Ancient Kingdoms of Sri Lanka

There have been many different kingdoms over Sri Lanka’s long history. Some of which were set in the unlikeliest of places. A lot of these former kingdoms can still be visited, and it is astonishing to see how advanced some of them were.

Sigiriya is situated in the middle of Sri Lanka. It has a storied past which left behind an interesting palace. Originally formed by a volcano, Sigiriya Rock or Lion’s Rock, is a massive flat-topped rocky outcrop that stands 200m high above the flat jungle. It’s a tall, colourful rectangle with awkward bulges making it very distinguishable. In the 5th century, a king had two sons, one by the first queen and one by a lesser queen. The prince born to the lesser queen, staged a revolt where he killed his father, the king, and took over the reign of his father’s lands. His half-brother fled Sri Lanka in fear of his life, but vowed revenge. The new king chose to put his palace on top of Sigiriya Rock as it offered protection from his brother.

Prehistoric temple caves have been found around at the base of Sigiriya, and apparently some were still used in the 5th century when the new king took over. He moved the cave-dwelling monks to another set of caves on nearby Pidurangala Rock and proceeded to build his palace around the base and on top of Lion’s Rock.

The king built two large crocodile infested moats around the palace grounds. They are still full of water today, but not crocodiles. Beyond the moats are the Water Gardens which are an elaborately designed network of ponds. During monsoon season, water circulates between the various ponds, moats and an artificial lake via man-made streams and underground pipes. There’s even a fountain that uses gravity to spurt out water. The symmetrical rectangular ponds have brick sides, polished marble or limestone floors and are surrounded by a lush green lawn. There’s a long walkway between the ponds with a gorgeous view of the extraordinary looking Lion’s Rock.

Beyond the ponds are the Boulder Gardens where enormous rocks have been incorporated into some of the palace structures. Some were used as archways, others as caves including the very tall Cobra Hood cave. On the flat tops of other boulders are the floors of rooms such as the king’s audience hall with a stone throne. It used to have wooden walls and a roof, but all that remains is the carved floor plan. Nearby, another boulder has a deep cistern carved into its top. There’s a magical atmosphere walking on the winding pathway through these massive boulders with the impressive rock feature of Sigiriya looming above.

Today there are metal and cement stairs leading up the side of Lion’s Rock, but you can see places where ancient steps were carved into the rock. In the middle of Lion’s Rock, high above the ground is a protected alcove. Inside are incredible 5th century frescos of large breasted, slim waisted women – the first barbie-doll ideal! Historians say they are either depictions of the king’s consorts or celestial nymphs. Apparently, the entire wall used to be covered in these frescoes, but only a few that have been protected from the elements remain. The final steps to the palace used to be through a gigantic lion statue. Only the paws remain but from them you can see the skill of the sculptors. There were many Toque Macaques playing in the small plateau near the paws.

Above the paws is the large, flat summit where an immaculate palace once stood. Today it is just the ruins, but you can still get a sense of how immense the palace once was. Still intact is a large water tank and the king’s uncomfortable looking stone throne. The view of the water garden below is wonderful, and you can imagine the 5th century king standing up there, looking down admiringly on his palace grounds. There are also lovely views of the flat jungle below with high mountains in the distance. After the king was killed in a battle against his half-brother, the legitimate heir to the throne, the capital was moved back to Anuradhapura and the palace was re-converted to a monastery. By the 13th century, a 300-year drought meant that Sigiriya was abandoned and forgotten, left to being overtaken by the jungle.

Pidurangala Rock was also created by a volcano and is a conical-shaped rock 1km away from Lion’s Rock. We hiked up to the top of Pidurangala Rock at sunrise. The hike begins at Rajamaha Viharaya, a cave temple where the transplanted monks from Sigiriya lived for a number of years. It’s a colourful cave with statues of Buddha and animals on the painted walls. Half way up Pidurangala, the hike passes a large brick, reclining Buddha from the 5th century. The top of the mountain is a rounded granite slab with little vegetation allowing a perfect 360° view of the jungle below. The best part though, is the view of Sigiriya Rock, sticking awkwardly out of the jungle. Trying to decide between Sigiriya and Pidurangala? Click here for a comparison of the two.

The town of Dambulla is an hour away from Sigiriya. Royal Rock Temple is a complex with 5 ancient temple caves in a small rocky hill outside of town. The first cave was made into a temple over 2000 years ago. Subsequent ones were added over the next few hundred years. Each one is filled with Buddha statues in all poses. There are over 150 Buddhas between the 5 small caves as well as dagobas (stupas) and statues of the kings. The walls and low ceilings have gorgeous frescoes of Buddha and lotus flowers in bright colours. The caves are very impressive due to the sheer number of statues and the details in the paintings. At the base of the hill is a new, flashy monastery with a large golden Buddha on its roof. It seemed a bit out of place after the gorgeous artwork in the caves above.

Sixty km away, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa was a capital city for approximately 300 years beginning in the 12th century when the capital was moved to Polonnaruwa from Anuradhapura (watch for an upcoming blog). Today the ruins of the ancient city are spread over a few kilometers. The site is so large that we rode old-school bicycles to get between the ruin sites. Alahana Pirivena was a large 12th century monastery covering 35 hectares. The ruins of hundreds of monk’s cells, dagobas (stupas) and even a monastic hospital are surrounded by a tropical forest. One of our favourite parts were the crocodile water spouts sticking out of the brick walls. The old dagobas and brick walls are now covered in moss making them appear more mysterious. At the centre of this large complex is a large white dagoba called Kiri Vihara Dagoba. Beside it is Lankatilaka Image House. You can still see the tall brick walls and long narrow hallway that leads to a giant, now headless, Buddha. It’s a breathtaking site. The outer walls and entrance gates are magnificently detailed with sculptures of lions and guardians.

Across from the monastery is the 12th century carvings of Gal-Vihara. Four impressive Buddha statues were carved from a large slab of granite. The posture and facial expression of the standing Buddha makes him look like he has a bit of an attitude, and we love the way the lines of the granite go across his face like war paint. There is a bit of controversy about this carving as it is an unusual posture for Buddha. Some say it is not Buddha but one of his disciples. The details that went into all these sculptures show the skill of the carvers in the 12th century.

A kilometer away is an area called the Quadrangle where there are several ruins in a confined space. Vatadage is an interesting round structure with outer and inner walkways. It is believed that the Buddha Tooth Relic was kept here in the 12th century. It has four entrances each with a small set of steps and Buddha statues facing out. At the base of the steps were beautifully carved moonstones with depictions of elephants, horses and ducks. Another ruin, Latha-Mandapaya, is a collection of stone pillars carved as lotus stems. The king used to sit in this hall and listen to Buddhist monks chant mantras.

A sudden downpour started as we were about to enter the Quadrangle. We took shelter under a nearby tin shack while we watched a troupe of Toque Macaques running into one of the temples for protection. We watched them jump from tree to tree and scale the brick wall of the temple to reach an open window or door to get inside. It’s fitting that there were so many monkeys here as this was the location for Disney’s film ‘Monkey Kingdom’ which is the story of Toque Macaques. We’ll have to watch it when we get home.

Further down the road in is the Royal Palace. There are only a few walls remaining of the Palace which used to be an incredible 7 stories tall. The palace’s Audience Hall has wonderful details. Along the side of the hall’s base is a frieze of elephants and funny dwarfs. There are two large stone lions guarding the entrance.

At one brick enclosed pond near the exit, we saw a family of Grey Langurs with their long eyebrows. One baby was so cute as it was still quite uncoordinated, but was practicing climbing trees, and jumping on and off the steps.

Coming up next: Sri Lanka’s East Coast Beaches

For extra pics from this trip go to Gallery/Sri Lanka. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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