By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Have you been to Sigiriya lately? We hadn’t been in a while and so recently, over the Poson weekend, we decided to visit the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
Located at the northern edge of the Matale District, Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most sensational archeological heritage sites.
While there’s sufficient evidence that suggests it goes back to prehistoric times, dating back to the 9th and 10th Century BC, today, it is most famous for being the remnant of the constructional marvel by King Kasyapa, who made Sigiriya his seat of administration in the 18 years he reined.
From what we recalled, back when we had visited Sigiriya long ago, locals had no issue driving very close to the entrance of the rock. However, things are very different now.
We were disappointed to learn that locals were expected to park at the “navagammana” vehicle park, from where one can either get a tuk tuk or make the approximately 20-minute walk to the entrance. Foreigners, however, were allowed to drive all the way up to the car park near the entrance.
The explanation given by the armed forces personnel posted at the various entrances was that foreigners pay more – a hefty sum of $ 30, while locals only purchase a Rs. 50 ticket, and also, they added that most foreigners come in groups and plan to cover more ground within the day, citing that as a reason to accommodate their time constraints.
We then spoke to Major Nishantha, the Project Manager at the compound, who more or less reiterated what the officers said, adding also: “Foreigners often come through travel agencies, and those agencies are in collaboration with us and we know that they have certain times allocated to cover certain areas in the cultural triangle, so we have made arrangements to accommodate the foreigners.”
While we primarily made the effort to meet with the Major to find out why somewhat of a segregation exists, Major Nishantha went on to introduce us to the more, surprisingly positive elements at the historical site.
One thing that impressed us was that at Sigiriya, a very public place, there are 180 toilets maintained by the property, which were immaculately maintained and most importantly, accessible free of charge. The toilets are maintained very well, unlike any other public toilet we’ve ever come across; it had no leaks, no drips, and above all, no stench.
There’s also 12,000 liters of filtered water made freely available to the public. The water is purified through the reverse osmosis plant technique, and the project was funded by “Pina Organisation”, which is now facilitated and monitored by the Sri Lanka Navy. This service proved to be a godsend; considering how ridiculously warm it gets on the road to Sigiriya, you’re highly likely to get dehydrated. What we saw was an endless cycle of people coming in and going out, filling up their water bottles with drinkable water.
The Sigiriya property also practices an intense green initiative; all bags are thoroughly checked for any plastic, upon which if plastic is discovered, one is made to discard it at the gate. This goes so far as to include biscuit packets – if you’ve a full packet of biscuits, you must empty the contents into a brown paper bag provided at the counter and dump the plastic wrapper. The same goes for the plastic label on water bottles.
Moving with the times
There’s a few interesting technological additions to the property as well. One such introduction is the e-booking method, which allows guests to purchase their tickets online. This proves to be highly useful during peak times when Sigiriya is crawling with visitors.
As you make your way through the compound, you will notice stands displaying a small description and a QR code located adjacent to trees, structures, streets, etc. These QR codes direct you to an information page that provides you with precise details about what to do next.
In the future, if the aforementioned QR code system is thoroughly implemented, it is likely that the local travel guide at Sigiriya may be declared obsolete. However, right now, the travel guide is an important component in the ecosystem that makes up the Sigiriya Rock Fortress attraction.
The Sigiriya Tour Guide Association
Within the compound there is a Sigiriya Tour Guide Association, a large collective of trained and certified guides (95) whose livelihood depends on carrying out guided tours. All these guides know different languages in which they specialise, and they make arrangements with travel agencies offer these skills along with certifications obtained of the site and as an area guide, offered by the Tourist Board.
Sigiriya Tour Guide Association Member R.A. Nishan Sumith Ranawaka, speaking about their current struggle, stressed that their livelihood is challenged by outside persons who are not certified to educate the guests on the necessary information and history pertaining to the site.
He stated that there was a risk in the spread of misinformation this way and that there should be a far more stringent policy implemented to prosecute fake guides who are not certified. Ranawaka also added that this issue was only present in Sigiriya, as in areas like Polonnaruwa, where there are no such problems, people posing as guides are brought to justice accordingly.
Regardless of who you talk to, keeping aside the everyday issues that people face, one problem remains and looms darkly above them all – the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks. Whether you speak to the Information Officer at the Cultural Department (to whom we owe our gratitude for the information provided, and his passionate attitude towards Sri Lanka history), a member of the Sigiriya Tour Guide Association, or the roadside vendors who used to have booming “village safari businesses” on bullock carts, they all answer the same; there are no tourists and no travellers, not even locals, and it is draining their capacity to make a living. All they can do is hope that the Government would take drastic and all the necessary measures to improve the situation.
Photos: Pradeep Dambarage