Sigiriya is an ancient palace-fort complex located on top of a massive rock which towers over the humid jungles near Dambullah, Sri Lanka. The caves found throughout the rock were originally used by ascetic monks as far back as 3,000 years ago, but the site didn't take on its role as palace-fort until the reign of the flamboyant King Kasyapa in the 5th century.
The site itself is really divided into three sections: the lower gardens, the middle landing (where you'll find the famous Lion's Gate), and the palace located at the very top of the rock itself. As you make the sweaty and, at time, vertigo-inducing hike to the top, you'll pass by manicured gardens studded with ancient pools, caves containing the famous Sigiriya Frescoes, the imposing Lion's Gate, and an endless amount of small side trails leading to unknown caves, hidden relics, and stunning lookout points.
To reach the very top of the citadel, you need to climb a series of steep metal stairs that have been bolted directly to the sheer rock face. Once you arrive, though you'll be greeted by absolutely breathtaking views of the surrounding jungle and the lower gardens. As far as the ruins themselves go, only the foundations are still standing so it's difficult to get a good idea of what the fort-palace was like a millennium ago. Still, the entire complex is beautiful and should definitely rank at the top of your to-do list in Sri Lanka.
The Sigiriya Frescoes (alternately known as the Sigiriya Ladies or Sigiriya Damsels) are a set of ancient frescoes located in a small cave about 100 meters up the towering Sigiriya rock. They're considered one of the top attractions of Sigiriya itself and are the most important (and in fact only) non-religious paintings which have survived from antiquity in Sri Lanka.
Apparently, the ostentatious King Kaspaya decided on Sigiriya as his palace in the 1st century BC and, as a testament to his grandeur, actually white-washed the entire rock and added a 40-meter wide band of paintings decorating the entire western side of the Rock. After more than a millennium exposed to the elements, the nineteen Sigiriya Frescoes are all that we have left of this once magnificent palatial complex.
The identity of the women is still unknown, but most scholars agree that they are either representations of women from King Kaspaya's apparently bountiful harem, or are depictions of celestial beings known as "apsaras." They're unique in Sri Lanka and are reminiscent of frescoes in the older Ajanta Caves in India. Given India's proximity and historical influence, there was probably some artistic cross-pollination.
The cave is located about half way up Sigiriya rock and you need to climb a panic-inducing spiral staircase bolted to the face of the rock (the structural integrity of the stairs inevitable passes through your mind, especially when you're sandwiched about half way up it with dozens of other tourists!). Once inside the cave, you finally find the frescoes: beautiful, sensual, created with graceful curving lines and warm colors. The stylized poses, idealized breasts, and unique facial expressions show off an artistic delicacy rarely found in the ancient world and which still manages to capture your attention even after 1,600 years.
In short: they're beautiful. If you're planning a visit to Sigiriya, you can't miss them for the world. Try to get to the site right when it opens so you can get up to the fresco cave before the tour bus crowds arrive.
The Golden Temple of Dambulla is an impressive temple complex in Dambulla, Sri Lanka most famous for the spectacular and Dambulla Cave Temples World Heritage Site. First, let's get the logistics out of the way: the temple itself is located in the outskirts of Dambulla so to get there you should probably take a tuk-tuk from your hotel (it's a quick and cheap trip).
At the entrance, you'll see a truly bizarre museum whose entrance is the mouth of a wild-eyed face complete with teeth and everything. The museum (which we skipped) is topped by a towering golden Buddha. You can access the seated golden deity by the side steps to get a closer look and enjoy the mischievous monkeys scavenging around the fruit and flowers left as offerings.
Afterwards, its a short but sweaty hike up the hill to get to the entrance to the incredible Dambulla Cave Temples. I've written about the individual caves in detail, so I'll just summarize by saying that the Dambulla Cave Temples are one of the most amazing and impacting places I've ever seen. The complex was built by King Valagamba of Anuradhapura after he sought shelter here during a Tamil invasion and, as a token of gratitude, created a monastery on the site in the 1st century BC. The complex features five caves, hundreds of rock-hewn Buddhas, and some of the most intricate and amazing frescoes found anywhere on Earth. In fact, my wife and I both agreed that the second cave, known as the Cave of the Great Kings, was the favorite thing we saw during our two week tour of Sri Lanka.
Seriously...the Dambulla Cave Temples deserve to be ranked among the ancient wonders of the world, and when Sri Lanka's war-tainted image eventually fades away, they will be. If you can, visit them soon so you can enjoy their majesty in peace, as we did, before they get overrun with crowds.
The Cave of the Great Kings (also known as the Maharaja Vihara) is the second and most spectacular of the caves at the Dambulla Cave Temple, or Golden Temple, complex in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. Legend has it that the cave was originally built in the 1st century BC by the King Vittagamini Abhaya (thus the name), but the majority of its fine and famous frescoes were added in the 1700's at the behest of the kings of Kandy.
The cave is over 50 meters long and contains over 55 separate Buddha statues as well as representations of Hindu deities Saman, Vishnu, and Ganesha, a common occurrence in the melting pot which is Sinhalese Buddhism. Rather than drone on about the history and technical aspects of the cave, I just want to focus on the frescoes, which are one of the most incredible things I've seen in all my travels. The entire cave ceiling is covered in ornate and detailed frescoes outlining everything from the Buddha's birth to his temptation by demons to his attainment of enlightenment, and every nook and cranny in between is filled with beautiful geometric designs. The frescoes are remarkably well-preserved and still retain their eye-popping colors (so, no flash photography, please).
When I entered the Cave of the Great Kings, I was literally floored. It's sensory overload. In fact, my wife and I actually went back to the second cave after visiting all the others in a vain attempt to actually soak it all in during one visit! From the seated Buddhas lining the back wall, to the statues of the Great Kings and the sacred spring (which is rumored to never have dried, not even in the worst droughts), there is just so much incredible detail to see. Seriously, it is by far one of the most amazing places I've ever visited and you can't visit Sri Lanka without seeing it.
The name Sigiriya means rock Lion. To symbolize this, toward the top where the ancient capital of Sri Lanka was built, there is a gate called the Lion's Gate. The gate consists of two stunning lion paws, marking the beginning on the old road and the start of the climb. Before that, there are metal stairs to climb that have been installed next to the rock. After the stairs, the road becomes the real road, which all officers used to pass through. The rock is flattened in front of the entrance, and there are some remains of buildings, which was probably a type of checkpoint. When you get to this point, you have to climb about 20 minute more.
The Great New Monastery (known locally as the Maha Alut Vihara) is the third cave temple of the spectacular Dambulla Cave Temple, or Golden Temple, complex. It's slightly less spectacular than the Cave of the Great Kings, but then again topping the incredible second cave would be an incredible feat.
The cave temple was built by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy in the 1700's and there's actually a statue of the king himself on left once you enterthe temple. The Great New Monastery, however, is most famous for its massive reclining Buddha with its hand tucked under its cheek, a symbol of the Buddha as he approached death.
The entire cave contains over 50 separate Buddha statues, some of them seated and others standing, as well as intricate and colorful frescoes on the cave ceiling which run the gamut from complex geometric designs to scenes from the Buddha's life and his process of attaining enlightenment.
Even though its one of the more modern additions to the Dambulla Cave Temple complex, it's still spectacular and almost overwhelmingly beautiful when you first enter. You might have already gotten you fill of cave temples in Sri Lanka, but take your time to explore the space and check out all the small details in the frescoes. It's worth it.
Dambulla is a quiet and pretty nice spot that isn't far from central Sri Lanka. You can use it as a base to explore the region and its magnificent ancient sites. For example the Dambulla Caves Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage, are right on the edge of town. Or the rock of Sigiriya, about an hour from here, which was one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka of the kingdom, and has been completely built upon an ancient rock. Dambulla has a pleasant climate throughout the year, with the rainy season from October. The coolest months are February and March. You can stay in guest houses for 5 euros and eat for less than two euros. To reach Dambulla, you can leave Kandy and take a bus towards Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. These two cities are great historical stops, so I recommend that you make them your next stop along your visit.
The Deraniyagala Cave is one of the most famous sights found in the sprawling Boulder Gardens built among the rocks which lie at the feet of the imposing Sigiriya rock. The cave itself, which is actually more of an overhanging rock ledge, was a shelter once used by monks and actually pre-dates the Sigiriya fortress.
The cave's main claim to fame are the faint and now barely-visible paintings of aspara (a sort of heavenly nymph reminiscent of the famous Sigiriya frescoes found in a cave on the rock itself) which were created around the 2nd century BC. Like I said, the paintings are very faded and at first glance you won't notice them. Take some time to really examine the cave walls and you'll suddenly begin to notice arms, breasts, and feet in what you first thought were just natural stains on the rock.
After seeing the frescoes of the Sigiriya Ladies higher up on the rock, those at the Deraniyagala Cave were a bit underwhelming, to be honest. With that in mind, I'd recommend swallowing your eagerness to climb the rock and really explore the ground-level caves and gardens first. Consider it a sort of appetizer!
This modern statue represents the Buddha, and is at the entrance of the monastery of Dambulla. While the painted caves of the monastery are just gorgeous, the Buddha itself is really not that impressive. A plaque tells you it is the largest Buddha in the world, which is represented in the posture of Dhamma Chakka, and is 30 meters high. It is not even the largest Buddha on the island! But it gives the place a touch of amusement, while the caves behind are much more authentic. The majority of people come to visit the caves while others truly come for a moment to worship.
The fourth Dambulla cave temple is one of the smallest. It looks a bit like the 80 other caves, farther from the five main caves. When we wanted to go it had closed as they do several times a day to make their ritual offerings without having tourists taking pictures. You have to cover your shoulders and knees before entering, and you cannot take a picture with Buddha, where you turn your back. The fervor of the place is very intense, but people respect foreigners ve do not say anything, even if thy feel very offended. The cave has several representations of Buddha, sitting and lying, and beautiful frescoes on the ceiling.
The land around Sigiriya are very flat and fertile. I found this part of Sri Lanka very green, and with the presence of a lot of water, so it is notreally surprising that the kings decided to install thier capital there. The capital was built on a giant rock that dominates the area. You can tell the beauty of the scenery as you go up in the direction of the ruins of the city. There are several lakes around the city, and in one of them we saw an elephant, who was bathing quietly. There are less than 2000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka, so it is not something you see often. It must be very nice to be able to organize a few days exploring with a guide here, but we did not get the opportunity.
The ruins of Nalanda are included in the tourist pass of the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka and are located about 50km north of Kandy. To get there you can take any bus heading north, either to Anhuradapura or Polonnaruwa, and get off at kilometer 49. Then you need to walk about 15 minutes before arriving at the ruins. At the entrance, a pair of guards were waiting to take our money and when they saw that we had the tourist pass they seemed somewhat disappointed. The ruins are nothing spectacular, like those of other ancient capitals, but it is a beautiful temple built in an original style. It is also one of the few temples on the island to have tantric statues, which are not fully in tact and are quite weathered because the place is not sheltered from the rain. You have to take your shoes off to enter and keep your back and knees covered in order to respect local customs.
When you get to the top of the giant rock of Sigiriya, the view is breathtaking, as you can see the meadows and the royal gardens below. The first thing you notice is the importance given to water. There are remains of tanks, pools, fountains. The gardens are arranged symmetrically. The rock served as protection because invaders could be seen very easily. You could only get there by bridges. Then you were in these gardens, as a reward for having spent the most difficult stages.
These pools belonged to the royal baths of the ancient city of Sigiriya. It was built on top of a rock, its impressive irrigation system continues to amaze researchers. It was so advanced that the Sinhalese were able to have sufficient water reserves to live at 200 meters above sea level, overlooking a meadow, with the water rising thanks to an ingenious construction. The royal baths were built in brick, in a fairly simple and squared shape, tiered to lower slowly. The amazing thing is that water in these tanks is still good, the building being as it was. We are in a very dry place, but they do not allow a drop of rain to escape. The king probably had the best view from his bathroom than any other person, I do not know if the pool was outdoors or if it had walls.
The Dambulla Buddhist museum at the entrance of the cave paintings is a UNESCO World Heritage. The museum itself looks like a park attraction. You go through a kind of large snapdragon to a small space they have built and painted the caves, which are higher on the mountain. Museum admission is not included in the entrance of the caves, which costs $10. So it seems a bit much to not have much information at the end. We had the Lonely Planet that explains very well the differences between the caves.
This small temple is dedicated to Vishnu. It's in the top of the monastery of Dambulla, famous for its exceptionally painted caves. It's a small temple built between the first and the second cave. It's surprising to see the presence of a Hindu god, Vishnu, in a Buddhist temple. But in Sri Lanka Buddhists also worship Hindu gods for good luck, prosperity and health. The temple is a bit difficult to access because it's on top of a big rock, more than 150 meters above ground, yet many seniors come to thank Vishnu for their lives and accomplishments. The temple is decorated very differently from other Buddhist caves.
The fifth and final rock cave temple of Dambulla is modest compared to the others, but has some interesting paintings. My favorite was the second cave, with centuries-old paintings. Five was organized as a saint after the other, in the eighteenth century - early XIX. The paintings are not as thin, but the total set of the place that gives it its charm. It has a number of small statues of Buddha. It is less visited and quieter than the others. It is UNESCO world heritage. Admission is $ 10 and you have to come up with decent clothes you cover the shoulders and knees.
There are about 50 miles between Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa, but as Sigiriya is not on the main road from Dambulla to Habarana, you have to go back to the junction of this road and then take a bus to Polonnaruwa. We had problems catching public transport to return and eventually we had to hitch hike, and we got picked up by two men in a van, returning from work. We paid them 100 Rs. Once at the junction, you can catch any bus, and you have to change at the junction of Habarana to get there faster. Thankfully, our bus went straight to Kaduruwella, which is the largest urbanization next to Polonnaruwa. It was a modern bus without air conditioning. The tour lasted an hour and a half. There are fewer buses in the afternoon and it´s a possibility that you might have to sleep in Habarana.