Discovering Sigiriya: Jonathan Forbes’ Enterprise

Avishka Mario Senewiratne, whose chosen title is “Jonathan Forbes and the Discovery of Sigiriya,” where it was presented in The Ceylankan, vol 26/3, August 2023

“Sigiri is the only example in Ceylon of those solitary activities, which form so remarkable a feature in the table-land of the dakka…” – Sir James Emerson Tennent

Surrounded by the glorious forestry, guarded by majestic ramparts, nourished by enchanting tanks and ponds, and illuminated by those picturesque frescoes, the Lion Rock: Sigiriya is certainly a grand delight in this palm-fringed isle. Its histories and mysteries are vast. For nearly 700 years this one-time Capital of ancient Ceylon, which housed the fortress of the infamous King Kasyapa I, was lost and forgotten by those in this country. What lingered of Sigiriya were tales from the ancient chronicle Cūḷavaṃsa (sequel of the Mahāvaṃsa) and other contemporary documents. It is most likely that Kings from Nissankamalla to Sri Wickrema Rājasinghe never saw or knew little of this important part of heritage. The older occupants of Ceylon’s maritime region: the Portuguese and Dutch also had no idea of Sigiriya. However, things began to change with the British occupation of the whole of Ceylon in 1815. One such was the translation of the ancient chronicles of Ceylon by George Turnour of the Ceylon Civil Service. The famous story surrounding Kasyapa the patricide, losing the favour of his people in Anuradhapura and locating a new fortress in Sigiriya has been well recorded in the annals of this country. However, when it was first recorded in English, the very mention of Sigiriya aroused the curiosity of the new rulers of this ancient country. Many pursued the idea of finding the long-lost Sigiriya.

Before we dip into its discovery, it is essential to know some historic records of Sigiriya as recorded in the sources of the days of yore. According to P.E.P. Deriniyagala, Spolia Zeylanica, Volume 26, part 1, in 266 B.C. King Devānampiya Tissa visited the rock and named it ‘Sihigiri’. In 41 B.C., King Kuda Tissa built a rampart, a Maha Vihara and a meditation house in Sigiriya. His son, King Bhathikabaya erected a large alms-house for priests in 19 B.C. Thereafter, King Mahadathika Mahanaga, brother of the former, built a dagaba (Ambuva) and decked the rock with flowers. This was in 9 A.D. After this record, Sigiriya is not mentioned for the next 450 years until the time of King Kasyapa, whose story is well known.  Some scholars such as Paranavitana have contested these records claiming they are enigmatic. Thus, it is hard to say which is accurate. After Kasyapa, Sigiriya was ordered to be a monastery by King Moggalana I. The next mention of Sigiriya is with the infamous beheading of King Sanghatissa and his son on Sigiriya. This of course is clearly mentioned in the old chronicles. The last record of Sigiriya was when King Parākramabāhu the Great restored Sigiriya in the 12th century. This too has been controversial and some have said such an occurrence never happened.

However, it is clear that no such reference was made to Sigiriya until the British occupation of Ceylon. One soldier who came to Ceylon, Major Jonathan Forbes of the 78th Highlanders befriended George Turnour and learnt a great deal of the country’s history. Forbes arrived in Ceylon in 1826. Apart from his military work, he was a civil servant, serving in the capacities of Assistant Agent and District Judge of Matale in the Kandyan Province. Forbes was well-versed in English literature and had a knack for writing. His book, Eleven Years in Ceylon: comprising sketches of the Field sports and Natural history of that Colony and an account of its History and Antiquities published in 1840 in two volumes, is one of the best books on Ceylon. Upon learning of Sigiriya and its significance and the fact that no one knew where it was located, Forbes executed a quest to find it. None of the older writers of Ceylon such as Knox, Capt. Percival, Rev. Cordiner, Marshall or Dr. Davy had mentioned of Sigiriya. Knowing this gap, Forbes was more determined to find it.

Four years after his coming to Ceylon in 1831 the most endearing day of his life dawned. Forbes and two of his friends along with a group of friends were returning from Polonnaruwa via Minneriya and Paecolom and decided that they must search for the Lion Rock. After riding 4 miles from Paecolom, Forbes observed what he wished. When the morning mist cleared away, he observed a piece of water reflecting the brushwood-covered summit of Sigiriya from its unruffled surface. In his book, Forbes states the following:

“From the spot where we halted, I could distinguish massive stone walls appearing through the trees near the base of the rock, and now felt convinced that this was the very place I was anxious to discover.” (Forbes, 1840, Vol. II, p. 2)

Though Forbes does not mention the full names of those with him, he simply states them as ‘Capt. H and Mr B’.  His first observation of the rock was the lower parts of it. He states that many separated rocks had been joined by massive walls of stone. This supported the platform of various sizes and unequal heights. Overcoming the ramparts, Forbes arrived at the foot of the prominent cliff. From here Forbes saw the gallery (mirror wall) clinging to the wall. These were accessible through two elevated terraces. Here is how he described them:

“These remains were very different from anything I had expected to discover; not merely from their remarkable position and construction, but as being the only extensive fragments of the ancient capitals of Ceylon which are neither shrouded by vegetation nor overshadowed by the forest.” (Vol II, p. 9)

Scrambling with the shrubs across the partial footsteps, they arrived at the gallery and saw that it had been grooved into rocks where it was not perpendicular, serving as a foundation of a parapet wall. Forbes noticed that the mirror wall ran across about 100 yards and was perfectly preserved due to the heat. He noticed water trickling down the overhanging rock, confirming that tanks existed up the summit of the fortress as stated in the ancient chronicles. Forbes could not go to the lower level of the gallery as he felt giddy from the heat. However, his friends were able to scroll through the broken rocks and remains of buildings. Within a few moments, they returned back safely knowing that proceeding beyond that point was impossible. Jonathan Forbes had found Sigiriya by chance and did not expect it to happen like what was stated above. Thus, he had limited supplies and servants to fully investigate. This prompted him to abandon the quest reluctantly. However, he returned for the 2nd time in 1833 with enough material.

On this occasion, he toured the area beyond the rock and traced a stone wall and wet ditch, with which it was surrounded. Though he attempted to reach the summit of Sigiriya he failed to do so knowing the dilapidated state of the steps to the top. Furthermore, the natives discouraged Forbes to do the same as they were terrified of various demons they perceived to be on top of th e rock! Touring the south of Sigiriya he discovered the Sigiriya tank and other ramparts. The natives also believed that leopards and other wild animals roamed around the rock.

Sketch of Sigiriya by Andrew Nicholl, 1848 (L) and the engraving he used for Tennent’s Ceylon, 1859 (R)  

Forbes had befriended the incumbent priest of the Pindurangala rock, which was less than a mile away from Sigiriya. The priest had furnished him with various copies of inscriptions related to Sigiriya. He discovered the fragments of the foundation of the original dagaba. Though, Forbes did not summit the rock, or see the frescoes or even the lion’s paw entrance, his discovery of the long-lost Sigiriya is historically significant. Later in 1848, the Colonial Secretary, Sir Emerson Tennent along with one of his sketch draftsmen, Andrew Nichols visited and illustrated an interesting account of the rock in the book Ceylon published later in 1859. It was only in 1853 that two young members of the Ceylon Civil Service, A.Y. Adams and J. Bailey summited the rock for the first time. They had taken a different route, not taken by Forbes with the help of some brave natives and rope ladders. Later scholars such as T.W. Rhys Davids, the popular Pali expert and T.H. Blakesley of the Public Works Department made important headway on Sigiriya in 1875/76 and published them in the Royal Asiatic Journal of Great Britain. The proper archaeological excavation of Sigiriya occurred with H.C.P. Bell in the 1890s.

Jonathan Forbes left Ceylon after a happy 11 years in 1837. It is said that he retired from the Army after 34 years with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland on February 21, 1798, Jonathan Forbes-Leslie was the 7th and youngest child of John Forbes and Anne Gregory. Little is known of his childhood. He married Margaret Urquhart in 1825. They were blessed with two daughters. The Forbes family lived in Ceylon for the majority of his 11 years. They were the only European settlers in the Matale district and the first to attempt the coffee plantation in Matale. Forbes visited and lived in India for a short time in 1842. In his later writings he claims that “I have ceased, since 1841, to have any interest in Ceylon, except in the welfare of its people, and in the general prosperity of the colony.” (Forbes, 1850). In 1850, he wrote a pamphlet of 58 pages titled Recent Disturbances and Military Distributions. This was an analysis of the 1848 Rebellion in Ceylon where he criticized the regime of Viscount Torrington. Forbes lived a long life and died on December 23, 1877, at the age of 79. His legacy has been preserved with his brilliant two-volume book on Ceylon which runs to xii+423 and vii+356 pages along with frontispieces and eleven textual illustrations. When it came out in 1840, the book was reviewed by many leading journals and broadsheets. Its extremely positive reviews made it a best seller and the book was out of print by the end of the year, prompting the publisher R. Bentley to print a 2nd edition in 1841. Commenting on the 1st edition, Rhys Davids says that it is a “Very rare book” in 1875. In 2023, having this edition is certainly a rare feat for not only a collector but also for libraries.


Blakeley, T.H., (1876), ‘The ruins of Sigiriya in Ceylon’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, Volume VII, pp. 53-61

Forbes, J., (1840), Eleven Years in Ceylon: comprising sketches of the Field sports and Natural history of that Colony and an account of its History and Antiquities, 2 Volumes, Richard Bentley, London

Forbes, J., (1850), Recent Disturbances and Military Distributions, London

Geiger, W., (1953), Cūḷavaṃsa, Being the More Recent Part of Mahavamsa, Pali Text Society

Goonetilleke, H.A.I., (1970-77), Bibliography of Ceylon, Volumes I-V, Switzerland

Laurie, A.C., (1896-98), Central Province Gazetteer, 2 Volumes, Government Press, Colombo

Paranavitana, S., (1956), Sigiri Graffiti, Oxford University Press

Rhys Davids, T.W., (1875), ‘Sigiri, the Lion Rock, near Pulastipura, Ceylon; And the Thirty-Ninth Chapter of the Mahāvaṃsa’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, Volume VIII, pp. 191-220

Tennent, J.E., (1859), Ceylon: An account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions, 3rd edition, 2 Volumes, Longman, London




Raja De Silva: .….

from … Raja De Silva’s book on Sigiriya  ………………………………….

Lois L. Kersey:  …..

Sigiriya Rock Fortress: Some References & Unusual Photographs

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One response to “Discovering Sigiriya: Jonathan Forbes’ Enterprise

  1. Very intersting, thank you ! Piero Perondi

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