had his father killed before seizing the throne from his brother Moggallana, the rightful heir, according to Ancient Origins.
But Kashyapa’s reign was short-lived. He committed suicide after being defeated in a battle against his brother, 18 years after building his complex. The site was abandoned after the king’s death and was inhabited by Buddhist monks until the 14th century.
Besides the elevated fortress, Sigiriya comprises a moat, monastery, and landscaped gardens. Sigiriya was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 and is frequented by tourists. It is also a site of active interest among historians, who are still piecing together its rich history from myriad clues within the structure itself.
One of Sigiriya’s most iconic features is a huge ground-level statue known as Lion Rock. Today, all that remains are two lion’s feet carved out of rock on either side of a staircase, but historians believe that visitors once ascended through the open jaws of the lion to the palace above.
(Khoroshunova Olga/Shutterstock) (Jane Rix/Shutterstock) (Natalia Dereviagina/Shutterstock)
Travel enthusiast Thomas Dowson described his experience after visiting Sigiriya in an article on the award-winning website Archaeology Travel.
Dowson wrote: “Ahead of the path the two-hundred-meter high granite rock looms. And with each step my heart beat louder and faster. At the base of the steps, the initial part of the ascent is by way of a brick staircase, and then it turns into an iron staircase added to the side of the granite rock face … one of my most memorable archaeological visits.”
Despite dating the palace to the reign of King Kashyapa, it is thought that the land around Sigiriya has been lived on since prehistoric times, reports Ancient Origins. There is a rock shelter to the east that suggests Mesolithic habitation, and evidence of occupation by Buddhist monks in numerous other caves “from as early as the 3rd century BC.”
Collectively, these caves boast “one of the largest murals in the world,” with paintings that once covered an area 140 meters wide and 40 meters high. The frescoes depicted over 500 beautiful, ethereal women painted above clouds, suggesting god-like status. Twenty-two female figures have survived. Archaeologists believe these women were likely King Kashyapa’s concubines.
Something about Sigiriya that mystifies historians is the technological complexity of its construction. The elevated rock citadel was built with a sophisticated understanding of the natural surroundings, and a royal park to the west of the fortress is laid out symmetrically, as seen from above.
This park also contains a hydraulic system built both above and below the ground, for channeling water, some parts of which still work today. To the south of the fortress is a man-made reservoir.
(Huey Min/Shutterstock) (Lakshan LG/Shutterstock)
King Kashyapa’s impenetrable palace complex was indeed safe, but why did he and his people go to such extremes of effort and engineering to build a citadel 200 meters above the ground?
Perhaps the chance to build a royal palace so close to the heavens was too compelling to resist.
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