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Sigiriya and Kaudulla: A Perfect Day in Sri Lanka
In recent years I have had the opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka several times and go much deeper into this little island that I stepped on for the first time in 2014, on a trip that was characterized by the rugged (since my health did not go through a good time).
These successive visits have allowed me to forge a more informed opinion, reaffirm some of my first impressions and change others. I also now have a better idea of my favorite places on the island: Sigiriya and the National Park of Kaudulla.
Both places are very close to each other, so they can be enjoyed fully on the same day. For me, it was the most perfect and complete day that can be lived on a trip to Sri Lanka. So let's start our journey:
Sigiriya and the "Lion's Rock"
The Rock of Sigiriya is a huge rock surrounded by a vast plain, in the district of Matale (Central province of Sri Lanka). For those who have an interest in Geology, the rock is a volcanic neck that formed after the eruption of an extinct volcano; but in my opinion, this is the least interesting: what is really beautiful is the history of the fortress that rises on its peak.
A long time ago, particularly in the fifth century AD, a prince named Kashyapa lived in Sri Lanka. Kashyapa was the son of King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura and had a younger brother named Moggallana, who was the son of the royal consort and the rightful heir to the throne, while Kashyapa, despite being older, was the son of a commoner consort (was born to a non-royal concubine).
Apparently, Kashyapa was not very happy with this situation, so taking advantage of the disagreements between his father and an army commander, he rebelled against Dhatusena and overthrew him into a prison, and according to legend, he killed him by entombing him alive. Moggallana, knowing that his brother would not stop until he killed him too, fled to the south of India, not without first swearing revenge.
After proclaiming himself king, and to protect himself from possible threats (the main one, his own brother) Kashyapa moved the capital to the most impregnable place on the island: the rock of Sigiriya. With its 200 meters height (370 above sea level), the rock offered a huge strategic advantage, both because of the difficulty of attacking it and because of the control from the top of the surrounding plain, losing the views on the horizon. Around it, he built a large system of walls and moats, as well as gardens, fountains and swimming pools, fed by a complex underground irrigation system that still works today.
None of this served Kashyapa. Six years later, Moggallana returned accompanied by an army of Tamil mercenaries and defeated his brother (who once had a bad idea of going down from the fortress). To avoid being captured, Kashyapa committed suicide with his own sword.
Could be a sad ending, depending on whom you side. But whoever the architect was, he sure did an amazing job. What we see today, is one of the most impressive places in Sri Lanka. So, after overthrowing his brother, Moggallana returned the capital to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya was relegated to monastic functions (until the thirteenth or fourteenth century) and later, to oblivion.
It was not until 1831 when Jonathan Forbes, commander of the British army, "rediscovered" Sigiriya. The rock was the object of small archaeological explorations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but the works were not really taken seriously until 1982, within the project of the "Cultural Triangle" directed by the Government of Sri Lanka. The result we can enjoy today.
I personally recommend visiting Sigiriya very early in the morning, since climbing its 1,231 steps can be hard. It is bearable if done before noon. One could enjoy their entire day exploring the gardens and buildings that surround the rock. The views are truly amazing.
It is worth noting, in the first place, the cave that homes the so-called "Maidens of Sigiriya": some frescoes that represent several women with bare chests and carrying offerings, in which some scholars want to see apsaras (nymphs of the Hindu mythology), while others maintain that they are ladies on a religious pilgrimage. Whatever they are, the paintings present a work of color and exquisite volume. A few years ago it was possible to photograph them but now they don't allow it.
Second, after going through the "wall of the mirror" (a wall whose perfectly polished surface is preserved with poems, signatures and other writings made by former "visitors", some of the eighth century!), you get to the "door". Formerly this door was flanked by the figure of a huge lion (hence the name of the rock) of which unfortunately there are only the claws, but just consider the size of these to get an idea of the grand entrance during its time.
And finally, the top, where the remains of the fortress-palace are located. Although only ruins remain, the layout of the walls and pools makes it possible to imagine with great precision the arrangement of different rooms. However, this is not what most attracts attention, but rather it's the impressive views. It may not have been the most accessible or comfortable place to live, but undoubtedly, from up there it is easy to feel like the king of the world.
National Park of Kaudulla
By sticking to the basics and starting early in the morning, it is easy to finish the tour of Sigiriya before noon. After making a brief stop to eat at one of the restaurants surrounding the "Lion's Rock", I recommend taking a car to the National Park of Kaudulla, which for me is the best place in Sri Lanka to see the elephants, freely.
Others are more famous, such as Yala or Minneriya. After several visits, I can only say that Yala has always been somewhat disappointing: there are so many species of animals, but so far I have only seen some deer here, a small crocodile there and as for the number of elephants, I have never crossed more than 20-25 in one view. Some say that Yala is the place to go to see leopards, but I've never had that luck too.
As for Minneriya, it is very close to Kaudulla, so you can choose one or the other depending on where the elephants are that day (your guide or driver can tell you). As my best experiences have always been in Kaudulla, it is the one I recommend.
I have visited Kaudulla at different times of the year, both in the rainy season and in the dry season, and it has always been an experience that has exceeded all my expectations. Although I already know what I'm going to see, it never ceases to amaze me. I do not know the precise number of elephants that may be there in the area, but in "safari" (I hate this name, but it is the most common for us to understand) of about four hours, I have never seen less than two hundred.
Dozens and dozens of elephants everywhere, eating grass, bathing in the lake, fighting among themselves, taking care of their young ... It's impressive. The only advice I can give is that you do not ride into them and that see that your driver does not get too close to the herds to avoid causing unnecessary problems. The National Parks of Sri Lanka offer the possibility of sighting these animals in full freedom without causing them harm: make your call wisely.
Apart from the animals, the safari in Kaudulla is fun in itself. The land view is wonderful, and if you walk on foot, the driver will not hesitate to drive slowly with you, turning the ride into a "rally" that can end (as it happened to me once) with the jeep stuck in a huge mud, which had to be pulled out using several vehicles. There is nothing wrong with walking, but I strongly suggest to always stay away from the elephants.
Little can I add, rather than repeat what I have already said: for me, the day in Sigiriya and Kaudulla is the most complete and beautiful of any travel to Sri Lanka. It has everything: History, legend, archaeology, nature, etc. Difficult to forget, and therefore a must see!