Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya Rock: Caught between a Rock and a Hard Place

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attractions – and with good reason. This ruined, 5th century city has some extraordinary features, including moat and walled fortifications, elaborately landscaped gardens, and a monastery. But it is the two-hundred metre high granite rock that stands out from these ruins that is undoubtedly the star attraction. With its exquisite frescoes and the remains of a royal palace on the summit. The staircase ascent is not for the feint hearted. Thankfully, I was able to overcome my fear of height and made it to the top. 

Having already seen photographs of the frescoes at Sigiriya, the Lion Rock fortress was that one attraction I just could not wait to visit. What I had not seen photographs of, however, was the staircase visitors have to climb to get to the frescoes. Unfortunately, I have an irrational fear of height – not always a good thing for an archaeologist who researches prehistoric art. I should add, I have never not visited a site or not been able to get up close to photograph or record images because of that fear. Although there have been a few times when it was close! And there were times climbing the staircase at Sigiriya, when this was one of those times.

After crossing over the moat, walking along the approach to Lion Rock, you pass through the remains of what were once lavishly landscaped garden. You will see the ruins of various terraces built with bricks, pools and the ruins of the summer palace. Ahead of the path the two-hundred metre 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. Seeing hordes of people climbing the steps ahead of me did not help either – Acrophobia is after all an irrational fear.

Lion Rock fortress, Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.
The path through the ruins of the ancient gardens from the entrance to the rock.

Looking back the climb does not seem so bad, but I do remember being quite relieved when I finally made it to the top. Seeing those delicately painted frescoes and the amazing wall of graffiti, some having been left by Buddhist monks in the 7th and 8th centuries, and then walking amongst the amazing ruins of the royal palace on the flat topped outcrop (not going too close to the edge, of course), made climbing Sigiriya one of my more memorable archaeological experiences.

Garden under Sigiriya Rock, view from rock top. Sri Lanka
An aerial view of the ancient gardens from the entrance to the rock.
Aerial view of Sigiriya mountain among the dense forest on the island of Sri Lanka.
An aerial view of the Royal Palace on top of Lion Rock.

The Rise and Fall of Sigiriya – A Brief History of the City

There is archaeological evidence of religious communities living in the area dating back to at least the 3rd century BC. The ancient city of Sigiriya is a few centuries younger, having been built for King Kasyapa, the son of the previous king by a non-royal consort.

In 477 AD Kasyapa killed his father and seized the throne from his half brother and heir Moggallana. Fearing his brother’s revenge, Kasyapa left the capital city of Anuradhapura and built the heavily fortified city of Sigiriya – the thick walls and moats are still visible, and he placed his impregnable palace-fortress on top of the granite rock. That part of the city in which the aristocrats lived was embellished with canals and other water features, as well as beautifully landscaped gardens. In the 11 years of Kasyapa’s time at Sigiriya he built a capital city of exceptional splendour.

True enough, Moggallana came to do battle with the King. During a battle that King Kasyapa did not have much hope of winning, Kasyapa took his own life by cutting his throat. His brother Moggallana obviously became king and reinstated Anuradhapura as the capital. He left Sigiriya to the monks, and of course its eventual  decay. It was not until the early 1800s that colonial archaeologists found the site. There are still large parts of the ancient city that have not  yet been excavated.

From early sightings of Lion Rock we know that the fresco panel was originally much larger than it is today. Twenty-two female figures have survived, and together they are often referred to as ‘The Maidens of the Clouds’. The detail is quite spectacular.

Sigiriya Frescoes
Maiden Frescoes Sigiriya

The original entrance to the palace was on the north side of the rock, and took the form of a large lion, with its front paws, head and shoulders projecting from the rock. The staircase went up between the two front paws and into the mouth of the lion – hence Lion Rock. Today all that remains are the two paws – but these give a good idea of the original size of the sculpture. The so-called ‘lion staircase’ is how people ascend and descend without seeing the frescoes – for those who think the ascent via the frescoes is too much. 

The ancient staircase between two lion's paws at Sigiriya, from where the rock gets its name.
The descent through the Lion Gate.

Tips for Visiting Sigiriya

The closest city to Sigiriya is Dambulla, about 25 kms away.

Although my visit to Sigiriya was part of an organised tour of the archaeological and cultural sites of Sri Lanka, it is as easy to visit the site independently.

There is a reliable and regular bus service to Sigiriya from Dambulla, which can also be reached by bus from other major cities such as Jaffna, Kandy and Trincomalee. The bus from Dambulla to Sigiriya costs about 40 Sri Lankan Rupees, whereas a private auto rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, is about 1000 Rupees.

The cost for entering the site, as of February 2024, is  was US$ 36, that includes the museum which is outside the archaeological area. Don’t forget to take water and a hat – water is not available to purchase beyond the gate and ticket office.

Climbing to the top and back down again can be done in just under two hours. Apparently there are 750 or so steps to the top, but there are flat sections, where the walkway is level. And there are places where you can rest.

If you are visiting the site independently, my advice is to get there as early as possible, before the bus loads of tourists arrive. If you are on an organised tour … your visiting time is out of your control – so do not worry, just enjoy the visit. I did, despite the climb!

Interactive Map of Sigiriya

On the interactive map below I have labelled the main features of the site. For 360° panorama photographs and street-view images: load the map, switch to satellite view, then click and drag the yellow pegman  (bottom right) onto the map.  Blue dots and lines will appear on the map. Place the pegman on the dots and you will get to see spectacular 360° views of the site of Sigiriya from a number of vantage points.

There are even a few dots on top of the rock itself, that not only have great views of the landscape but also allow you a good view of the remains of the brick structures. Some blue dots are for photographs taken in front of the painted panels. In fact all aspects of the site are covered. For best results, zoom in on the map and you will see many, many more blue dots to choose from.

Interactive Map of Sigiriya

Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride and Hike at Sigiriya

Sunrise Hike to Sigiriya Lion Rock

Get an early start to beat the crowds and watch the sun rise from the ruins of the royal palace on op of Lion Rock at Sigiriya. Or, if get another view of Sigiriya at sunrise with a hike to Pidurangala, a nearby rock outcrop. For those who prefer sunset, this is also an option. Both experiences are perfect for photographers and hikers alike. Included in the service is a hotel pick-up and drop-off.

Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sigiriya

Having climbed to the royal palace on the top of Lion Rock at Sigiriya, there is no better experience to add than a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. From the aerial advantage you get to see the full extent of the royal palace and the settlement within the moat at the base of the granite rock. At this time of the day, when the sun is low, the remnants of the palace and the gardens below stand out allowing you to see many features not quite distinguishable when the sun is at its highest.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Thomas Dowson

With a professional background in archaeology and a passion for travel, I founded Archaeology Travel to help more people explore our world’s fascinating pasts. Born in Zambia, I trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and taught archaeology at the universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). Read More

Community Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments