Guide to Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka

The Lion Rock from the ancient royal city of Sri Lanka


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Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

GPS: 7.9593177271807, 80.761605843215

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Located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, the Royal City of Sigiriya rock fortress (or Sinhagiri) is one of the most admirable natural and historical sites of Sinhalese civilization. Since the end of the 5th century, this ancient fortress has been based on a red stone monolith of almost 200 metres in height resulting from an ancient volcano. This flat-topped massive rock, perhaps billions of years old or at least reaching into ancient history, has a summit of Sigiriya which overlooks a thick surrounding jungle dotted with caves and lakes. Meaning the “Lion Rock” or “Lion’s rock” because of the enormous lion staircase carved into the base of the Sigiriya natural rock guarded by two lion paws at the lion gate where you enter the Sigiriya complex, the royal city of Sigiriya contained a complex of palaces, boulder gardens and terraced gardens of Sigiriya, the water garden, and defensive systems of great archaeological value. The astounding remains of the Sri Lankan palace seen by visitors to Sigiriya when they visit Sigiriya fortress on top of Sigiriya rock could be perhaps Sri Lanka’s eighth wonder of the world and is a Unesco world heritage site and a Sigiriya museum.

Built in just a few years under the reign of the self-proclaimed king Kashyapa I (or Kasyapa I from the Mauryan dynasty) who considered his descendant the rightful heir to the throne, the fortified city and royal palace of Sri Lanka Sigiriya rock fortress on top of the rock is one of the best preserved ancient sites in Asia. In addition to the fortress complex on top of the Sigiriya rock, it houses the former private residence of the monarch of the Anuradhapura Kingdom and its court. It is one of the first monarchies in the history of Sri Lanka founded in the 4th century BC by King Pandukabhaya in the Rajarata historic region (north-east province of the country). At its completion, the new citadel of Sigiriya included gardens, ramparts, ditches, ponds, fountains, swimming pools, white palaces, multicoloured pavilions and an underground irrigation system. Its dominant position at the top of the Lion Rock gives a clear view to defend against any external attack. Fitted out on several wall blank levels, a system of stairs, suspended walkways and a series of dizzying steps allow access to the site. They lead up from a giant lion statue from which the impressive legs of the feline remain, protector of the royal city of Sigiriya rock fortress built on rock Sigiriya with its upper palace on the top.

The archaeological site of Sigiriya, including the ruins of the royal palace which have collapsed long ago, is also renowned for its remarkably well-preserved wall Sigiriya frescoes or rock paintings. Many of them represent women who are slightly dressed or half naked. They could be courtesans of the monarch (1,000 according to legend) or, more likely, celestial nymphs (apsaras). Following the murder of King Kashyapa I by his brother Moggallana, Sigiriya rock fortress city was stripped of its richness before being converted into a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. It is then completely abandoned and quickly finds itself overwhelmed by vegetation. Rediscovered centuries later, the ruins of the royal city of Sigiriya the lion rock were the subject of initial archaeological excavations by the British in the 1800s and were restored by the State of Sri Lanka in the mid-twentieth century. Only 20% of the ancient royal city of Sri Lanka Sigiriya history would not be visible today according to archaeologists who have studied features of Sigiriya Lion Rock when they pay a visit to Sigiriya Sri Lanka in trying to understand the history of Sigiriya rock fortress and the remains of the palace.

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  • The feat and ingenuity of construction of the fortress on a site that is difficult to access
  • The remarkable frescoes of “The ladies of Sigiriya”; wall inscriptions and poems (the oldest date from the 7th century)
  • The old reconstructed gardens, the caves, the ancient mirror wall and the upper marble stairs
  • The zoomorphic entrance to the temple in the form of massive legs of a lion carved in the rock and positioned at the entrance to the staircase leading to the royal palace (the top of the staircase led in the mouth of the lion then to the palaces)
  • The remains of the palace and monasteries; the advanced irrigation and water collection system over a distance of 10 kilometres; the basins, fountains and water jets of the place
  • The 13 meter long reclining Buddha dating from the 2nd century BC
  • The visit of the museum (included in the entrance fee)
  • The breathtaking panoramic view at the top of the Sigiriya rock; the neighbouring and less known site of Pidurangala in the north (it enjoys a beautiful perspective of view on Sigiriya)
  • Elephant populations around the archaeological site (elephant back excursions can be organized)
  • Legend has it that Sigiriya has a much older origin and could correspond to Alakamandava (the city of the gods in Hindu mythology). This place would have served in particular as a shelter and refuge for man in prehistoric times.
  • A historical text (Culavamsa or Chulavamsa), written in Pali by Sinhalese Buddhist monks, tells the story about the context of Kashyapa I coming to power. It says that in the year 477, in order to ascend the throne, Kashyapa I undertook to wall his living father (king Dhatusena) in a ditch before forcing his younger brother (Moggallana, the legitimate heir) to exile in South India. For fear of his revenge, Kashyapa I decided to move the capital of the kingdom of Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, easier to defend. It is also for this same reason that he built a fortified city there and that he inherited the nickname of Kashyapa the Patricide. Crowned king following this coup, Kashyapa I was finally defeated and killed by his brother Moggallana less than 20 years later, in 495, after a siege of only one week. The new sovereign Moggallana will again transfer the capital to Anuradhapura, its original location. This event marked the end of the royal city lost in the heart of the jungle.
  • Fuelled by a very sophisticated hydraulic system for the time, the gardens and fountains of Sigiriya are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.
  • In the Sinhalese tradition, the lion is the mythical ancestor of the monarchs and a symbol of royal power.
  • The Sigiriya site is fiercely guarded by a large quantity of hornets having established their nests and swarms on the rock walls of the ancient royal city. In the event of an attack, screened cages have been specially fitted out to find refuge there. Despite several attempts by the government to destroy these nests, more and more hornets are reinstalling there. The locals see in these strange residents the guards of the royal palace of Sigiriya.
  • Located less than 4 hours by road from Colombo, Sigiriya can be reached by bus from the cities of Dambulla, Jaffna, Trincomalee and Kandy.
  • Begin the arduous ascent of the Lion Rock at dawn (1,200 steps are to be climbed to reach the summit) before the appearance of heavy heat and the first groups of tourists from the Dambulla Cave Temple, distant from 20 km. The last part of the course is more difficult but it is worth climbing there (provide water to hydrate yourself).
  • It is strongly advised to remain silent during the ascent of the rock so as not to attract the attention of the hornets who regularly occupy the upper part of the site (and more particularly when approaching the summit). Combinations of beekeepers are offered at the foot of the site to avoid being bitten. As the hornets are not present at the top of the rock, you will be able to remove your combination to discover the archaeological heritage of the royal city in better conditions.
  • To complete your day, you will be able to attempt the ascent of the Pidurangala Rock, located only 2 km from Sigiriya. This site contains caves, a statue of a brick-coated Buddha and a Buddhist temple (Pidurangala Vihara) built by Kashyapa I at the end of the 5th century.

Where to eat

  • Shenadi Restaurant
    (local dishes at a good price)
  • Royal Sigiriya Restaurant
    (buffet for all tastes)
  • The Apsara
    (high level cuisine)

Where to go

  • Kaudulla National Park
    (elephant sanctuary)
  • Ritigala
    (old monastery in the forest)
  • Pethikada
    (famous art gallery)

Where to stay

  • Sigiri Rock Side Home Stay
    (at the foot of the rock)
  • Saga Heritage
    (in the middle of the countryside)
  • Kuwera Eco Lodge
    (all comfort complex)