Sigiriya or Sinhagiri is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District near the town of Dambulla in the Central Province, Sri Lanka. The name refers to a site of historical and archaeological significance that is dominated by a massive column of rock nearly 200m high.
Today, Lion Rock, as it’s affectionately known, is steeped in human myth and legend about Kings and monks, triumphs and defeat, and the historical importance of Buddhism to the local area. Hiking to the top of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress to explore the ancient ruins and enjoy the vistas over the misty forests, lakes and villages below has become somewhat of a rite of passage for backpackers, and something that we think every visitor to the country should do. Let’s go through a brief guide about climbing the mystical rock fortress in Sri Lanka.
SIGIRIYA ROCK ENTRANCE FEE
Entry to Sigiriya is around USD $30 per person, which costs around Rs. 5,437.25. The Sigiriya ticket office is located on a side street next to the main fortress entrance, and is open from 6:30am – 6pm. It’s easily missed, so make sure you visit this first to purchase your tickets before you make your way to climb the rock. Payment is cash only, and while there is an ATM next to the ticket office, don’t rely on it working.
Travellers debate whether the entrance fee is worth the visit. The fees for entry at Sigiriya (and other cultural sites around Sri Lanka) all go into the Central Cultural Fund, which funds the maintenance, research, and conservation of monuments and sites all over the country.The entry fee for Sigiriya does also include entry to the Sigiriya Museum, which explains the ancient city’s history and some of its top attractions.
While travellers mostly head to nearest — and much cheaper — Pidurangala for epic Sigiriya views instead, what Pidurangala lacks is the ancient history, frescoes, and beautiful grounds of its more expensive neighbour. If exploring culture and history is something you love, visit Sigiriya rock fortress.
WHEN TO VISIT SIGIRIYA
January to April is the best time to visit Sigiriya when the climate is moderate and suitable for day trips. May to August is the dry season in Sigiriya, and the place has a tropical climate with a humidity of 80% all year round. Sigiriya is open between 7am – 7pm each day (the ticket office closes at 5pm). The gates don’t open until 7am, which means getting to the top (an hour’s climb) for an epic sunrise is kind of a no-deal anyway. You can, however, get some great sunset action by climbing later in the day. Climbing to the top of Sigiriya in the late afternoon / evening means a good chance of avoiding much of the harsh heat of the day. Most people tend to visit Sigiriya in the morning through to afternoon; a sunset hike avoids these crowds. Visiting Sigiriya at sunset and Pidurangala at sunrise is how you can tackle both. The time which takes to climb the rock depends on level of fitness and desire to explore Sigiriya, it usually takes around 1 hour. To save time and for ease of travel, we recommend travelling to Sigiriya from Dambulla, mid-way between Kandy and the ancient rock fortress. You can travel by bus, tuk-tuk (threewheeler), or by any vehicle (van/car).
Prepare yourself with lots of water, sunglasses and hats.
As you walk through the grounds of Sigiriya, you’ll notice warning signs about wasps in the area — these are not to be taken lightly! There are a number of large wasp nests throughout the grounds and in the rock walls. Supposedly, there’s a locally-held belief that they’re actually King Kashyapa’s reincarnated army back to guard his fortress. Whether you believe this or not, the best way to avoid getting stung is by walking very quietly and avoiding aggressive gestures, particularly along the stairs. There are also protective mesh cages visitors can use during a wasp attack. Don’t let this put you off though. Further, there is no specific dress, as Sigiriya isn’t a sacred religious site or temple, so you won’t need to cover up too much. As per the above note on wasp attacks, you might want to wear longer clothing as a protective measure. Let’s also look into certain parts to visit in Sigiriya
THE SIGIRIYA MUSEUM
Entry to the Sigiriya Museum is actually included in your ticket price, and it’s worth a visit to gain some background context to Sigiriya and its long and varied history.The Museum includes a large 3-D model of Sigiriya Rock, explanations of ancient (and extremely valuable) trading routes with the rest of the world, and plenty of photos of the early excavations undertaken by British archaeologist HCP Bell (who excavated many of Sri Lanka’s cultural sites) in the late 19th century. Sigiriya Museum is a photography-free zone.
THE ROYAL GARDENS
The gardens are peaceful and lush, with picturesque terraced gardens, lovely water fountains and features, and a number of natural boulders scattered through. They’re also considered to be amongst the oldest landscaped urban gardens in the world and made use of highly advanced technology of the time. The gardens separates as;
THE WATER GARDENS
The water gardens are the first you pass through as you enter the Sigiriya complex; a symmetrical collection of pretty pools and water features, former bathing lagoons and island pavilions that are fed by a sophisticated network of underground ducts and hydraulics systems that were engineering marvels for the era.
THE BOULDER GARDENS
Where the Water Gardens have the classic beauty and symmetry you’d also expect to see at any former royal palace in Europe, the Boulder Gardens are far more in the line of ‘Angkor Wat jungle temple’ style, with narrow winding paths that twist through and past a series of ancient natural boulders.
THE FRESCOES (SIGIRIYA DAMSELS)
The frescoes wall is home to the so-called ‘Sigiriya Damsels’; 21 beautiful, scantily clad women with rather ample bosoms offering fruit trays or flower petals painted right onto the rock face. Photography is banned here to protect the Damsels — flash photography is highly damaging, and unfortunately previous tourists have ignored warnings not to use it.
THE MIRROR WALL
Once thought to be so polished that the King could see his own reflection in the stone, the mirror wall is a lot less shiny these days. That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant though — it’s covered with the scrawls of ancient graffiti by the visitors to Sigiriya over the the 1500 years, with poems, visitor impressions, and tributes etched all over it like a huge ancient guest book, dating from as far back as the 7th century. Due to the historical significance of some of this graffiti, visitors are prohibited from scrawling their own tributes today.
Here are our recommendations for further explorations around Sigiriya:
Pidurangala Rock, just 3km from Sigiriya Fortress, provides travellers with a historic cave complex of its own, a tenth of the crowds, and the most incredible view looking back over the famous Sigiriya rock. The story goes that when King Kasyapa arrived in Sigiriya in the 5th century, he discovered Sigiriya was already an established monastery complex. Wanting to claim Sigiriya for himself, he built them an alternative monastery at nearby Pidurangala Rock. The new site was to be a ‘golden monastery’, or ‘Aran gala’, a name which would later become Pidurangala and literally means “offered piles of gold”. This destination is moderate for hikes & climbs to the top of the rock, popular for panoramic views.
Just an hour away from Sigiriya by tuk tuk, the ruined city of Polonnaruwa was once the powerful capital of ancient Sri Lanka. Built between the 10th and 12th centuries, this was the thriving commercial and religious epicentre of the country. Today, the ruins of many temples, palaces, and religious buildings can be explored and the ancient site is vaguely reminiscent of the Angkor temples of Cambodia, just not as grand or well preserved.
The site is still wonderful to explore.
DAMBULLA ROCK CAVE TEMPLE
The UNESCO World Heritage Royal rock temple complex of Dambulla is home to some of the most impressive historical artwork in Sri Lanka, and a must-see on any Sri Lankan itinerary. There are five separate caves with over 150 Buddhist statues and paintings, some dating back over 2,000 years. Murals cover over 2,100 square metres of cave walls, depicting Buddha’s life, while the views overlooking the surrounding valley, (with Sigiriya in the distance!) are just beautiful.
SAFARI WITH THE ELEPHANTS AT KAUDULLA NATIONAL PARK
The grassland plains of Kaudulla National Park, just an hour’s north of Sigiriya, are some of the best elephant-spotting lands in the whole of Sri Lanka. Over 200 elephants call the park home, along with a scattering of crocodiles, monkeys, and a few shy leopards. The advantage of Kaudulla is that it can be visited year-round – so you are pretty much guaranteed an elephant encounter on your Sri Lanka travels should you end up coming here. Safaris are generally half-day, can be taken in the morning or afternoon.
Sigiriya is one of the most amazing places in Sri Lanka, visitors to Sigiriya will never regret making memories.