The Sigiriya Rock itself is half as old as the earth: 2.500 billion years! It once was the plug of a volcano. That’s why its shape is so unique, unlike any other mountain or hill elsewhere in Sri Lanka. Out of nowhere in the middle of nowhere is this solid square boxy rock. And it’s not only a rock: It is a rock with the ruins of a king’s palace on top. Amazing!
As we run a guesthouse close to Sigiriya in Dambulla I am confronted with most of the organizational questions on a daily basis by our guests. So here’s what most people need to know but can’t find easily anywhere.
Sigiriya – one place, many names
This rock has many names. It’s often just referred to as “Sigiriya“(Sinhalese: සීගිරිය, pronounced See-gee-ree-ya), which is also the name of the village close to the rock. Other names are “Lion Rock” or “Sigiriya Rock Fortress“. All mean the same thing. And climbing this marvelous rock is a unique experience rewarded with breathtaking views and unforgettable memories. You should definitely spend a visit to Sigiriya on your tour through Sri Lanka.
The term “Lion Rock” derives from the final ascent. In order to get to the top, everybody had to walk through a gateway marked by a huge, majestic lion. Nowadays there are only the lion paws left.
Where is Sigiriya?
Sigiriya Lion Rock and village are conveniently located right in the center of the country, about 20 km northeast of Dambulla, in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle. Wild elephants might be spotted earliest morning at sunrise. That’s how remote it is. But also super beautiful, embedded in this lush green jungle, among paddy fields and vegetable farms. You look for a spot to just get reconnected to nature and let your mind rest – that’s your place to be!
Sigiriya is easily accessible via Dambulla. The turnoff to get there is just about 8km north of Dambulla, at the so-called Inamaluwa-Junction. I wrote a separate blog post about how to get there from Dambulla by bus or tuk-tuk.
Sigiriya Village itself turned into a somewhat touristy place. It feels like every single building in this mini-town is somehow related to tourism. Either a guesthouse, hotel, restaurant, bar, a small shop of snacks or tourist items like wood carvings or clothing.
Sigiriya Rock: Things to see?
In Sigiriya Rock Fortress once was a massive complex with gardens, residences, pavilion and ponds and thousands of square meters of frescos. Some of these still exist today.
The aim of my blog is providing the information you won’t find easily rather than the ones you’ll find everywhere! But of course, it’s not okay to not tell you anything about the actual sight. So here you go with 2 links, that cover every little aspect of what there is to see at the Lion Rock: AmazingLanka and SriLankaView cover all of it way better than I might ever do.
How long does it take to visit Sigiriya?
Including the garden complex and everything that’s inside the water canals, a visit takes roughly 2 hours. I always say it takes 40 minutes to go up, 1 hour at the top and 20 minutes to get down. This time includes many stops to catch your breath, take a photo or have a look at the sights on the way up. After all, it’s only about 200m high.
Sigiriya Museum – worth a visit
50 meter behind the ticket counter a bit hidden in the jungle is the Sigiriya Museum. It is included in the entrance ticket and should not be missed. It’s quite new and modern, and unlike other museums in Sri Lanka actually offers quite a lot of great information.
As most questions about the Lion Rock only arise after seeing the sight itself, I usually recommend visiting the Sigiriya museum after the rock. Because that’s when you’ll wonder why the “mirror wall” is called mirror wall and what the Rock Fortress looked like back in the days of King Kasyapa. There is a little video animation showing what Kasyapa’s Kings Palace looked like back then. It was a three-story building! Quite impressive on top of that small rock! And think about all the bricks that had to be carried up there!
Visiting the museum takes 30-60 minutes but it’s well worth it.
Opening hours of Sigiriya – Is Sunset viewing possible?
The site is open from 7 am to 7 pm. The ticket counter closes at 5 pm though. Hence it’s possible to visit the Lion Rock for sunset viewing, but not for sunrise viewing. If you want to watch the sunrise, I recommend doing it from “the rock next to Sigiriya”, Pidurangala.
What is the best time to visit Sigiriya?
The best time to visit the Lion Rock depends also on the season. In tourist peak season (December to April and July to October) we recommend being there at 7 am. For once in order to beat the heat, but also in order to beat the masses. Usually, most tourists turn up at 8 to 8.30am, so it’s really crowded from 8.30 to 10 am, and too hot after 10 am. The second peak visiting time is in the afternoon at 3 pm, but then less crowded for sunset.
In offseason, especially in what I call “wind season” (May to July), it’s usually not so hot during the day, maybe even cloudy and also quite windy. It feels as if a huge fan is blowing on you at all times. On these days you can easily visit Sigiriya all day long, even at noon, as it’s neither hot nor crowded then. So see what the weather is like during your stay in Sri Lanka – if you’re not an early riser, noon might just be as good as earliest morning at the right time of the year.
Is there a dress code?
No, there is not. It’s not a temple and any kind of footwear will do. So shorts and flip-flops/thongs are fine.
Anything else to bring or consider?
Keep in mind, that there is no shade on the top – well, there is ONE tree, but that tree is very popular 😉 Bring a hat and apply plenty of sunscreen. Or try it the Sri Lankan way and bring an umbrella.
Water 😉 There are shops inside, but only at the exit! So before entering the Sigiriya Complex, make sure you grab your bottle of water for the way up.
If you didn’t just have a decent meal: Bring some snacks (not too much though. Remind you, it’s not a day trip!). There is a stunning place for picnicking with a beautiful view. The terrace with the Lion Paws. But I strongly recommend to NOT eat here for a simple reason: Also the monkeys agree it’s a beautiful spot for food and are ready to steal whatever food you take out of your bag.
For dog people: Sometimes there are skinny stray dogs on the top of the rock. If you happen to have some leftovers from a recent meal, feed it to them, they will be very grateful.
Bird advise for Sigiriya: Look out for King Fisher! I am not a bird person, but I love this beautiful bird with its intense blue feathers. You will see many of them at the small lake close to the Sigiriya Museum and at the water canals around the Lion Rock.
Do I need to worry about wasps attacks?
Also at the Lion Paw Terrace – depending on the situation during your visit, be aware of the wasps. On windy or very noisy days the wasps might feel disturbed and occasionally attack. But don’t worry too much, there is even a Red Cross hut up there. And they know the problem and warn the people if it’s one of those tricky days. They have even all equipment to bring people down from the top sting free – you would get a special protective coat. Some guests of ours had the chance to wear them when brought back safely from the top to the Lion Paw terrace. I’ve seen their photos. They looked awesome. Not the average photo in your photo album. So don’t worry. If it’s one of those days, it’s one of those days and you can’t change it. But you will be kept safe.
Why is it not allowed to take photos of the Sigiriya frescoes anymore?
Recently some guests of our guesthouse went to see Sigiriya and Pidurangala – as I recommended them to see both and they agreed, that it’s definitely worth visiting both rocks! Asking some more feedback about Sigiriya our guest expressed his disappointment of the prohibition to take photos of the famous frescoes. He said he could understand if they said “No Flash” for the famous paintings, but why “No photos”?! Well, as I like to explain things that might not be too obvious to travelers on the first glimpse, here is why: Other travelers spoilt it!
What had happened?
It used to be allowed to take photos of these ancient wall paintings. As many as you like, all day long, all year round. Photos without flash, of course. Why without flash? Well, I am not an expert. But the flash can somehow damage the color or in worst case, the wall the painting is on. The chance of some damage is very low. But it MIGHT happen. Therefore you’ll see “No flash” signs on walls with precious paintings or relief works. Same in Sigiriya. But when in 2015 the number of visitors increased significantly so did the number of people ignoring the “No flash” sign in order to take better photos of the frescoes.
Subsequently, the Sigiriya Rock Management was forced to prohibit taking photos of the paintings altogether. There is a security guard present at all times. He was already there when it was still allowed, to remind people to not flash. But how should he know for sure whether a photographer really turned off the flash? Indeed the 3 times I climbed Sigiriya there was always someone ignoring the sign and using the flash when taking photos of the frescoes. When caught they apologized and said – of course – they’d forgotten to turn it off. The only way to make sure now there is no more damage done because of ignorant visitors’ flashing, is to prohibit taking photos. Now the security guard will stop you the moment you get your camera out in order to take a photo of the frescoes.
So don’t blame a site having to take that step, that was only caused due to other tourists misbehavior.
What if you DO take a photo?
Honestly: Don’t ever even try it! The management of Lion Rock is very very strict now. As soon as the guard catches you taking a photo your camera will be taken away. Also some policemen might come and threaten you to put you in jail for a few days. Not kidding, 2 guests of ours independently reported that! They might take your passport number and tell you you had to pay a fine of Rs. 1 Mio! Not too sure you really have to pay at the end. But the last guests that took a photo were kept waiting and unsure for 1.5 hours before they were allowed to proceed. Not without noting their passport number and having them sign a document that they intendedly took a photo of the frescoes even knowing that it was prohibited.
My special advice
In the Sigiriya Museum, the frescoes are recreated and look very much like the original frescoes up on Sigiriya Rock. Go there to take photos (doublecheck if it’s allowed, if not ASK a guard before taking one). You shouldn’t miss out the museum anyways!
Is it better to stay in Sigiriya or Dambulla in order to explore the cultural triangle?
Sigiriya is a small village on kind of a dead-end road. At least for public transportation. Buses run only from
- Dambulla to Sigiriya and back to Dambulla (see here for very detailed information on how to get from Dambulla to Sigiriya).
- I’ve heard there is one direct bus to Kandy super early morning
If you actually plan to explore the cultural triangle by bus, you will be better off in Dambulla (and there are also more sights in Dambulla). If you have your own transportation, Sigiriya might be the quieter, more remote option. If you need a tuktuk from Dambulla, have a look at our tours.
The confusing history of Sigiriya
The history and thus story of Sigiriya is full of intrigues and twists. I try to keep it simple here.
There once was king Dhatusena. He had two sons. With “a woman of unequal birth” he had his oldest son Kasyapa. The younger one on the other hand, Moggallana, was born of the royal bloodline. Thus he was the rightful heir to the throne. Dhatusena also had a daughter. She was married to his sister’s son Migara, who was the commander of Dhatusena’s army. So far so easy, right. One king, 3 children.
One day his beloved daughter was mistreated by her husband Migara. She fled to her father, who was outraged. Instead of punishing his nephew Migara, he punished Migara’s mother, his own sister. Dhatusena burned her alive! Grieving deeply about the gruesome death of his mother, Migara started intriguing against Dhatusena. He convinced Kasyapa that the throne was rightfully his. After secretly gaining support among some nobles, Kasyapa and Migara captured the king and took over control of the government. At first Kasyapa imprisoned his father, but after some more intriguing of Migara Kasyapa eventually ordered to kill him. Kasyapa’s younger brother Moggallana, the rightful next king, fear for his life and fled to India.
Hoping for a safe haven in Lion Rock
Over the years Kasyapa became guilt-ridden and remorseful. Killing his father has earned himself a rebirth in hell according to Buddhism. And knowing that his brother Moggallana will come back some day to take revenge, he feared for his life. Therefore he chose an isolated and unwelcoming place deep in the forests for his new capital: Sigiriya. In the following four years tens of thousands of workers built the magnificent palace atop a gigantic rock. Two hundred meters above the surrounding plain and accessible through two huge Lion Paws. Lion Rock came to exist.
Kasyapa enjoyed his life there. But 18 years after Moggallana fled to India, he returned. With Migara’s help. Migara was still commander of the army. He also grew older and remorseful. Migara, too, feared for his afterlife by now. Therefore he asked Kasyapa to held a very special ceremony. Kasyapa refused that and Migara got angry. He conspired with Moggallana. When Moggallana’s army attacked Lion Rock, Kasyapa left his palace in the safe knowledge of his strong army behind him. Not knowing that Migara signaled the army to retreat, Kasyapa ran directly into Moggallana’s hands. Remaining alone and forsaken, he drew out his own dagger and drew it across his neck… Moggallana moved the capital back to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya fell back into oblivion.
Enjoy your unforgettable visit to Lion Rock. If you wonder why visiting the Lion Rock is so expensive, have a look at my post explaining that.
Last update: December 2017