Monday, 21 October 2013

The Citadel Of Sigiriya - Lion Rock

 "Right lads, I'll have a palace up there and some pleasure gardens please. 
Quick as you like now. Chop chop!"

Sigiriya is an ancient palace built by a king who decided that if you're going to do 'palace', then it might as well be a gigantic, sprawling moated complex topped by a 200-metre high rock with a pleasure garden, pools and harem at its top.

The guy certainly had style, I'll give him that. 

Fighting off the insistent and rather seedy-seeming gentleman who wanted to be our guide to the sight, we bought our tickets (Rs3,900 for foreigners, Rs50 for Sri Lankans). These were expensive by UK standards, let alone Sri Lankan and our Sri Lankan friends felt shamed by the difference in prices. Oddly enough they seemed more annoyed by it than we were. 

But to be honest, we were a little taken aback. Understanding we earn more than Sri Lankans do, put in a system of concessions for schoolkids and the aged then find ways of presenting the experience that wealthier European or Asian travellers would pay premiums for rather than out-and-out gouging. There was no guidebook to the site and no audio guide on offer. There were no official guides and little evidence of any attempt to structure the experience as a value-added one beyond 'pay up and go up'. 

In some ways, this adds to its charm - it's not slick and over-developed. But then in others it detracts - the pestering freelance tour guide, the lack of any facilities or information. Even the availability of cold water until you get to the stalls in the drivers' car park at the exit. That apart, the site itself is splendorous.

I'm sure there was more information in the museum, but that was 500 metres the wrong way away from the site and we decided to skip it and get on with what looked to promise a hot, gruelling climb.

You travel through the ruins of glorious water gardens and what once must have been an amazing citadel towards the rock towering above you. You can see the steps stretching up to the foot of the rock, then the gantries and walkways stuck to the side of it and vertigo already cuts in. We chose a hot, sunny day and it was certainly warm going. There are delightful signs all over the place telling you to stay silent to prevent hornet attacks. Shame they weren't in Korean or Japanese. 

The hornets, presumably unable to speak Korean or Japanese themselves, let the babblers pass. 

The climb up, taken with care, is not onerous if you are relatively fit. Many choose to go as far as the 'lion's feet' and leave the final - and most vertiginous - part of the climb to more foolish folk. 

The Mirror Wall. No, it's no longer shiny. 
Not even Dubai could be shiny after 2,000 years...

On the way up you pass the Mirror Wall, a porcelain wall once apparently so burnished the king who built his palace atop this 200 meter-high boulder could see his face in it. You also get the chance to clamber up a spiral staircase to look at the remains of the frescoes some experts believe once adorned much of the rock. We passed, it was too hot, too busy and none of us much liked the look of the buttressing holding the viewing platform together. 

It's only when you're traversing rock a couple of hundred feet from the staging point below looking out over vistas of Sri Lanka's forest carpet that you realise you're standing on a flimsy structure nailed to a rock and maintained by the Sri Lankan Office of Public Works (or some such). The presence of a broken strut on the ground below doesn't add to any vestigial feelings of confidence.

It's not until you're on the way out you get to see what you've been walking on. 
Which is lucky, really...

Struggling to the top (not because of the climb, but negotiating the press of people coming down - even a section which had two walkways, clearly intended to be one for up and one for down, was crammed with people going both ways), you're rewarded by an amazing view of the lush countryside, as well as a scramble through the stepped ruins of the palace, complete with a huge cistern and water pools. 

Apparently yer one had 200 wives and liked to disport with them here. You can't blame him. If I were the King Of All I Surveyed, I'd be tempted meself...

Mind, it didn't do him much good - he was defeated and fell on his own sword in AD495. 

This is where Sri Lankans discover why their ticket only cost Rs50...

Delightfully, once you've struggled to the top and wandered around a bit, you come across a sign that says 'GOING DOWN IS DANGEROUS'. Thanks, you might have mentioned that before...

Sigiriya is a true marvel. Suck it up, cough and pay the inflated fee. Give this at least half a day. Do not, under any circumstance, pass it by.

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Dubai Jazz said...

I like the idea of disporting with women on the top of an ancient rock. That should never get old.

(Also on a serious note, maybe they should make that walkway one direction and make a second exit for emergencies)

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Oh dear #DubaiJazz bringing some sense to the comment section, does he never notice how folks jump supermarket checkout queues, and he is hopeful of discipline in the great outdoors!

I recall starting our trek to the top, hurried on by a desire to get away from the awful "guides", indeed we even studied the fully rounded frescoes, which goaded me to achieve the summit, to view where the ladies bathed.

Dubai Jazz said...

Rupert, the frescos and place where ladies used to disrobe should be enough 'goading' to propel folks to move in one direction and not give up on the climb prematurely.

Rootless said...

Agreed it's a magical place - my favourite site in a marvellously rich and diverse travel destination (Polonnuruwa and Annaradhapura, the ancient capitals are also amazing; Kandy, not so much).

But I have to take issue with your attempt at Irish vernacular. "Yer one" - or more accurately "Yer wan" - refers to a woman; exclusively and only ever to a woman. You should have said "Yer man".

Just thought you should know.

Faisal Khatib said...

Skipped it we did cause the cold of the mountain treks was more enticing...

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