April 2018


Sigiriya and Pidurangala in Each Other's Shadows
April 2018




Sigiriya, as seen when looking south from Pidurangala

Two mountains in the north-central plains of Sri Lanka, less than a kilometre apart, and almost identical in height; one home to a fifth century rebel king, the other to the priests who outlived him and his kingdom. Sigiriya is definitely one of Sri Lanka's most famous attractions, receiving tens of thousands of visitors a year. Pidurangala rarely makes most tourist itineraries. But no climb
of Sigiriya can be complete without climbing its northern brother.


Words and Photography: David Blacker


Sigiriya and Pidurangala lie between Dambulla and Habarana, at the very heart of the Cultural Triangle. Both rock formations, each rising approximately 200m above the plains, are magma plugs. Being much harder than the surrounding rock they had pushed through, erosion eventually left Sigiriya and Pidurangala exposed.


While Sigiriya has sheer vertical sides and a flat top, Pidurangala looks like a mountain that has had its top sheared off by a giant sword, leaving an angled dinner plate about two and a half times the area of Sigiriya.


Although evidence of habitation as old as the Mesolithic Period has been discovered, it is believed that Sigiriya first became a place of Buddhist meditation around the third century BC. If manmade structures from that time existed on or around Sigiriya, they were replaced in the fifth century AD by King Kashyapa I when he made the mountain the centre of his capital.


Kashyapa, oldest son of King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura, was not heir to his father's throne. His mother had been a mere concubine. In 473, however, Kashyapa imprisoned his father in a coup and seized the throne, usurping it from his younger half-brother Moggallana, who was the rightful heir by dint of his royal mother. Moggallana fled to India, and Kashyapa, fearful of attack, moved the capital from Anuradhapura to the more defensible Sigiriya.

Pidurangala looks like a mountain that has had its top sheared off by a giant sword, leaving an angled dinner plate about two and a half times the area of Sigiriya. While Sigiriya has sheer vertical sides and a flat top.


The monks in residence on Sigiriya were moved forthwith to Pidurangala, 800m to the north, and a new temple, the Pidurangala Viharaya, was built for them by Kashyapa. The new capital spread out around Sigiriya, consisting of outer and inner cities, extensive water gardens, and the whole irrigated by a reservoir created in the shadow of the rock. The top of the mountain was ingeniously carved into a series of terraces on which a palace was built; the summit accessed by vertiginous walkways and stairs cut into the steep sides of the rock.


Kashyapa I's reign, however, lasted just over 20 years. In 495, Moggallana returned to Lanka commanding an army, tempted Kashyapa out onto the open plains, and defeated his forces. The vanquished king fell on his sword and Moggallana took the throne, moving the capital back to Anuradhapura.


Sigiriya was left once more to the Buddhist monks, who occupied it until the 14th century, after which it was abandoned for 500 years. It served occasionally as an outpost for the Kandyan Kingdom in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was rediscovered by chance in 1831, by Maj Jonathan Forbes of the 78th Highlanders, shortly after Britain had conquered the whole island.


Today, Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its frescoes and ruins, but Pidurangala is largely overlooked. The ruins of its viharaya, at the base of the mountain, are believed to be the site of Kashyapa's cremation, and just below the summit is a beautiful 12.5m reclining Buddha, once the largest brick Buddha statue in the world.

Fittingly, the summit of Sigiriya is dominated by its brick and stone ruins, the visitor treated to the experience of walking through a magnificent palace seemingly on the top of the world.


Climbing the mountains provides the visitor with two differing experiences. While both are of approximate height, Sigiriya's ascent is mostly along stone and steel walkways and steps; easy going for anyone capable of climbing stairs. Pidurangala, however, is a much tougher proposition. The climb is partly along rocky time-worn steps, culminating in a precarious scramble over rocks and huge boulders along a narrow crevice that is the only avenue past the overhanging lip of its flat top. A reasonable level of fitness and agility is needed to tackle Pidurangala.


In a similar contrast, every step along Sigiriya's dizzying sides provide spectacular views of the surrounding terrain, while Pidurangala shrouds its flanks in thick jungle, keeping the panorama only for those brave enough to reach the very top.


Fittingly, the summit of Sigiriya is dominated by its brick and stone ruins, the visitor treated to the experience of walking through a magnificent palace seemingly on the top of the world. The scenery that tore gasps of wonder from climbers now takes second place to man's architecture. On Pidurangala, it is the view that dominates in all directions, and that view is itself dominated by Sigiriya, at its most lovely when bathed in the light of the rising or setting sun.

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    Pidurangala, as seen from Sigiriya, with the Lion’s Paw Terrace directly below

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    The last leg of the climb takes visitors from the Lion Paw Gate to the top of Sigiriya

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    Visitors climb through the Lion’s Paw Gate located two-thirds of the way up Sigiriya

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    A stylised comparison of Pidurarangala and Sigiriya

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    Last bit of the Pidurangala climb is the toughest, over large steep boulders

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    The stone steps of Pidurangala are often in varying heights

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    The 12.5m Samadhi (reclining) Buddha just below the top of Pidurangala dates to the 10th century

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    Sigiriya’s famous rock cut pool

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    The tree-covered peak of Pidurangala is believed to hide the ruins of a small stupa. Geometric lines cut into the rock’s surface give no clue to their origins

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