Take a Stroll in the Mesmerizing Gardens of an Ancient Fortress

Towering over the jungles of the central plains of Sri Lanka, the Sigiriya rock fortress has long captured the attention of history enthusiasts and travellers from across the world, thanks to its intriguing past. The place abounds with mystery and showcases the great mastery of the architects of old. Built during the reign of the legendary King Kashyapa I in the 5 th Century AD, the complex is an eclectic mix of symmetrical and asymmetrical features which parallel other historical monuments from around the world. Many archaeologists and historians have documented stories, theories and evidence behind its creation, some of the more popular are by Prof. Senake Bandaranayake and Dr. Senarat Paranavitana.

The Water Gardens

As you cross the bridge that serves as the only entrance through the surrounding moat, you are greeted with one of the finest preserved works of garden architecture in Asia, if not the world. Built by the king as his personal pleasure area, the Water Gardens are divided into three distinct symmetrical gardens adorned with bathing pools, ponds and fountains that still function, baffling many an engineer.

The first garden consists of a central island that is surrounded by water. The water that fills this pool is still drawn from ingenious underwater conduits designed by the ancient builders to link to the main water bodies in the area. Being the largest garden, when compared to the other two, it was designed as an exclusive bathing place for King Kashyapa’s concubines. Its significance is depicted in the form of the enclosed wall structures, which have a stark resemblance to that of a ‘gopuram’ or ornate structure seen in Hindu places of worship.

Upon walking a little further towards the main Lion staircase, you will come across another garden with distinctive features. Built on a slight elevation in comparison to the first garden, the second garden consists of serpentine ‘streams’ laden with marble slabs draining into large pools. Come the rainy season, these serpentine streams turn into fountains that shoot up small volumes of water. This is made possible due to the streams being punctuated with circular limestone plates fed by underwater conduits operating on the simple principle of gravity and pressure. On the second level of the gardens lies a sole limestone throne, from where the ancient royals could witness the displays of this ‘Fountain Garden’.

The closer you get to the main bastion of the Lion Rock; you will find yourself slowly moving into an elevated space and on to another garden, where several terraces and halls once existed. Although quite similar in layout to the first garden, this space is adorned with a unique octagonal pond. Accentuating this feature are L-shaped pools that lie on either side of the entrances. The unique design of this garden makes it the perfect entrance to the inner citadel and the Boulder Gardens.

The Boulder Gardens

While the Water Gardens are a testament to ancient symmetrical planning, the Boulder Gardens are its opposite, in that they incorporate asymmetrical features. The asymmetry of the design successfully shows the skill and innovation of the ancient craftsmen, who used their natural surroundings as the foundations to create great works of art.
The legendary King Kashyapa built these gardens as a place of solitude, away from his advisors, and away from all the politics. They prove to be the only gardens in the whole of Asia, and possibly the world, to be devoted for rest and relaxation. Taking inspiration from the ancient monastic architecture of the country known as ‘giris’, these naturally formed rocks have distinct grooves that look like steps, drains and intriguing honeycomb-like patterns. These unique patterns were once the foundations of timbered structures and pavilions that housed several of the king’s followers. Aptly named rocks like the ‘Preaching Rock’ and the ‘Cobra Hood Cave’ are a testament to the purpose of the ancient gardens. The ‘Cobra Hood Cave’ in particular is one such unique garden feature that was fashioned by the monks that lived before the king took over Sigiriya.

In addition to being a place of peace and solitude, the Boulder Gardens functioned as an amphitheatre, in support of live theatre, which was flourishing in the Anuradhapura Kingdom at the time. Named the ‘Audience Hall Rock’, it was here that the king and his loyalists would sit down and revel in the plays and dances that were abundant during the period and still form a major part of Sri Lankan culture.

Foundations of water features that run parallel to the Water Gardens can still be found in the Boulder Gardens, and are further accentuated by the great Lion staircase that runs parallel to the rock formations.

The Terrace Gardens

King Kashyapa was a man who was very particular regarding what he wanted people to see when they climbed to the summit of Sigiriya, and this is most apparent in the Terrace Gardens built at the base of the rock. Following the Lion staircase, the visitor’s attention is occupied with exotic plants adorning the walkways, making the climb to the summit one of kaleidoscopic colour.

What makes this feature all the more intriguing is the fact that water control systems on certain terraces were built to nourish the plants constantly with fresh water, similar to the methods used by the ancient Incans of Mesoamerica to cultivate their paddy, except that this was implemented centuries before the Incans implemented their cultivation process. Climbing up through the Lion staircase and reaching the Lions’ paws, you would have an almost eagle eye view of the architectural wonders designed and constructed by the gifted craftsmen of ancient Sri Lanka.

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