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Sigiriya

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Rising nearly 200 metres from the ancient royal city of Sigiriya, near Dambulla in Central Province, is the mighty bulk of “Lion Rock”, or Sigiriya Fortress, the 5th century fortress-palace of King Kassapa I, the usurper king who rightfully feared reprisal for his bloody political intrigue and dark deeds. He held out on his mountaintop position for nearly two decades, before being defeated and (somehow) dramatically decapitating himself. The broad, 4-acre site on the summit exhibits the fascinating remains of a wonderful example of early urban planning, with a royal park, a water catchment reservoir hewn out of solid rock, still-viable hydraulic systems, and of course imposing military fortifications, including vertiginous cliffside lookout positions, where anyone nodding off on their watch would have paid a heavy price. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the most-visited tourist site in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Fortress can be visited via 1,200 steps up a dauntingly frail-looking metal staircase winding up the side of the rock, with some priceless things to see along the way. On a small ledge halfway up is a gateway in the form of a huge lion, from which the rock gets its name, the path leading between its mighty paws. Most of the rock would have been once covered in frescoes executed in a style of painting unique to the site, many of which are now lost. Still surviving is a group of beautiful rock paintings, housed in an inaccessible alcove halfway up the western face, known as “The Maidens of the Clouds”: a group of 21 seductive female figures. There are important inscriptions on the walls, including some of the most ancient Sinhalese texts. The remains of Sigiriya city at the foot of the rock contain some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, with the Water Gardens in majestic symmetrically-ascending terraces, moats, and a royal summer palace. Sigiriya is not to be missed, and the climb to the top is worth the terror.

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