Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s ancient water gardens are located at the base of a 200ft ancient rock fortress and former royal palace, which date back to 477 AD. The elaborate palace, and its towering construction on top of the rock, as well as its risqué artwork, resulted in its 1982 listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site. However, its ingenious garden and water systems at the foot of the rock are what make it a national treasure.
The gardens at Sigiriya are not only the best-preserved water gardens in South Asia but are some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. Important guests in the 5th Century would have walked a path, with the impressively designed water gardens on either side serving as a grand entrance to the more than 1,200 steps leading up to the palace.
In his essay Sigiriya: City, Palace and Royal Gardens, Senake Bandaranayake, founding director of archaeology at Sigiriya, explained that the site is a brilliant combination of deliberate symmetry and asymmetry playing on both natural and geometric forms. “The gardens at Sigiriya consist of three distinct but interlinked sections: the symmetrical or geometrically planned water gardens; the asymmetrical or organic cave and boulder garden; and the stepped or terraced garden circling the rock, the (miniature) water garden and the palace gardens on the summit of the rock,” he wrote.
The gardens were artfully designed pools, fountains, streams and platforms that once held pavilions designed for performers. “For comparison, it would have looked similar to a modern luxury resort with beautiful gardens and swimming pools,” said Sumedha Chandradasa, a tour guide lecturer in Sri Lanka for more than 24 years.
Surprisingly, the detailed design of these gardens is not what is most impressive; it’s rather how they work. These water systems are considered an engineering marvel. They use hydraulic power, underground tunnel systems and gravitational force that creates a visually spectacular system of pools and fountains that still function today, almost 1,500 years later.
Although the complex’s origins date to the 5th Century, the story of how it came to be seems more like a modern-day soap opera. Before Sigiriya was built, Sri Lanka’s royal capital was located in Anuradhapura, more than 70km to the north-west. A coup, led by the then King Dhatesena’s son from a non-royal consort, led to his father’s death, and the scheming son, King Kasyapa, taking the throne.
Kasyapa moved the royal capital to Sigiriya, or “Simha-giri” which means “Lion Mountain”, and built a new palace on top of the rock. When approaching the stairs that lead to the palace complex above, you can see why. “The theory is, according to The Ancient Chronicles [Sri Lanka’s historical chronicles], that he built the palace to look like a squatting lion,” explained Jagath Weerasinghe, emeritus professor at the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology and Sigiriya’s current director of archaeology. “The lion paws are the main entrance that takes you to the top of the mountain.”
“In the rainy season, there are clouds that sit on this hill,” said Weerasinghe. (It sounds magical)
“Then, you walk through this garden to a big pond with waves of water coming down from the rock into it and the fountains gushing water”.
Definitely a location to add to your “bucket-list”.