In A Nutshell
The monolithic rock of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (also known as the “Lion Rock”) could just as easily be known as the Rock of Revenge. After assassinating his ruling father, Kasyapa of Ceylon seized the throne in A.D. 477 from the rightful heir, his half-brother Moggallana. Fearing revenge from Moggallana, Kasyapa built a spectacular and supposedly impregnable palace-fortress on top of the Lion Rock, which was surrounded by two moats and became the new capital of the country. Moggallana returned in A.D. 495 to overthrow Kasyapa and restore the capital to Anuradhapura.
The Whole Bushel
A popular tourist attraction of spectacular beauty in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya (also known as the “Lion Rock”) has a short but brutal history of rivalry and revenge. This ancient city was constructed on top of a monolithic rock that soars 200 meters (650 ft) above the ground. It could just as easily be known as the Rock of Revenge.
Possibly as long ago as the third century B.C., it’s believed that Sigiriya was a religious retreat for Buddhist monks. However, Sigiriya’s peaceful atmosphere was shattered briefly in the fifth century A.D. when it became the focal point of a power struggle between the sons of King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura.
The sons, Moggallana and Kasyapa, had two different mothers. Moggallana was born of a fine queen and Kasyapa of a mere consort. In A.D. 477, when Moggallana was named heir to the king’s throne, Kasyapa drove Moggallana into Indian exile and threw his father into prison. Kasyapa threatened his father with death if he didn’t reveal the location of the kingdom’s treasure. However, Dhatusena insisted upon bathing one last time in the renowned Kalawewa Tank before revealing the site of the treasure.
The older man then pulled a fast one on his traitorous son. As Dhatusena stood in the tank, he let the water run through his fingers and told Kasyapa that the water was his sole treasure, a reference to how valuable water was in the kingdom.
Kasyapa didn’t like that answer. So he had his father placed in a chamber, which was walled up to become the older man’s tomb as he was left to die. Moggallana vowed revenge and insisted that he would return from India to claim his rightful place as king of Anuradhapura.
In the meantime, Kasyapa prepared for his half-brother’s attack by building a spectacular and supposedly impregnable palace-fortress on top of the Lion Rock, which was surrounded by thick walls and two moats with crocodiles. Sigiriya was named the new capital of the country. Supposedly, the fortress was constructed in only seven years, ready by A.D. 485 for Moggallana’s expected invasion.
From the ground, a stone staircase led up the monolithic rock. At the halfway point, a pair of huge lion’s paws marked the entrance for the final ascent to Kasyapa’s palace. The head and shoulders of the lion also jutted from the rock, with the entire lion structure about 14 meters (45 ft) high. Visitors would enter through the cat’s open jaws.
But the city wasn’t just a military complex. It was built for beauty and pleasure, too. The upper class of Sigiriya lived in a section of the city with sophisticated urban planning that had canals and terraced gardens. There were also frescoes covering the rock with pictures of beautiful women, known as “The Maidens of the Clouds.” Their identities are unknown, but some archaeologists think they were courtesans of the king.
Kasyapa didn’t get to enjoy his city for too many years. In A.D. 495, Moggallana finally returned with an army of Tamil mercenaries. Foolishly, Kasyapa left his fortress and, riding on an elephant, led his troops to meet Moggallana’s army on the ground below. But the elephant became spooked and bolted. Believing Kasyapa was withdrawing from the battle, his soldiers retreated and left their king to face the invaders alone. Knowing he was defeated, Kasyapa committed suicide by slitting his throat.
Moggallana reclaimed his rightful place as king and restored the capital to Anuradhapura. Once again, Sigiriya was left to the Buddhist monks until they, too, eventually abandoned the complex.