Sri Lanka’s millennial resort that’s an engineering masterpiece

Grains of orange sand sparkle in the sun as a lone motorcycle kicks up dust in its wake. It is 09.30 on a Monday and the temperature is already over 30C.

A family of Sri Lankan macaques swing from the tree branches and mischievously tangle right in front of us. But we barely noticed his presence. We cannot take our eyes off the 200-meter-high monolith that dominates in the distance.

Sigiriya, an ancient fortress and royal palace, It is one of the most popular attractions in Sri Lanka and in 2019 it received more than a million visitors. But on this sunny day in May 2021, my partner and I are the only two people here.

Built in 477, Sigiriya is considered one of the best-preserved examples of urban planning in South Asia and one of its most important archaeological sites.

The palace and the tower that tops it on top of the rock, as well as its only works of art, earned it its inclusion in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1982. Are its gardens and its ingenious water systems at the foot of the rock that make it a national treasure.

Beyond that, the Sigiriya Gardens are also one of the oldest panoramic gardens in the world. Illustrious guests from the 5th century walked its paths, flanked on both sides by the impressive water gardens, which marked the grandiose entrance, of 1,200 steps, which led to the entrance of the palace.

In his essay “Sigiriya: City, Palace and Royal Gardens”, Senake Bandaranayake, director of the site, explained that the site represents a brilliant combination of symmetry and asymmetry deliberately playing with geometric and natural forms.

“The Sigiriya gardens are made up of three interconnected sections: the symmetrical, with the geometrically planned water gardens; the asymmetric or organic cave, with the rock garden; the stepped terrace that surrounds the rock; and the miniature water garden and palace gardens on top of the rock,” he wrote.

Within the gardens are ornate ponds, fountains and streams, over which pavilions once stood for artistic performances.

“Would have a look similar to that of a modern luxury resort with beautiful gardens and swimming pools,” said Sumedha Chandradasa, who has worked as a guide to the treasures of Sri Lanka for more than 24 years.

Wonderful

But the most impressive thing about this place is not the detailed design of the gardens, but how they work.

These hydraulic systems are considered a marvel of engineering por the use of hydraulic power, the underground tunnels and the gravitational force that creates a spectacular system of ponds and fountains that 1,500 years later still works.

Some Sri Lankans still believe in ancient myths that the water in the garden comes from the pool on top of the rock. In reality, the source of the water is some nearby reserves that the locals know as “tanks”.

A series of terracotta pipes use the force of gravity and hydraulic pressure to send water from the Sigiriya tank, slightly higher than the gardens, to the various fountains, ponds and ditches.

But some of the water does not come from the top of Sigiriya. The ponds located at the top of the rock are filled with rainwater and drains carved into the rock connect with a long cistern that feeds the underground conduit system that carries water to the gardens.

“This is a masterpiece of irrigation, engineering and design, Bandaranayake wrote.

Getty Images

The expert also wrote in his essay that during the excavation of the site pipes were found at different depths, probably with the intention of achieving different levels for the water, which reveals a great knowledge of physics and engineering.

a bloody blow

Although it dates back to the 5th century, its origin story is reminiscent of some modern soap operas.

Previously, Sigiriya, the capital of Sri Lanka, was located in Anuradhapura, more than 70 kilometers to the northwest. A coup led by a son of King Dhatesena with a commoner consort ended the king’s life and his son Kasyapa ascended the throne.

Kasyapa moved the capital to Sigiriya or Simha-giri, which means Lion Mountain, and built a new palace on top of it. When the visitor approaches the stairs that lead to the palatial complex at the top, he understands why.

“The theory is that, according to “The Ancient Chronicles” —the historical chronicles of Sri Lanka—, he built the palace to look like a crouching lionexplained Jagath Weerasinghe, professor emeritus at the Sigiriya Institute of Archaeology. “The lion’s hooves are the main entrance that takes you to the top of the mountain.”

Kasyapa ruled from there until 495, when he abandoned it and the palace became a Buddhist monastery.

Pond in Sigiriya.

Getty Images

One of the perks of visiting this place during the pandemic is that my companion and I had the entire complex at our disposal for a few hours. We were even able to appreciate the bricks that form the base of the pools, fountains and canals that fill with water during the rainy season.

The area known as the Miniature Water Gardens, while measuring 30 meters wide and 90 meters long, was divided into five sections, with some unique features, including a snake-shaped ditch that demonstrates planning ahead of its time .

For Bandaranayake there is no doubt that served as a cooling medium as well as as a “great aesthetic claim”, which created “interesting visual and sound effects”.

According to Weerasinghe, these miniature gardens were a superior experience at night, when the moonlight reflected off the shallow pools. “There are very romantic aspects to the royal Sigiriya compound,” he told me.

Although the miniature gardens are no longer as spectacular as they once were, the waters and platforms on their lower levels have led archaeologists to believe that musical performances were held here.

The sources

We continue walking in front of the rock, through the snake-shaped channel of the miniature gardens, which contain the distinctive Sigiriya fountains.

They are made of limestone with symmetrical holes and even 1,500 years later, they are still working during the monsoon season. “Under the fountain is a small chamber where the water is pressurized, forcing it to bubble up into the fountain when the water level is high,” explains Chandradasa.

But the most characteristic element of Sigiriya are its typical fountains. With the bottom made of limestone rock and symmetrically located holes, 1,500 years later they are still working during the Monsoon season.

Beneath the fountain is a small chamber where the water is pressurized, forcing it to bubble up into the fountain four or five inches when the water level is high,” says Chandradasa.

Intended for use by the royal family and the Kasyapa women’s choir, these fountains and pools, most notably the large pool atop Sigiriya, were designed as pools to cool off in the South Asian sun, as shown by the steps of stone submerged in water.

But the water gardens had another purpose. “Kasyapa wanted to present water in a particular way,” says Weerasinghe.

In addition to being a source of pleasure, sent a clear message about the power and intelligence of the king Kasyapa, especially the Mahavihara monks, who formed the most influential monastery in Anuradhapura and favored his father.” When you look at this elaborate and intriguing way of using water in the royal compound, it is clear that he was telling you something about his power to his people,” he adds.

Past the massive stone-carved lion’s hoof at the top of 1,200 steps, our clothes were soaked with sweat and I was short of breath. We walked through the ruins of the central palace and stumbled upon the great pool at the top.

A dip like the ones enjoyed by kings of old would have been tempting, but weeks without rain and the lack of servants to maintain it had led to bacteria accumulating on the surface.

From above, the water garden system below looked clear, perfectly centered and aligned. The views of that lush green jungle, melting into the blue line of the horizon seemed not to be exhausted by the gaze. It was an ideal location for a palace with gardens, worthy of a powerful monarch who had them built.

“Just imagine that during the rainy season there are clouds standing on this hill. So you walk through this garden and you find this big pond with these waves of water falling from the fountains: Imagine what that experience would be like.”


Now you can receive notifications from BBC World. Download the new version of our app and activate it so you don’t miss out on our best content.