Our Jetwing Blue naturalist guide Hemantha brought with him a passionate local expert Chinthaka, who has been exploring this area since his early teens, to tell us all about this fascinating little known site. He made us laugh as with the biggest twinkle in his eyes he said that the objects found by the surrounding villages might explain how some of the people have suddenly acquired four-wheel drive vehicles! The climb of 298 steps of this ancient rock fortress revealed not only fantastic views, but also impressive rampart military walls, made of granite blocks, blended brilliantly with the natural edifice used for protecting the King against invasion and the city from erosion, and maintaining the status of the king. At a point near the top, the steps are deliberately steep and short to slow you down so that the king could decide whether he wished to have an audience with you or not. It was also a method used to force respect on the people whether in a temple or palace. Take a closer look at the granite steps you are climbing as they are a fascinating insight into an extraordinarily clever method of breaking the vast granite rocks into five foot square lintel-like steps. Imagine the painstaking process of using a square, hollow, and probably easily blunted, chisel or punch to chip out one inch square holes an inch apart into the parent rock, then filled with a specific dry wood, which when water was added made the wood swell and split the brittle granite.
Climbing to the very top, we reach a stunning lookout point that once supported a watchtower, with incredible 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside. Look across to the west and you will see Dambadeniya’s sister rock where the king’s architect was incarcerated, to prevent him from escaping to other lands with knowledge of the palace and secret tunnels that might enable an enemy to overcome the kingdom. Chinthaka explains, “If you abseil over the look out point half way down this shear face you will find a large tunnel entrance, big enough for an elephant,” This might have been a platform that one of the four kings, perhaps Parakramabahu, might have addressed the masses below. From the watchtower you can also see, on a clear day, Adam’s Peak to the north, Kurunegala to the south-west and Kegalle to the east. Chinthaka points out a tree, in the middle distance, explaining that the visible white flowers, which must be huge close up, are from the Thallanala tree that flowers only once in its lifetime, attracting huge numbers of bees, after which it promptly dies.
With this in mind we carefully start our descent, passing a water reservoir probably for royal bathing, hewn out of the rock, which you can see once had a wall across it that tied neatly into each end of the rock. Further down we observed excavations activity and saw how ancient small red grooved tiles that had been exposed, had been beautifully stacked into the shape of a stupa. Then, over to one side we came upon a wavy ornamental garden wall that overlooked a huge pool, probably secluded away for the royal family as well as maybe being a water reservoir for the community. Then the last of the ruins, the assembly house on a prominent outcropping rock with stairs hewn into it, affords a slightly closer look at the plantations and paddy fields below.
Everywhere was evidence of nature’s beauty and power to reclaim. Butterflies, with six-inch velvet wings and amazing purple spots the size of pennies, flit around us, occasionally alighting to see if the colours of our clothes promise any sustenance while twisting trees attempt to swallow rocks whole with their root systems and drape vines the size of my wrist along the paths, and yet others cover stones with a mass of maggoty roots while their neighbours grow in and out of each other or die, to be consumed by anthills, in this once diverse and manicured forest around the rock; home also to many songs and sounds from diverse birds such as hill swallows, grey hornbills and rosewing parrots.
As I take one last look at another tunnel entrance now collapsed and then across the flat land to the jailhouse rock, I remember the story of how the architect’s wife smuggled his tools to him in his lunch packets so that he could carve out steps to escape. When you look at the rock you can see the steps coming down the face only to stop suddenly and this is where his wife arranged a crash mat of paddy straw for him to drop quietly onto in the dead of night on pain of death. I wonder if, like the ancient Egyptians, the secret of the tunnels must be kept at all cost and this is the price you pay for being the King’s architect. What divine justice, then, that he should escape with his wife in such a fashion.
“Juliet Coombe is taken by Jetwing Blue naturalist to see Dambadeniya, Sri Lanka’s Third Kingdom, dating back 800 years and discovers it is far from a pile of rocks, but a fascinating fortified rock fortress to match Sigriya in architectural brilliance.”