After climbing the 3,750-odd steps to see the mountain-top Jain temple complex in Palitana, India, I was hoping that would be the last of the ‘stairway to heaven’ adventures for us. That hope extended to Sigiriya, a place in Sri Lanka’s central “Cultural Triangle” that we had read about in Lonely Planet. It’s a 660 foot granite monolith that rises up from the jungle. A king of Ceylon had made the area his capital in the 5th century and built his palace on the top of the monolith. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is called the Eighth Wonder of the World.
There were all sorts of red flags we saw, as in “Don’t go if you’re afraid of heights! Or if you’re afraid of wasps or crowds or sunstroke.” There was another red flag when we learned we were there during the full moon festival and a 3-day holiday weekend. That meant the place was crawling with hordes of people and most of them would be making the Masada-like ascent in the morning’s shade. In an effort to avoid the mob scene, we reversed the order of our day and planned to visit the site around 4 pm, when we could survey how much of the pillar was still in the sun, and how much of the holiday crowd was still trying to make the climb.
I had just about convinced myself that, at least for me, Sigiriya was too hard, too hot and too dangerous. And I hate wasps. I was worried that if I tried the climb I would end up on someone’s endangered list. “It says in the book that there’s a lovely garden at the base of the rock. How about we just go there for a few hours instead of doing the climb?” I ventured. David agreed so fast that I could tell that without any prompting from me, he had arrived at the same conclusion.
As we entered the site, the monolith towered over us, baking in the scorching afternoon sunlight. The garden, looking cool and green in the dappled shade, was up a short flight of stairs. Ahead were a series of steep, long flights of steps rising to the base of a rickety circular staircase fastened to the side of the sheer rock wall. There was a large sign advising people to keep their voices low so as not to disturb the wasps but no one else paid any attention to the sign. The sign also warned that we should stand still and not run if attacked by a swarm of wasps.
We stood for a few moments in the shade, catching our breath, watching people begin the ascent. People carrying infants walked past us, small children literally skipped past us, and several old women in sarees seemed to float past us. Embarrassed to watch these people do something we were about to back out of, we ventured up several more flights and found ourselves at the base of the rickety spiral staircase. “What’s up there,” we asked the guard who stamped our passes. “Painted caves. Very beautiful.” The crowd around us surged forward and next thing we knew we were trudging up the stairs. “Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down,” was my mantra. I did actually look down once. The view was stupendous and terrifying.
We arrived at a wide open area and faced the final stage of the climb, up through the “Lion’s Paw Gate”. “How much farther could it be?” I asked David, adding with great hope, “In fact, I think I see the top.” “I think you see what you wish was the top,” he answered. At least there was a fairly solid hand rail on the next set of stairs. Up we went.