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Sigiriya was a good four-and-a-half hours away from Colombo via a single two-lane road that snaked through bustling trading towns and sleepy villages of traditional wooden houses and crumbling colonial-style cottages. It was going to be my second visit in 12 months, and it was on this long drive that I’d finally made up my mind to climb the mountain.
Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic images and the jewel of its set of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites – an impressive number for a fairly small island, with two more heritage sites being finalized as I write.
When seen from the top, its dramatic setting on a lush, virginal plain devoid of structures and stretching 360 degrees as far as the eye can manage, is truly a wonder to behold.
Up close and personal, it is no less dramatic.
The kaleidoscope of colors that play on its rocky façade especially as the sun begins its slow descent for the day – turning the rock into varying hues of orange and purple – is the stuff that calendars are made of.
But it’s also a tough climb up stone and steel steps that start out wide and easy and then end up steep and tiny. Sometime after the psychological midway point of no return – when you’ve made it far enough and high enough that continuing becomes more sensible than giving up and turning back – the steps are little more than ledges for a baby’s foot, certainly far from suitable for adults wearing loafers and rubber shoes.
Here you’ve got to tiptoe up or get used to climbing with your heels hanging out – or prepare for a pretty steep fall.
The hardest part, however, is not even the climb itself, but the oppressive heat that accompanies it regardless of what time of the day you attempt your ascent.
As long as the sun is shining – this is certainly not a feat to try in the rain – it will be the soaring temperatures that will tax your patience.
But even without the experience of the climb, Sigiriya in the flesh is an amazing wonder of nature already enjoyable with one’s feet on the ground.
I’d first seen it on a poster in the home of the living room of the Sri Lankan ambassador to the Philippines, and since then I’d been mesmerized by the idea of a mountain that arose from an extinct volcano, with a fortress and a palace built by a king on top of it; adorned with colorful ancient frescoes and four bathing pools, reportedly one for each of his four wives.
On that first visit last year, I sat for hours on a brick wall in the shade, just after the moats filled with crocodiles, simply staring at majesty of the mountain. It has that kind of beauty that one never tires of, like an enchanting woman who has grown old but who is comfortable with her years and lines. I’d decided then to content myself with enjoying the mountain from afar.
Upon my return to Manila, however, I’d regretted passing up the opportunity to conquer the mountain and the anxieties it ended up representing – including the fear of heights, and of not being up to the physical challenge.
It was not Sigiriya’s fault, but I’d let it overwhelm me from the outset. It’s not called the Lion Mountain for nothing, even if its name is mainly linked to the remains of a lion statue on one side. Over the centuries, pilgrims have fallen to their death midway on the perilous climb; and these days, after safety rails were installed, the fatalities have been due to heart attacks on the road up.
Not everyone gets second chances to right a challenge they’d once already passed up. Fortunately, here was a golden opportunity to do so. I found myself returning to the very same mountain almost exactly 12 months later and this time I was determined to conquer it.
“How many steps are there?” I asked our guide, Jude, as I sized up my nemesis from below on this second trip.
He gazed at the rock before us, shrugged his shoulders and replied: “I’ve never actually counted. Some people say 800, while others claim there are over a thousand steps.”
He’d probably climbed the mountain hundreds of times, but even he couldn’t give me an answer. In reality, Sigiriya isn’t very high; but it’s 600 feet from the bottom, all rock in a vertical line that’s as close to 90 degrees as you can get, so the impression is a formidable one.
I began my ascent just after 4 PM, when the sun was kinder but powerful all the same. The first steps were easy enough, like climbing the stairs of a building. I gained further strength from the groups of Sri Lankan schoolchildren in perfectly starched white uniforms who passed me by, laughing and chatting away as if climbing the mountain was a game.
There were some women in colorful sarees taking to the steps as well.
“If they can do it, so can I,” I told myself, staring at the backs of the women, wrapped in flowing silks, ahead of me. I took slow and even-paced steps, stopping on certain landings to inspect caves and interesting rock formations along the way.
However, soon the climb suddenly became harder as I embarked on a steeper section that began precisely after reaching the landing of the lion’s paws and passing through its carved jaws and throat. This is perhaps the most difficult moment of all, as it’s equal parts battle of will vs. battle of strength.
Is my willpower stronger than the perceived strength of this mountain that has withstood the ferocious forces of nature for centuries?
With small and slow steps, I eventually conquered the mountain. Midway, on the walls of a grotto enclosed by steel shutters to protect it from the sun, ancient paintings of bare-breasted women – portraits of the maidens who once inhabited the palace, perhaps? – smiled encouragingly down at me as I huffed and puffed past them, and past poetry scrawled onto the rocks by ancient travelers from as early as over 1000 years ago.
Finally I reached the top, three acres in size and the site of the amazing ancient city itself. On the summit, I felt the power of the king who once lived here, high up where he could see everything he owned in one sweep of a glance.
I stood on a ledge that seemed perilously close to toppling over down that 90-degree angle I had just clambered on.
But by then I was oblivious to the dangers. Above me, I felt I could almost touch the sky. Meanwhile, before me, was a breathtaking and all-encompassing view of the pristine majesty of being as in the middle of nowhere as I could possibly imagine, in a lost civilization untouched by the modern one.
This was how the world must have looked like before man changed it. It seemed more out of Africa than Sri Lanka. And it was simply out of this world.