Visiting the UNESCO-listed Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka becomes as much an exercise in people watching as it is a lesson in ancient history. By Donna Lu.

Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya

A tourist explores the summit of Sigiriya,  Sri Lanka.
A tourist explores the summit of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka.
Credit: DONNA LU

Ah, there he is, I think, staring at his smooth ivory belly. There are no monks around, not that it matters; in the stifling midmorning heat, under the broad shade of a leaning tree, here sits the Laughing Buddha – but one who now regrets his diet of rice wine and lazy Susan banquets. The man, a middle-aged Chinese tourist, sits with both the bearing and nonchalance of a manspreader, his black trousers rolled up mid-calf and a tight long-sleeved shirt pulled up above the nipples, airing his corpulent midsection.

We’re walking through the boulder gardens below Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Sri Lanka’s Central province. Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, rises 200 metres above the surrounding jungle and is Sri Lanka’s answer to Uluru. At barely 9.30am, the sun is already high, the air hazy, the trill of cicadas deafening. Perched on various rocks are other tourists fanning themselves vigorously with a combination of guidebooks, entrance tickets and – for the smug – motorised mini-fans with built-in misters.

A translucent Irish couple, ruddy in their faces, ask us for directions. As my partner and friend Annabelle show them the map, I realise they have considered the alternative outcomes of sunburn and heatstroke, and, weighing up their options, opted for the latter: they are wearing thick khaki cargo pants and every practical inch of their bodies is covered.

The locals, of course, are inured to the heat: a busload of sweatless schoolgirls marches past, wearing singlets and jeans under their crisp white dresses, to join the growing crowd bottlenecked at the one-way path towards the top of the rock.

Fortunately we’ve already summitted, a verb that belies the relatively gentle hand-railed steps up to the ruins of a palace atop the peak, built some 1600 years ago by a patricidal monarch. King Kashyapa, so the story goes, had seized power of the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura by killing his father and ascending the throne. Fearing retribution from his brother and the rightful heir, Moggallana, Kashyapa fled to Sigiriya and ordered the construction of an elaborate citadel, where he would stay on and off for the next two decades. His brother’s army later defeated him on the plains surrounding Sigiriya, and Kashyapa was said to have committed suicide on the battlefield.

Below, at ground level, is a series of landscaped gardens, featuring terraces and symmetrical water pools, whose hydraulic pump systems are impressively still functional when they fill with monsoon rain. Thanks to the imperfect English of an explanatory plaque, and in large part to my non-existent spatial visualisation ability, the millennium-defying mechanics are beyond me.

On the rock’s flat summit, the ruins have also fared relatively well over time, with the brick foundations of royal sleeping quarters, terraced gardens and a large pond all clearly discernible to the naive eye. If you ignore the signal towers and roofs dotting the view, it’s not difficult to imagine the palace vistas as they once were: lush scrub, palm trees, flood plains, and the shadows of mountains in the distance. From below, Sinhala music from the site’s ticket office blares up through the haze, punctuated now and then by the tinny rendition of “Für Elise” or “It’s a Small World” playing from choon paans – tuktuks whose drivers cart around, in place of people, baked goods for sale.

Duran Duran fans may recognise Sigiriya from the music video for the ’80s hit “Save a Prayer”, a clip that features labouring Sri Lankan locals as extras and has a cringey homemade-holiday-video vibe. As a synthy guitar solo starts, shaky shots – taken from a helicopter – of two of the band members atop the rock cross-dissolve into each other, alternately nauseating and affording great views of the fortress and the thick surrounding jungle green.

The site was bustling with visitors when we arrived, just after 7am. The heat was already sticky, and by the time we meandered to the summit, up an entranceway flanked by statues of lions’ paws and along a rickety set of steel steps bolted into the rock, we’d collected an even sheen of dirt like a tan. In one photo, looking south towards the distant Knuckles Mountain Range, Annabelle and I grin into the camera, our skin the same shade as the red brick steps we’re sitting on.

The one-way path to the top first takes you up a spiral staircase to a shallow cave, on whose walls are painted frescoes of women with tiny waists and breasts so pert they could be the work of a second-rate plastic surgeon. These women once covered most of the western face of the rock but now only several remain, bejewelled and head-dressed.

As we were up on the landing – only a few people are allowed at once – a heated argument broke out between a young woman and the guards. They demanded her passport and threatened to take her to the local police station. Despite the many signs prohibiting photos, she had wandered along the length of the gallery with her video camera held aloft – no flash photography involved, but an unwise move nonetheless. “We can delete the video,” protested her friend, when the guards asked for the camera.

“You can delete, but you can’t get rid of damage to our images!” one of them shot back.

Among locals guiding puffing tourists by the arm for a fee, stray dogs that have grown fat on the snacks of foreigners, and kids glaring resolutely into DSLRs despite the cajoling of their parents, our experience of the ancient city isn’t transporting so much as resolutely grounded in the present. Watching how fellow visitors commemorate their outing becomes nearly as interesting as the site’s historical significance.

After the climb, in the scattered shade of the boulder gardens, guides-in-waiting call out greetings to me in Mandarin. Gardeners meticulously sweep single leaves off gravel paths as a new wave of hungover Brits in elephant-print pants shuffles past. Suddenly, there’s a squeal, and excited laughter. A monkey has pinched a woman’s broad-brimmed hat, and is playing with it up a tree. The Chinese man gazes over for a second, barely amused, before turning back to his smartphone, which he rests on his bare belly.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2017 as "Summit special".

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Donna Lu is a Brisbane-based writer.

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