Water Gardens – One of the Most Prominent Wonders of Sri Lanka’s Lion Fortress

Water Gardens – One of the Most Prominent Wonders of Sri Lanka’s “Lion Fortress”

The “Lion Rock” of Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s proudest and most celebrated heritage sites. The ruins of the ancient fortress hewn from a majestic rock face can be seen rising 200 metres above the plains of the island’s north central region. The forbidding edifice appears as a brooding lion sitting proudly on its haunches, a protector poised to subdue and intimidate all approaching foes. This impression is mainly evoked by the great lion paws that are one of the most distinctive features of the fortress that still survives. They flank a grand stone staircase that reaches halfway to the top of the rock.

The brooding ruin shrouded in pale mists was once one of the most stunning royal citadels ever seen in Asia, at the time of its original construction in the 5th century A.D. It very origins involve a historic saga of murder, betrayal and intrigue. Historical records recount that, in 473 A.D, the son of the pious King Dhatusena and a lesser consort, Prince Kashyapa, overthrew his father and had him killed. The rightful heir, Prince Mogallana, fled into exile, swearing to reclaim his kingdom. Fearing his half-brother and his many foes, Kashyapa transferred his seat of rule from Anuradhapura to the more defensive position of Sigiriya. There he had the impregnable palace-fortress of Sigiriya created, modelled upon the mythical accounts of the God of Wealth’s own abode. He is said to have held court here for eighteen years, in a splendid and lavish lifestyle that awed many foreign chroniclers of his time.

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King Kashyapa was eventually betrayed by his army as he set out to meet his brother in a final confrontation, causing him to commit suicide rather than face defeat. However immoral or tragic had been his ascent to power and downfall, it cannot be argued that he was a monarch with the soul of an artist, and that his palace is the single greatest surviving testament to the astounding architectural achievement of ancient Sri Lankan engineers and craftsman. The wonders still surviving within the citadel are many and varied, such as the “Mirror Wall” which still retains the polish reflective surface despite the passing of over 1500 years and the beautiful world-famous frescos depicting what is thought to be a host of goddesses.

Some of the most intriguing architectural features are found in the pleasure gardens of the citadel’s western precinct. Among the myriad of aesthetic water features and pavilions seen here, the water gardens are a veritable wonder of hydraulic design and engineering.

The water gardens comprise three principal gardens. The first and largest of these features an islet surrounded by water; the second, two deep rectangular pools set parallel to one another and the third, a large pool that takes the shape of an octagon with a raised podium set in one corner. All three fall across a symmetrical east-west axis and are fed by a large reservoir, via an underground water conduit that connects to the citadel’s outer moat.

The design the first garden is of great interest to archaeologists and historians. Four causeways flow down from cardinal directions, feeding the pool from the main precinct while the central island appears to have been the base for a summer pavilion. This appears to follow the ancient “char bhag” garden design; predating the water gardens of both the Angkor and Mughal citadels by several centuries, this water garden is one of the oldest surviving examples of this gardening tradition still in existence.

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The two pools of the second garden are paved in marble and fed by winding streams that trickle down into them. Circular fountains made of limestone are set within these streams, whose jets are carried by underground conduits operating in accordance with the laws of pressure and gravity. Shallow cisterns appear to serve a dual use as both water containers and pressure chambers for the fountains. The mechanism of these fountains is still fully functional and can be viewed at their best during the end of year rainy overflows.

This garden is one of the highly-regarded instances of designing ingenuity, as the pools and fountains would have served as aesthetically lovely air coolers for the palace, complete with soothing sound effects. The third garden is set at a higher elevation than the first and second, its pool set at the meeting point between the water and boulder gardens. The podium and ledge creates a bathing pavilion, no doubt enjoyed by the royal household on days of summery heat.