The famed Lion rock or the Demon Rock as immortalized in the “Fountains of Paradise” by Arthur C Clarke, was nowhere to be seen when we alighted from our vehicle. There were only a few shanties glinting in the bright equatorial sunlight and a few shops selling hats to counter the ever-increasing sun. Old men cycled to and fro among the huts, children were playing and a young kitten was soaking in the sun with its mother. There was a lopsided sign, warning us of “Chorous may provoke wasps”.
It was as if somebody had punched out a tube of rock from the surrounding mountains and placed it in the verdant green landscape. No rock was seen in the nearby surrounding, except for the Pidurangala in the distance and the mountains in the horizon miles away. Was it ancient/alien technology or was it the legendary piece of rock that fell from the mountain Hanuman had carried aeons ago? I could only wonder.
Entering the ancient architectural marvel (UNESCO World Heritage site and purported as an Eighth wonder of the world) would require braving lines of tourists, hot sun, an arduous climb and as we painfully realized, a 30 USD hole in your wallet too. However, we could only say that it was worth the money and the money we had given was being put to good use, maintaining the entire premises pollution free and clean.
After the compulsory touristy salutes to the rock (I mean photo sessions), the climb was under way. The walk was about half a kilometer through the pleasure gardens, currently having only well manicured lawns, dried water channels and a few marigolds on the banks of one of the water tanks. The steps in the front were mighty small, fitting only about half of my size 10 feet. As mentioned in the Fountains of Paradise, were they purposely built that way to keep the enemy from charging in or the people at that time were small footed? Again, I could only wonder.
On those above-mentioned stairs.
The steep steps went on for quite sometime, taking our breaths away (we were not in the best of shapes), winding this side and that, ending in a viewing platform about 50m from the landscape.We could see the tops of trees and the tops of the expectant climbing tourists below us. There were quite a few monkeys, accustomed with their hairless cousins of varied shapes and colours, prancing around there. One crafty simian made off with a biscuit packet from the side pocket of my bag, only to be pursued by his perennially hungry friends and family. Judging by the speed of the crafty one, it didn’t seem in the least as friendly.
The next step was a horizontal platform leading to the spiral stairs, which led to the frescoes. Vertigo ridden tourists were keeping their faces straight ahead and were admiring the rock ledges above. The sense of wonder never left me as the structure would have taken years of people hanging in midair to access and build. They only let in batches of people at a time and check their tickets meanwhile and many a horizontally challenged tourist was seen sitting under the workmen’s benches under the stairs. There was some construction work going on there too.
We ascended the iron spiral and wondered at the tourists carrying babies in their bassinets. Under a long rock ledge, apsaras of various colors and facies blessed the ancient king with heavenly blossoms. All of them were uncovered from the waist up (the figures were complete only till mid thigh level) and were abundantly endowed.
Moving on, we could see the next parallel platform below the staircase that was walled off. Along it, an even older and unwalled rickety platform was hanging onto the rock face. Warily, we went there, thanking the department of Archaeology, which made the entire exercise a breeze. Wonder wafted in as a fresh gust of wind, while thinking of the exercise of the painting on the walls.
The next section was named the Mirror wall, as the rock was highly polished and covered with frescoes, once upon a time.The megalomaniac king was supposed to admire himself on the reflections. But wind, water and the sun had polished them into oblivion long ago and what we could see was a really smooth section of a rock ledge that had a walled platform and wide steps to rise into the next part- the Lion’s paw terrace.
An exhausted but exhilarated me, at the Mirror wall. Photo courtesy: Mr Aadarsh Chunkath
Needless to say, my words will not deliver to you the magnificence of the structure standing witness to the hordes of tourists who marvel at it daily. A gigantic lion, like the Sphinx stands guard to a vertical face of rock, about hundred feet high, which led to the great palace of the megalomaniac king. Only the paws and knees are visible, but even those are to strike terror into you as the claws are almost as big as a grown man. Weak hearted enemies would have cowed at the sight of its jaws and ran backwards to their doom.
Photos courtesy: Mr Aadarsh Chunkath
However, we traipsed into the steps and another steep iron stairs built into the haven of the king. On our way up, we could see the footholds carved into the rock that was the way people used to climb it in the previous generations.
Photo courtesy: Mr Aadarsh Chunkath
Vertigo-rending climb over, the foundations of the ancient palace was visible and we quickly clambered up to the top with scarcely caring for the view behind us. After the initial euphoria of the climb died down, the eyes took in as endless expanse of green dotted by a Buddha statue in the distance and the temple complex of Dambulla at the horizon. A ring of mountains was seen on one horizon and many lakes – natural and artificial, also dotted the lands.
People all around us were in various stages of exhaustion and exhilaration – many stopping to catch their breath, few jumping for joy and many were attempting ‘ selfies’ including a father-daughter pair, who were having a particularly difficult time getting it right till few other tourists helped them with a proper portrait. Many video panoramas were also being shot. In general, the mood was sunny and exhaustion-derived joy. Never even in his wildest dreams would King Kassapa I would have wondered that his fortress in the sky would be invaded of hordes of tourists who would leave with memories of exhaustion and innumerable digital imprints of themselves.
Not to forget the main thing that we came to visit, the fortress in the sky, let me take you along to what actually remained of the palace complex. It was in two or three terraced levels, including a big artificial pool of water at the lowest level. The boundary walls are in sync with the edges of the 200-meter drop to certain death. So leaving the boundaries be, we went around the ruins and enjoyed the heady winds which brought many dark clouds from nowhere, reducing the heat and glare and making the lighting very pleasing and conducive to photography.
The gardens as seen from the top.
After the initial calm, a slightly fiercer and consistent wind started blowing with few drops of rain falling from a partly cloudy sky. Skirts were billowing, hats were flying and people were starting to get slightly jumpy. It was an almost magical feeling, and I shot couple of these ladies entranced in the magic.
In a few moments, all the people, save a few adventurous (and amorous) couples were left at the top. We lingered around for a few moments to enjoy the setting and slowly started our way down, thinking and wondering about what human determination could do, now and two thousand years ago. Suffice to say , I had a few moments of piloerection (goosebumps, as all you laymen would call it).
The initial part of the trail down was the iron stairs to the Lion’s paw terrace, more vertigo inducing than the climb up.
Well, the remaining part consisted of few jumps and unstable bursts of running on an inclined plane and we all made it to the foot of the rock in one piece. So there, that’s it and we are back to the bottom and another climb up would cost us foreigners 30 USD. We were hungry and slightly tired to think of such things then.
Our immediate thoughts went to satisfying the needs of our growling gut but we had to move to Pidurangala rock next. So then, the next story will come next week. I am guessing it will be rather short as Pidurangala , though it was a tough climb (considering it was our immediate stop after Sigiriya), it was hardly as picturesque or descriptive, or expensive, for that matter. Stay tuned. Do read “The Fountains of Paradise” in the meantime what greater mortals have described the gargantuan monolith as. As one who has conquered its summit, I’ll say that the book gives the real deal. Adios.