Where is the oldest extant garden complex in the world? To be honest I don’t know – let me know if you do – but today’s post is about what must be one of the contenders for that title. It probably dates from about 1550 years ago – not the 1550 of Tudor England but more than a thousand years before that.
Unsurprisingly the site it forms part of is on the UNESCO World Heritage list but weirdly the gardens aren’t mentioned on UNESCO’s description. I was reminded about it when I was looking through some old photos the other day and memories came flooding back – particularly of the panic of vertigo trying to climb to topmost level .
So where is the garden at Lion Rock?
The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged
As you probably realised I’m talking about Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka, which is regarded by Sri Lankans, and many tourists with some justification as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Although it was the centre of government and court life for a brief period of just 18 years in the 5thc AD since then it has been largely abandoned which might explain its extraordinary state of preservation. The introductory UNESCO descriptions reads: “The ruins of the capital built by the parricidal King Kassapa I (477–95) lie on the steep slopes and at the summit of a granite peak standing some 180m high (the ‘Lion’s Rock’, which dominates the jungle from all sides). A series of galleries and staircases emerging from the mouth of a gigantic lion constructed of bricks and plaster provide access to the site.” But honestly that’s a very bland and bureaucratic account of what must be one of the world’s most extraordinary ancient sites.
As you might expect the story of a site this old is a bit hazy and sounds as if could be the plot of a modern soap-opera. The general consensus is that in 477AD following one of those inter-familial disputes Kassapa one of the many children of the king killed his father and seized the throne from his half brother the rightful heir who fled to India. Fearing revenge, the new king left the traditional capital, Anuradhapura, and moved about 70km further south and further inland fortifying this gigantic outcrop of rock – not that it would have needed much by way of extra defences. In the area round the base of the rock he enclosed a park and had landscaped gardens laid out including a series of water gardens. A settlement also grew up, large parts of which have still not been excavated.
It’s important to realise that, as far we are aware, Sigiriya was never a capital city, or indeed even a normal settlement. There are no temples or other religious sites and no public buildings although of course they may yet be uncovered if the town is ever investigated. Instead the complex is simply a royal pleasure resort. The whole palace and gardens complex, was according to tradition created in just 7 years between 477 and 485 was conceived as a single piece, and its design and construction show extraordinary skills in both engineering and water management. The overall plan is geometric but because of the extraordinary topography and geology the symmetrical features had to be wrapped around the immovable natural features in the centre.
The plan shows the central rock surrounded a roughly elliptical walled inner precinct, [white and pale blue on the plan] and then outside that two further large precincts on the east and on the west side -surrounded by high earth ramparts and a wide moat. Finally encompassing the whole site is another rectangular enclosure again with a moat and ramparts. The whole site is aligned on a single east-west axis. Just outside were a large reservoir [Sigirita vava on the map]and the town.
Let’s take a tour.
The site entrance is on the western edge of the site and the main path leads to a bridge over the the impressive moat, which is thought to once have continued a few crocodiles, and then through two-tiered earth ramparts into the western precinct. This contains the main garden areas which were presumably for the use of the king and his family.
They are divided symmetrically along the axis. The gardens on one side of the pathway have been investigated while the other has been left for future exploration. It allows the visitor the opportunity to see both “before” and “after” excavation and “restoration”.
First there are a series of elaborate “miniature water gardens” They includes a network of cisterns and shallow pools, linked by conduits and water channels each finely paved with quartz pebbles, and which once housed brick and stone pavilions.
They are only miniature in comparison with what lies beyond them: four L-shaped ponds enclosing an island: a quartered garden like the chahar bagh in Persian gardens. Although the central pavilion has long gone, the flights of steps leading to it are still there as are the steps leading down into the water. There are also two smaller versions of the same plan close the the ramparts to the north and south.
From there brick paths lead to a walled and gated enclosure with two more large shallow pools Each of them originally lined with marble and fed by a shallow serpentine and marble lined stream. On the central islands stood pavilions [referred to as called “summer palaces” ] which were reached by bridges cut from the natural underlying rock.
There are also a series of limestone fountains. Each has a circular plate with holes drilled through it. These sit over small containers which as they fill force the water through the plate to create a bubbling effect.
Until recently the appearance of these water gardens depended very much on the time of year and how much rain has fallen. In the dry season visitors used to report they looked somewhat underwhelming, [although like parch marks in Britain good for seeing the underlying structure] but that was largely because the ancient. water management system hadn’t been respaired. Today, as in Kassapa’s day, normally the water flows in abundance, and pools, stream and fountains are all full.
Sri Lanka is dotted with thousands of man-made reservoirs, known locally as tanks or vavas. Many of them are of ancient origin – the earliest around 2000 years old – and were needed because most of the islands major population centres were in the dry plains of the North which suffered from long periods of drought alternating with brief monsoons. To provide a regular supply of water for agriculture, particularly for rice cultivation, huge networks of tanks were built, storing water until it was needed and then releasing it through sluices into irrigation canals and channels. In this way it was even possible to obtain a double crop of rice each year. Much of this network is still extant and working today.
At Sigiriya there is a vast tank near the site which stands on slightly higher ground than the gardens and so it can supply water under gravitational pressure, and it’s this part of the system that has been restored to provide much of the water for the ponds and fountains. Additional water comes from a series of smaller ponds cut into the plateau on top of the rock of the rock, which is collected during the monsoons and the overflow collected in underground cisterns where it cannot evaporate in the heat, before being channelled into the gardens as and when required. According to the site’s director of archaeology. The whole system ” involves the knitting together of a number of hydraulic structures of varied scale and character in a single intricate network – a complex masterpiece of irrigation engineering design,”
The geometry and symmetry of the water gardens gives way to a much more informal setting as the visitor gets closer to the rock itself. The terrain rises and become much more uneven with huge boulders littering the ground Here the ground been formed into a series of terraces that lead up to the rock foot, and this is where the designer’s ingenuity comes into full play.
Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to alter the natural topography the boulders have been made part of the planned landscape. There are winding paths laid out between them, under natural arches and through tight defiles while other areas have been cleared to form “courtyards” .
Some boulders have been incorporated into brick walls while many others were used as the platform for buildings, with grooves and footings cut into their surfaces to take brick foundations for wooden platforms and pavilions. While the pavilions and even the brickwork have long gone the cuts remain clearly visible. There is even some rock-cut “thrones”.
Other boulders had caves or hollows underneath them and had probably been “occupied” in pre-Kassapa times since there are Buddhist inscriptions dating back back to the 2nd cBCE. It’s thought they were “gentrified” under King Kassapa and became much more luxurious spaces complete with wall paintings, although only traces of these now remain.
The whole feel is shady and very intimate as well as being integrated into the natural landscape.
Flights of steps lead from here through a serpentined walled walkway up to a more level platform at the base of the rock. Here the visitor is confronted with another extraordinary sight: a pair of giant paws each twice human height.
They are all that remains of a massive brick lion that rose about 14m [46ft] up the rock face and which once guarded the entrance to the vertiginous staircase that leads part of the way to the citadel on the very summit. If it’s impressive now what must its have been like for the visitor then? It was this lion that gave the site its name since Sigiriya comes from the Sinhalese word Sihagri, meaning Lion Rock.
Looking up at the almost sheer face of the rock it is hard to believe that much of this western side was once painted white. A drip-line was carved high on the rock wall to divert water away from an area 140m long and 40 m deep which was then covered in paintings of figures of women carrying flowers.
Thought to have numbered at least 500, 21 of them survive in a hollow on the rock face about 100m above the ground, which have been protected from the weather and graffiti-scratching visitors. Traces of a few more were discovered in 2004 during restoration work. It must have been an amazing sight seen from afar, and, from the ground, would have made the citadel look as if was floating on clouds.
Also on the way up is a mirror wall – but not of glass. Instead it was made from a highly polished plaster, made by mixing beeswax, honey and egg white into the lime. Sadly it is now disfigured by graffiti.
Climbing the narrow metal stairway which clings precariously to the rock wall is a hair raising experience! But there are compensatory views on the way up.
The top of the rock itself is fairly level and stretches to well over 3 acres. Here Kassapa built his palace, mainly from brick. The logistics of how that was done are mind-boggling t0 put it mildly.
The design is ingenious using every available space, constructing terraces, largely brick built or faced with stone connected by flights of steps and paved paths.
But there were also ornamental ponds and cisterns cut into the natural rock and lined with brick and plaster which were filled by yet more sophisticated water collection and drainage systems. These not only stored water but probably were used for bathing.
The fortress is impregnable. The only other site I can think of that bears any resemblance is Masada but there there was, despite the verticality of the rock itself, a single weakness which the Romans exploited to wipe out the defenders.
Sigiriya has absolutely no weak entry points so why, when the rightful heir turned up with his army, didn’t Kassapa simply retreat to the top and wait for them to get bored and go away?
The answer is simple. While the rock would indeed be unconquerable by military force it is strategically extremely vulnerable. As at Masada its defenders could not be reinforced and could not get supplies in. They may have been able to save enough water but they’d eventually have run out of food. Rather than starve to death Kassapa apparently came down and led his army into battle mounted on his elephant. Unfortunately the poor beast took fright at something and bolted. Thinking that the king was fleeing the battlefield his army also ran, so faced with capture Kassapa is supposed to have committed suicide.
The new king returned to the former capital and gave Sigiriya and its gardens, still less than 20 years old, to Buddhist monks. Hundreds of graffiti some as early as the 7thc, record that visitors still came to the site, although they were just as uncivilised as the modern tourist. Finally, however the monks left, and the site was finally completely abandoned to the jungle and largely forgotten.
In the early 19th century after Ceylon as it was then known was conquered by the British the remains of Sigiriya were “rediscovered” and then explored by Major Jonathan Forbes. who wrote about in his memoirs “Eleven Years in Ceylon“.
Excavations didn’t start started until 1894, and then after independence the first Sri Lankan archaeological commissioner, Senarath Paranavitana, resumed working in a series of phases which lasted right up until 1971. More work commenced in the 1980s but unfortunately as far as I can see has hardly been written up. However All this has led to a large number of theoretical, and often rather fanciful reconstructions…as you can see some more fanciful than others.
Much of the site still remains to be investigated. including the whole eastern precinct and the remains of the adjoining urban settlement. In conservation terms, it has been decided that it is kassapa’s palace and gardens which will be the focus of the site, with any earlier or later interventions investigated, recorded and then unless very significant covered over again. There will be no attempt at present to attempt to introduce any idea of the original planting, since there is no idea of what this might have included, but unless they are causing major damage the trees and shrubs which have made their homes on the site will be left.
Like Richard III and Nero Kassapa has acquired a reputation based on the history written by those who overthrew them . One thing is for certain though he, and his engineers and architects, created a monument and gardens that leaves the visitor open-mouthed with admiration for their ingenuity, skill and sheer determination. If you ever get the chance to go then grab it – and the handrail … and don’t look down!
Thank you for your wonderful stories Dr David Marsh! A few hours ago I was googling the history of sweet peas,and came across your amazing blog by serendipity. Then I read your stories about gladi-mania ,Hyacinths and roses and vicars in one breath LOL…
Not long ago, I was interested in scented violets, and read a brief history of Parma Vilolet [History and Cultivation of Parma Violets (Viola, Violaceae) in the United Kingdom and France in the Nineteenth Century]. I also hunted for the horticultural history of Viola odorata, but ended fruitless. So, I’d try my luck to see if you happened to have a story of it. Any way, I’m really appreciated for all the stories you have shared.
Thank you for your nice comments. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the posts about flowers…and sorry I havent got round to doing violets yet. Maybe one day!! And of course don’t forget to sign up to get the blog delivered to your inbox before UK breakfast time every Saturday morning David