Top choice in Sigiriya

Halfway up the Sigiriya rock an open-air spiral stairway leads to a long, sheltered gallery in the sheer rock face. The paintings of the buxom, wasp-waisted women are popularly believed to represent either apsaras (celestial nymphs) or King Kasyapa’s concubines. Protected from the sun in the sheltered gallery, the frescoes remain in remarkably good condition, their colours still glowing.

Modern theory suggests the female forms represent aspects of Tara – a bodhisattva and one of the most important figures in Tantric Buddhism. They are similar in style to the rock paintings at Ajanta in India, but have a specific character in their classical realist style. No one knows the exact dates of the impressive frescoes, though it’s unlikely they date as far back as the 5th century (when King Kasyapa reigned).

The paintings are at their best in the late-afternoon light. Photos are not allowed.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Sigiriya attractions

1. Mirror Wall

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Beyond the Sigiriya frescoes, the path clings to the sheer side of the rock and is protected on the outside by a 3m-high wall. This wall (not the actual…

2. Summit

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The spectacular terraced summit of the rock covers 1.6 hectares. This is thought to be the site chosen by King Kasyapa for his fortified capital after he…

3. Sigiriya

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Rising dramatically from the central plains, the enigmatic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka's single most dramatic sight. A set of near…

4. Lion’s Paws

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At the northern end of the rock, a narrow pathway emerges on to the large platform from which the site derives its name – Sigiriya (from sinha-giri) means…

5. Boulder Gardens

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At the base of the Sgiriya rock and most easily seen after a visit to the summit, this collection of natural boulders once formed the bases of monastery…

6. Cobra Hood Cave


This rocky projection down in the Boulder Garden earned its name because the overhang resembles a fully opened cobra’s hood. The plastered interior of the…

7. Royal Gardens

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The base of the Sigiriya rock is a beautifully landscaped area dotted with formal water features, terraced gardens and natural boulders that were once…

8. Water Gardens


As you walk from the Sigiriya main entrance to the rock itself you pass a series of charming symmetrical water gardens, including curved tanks, bathing…