Picnic On Lion Rock: Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s Ancient Garden Palace

Like Qld's Glasshouse Mountains, Sigiriya's volcanic plug dominates the landscape
Like Qld’s Glasshouse Mountains, Sigiriya’s volcanic plug dominates the landscape. L to R: Geoff, Helen, me and Derby

“Come as tourists, return as friends” said Sujee, our guide. The summit of Sigiriya was a 1,000 step climb in the western sun, but the reward was stunning views of one of Asia’s oldest landscapes.

Also known as Lion Rock, Sigiriya is a fortified palace-garden-complex similar to South America’s 15th century Machu Picchu, only the first Sri Lankans have lived here longer. First settled around 5,000 years ago, Sigiriya has been inhabited since the first stones were being laid at Stonehenge and Egypt’s earliest pyramids took shape. Later, King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) made Sigiriya his new capital, and after this the site became a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.

I visited with gardeners, courtesy of The Adventure Traveller as part of a Gardener’s Tour of Singapore and Sri Lanka. The exchange of horticultural and design ideas and cultural differences was valuable, we learned from each other.

From the ground, the scale of Sigiriya was hard to gauge, but it clearly dominated the landscape as do Queensland’s Glasshouse Mountains. The steamy, sunny conditions, were familiar to us subtropical gardeners, so we stepped out of our cool coach, opened our umbrellas and readied our water bottles…and ascended for a picnic on Lion Rock.

Having two architects, Angus and Derby, in our group helped us interpret the hard landscape. They helped us better appreciate the ruins. There was an abundance of exquisitely cut, mossy retaining walls, beautifully crafted stone staircases, and mortar-free brickwork, all of which combined to carve and construct a fortified green capital into and around a huge volcanic plug.

The music on this video is my recording of staff singing by the fireside during dinner at a farm near Sigiriya

Near the pinnacle sits the royal audience chamber. Holes carved into the rock to support its timber walls are clearly visible. The tropical climate means Sigiriya sheds huge quantities of rainwater and it has been built to variously deflect, capture and direct flows into its gardens. Monsoons have not destroyed the footprint, but remaining stairs, walls, rills, ponds and paddies need to be actively gardened to remove silt, invasive bullrush, and other destructive weeds, like Walking trees, aka Banyan fig (Ficus benghalensis).

Elephants sometimes drink from Sirigiya’s defensive moats, and gravity fed irrigation directs water into ponds and paddies in which moisture-loving plants flourished. These water gardens have, at different times, supplied rice, fish, poultry and eggs as well as beauty.

Sigiriya rises two hundred metres above undulating jungle, and the royal household enjoyed panoramic jungle views from their swimming pool. The pool is still full, but the water is green and fish and threads of pond weed add a somewhat melancholy air.

Sigiriya and neighbouring Pidurangala Rock dominate the landscape as do Queensland’s Glasshouse Mountains. Both comprise of steep, stark volcanic plugs emerging from bushland. After the steep climb, the views of Sigiriya’s intricate water gardens are panoramic – on a clear day you can see Kandy and Anuradhapura, both one-time royal capitals. You can also climb Pidurangala Rock (which is cheaper) and from this vantage point the views of Sigiriya are brilliant at dawn and sunset.

Wild Mussaenda grow in the Boulder Garden, edible peperomia (Peperomia pellucida) sprouts from the walling, offering passersby refreshing leaves, and Wild mangoes (Spondias dulcis) scatter plump fruit over the ruins, feeding families of cheeky, endemic Toque Macaques (the young of which occasionally feed eagles).

As we explored Sigiriya, I chatted with Sujee. Twenty one million people live in Sri Lanka, a (mostly) tropical island that is slightly smaller than Tasmania. There is a long growing season and the soils are moderately fertile. Around Sigiriya, the boulders means soils are of varying depth. Soil in the lower gardens contain laterite, a gravelly substance formed in hot, wet conditions, and this blunts tools. Organic matter in tropical soils decays rapidly, so needs to be regularly applied to prevent the soil structure losing its pores and becoming compacted. Heavy rainfall also leaches water soluble minerals, such as magnesium and calcium, which also need to be applied to food growing soil.

Sujee took us to a local farmhouse for dinner, a no frills selection of vegetable curries, including my first curried jackfruit (which tastes surprisingly meaty), prepared in clay pots on a wood fire. Champee, our driver, and Suga, our assistant, joined the farm workers singing and drumming by the camp fire, their song assisted by locally brewed arrack, alcohol made from fermented coconut flower sap.

Coconut (Cocos nucifera) is common in the Sri Lankan diet, providing milk, meat, oil, flour and alcohol. It is one of the world’s most important economic palms: 100g of fresh coconut contains 354 calories, 33g oil, 24g carbohydrate, is 89% saturated fat and contains a significant amount of manganese, iron, phosphorus and zinc.

That day, Wataluppan, a coconut baked custard which is served chilled, became my favourite use of coconut milk. It’s easily made although waiting for it to cool is hard!

Wataluppan dessert

180g jaggery or palm sugar
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
1/4 tsp crushed cardamom seed
1 tsp grated cinnamon, or 1 cinnamon stick
185 ml coconut milk
100 ml water
4 eggs
a few sultanas
a few chopped, roasted cashews

Heat an over to 150C;

Add the spices to a saucepan, add the water and warm and stir to dissolve the palm sugar. Strain off the cardamom and cinnamon stick. Add the sultanas and coconut milk;

In a bowl, whisk the eggs so they contain a light froth. Whisk in the spiced, sweetened coconut milk;

Grease a shallow baking tray with butter, add mixture, then bake for 30 – 35 minutes. Cool to room temperature for one hour, then chill in the fridge before serving.

It was fascinating watching archaeological excavations and studies, which clearly still have a long way to go. My only wish is that the site was more thoroughly interpreted (especially the plants!). Discussing and learning about Sigiriya’s history, identifying plants growing there and discussing the future of food in Sri Lanka whilst observing Sigiriya’s ancient irrigation system still flowing was a profoundly moving experience.

I would love to film the gardens, plants and their uses in this ancient setting with Sujee, my new friend.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
4th February 2016


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Gerry Bellis says:

    Great you are young and have your health enabling to to travel Gerry, Sri Lanka was always an ambitious destination of mine but since my health has deserted me I have to write it off my bucket list’ I have had a number of friends form that part of the world over the years and they tell me that the climate enables gardening on a broad scale, happy gardeners all round.
    Gerry Bellis

    1. LOL. If only you knew how ironic your comments are 🙂

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