The ancient glories of Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa

Two giant feet are all that remain of the enormous lion statue that visitors, past and present, have passed through to reach the royal palace of the once thriving ancient capital of Sigiriya. The “Lion Rock”, as it’s known, doubled both as impregnable fortress and royal pleasure palace of the usurper, King Kassapa. If the giant lion didn’t leave visitors in awe, the views from the top of this massive granite outcrop surely must have.

Sigiriya, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Lion Statue, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

To reach the gigantic lion, you first have to traverse metal staircases and walkways that snake up the side of the sheer rock face. These 19th century additions replaced the stone steps and brick buildings that once clung to its sides. They still give you a sense of the immense engineering endeavour that built Sigiriya in a short, seven-year period in the 5th century. The climb takes you past one of the most famous sights in Sri Lanka, the Sigiriya Damsels.

These bare-breasted women in different poses reminded me of images I’d seen in pleasure palaces in the deserts of Jordan, and originally they were thought to have been royal consorts. It’s now believed they are apsaras, Sri Lankan celestial nymphs. They are utterly amazing, especially when you consider they are Sri Lanka’s only non-religious paintings to survive from ancient times. Originally there were five hundred images, only twenty one remain.

The climb to the very top in thick humidity was nasty, sweat poured from us until finally we caught the breeze at the summit. The views are stupendous. This vantage point also allows you to fully appreciate the layout of the city that once existed at the base of the rock, as well as the luxurious Water Gardens, an incredible feat of engineering that once entertained royalty. The walk back down the narrow staircases offered more views.

No wonder Sigiriya was believed impregnable, yet it didn’t stop King Kassapa being deposed by his brother a few years after the city was completed. Without a king in residence, it fell into a slow decline before being abandoned. There are many things connecting Sigiriya with our next destination, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, but my favourite is that both places featured in the music video of Save a Prayer by 80s pop icons, Duran Duran. Sad but true.

Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Exploring the vast ruins of the 12th century capital of Polonnaruwa in sweltering heat and cloying humidity was the very definition of the phrase, “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”. This was once one of the great cities of South Asia, but its moment of glory lasted little more than a century before its Sinhalese rulers were sent packing by waves of Southern Indian invaders. The city was reclaimed by the jungle.

The city dates back to at least the 3rd century, the remains of these centuries of civilisation are scattered far and wide. To do it justice you’d need a couple of days. We targeted the most iconic areas of the city in the half day we spent here, the royal palace complex, a group of ancient Buddhist monasteries, and the epic Gal Vihara Buddha statues. It was just too hot to spend more time wandering amidst the ruins.

Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

At its height, Polonnaruwa was ruled by a succession of three Sinhalese kings who controlled the whole of Sri Lanka, the last of whom carries one of the better nicknames: Nissankamalla the Vainglorious. His reign sealed the fate of the city, and once devoured by the jungle it remained largely untouched for centuries. We finished our visit at Gal Vihara. The Buddha statues here are considered the pinnacle of ancient Sri Lankan rock carving.

It was late, the heat and humidity had finally defeated us, and the infinity pool and cold beer of the Kandalama awaited our attentions. In the morning we’d head to Kandy and yet another World Heritage Site.

11 thoughts on “The ancient glories of Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa

  1. Impressive architecture and statues!

    1. I loved Sri Lanka, it’s definitely one to return to.

  2. Your photos brought back some fond memories from my trips to Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2015. Sigiriya is my favorite place in the country, although Polonnaruwa is no less fascinating. Some of the shots you took in the latter really make me want to return one day.

    1. We absolutely loved Sri Lanka. It’s definitely on the return list, maybe the north and east this time, neither of which were open when we were there.

  3. Great post Paul. You’ve just pushed Ceylon way up my Travel-to list.
    (travel? What was that?)
    🙏🏻

    1. Travel: a mythical place beyond the pandemic. Some scholars believe it doesn’t exist, others claim it can only be found by those carrying the equally mythical vaccine passport.

      1. Very true. I hear the EU is working on one? With “much ado about nothing”. When I was a kid and long after, we always traveled with our yellow WHO “pass” with yellow fever shots, cholera, meningitis, etc. I think it should be done.

  4. Why don’t I know anything about these places? Well, obviously, thanks to you, I do now, but seriously, they are utterly breathtaking, and I had never heard of them.

    1. I don’t think Sri Lanka is that much on the radar, we saw plenty of tourists but it’s definitely not Thailand or Vietnam. It is amazing though.

  5. These are interesting and still little known sites although Sri Lanka is often visited. Thank you for this introductory visit.

    1. It’s an amazing country, small but packed with wonders.

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