Further along the heritage travel trail, Josephine Price clambers up to the remains of the ancient Sri Lankan kingdom at Sigiriya
I stand before two gigantic stone lion paws flanking the entrance to the final staircase clambering up the last stretch of rock to the peak of Sigiriya (Lion Rock). Just the paws remain today, but in its glory days this side of the rock was crowned with an enormous lion’s head making up the doorway to the kingdom. Our guide Susantha points up to the red dusty rock and I nod, nervously.
Past the paws and teetering on the edge of the rock are the steel staircases that mark the last ascent and, white-knuckled, I scale them before giving myself time to reassess their shakiness. Monkeys scramble around us as we climb the last step, unveiling the ancient citadel atop the rock. King Kashyapa chose this spot for the seat of his kingdom, which was built between 477 and 496 AD. On the way up I’d thought the location a rather bizarre and impractical choice, but it makes complete sense as I stand on the summit and take in the surrounding majesty.
Dense forest unfurls from the rock like a rich green carpet that cloaks the 360-degree view. Glimmering lakes, white buddhas and golden stupas punctuate the panorama and we strain our eyes to gauge just how far we can see. It’s
stunningly beautiful, and endless.
I step between the stone markers that would’ve been the walls of the former sky palace and its pavilions. Up here, King Kashyapa ruled recklessly, entertained by a harem of hundreds. Despite his unpopularity among his people, his ambition can’t be faulted. It’s a truly wondrous sight.
Heritage tours can sometimes feel like traipsing along well-trodden paths. I’m on a tour of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle of ancient kingdoms — Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa — but the Lion Rock is the crowning glory, providing a refreshing alternative and an evocative glimpse of the past. We join devout locals and the occasional tourist examining impeccably preserved frescoes of Kashyapa’s harem on cave walls along the ascent and visiting remnants of Asia’s first landscaped garden that spread out from its base.
There are some other great stone citadels throughout the world but this feels like relatively unchartered territory. Granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1982, some of it remains untouched since its discovery in 1831, enabling each generation the chance to uncover something new at the romantic ruins. As I scurry down alongside a 79-year-old, bare-footed local woman, I like feel we’re all part of this captivating journey of discovery.