Visiting Sygiria Rock, Sri Lanka

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Visiting Sygiria Rock, Sri Lanka

The Water Gardens at Sygiria Rock

As we are rapidly discovering, all journeys in Sri Lanka share one common characteristic – they’re bumpy. It is pretty difficult to describe if you’ve never experienced it but it is similar to travelling on a dirt track all the time. The roads are covered in tarmac but this doesn’t seem to make much difference. You can forget reading, or anything that needs any sort of concentration (although it didn’t seem to affect our boy’s ability to play their DS games). It also takes a long time to travel distances that on paper look quite short. There are just two activities for the car – watching the world go by or sleeping.

On our way to Sygiria RockSo as we arrive at Sygiria Rock, we’re all bleary eyed again. The rock itself stands tall in the distance as Chris pulls up and explains that because this is an official government tourist attraction, he is not allowed to guide us and we need to get an official guide. He disappears and quickly returns with not just one guide but four! They all say hello and I guess I am expecting one of the to take over but as we make our way across bridge over a moat (which the guides insist contains crocodile but which looks more like a dirty moat to use) it become clear that all four guides are for us.

Sygiria Rock is a magnificent site both for its natural presence and the manmade additions. As we walk towards the rock, through the Water Garden which were originally part of a palace built by an ancient “prince” Kassapa, we are told the story from our guides. Kassapa built Sygiria as a defence which would never be conquered but also had an eye for beauty. So the water gardens that lead to the foot of Sygiria are the remains of a wonderful series of sunken ponds and fountains. While the remains are extremely old (dating back to around the 5th century AD) and are therefore quite ruinous, you can still get a sense of the grandeur.

However it is the wildlife that captivates the children and the guides delight in showing it to them. The most amazing are plants which move in response to your touch. They are tiny ground hugging plants with shoots not bigger than a thumb and even smaller frond-like leaves which when touched close quickly as if trying to trap an insect like a Venus Fly Trap. Once closed they don’t open for quite some time so there is then a fairly length delay as the children, goaded by the guides walk around with the eyes on the ground spotting and touching as many of the plants as they can. I can’t blame them, while these plants are very simple, they really are fascinating to watch!

Snake on the way up Sygiria RockIt is in the water gardens that we encounter our first snake. Now remember I am expecting to see snakes crawling freely on the ground all over the place and have up to done been reassured by their absence. However, this is a small, seemingly harmless snake which is poking its head out of a rock along one of the main routes through the Water Gardens. That said...we take a picture and stay well clear.

The climb up Sygiria Rock is daunting. It is extremely steep with many, mainly well formed steps leading up. The guides are extremely attentive both to the children, who they hold by the hand and Lisa. I think mainly to her embarrassment, one of the guides holds her arm as she climbs the steps to ensure she doesn’t slip. This is extremely kind of them but I can’t help having a quick giggle and taking out the camera for a quick photo opportunity of the scene!

Climbing Sygiria Rock

Rock in the shape of a cobra's head at Sygiria Rock Sri LankaAs we start the initial ascent (only up to the foot of the rock!) there are several natural rocks with interesting shapes. One in particular is pointed out to us that look spookily like a large cobra head. While it is clearly natural it seems likely it was placed here because of the likeness.

At the foot of the steps Lisa decides that she can’t go further. She has weak knees from an old sporting injury and finds stairs difficult. So she sits finds likely spot at the base of the steps and sits down in the down sweltering heat with her bottle of water to wait for us to return.

One of the Sygiria Damsels at Sygiria Rock Sri LankaWe’re now on the main ascent and the steps, which are metal spiral staircases are very steep indeed. However the children are coping well and we get to approximately the half way stages and reach a cave in the rocks. This cave contains a haunting frescos of several (apparently 21 although my impression was much less), mainly half naked ladies. The frescos, known as the Sygiria Damsels are incredibly detailed and awe inspiring given that they are more than 1,500 years old. The boys are quite restrained (just a few minor giggles at the ladies chests) and we move further along to reach the mirror wall which is a very shiny wall running alongside the rock face. There is quite a lot of graffiti here but according to the guides its actually pretty old, possibly more than 1,000 years old and serves therefore as a historical record (interesting the different perspective on graffiti that time brings!). Finally (well in this section anyway) we walk along a rickety iron railed walkway and come out into an open space at the foot of the next level of rock.

Lion Rock at Sygiria Sri LankaThis is one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. As we round the corner and walk out into the open area (you could probably describe it as a rough courtyard) known as the Lion Platform, you are immediately confronted by two enormous paws, each the size of a house. Steps from the courtyard lead up between these two paws and the guides explain that originally there was an enormous lion head. While the head has long since gone, the paws are so realistic you can imagine exactly how terrifying the original lion head would have been.

The Lion Platform at Sygiria Rock

The steps through the lion and up to the very summit of the rock are metal and while perfectly stable look pretty rickety. There is a large hornet’s nest tucked against the main rock and the hornets are clearly visible from the steps. Initially the guides appear to tell us to be quiet and I pass on the message to the children – be quiet, the noise attracts the hornets. Later the guide tells me this is not true – not sure if I imagined it or just misunderstood!

Chris and our many guides at the top of Sygiria RockThe view from the top of Sygiria Rock is breath taking. The jungle all around is clearly in view and we can see all the surrounding area. We look south toward Dambulla and on towards Kandy, east towards Polonnaruwa and north towards the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. In the distance in one direction (I think it was west) you can see an enormous statue of the Buddha standing looking over the jungle towards us on the rock. The statue is extremely eye catching and extremely clean, bright - white in colour. However we are amazed to find out that this is not an ancient statue, hallowed for its age and authenticity but in fact quite a new, modern statute. Buddhism is clearly not a dead religion in Sri Lanka (nor probably elsewhere) despite its age but a thriving religion which is still prepared to build remarkable monument in its founders name.

I am slightly ashamed to say that our focus on top of the rock was almost entirely on the view and not on the ancient ruins of Kassapa’s palace. The palace is quite clearly laid out on top of the rock but is also clearly ruins so only the bottom of the walls trace out the different rooms. The one area of note that take our interest however is the pool where there remains a large, dank pool of water where presumably the royalty enjoyed cleaned themselves and relaxed at the top of this amazing rock palace.

Sygiria Rock Sri LankaStanding at the top of the rock it is clear why Kassapa chose this spot for his protection. I would be amazed if any army could have scaled the rock to reach the palace. However the story of Kassapa is as interesting as the remains of his palace. Apparently he joined battle with his enemy (his brother Mogallana) at the foot of the rocks (quite strange to build an unassailable fortress but then leave it to take the battle to your opponent!) but unfortunately the elephant he was riding on threw him off in a fright during the battle and rather than be captured he killed himself on the battlefield.

The climb down the rocks is just as daunting as the climb up. You have to take every step carefully, especially on the way down to the Lion Platform. As we descend, the guides prove more than their worth. The children are getting tired and while not complaining, are obviously moving with much less gusto than on the way up. The guides however, despite their apparent age and rather skinny demeanour are not tired at all and they take the children on the backs down the steep steps. I must confess to being a little worried but they are sure footed and let them down whenever the steps are too dramatic. Watching the children, each on their own guide’s back, while the guide runs along the narrow pathways is quite an experience in its own right!

Tipping the guides at Sygiria, Sri Lanka

We meet back with Lisa and arrive finally back at the bottom where there is a handy drink store and our guides prepare to leave us. We buy them a can of fizzy drink and after a chat with Chris about the right tip (100 Sri Lankan Rupees is apparently the standard) we thank them and hand over our tips (I decided that carrying my children down the rock was beyond the call of duty so double the tip to 200 Rupees each although this does work out at not much more than £1 each which feels slightly embarrassing).