Crumbling angled brick walls, terraced several feet high from each other, surrounded me as I stepped on one of its edges. I gazed down, admiring the remains of this ancient Sinhalese fortress with its now muddy pools, dusty stairways and ruined terraces. To be honest, it really wouldn’t stand out from all the temples I’ve visited around Asia, especially those in Siem Reap, except this one is built on top of a massive natural rock, 660 feet high from the ground and with no natural stairs to climb on to.
|THE CAVE TEMPLE OF DAMBULLA|
We’ve been eyeing Sri Lanka’s so-called cultural triangle ever since we obtained our tickets to this country. We knew we’d just have to pass by the area during the middle of our Beach Hop Asia 2016 tour. Sri Lanka is the longest country we’d be staying in for our two-month trip around Asia.
|MONK CHILDREN AT SIGIRIYA ROCK|
Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle consists of UNESCO World Heritage Sites located on the North Central and Central Province in the country. These places form a literal triangle with Anuradhapura on its north, Polonnaruwa on the east and Kandy at its south. Inside this triangle are Sigiriya and Dambulla.
|THE RUINS OF POLONNARUWA|
We only stayed for three days in Sigiriya, and of these, we were only able to visit three cultural heritage sites, the Sigiriya Rock and the Dambulla Cave Temple on the second day, and the remains of the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa on the last day. We could’ve visited Anuradhapura and Kandy, but our chosen route made it kinda hard for us. Plus, we really didn’t want to get templed out in Sri Lanka, we know we’d go back to this place someday.
|BUDDHA FIGURES INSIDE DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE|
OPEN HOURS: 7:00 AM TO 5:30 PM • ENTRANCE FEE: 4,260.00 LKR (28.50 USD) • GPS COORDINATES MAP: 7.957096, 80.758333
We woke up early to visit the Sigiriya Rock, but since our lodging was just a few minutes away by car from the area, we took our time having our breakfast before going. We knew we were in for some serious climbing.
Sigiriya Rock, literally translated to Lion Rock in Sinhalese, is named after the massive lion sculpture at the plateau leading to its final ascent. It is an ancient rock fortress in the Matale District founded in the 5th century A.D. by King Kashyapa. It is said that before the king transferred the capital of his kingdom to Sigiriya, it has already been used by Buddhist monks during the 3rd century B.C.
The site, a complex of water, boulder and terraced gardens with its pinnacle 660 feet from the ground, is as interesting as its backstory. Story has it the Kashyapa murdered his own father by walling him up, alive (I imagine Edgar Allan Poe-style), to usurp the throne both from his father and the successor to the throne. His half-brother, the legit one, then fled to India, fearing for his life but promising to return to retake his title. In preparation, Kashyapa then moved the capital to Sigiriya and made the massive rock his own impregnable fortress.
We started our DIY tour along the base of Sigiriya Rock, following a path of leveled walls and man-made pools until we reached a series of stairs passing through massive boulders. The way goes up and up, through rock walls painted with half-naked women and the Mirror Wall, where it was once said to have been as reflective as a mirror but is now replete with graffiti from tourists all the way from the 8th century.
Finally, we came upon the lion’s paw. The head, where the rock is named for, has collapsed since. From here, the ascent grew more laborious as we scaled what seemed to be a never ending set of metal steps. It was nothing though, compared to the slits I found along the rock where early inhabitants of the place must have used as steps going up to an almost vertical rock face.
Huffing and puffing, we eventually reached the apex, a ruin of a mini-city right on top of the rock, complete with water pools and terraces. A three hundred sixty panorama of Sigiriya, carpeted in a thick blanket of trees, surrounded our view. It’s not everyday that you get to see a fortress of this scale sitting several hundreds of feet above a vertical rock.
|THE WATER GARDENS SURROUNDING SIGIRIYA ROCK|
|THERE’S A MINI CITY ON TOP OF THAT ROCK|
|CLIMBING UP TO SIGIRIYA ROCK|
|THE UPPER PART OF THE ROCK WHERE THE LION’S FEET CAN BE FOUND|
|RUINS OF A ONCE GRAND FORTRESS ON TOP OF SIGIRIYA ROCK|
DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE
OPEN HOURS: 7:00 AM TO 5:00 PM • ENTRANCE FEE: 1,150.00 LKR (7.50 USD) • GPS COORDINATES MAP: 7.856754, 80.648882
It took us half the day to explore Sigiriya Rock and after a hefty rice curry for lunch, we immediately proceeded to the Dambulla Cave Temple which was just about half an hour away by car.
A white temple, a golden stupa and a massive golden Buddha statue sitting on top of a gaudily painted temple greeted us at the foot of the Dambulla Rock. The cave temple is located at the zenith of the rock, about 525 feet up. And again, it was another leg-pumping climb through hand-carved rock steps. A fourth of the way, I gazed at the back of the massive Buddha and saw Sigiriya Rock at the far distance.
Eventually, after much stops and having burned all the calories we ate, we arrived at the gate of the Dambulla Cave Temple. We were offered a guide, but we politely declined, saving up our rupees for more important things in life, like food and beer, lol.
Dambulla Cave Temple is said to have been built by King Valagamba of Anuradhapura during the first century B.C. The temple itself is built inside the natural recesses along a massive slab of rock with an open-air colonnade erected much later in 1938. There are five chambers along the rock, the largest of which is 170 feet long and 75 feet wide, its highest point, soaring 23 feet high.
Along these darkened caves dwell thousands of Buddha figures, big and small, and intricate colorful frescoes painted along the walls and ceilings of the rock. The effect is out of this world and very ethereal, especially with the limited illumination coming in from the few lights inside and the main door of the halls. It is one of the most unique Buddhist temples I have ever visited in Asia so far; very much worth the climb.
|THE BASE OF DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE DOESN’T DO JUSTICE TO ITS PINNACLE|
|MORE STAIRS FOR US, GOING UP TO DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE|
|THE WHITE STRUCTURES ARE RELATIVELY RECENT ADDITIONS TO THE CAVE TEMPLE|
|DETAILED LARGER THAN LIFE BUDDHA STATUES AND PAINTINGS INSIDE THE CAVE|
|CEILINGS AND WALLS ARE PEPPERED WITH COLORFUL FRESCOES|
ANCIENT CITY OF POLONNARUWA
OPEN HOURS: 7:30 AM TO 6:00 PM • ENTRANCE FEE: 3,550.00 LRK (24.00 USD) • GPS COORDINATES MAP: 7.941791, 80.998836
Polonnaruwa was quite a drive away from Sigiriya—about two hours, one way—so we dedicated a whole day just to visit it. We set out quite early and arrived around nine in the morning, heading straight to the Polonnaruwa Archeological Museum where most start their tours and purchase their tickets to get an overview of the ancient city.
I could stand, read and admire all the displays in the museum all day, but that was all we ever had at the time, just a single day to explore as much of the ancient city as we could.
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa was established in 993 A.D. by King Vijayabahu I after the destruction of Anuradhapura. The city boasts of excellent irrigation system, which works up to this day, beautiful ancient structures and big-scale Buddhist carvings.
While the ruins, intact temples and religious structures can’t really compare to Angkor Wat, they can definitely stand up on their own, especially the Buddha stone carvings of Gal Vihara which are done on a single massive slab of granite rock, several feet in height and length. It is one of the largest stone sculptures in Asia.
The ruins are close to one another but it would be extremely tiring to visit everything by foot—there are quite a number of sites to visit. The best way to explore the place is by rented car (like we did, via JNW Lanka Tours) or by bicycle, just park it somewhere, explore, ride, park and explore again.
|THE FIRST THING WE SAW AS WE ARRIVED AT POLONNARUWA|
|THE VATADAGE, A CIRCULAR STRUCTURE EIGHTEEN METERS IN DIAMETER|
|ONE OF THE COLOSSAL BUDDHA STATUES OF GAL VIHARA, CARVED ON A SINGLE PIECE OF ROCK|
|RUINS OF THE ROYAL PALACE|
|THE COLOSSAL DAGABA OF RANKOT VIHARA|
Cultural Triangle Tour via JNW Lanka Tours
Address: JNW Building, 67 Maligakanda Road,
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Contact Number: (0094) 777-39683
Book a Tour: Click Here