This region of northern Sri Lanka is known as the Ancient Cities Region. The whole area, from Kandy all the way up to Pollunuworra on the northeastern coast is littered with ancient ruins that have survived the centuries better than many other places on earth. Many small kingdoms existed across this northern swathe of Sri Lanka, leaving a rich a fascinating variety of historical and physical remnants behind. Sigiriya Rock is one such remnant that is perhaps a physical presence as much as historical one.
The Rock of which the name speaks is, in fact, a 370 meter high square volcanic plug that rises steeply up from the flat forested plain. Sometime after the area became inhabited, the rock was scaled by humans and eventually built upon for defensive purposes. All across the site and emanating from the front approach to the fort are the constructed walkways and moats designed to expand this achievement into a wider power-base. Visits from the front approach are treated to the odd fusion of the neat, English manor-house style approach with asymmetrical lawn, walkways and verandahs flanked with trees and square ponds. However, the focus of this architechtural foreplay is not a fine example of late Georgian architecture, but what looks like a giant square dumpling the size of the London Eye, upon which you can faintly make out monkeys chasing each other and scaring tourists.
This physical presence of this gigantic, natural fortress is not the sole attraction of Sigiriya Rock. Within this immense stone blob, with its crumbling grounds and overgrown surroundings is a set of ancient rock paintings that are one of the finest examples of Buddhist cave paintings this side of…well, Dambulla, I would guess. The lovely lady depicted on the wall of one of the caves halfway up the side is believed to be one of the various resident monarchs’ harem, although no-one is quite sure. A certain mystery surrounds these precariously-placed paintings, halfway up a vertical cliff face. Where many of the paintings we saw over those days in the Hill Country were of a different, more iconographical style, these paintings posessed an undeniable beauty and delicacy that was only enhanced by the subject herself.
Further up the metal ladder (that I would imagine wasn’t present when it was first scaled), is a plateau neatly set out from the side of the plug where the dainty wives can sit and wait and fan themselves with their pink sarees while their husbands gamely stride up the last section and flap their hankies at themselves in the thick heat.
Lagging behind the day-trippers, we continued up the ladders and past a pair of giant, stone clawed lion’s feet that sit at the base of the final section for some bizarre reason. I wonder if it’s another Buddha thing going on that no-one’s really explained to us, but I’m just as tempted to believe that no-one’s actually thought to ask yet and assumed, like I have, that it was something to do with the religious connotations of this place.
It is also here that the small mystery of how the fort was first built is finally solved. Up the sides of this plug have been gouged ladders or hand-holds, like vertical train tracks or ladders on a Donkey Kong level, linking ledges and outcrops with one another and providing a way up, albeit a precarious and lethal one. No doubt these meter-wide indentations in the rock face were carved one-by-one and without the aid of scaffolds, merely standing on the one before. How, then, the entire landscaping of the summit was done is anyone’s guess; mine would involve liberal amounts of elbow grease with ample workplace death featuring somewhere. The entire topside area is covered in staircases and walkways, rainwater tanks and stepped Incan-style pyramids all reinforced with earthy redbrick that are too heavily used for whoever wanted it built not to have had an easy and cheap way of hauling them up there.
The view at the top was something special. It was a humid and overcast day in which the moody grey-white sky hung still over our heads like a low cellar ceiling; the pastel-smeared layer above looks dense enough to chew and through the thick air, gives the illusion of solidity. Beneath our feet and beyond the token rusty railing, the northern Hill Country spikes away from us to the south, stretching up to the horizon in fading silhouette cones. All around us, the stand-alone peaks and dappled landscape is coated with a thick, almost fluffy green fuzz of trees as the virgin forest spreads away from us, across the government-protected national parks and away towards an infinite horizon.
That night, I wrote my diary by the light of my blue head-torch, sat inside my mosquito net in a pitch-black room. We had checked into the Oliver Inn, Kurunegala, the best-sounding guesthouse we could find in the guidebook. In hindsight I suspect the management has changed since its publication. Our room was a grey, windowless, concrete box-room with walls stained with damp and rime; the bare light fitting hung over our grey-stained mattress and the heavy, smelly pillows with the strange, lightly-spattered bloodstains on. In the bathroom, our bath mat was the foot-well mat taken from the passenger seat of a car and the bin had a handful of used condoms in it. On two sides of our room, heavy, bolted iron hatches led off to other rooms- the bolts had been painted shut many times. It felt more like a dingy, nuclear-bunker themed brothel than a guesthouse. Perhaps it was.
The place seemed to offer a strange continuity of mental outlook. On our journey there I saw a dead man laid out in his yard out of the side of our bus. He was splayed out on the garden path outside a house; one arm spread out to his side, palms open, the other folded over his chest, as if he lay just where he’d fell. His mouth was toothless and open, his grey face was unshaven and his shirt lay open to reveal his grubby vest and xylophone ribcage. Down the path at the gate, a man stood, facing away toward the road, cigarette in hand. He had a vacant look on his face, like he’d lit it five minutes ago and not smoked any yet, waiting for someone to take his relative away.