It is Christmas Eve, and we are going to spend today in the ancient cities of Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa…what better way than to build up an appetite for the amazing Christmas Eve feast that I know the chefs of Heritance Kandalama are conjuring up? But first, I must indulge in the delicious breakfast and stuff myself full of carbs (and hoppers, watch out for a food post soon) for the first half of today’s adventures – the climb up the 200 metre high Sigiriya Rock…
The sunny skies that we woke up to didn’t last very long, and as sod would have it, the dreaded rain started just as soon as we arrived at the rock. Just what we needed – another climb up in the wet weather! I swear, the next amazon item we are investing in are waterproof socks!!
I have read articles and books that compare Sigiriya rock to Ayer’s rock in Australia. I haven’t been to Ayer’s Rock yet, but having googled it, the two rocks seem to have some similar features. Well, they are giant rocks, to begin with!!! The entrance fee is pretty hefty, US $ 30 per person, but this comes in a very nice package and there is a pretty cool CD that gives the history of the lion rock, “seegeeree” as the locals like to call it.
I don’t want to get into a history lesson here, so I shall keep it short and say that the locals insist that the rock was either a palace or a fortress, though the museum on site states that it was rumoured to be a Buddhist monastery. Whatever the theory, it is still absolutely amazing to be standing in front of this huge orange geological wonder – and I cannot help wonder just how I am going to puff and pant my way up the 1200 steps. Never mind the fact that I am the very same person that has conquered the peaks of Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro – but that seems like a lifetime ago!
Setting foot onto the site through the western gate, we buy our tickets and start to follow the guide that Ravi has organised for us. We wander through the aptly named “royal gardens”, which are symmetrically aligned with water pools, and tree lined avenues, and it is easy to get mesmerised with the beauty of these gardens and not notice that a few minutes of wandering later, you are at the base of the rock which seems to suddenly tower upon you, and voila, the “climb” begins!
The steps are carved into the rock itself, and you start off by going in between large boulders. In our case, these boulders have transformed into a mini waterfall from all the rain, and the steps are slippery and wet. I cannot help but think of ingenious ways to keep my safari boots dry – I absolutely detest wet shoes and consequently wet socks, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than going up this rock with wet shoes! But alas, luck is not with me – before I have climbed 20 steps, my shoes are sodden and wet! Glancing across at M – I notice that his shoes are as dry as a bone and I wonder whether we have just climbed the same set of stairs? He has perfected the art of walking like a duck, and keeping his shoes dry. Sigh.
One of the many huge boulders that we had to go between.
I think the “climb” is over hyped. Sure, there are a heck of a lot of stairs, but every 30 or so steps there are places where you can take a break and marvel at the myriad of caves peppered into the rock, or stare out at the immense forest of green right in front of you and drink in the beauty of Sigiriya and its environs.
Taking a break from the climb to admire green Sigiriya below…
Before you know it, you arrive at the halfway point, where the stone steps become a metal spiral staircase leading into a sheltered cove, that has the most beautifully painted frescoes that I have ever seen in a cave, albeit of generously endowed women or apsaras, rumoured to have been the Kings Concubines.
You can easily spend a few minutes resting here, and if you are lucky you will have stared the climb up the rock early enough to avoid the throngs of tourist buses that seem to arrive at 10 am. Flash photography is not allowed though.
The frescoes in the cave
Moving on from the frescoes, we climb a few more steps and at this point, I must confess that I have lost count. Given that we are at the halfway point, I think we have just about hit 600 steps! We come to the “Mirror Wall”, which was coated with a smooth glaze which has graffiti of the yesteryear’s inscribed into it, rumoured to be the first developments of the Sinhalese language.
We finally arrive at the Lion’s Paws, sat atop a platform upon which the final ascent to the summit will commence. These Paws are the remains of a large brick lion that once sat on this part of the rock, giving it its name. The sheer size of these paws sends a shiver down my spine, I can just imagine the thwack of this paw coming down on some poor unsuspecting creature! No wonder the Lion is nicknamed the King of the Jungle, it is mighty in every sense of the word. I digress. Back to “seegeeree” – in its heyday, the ascent to the summit was commenced with a stairway between the paws and into the lions mouth, but today the ascent is by way of the original steps between the paws and then by way of steep metal stairs placed above the paws. These are probably the hardest to climb because they are so narrow, incredibly steep and oh so many, but the prospect of the beautiful view at the top and getting to the 1200th step after coming so far is what spurs me on.
Finally, a huff and a puff and 1199 steps later, we are at the top and the 1200th step is pointed out to me – I cannot help but jump on it – ta daaa – we made it, and you know what, it was not as hard as my over dramatic mind had made it out to be! The view is incredible. The top of the rock is terraced, and you can see the beautiful symmetrical gardens below, the lush greenery spreading out for miles and miles yonder, and in the distance, the faint golden glow of the Buddha sitting atop the entrance to the Dambulla Caves.
Thank the good Lord that the rain has finally stopped and I can now sit here and drink in this splendid view, imagining what it must have been like to be a monk eons ago. My imagination does tend to wander somewhat and I am shaken out of my reverie by some noisy tourists, so alas, the descent must begin. Plus, we need to get to our second stop of the day – Polonnaruwa, so we must get going if we want to spend some good time in the second of the ancient cities on our itinerary.
We manage to get down pretty fast, descending the summit from the same steps as we ascended, but once off the platform of Lions Paws we veer off and start to descend using a separate set of steps, avoiding all the people huffing and puffing up to the top. Close to the base, I can hear the telltale music that I had come to dread in India – suggesting a snake charmer was on the loose, and yep, a few metres away we arrived at the Cobra Hood Cave, named so because the overhang resembles a fully opened Cobra’s Hood. Damn these pesky snake charmers, I cannot scramble away fast enough!
3 hours after starting off, we are back at the car, watching red faced monkeys scamper around while taking a beautiful photograph of the legendary lion rock in the distance, exhilarated at having conquered this geological wonder. For those interested, there are some pretty great souvenir shops at the base before the exit. Given that I have not yet got to the age where I have an overwhelming urge to collect souvenir teaspoons and trinkets, fridge magnets and shot glasses make up the bulk of my travel memorabilia. So I am pretty excited to get our seegeeree magnet from the rock itself!
Today is a busy day. We are now going to be driving for about an hour towards Polonnaruwa, the second of the ancient cities to spend an afternoon exploring and discovering even more of this phenomenal country! Read all about this fascinating ancient city in my next post…