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Sigiriya: the Lion's Rock in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle.

Small travel blog between History, Mystery and Curiosities

To not forget the emotions experienced last summer, I want to tell you about a particular place we visited that truly left us amazed, the majestic Sigiriya. The sound of its name is already evocative, immediately transporting us to the right atmosphere—the remains of an ancient kingdom in the midst of the Sri Lankan jungle.

We find ourselves in the heart of the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, surrounded by miles of jungle on all sides, where "The Lion Rock" rises—one of the most imposing and mysterious archaeological sites in the world. This magical place is steeped in millennia of history, enriched by intriguing legends, and dotted with curious aspects that capture the imagination of anyone who visits. Get ready for the stairs, many stairs. You climb 180 meters from the level of the surrounding jungle, and, I advise you, as you ascend, be reasonably quiet. The gigantic rock is, in fact, the home of Apis dorsata, giant honey bees, particularly sensitive to loud noises and with a very susceptible disposition. Large hives of these bees are scattered throughout Sri Lanka, even at the famous Nine Arches Bridge, and swarm attacks on locals and tourists are not uncommon. For this reason, you'll find various precautions, from protective cages to small bonfires near the most affected areas. Fires are promptly extinguished during attacks to create a lot of smoke and thus protect the unfortunate. These bees are particularly aggressive. Once the target is identified, they attack fiercely, and the stingers embedded in the skin release a specific hormone used to incite the rest of the hive to attack the same target.

At this point, the question arises: why are they not removed from a UNESCO site, so popular and visited by tourists from around the world and locals?

Well, here we have a first curiosity: these bees are considered the reincarnations of the ancient army that protected the fortress of Sigiriya, not simple insects. But don't be scared by their aggressive nature; most visitors don't even perceive their presence, and there are security measures specifically designed for a reasonable level of safety.

Returning to Sigiriya, research conducted on the site has shown that its origins date back to prehistory; in a cave below, in the immediate vicinity, archaeological excavations have revealed remains of prehistoric human settlements that existed around 5500 BC.

Skipping forward in history, in the 3rd century BC, a Buddhist monastery was built in the rocky fortress of Sigiriya, having found thirty refuge caves at the base of the great lion rock, likely housing the monks of the monastery. The reason it's called Lion Rock is easily explained: majestic lion paws are still visible today. But in a forgotten time, the entire fortress was shaped like a giant lion standing in the middle of the jungle, similar to a sphinx challenging visitors who dared to approach the ancient city. The "recent" history of the Sigiriya rock is inseparably linked to the tragic story of Kassapa and Moggallana, sons of the king of Anuradhapura, Dhatusena, but from different mothers (Moggallana's mother was also of royal blood). In 477, Kassapa seized the kingdom, renaming himself Kashyapa I, imprisoned and then killed his father by walling him alive, while the brother Maggallana (the legitimate heir to the kingdom) fled to India to save his life and gather followers to build an army to confront his brother. Kassapa chose to make Sigiriya his administrative center, transferring the capital from Anuradhapura (one of Sri Lanka's sacred cities) and built the monumental lion-shaped palace on several acres of land to protect it from his enemies, especially his half-brother. In 495, King Kassapa descended from the Sigiriya rock to confront his half-brother Moggallana, who, with the help of Indian Chola troops, prevailed. Legend has it that during the battle, Kassapa's elephant sensed the danger of a hidden swamp and suddenly changed direction. Kassapa's army interpreted this signal as a gesture of surrender and dispersed, while King Kassapa, now alone, drew a dagger and cut his throat.

In the centuries that followed, Sigiriya returned to being the abode of Buddhist monks until the 12th-13th centuries AD. Then it was completely abandoned until the 19th century when it was used as a military outpost by the kings of Kandy. Later, it was an English officer, Jonathan Forbes, who in 1832, brought Sigiriya out of obscurity, placing it back at the center of Sri Lanka's history. Almost a century later, in 1982, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The view from the top is breathtaking; on the day of our visit, the wind was very strong, and from above, you can truly appreciate the still predominantly untouched state of the surrounding jungle.

Descending from Sigiriya, about halfway, you'll encounter the "Mirror Wall." The wall had been worked to the point of making it so smooth that when the king walked along the ledge, he could see his own reflection in it. Subsequently, the wall became a stone canvas, still bearing traces of the thoughts and experiences of those who came to visit the legendary rock in ancient times. Here, inscriptions, poems, and prose describing the culture, lifestyle, and surroundings of Sigiriya have been deciphered.

Moving on, you can climb a spiral staircase that will lead you to the frescoes of the "celestial maidens." There are 23 rock paintings, well-preserved, depicting prosperous singers and dancers. King Kassapa had a harem of over 500 concubines, admired for their sensual and exotic beauty. Therefore, it is widely believed that they were the inspiration for the golden-skinned, bare-breasted women in these frescoes. The intricate and sumptuous gem-studded jewelry adorning the women in these paintings also suggests that they could have been members of the royal family, namely Kashyapa's daughters.

Some historians even believe that the drawings are actually representations of celestial nymphs believed to be protectors of the rock fortress. What we see now is only a part of what must have been one of the oldest and most intricate art galleries in the ancient world.

For today's blog, that's all. I leave you with this photo taken at Sigiriya Rock from another height in the area, Pidurangala. After a short climb and ascent, you'll have this priceless view in front of you. Have you already booked your 2024 vacation? Sri Lanka has various curious gems hidden in its lands; I'll tell you more about them in the coming weeks!"

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