An ancient water garden in Sri Lanka inspires

This week master landscaper and garden lover Michael Bates moonlighted as a tour leader for Ross Garden Tours. It is a role he was born for, as his passion for place-making, people, and the landscape are unrivalled. He has just returned from a garden tour of Sri Lanka, a country he has visited many times. Today he reflects on one of his favourite places: an ancient water garden called Sigiriya, which he believes is an education for any aspiring garden maker.

We welcome Michael Bates, from Bates Landscapes, to the Ross Garden team and thank him for a fascinating tour of Sri Lanka. Take it away Michael.


Lion Rock Fortress. Photo - SurangaSL /

Lion Rock Fortress. Photo – SurangaSL /


Sigiriya also known as the Lion Rock, is found deep in green tropical forests of central Sri Lanka. This ancient palace was built by King Kasyapa and is situated in the central Matale District near the town of Dambulla of the Central Province. This historical and archaeological site holds a special place in the cultural history of Sri Lanka. This palace was built over 1500 years ago by the king and stands as one of the oldest examples of ancient urban planning and is also an example of the ancient Sinhalese culture. It totally justifies its UNESCO listing as a World Heritage Site and is also the most visited place of Sri Lanka.


Sigiriya Gardens from the air. Photo - Michael Bates

Sigiriya Gardens from the air. Photo – Michael Bates


The bird’s eye view of the Sigiriya is astounding. The gardens are ancient and extensive, staggered down terraces. They were created in the 5th century by master landscapers without excavators or any heavy earthmoving equipment other that elephants! I sit on the huge boulders in the gardens at the top of Sigiriya Rock and look down those terraces.

The straight lines of the edge of the pools frame the reflections, while water lilies add texture. Trees and sky dominate, creating a sense of tranquillity and sending visitors into the abyss of time and thought.


Water gardens. Photo - Michael Bates

Water gardens. Photo – Michael Bates


The miniature water gardens remind me of the purifying baths in the outer chambers of King David’s temple in Jerusalem – I can imagine visitors to this ancient capital washing down in smaller baths before an audience with the King.

At the same time I can’t help but reflect on other ancient capitals I’ve visited; Jerusalem, Machu Pichu, Cambodia, Tai Mahal and Versailles. Gardens that reflect a cohesive vision of one person, in one time of great action and passion. Great places shape the way I look at the world and my work. I have not just been inspired – my DNA as a gardener has been altered permanently.

I muse at my attempts of watergarden making today; in particular a water garden I have just completed called ‘Pirramimma’ in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, which has taken me 2.5 years to build, complete with lakes and ponds and dozens of smaller water features. Designed by landscape architect and garden historian Craig Burton, it’s a huge project, and one of its kind in Australia.


Breath-taking stonework. Photo - Michael Bates

Breath-taking stonework. Photo – Michael Bates


I’m sure it had a parallel design process to Sigiriya. The data goes into Craig Burton’s head: the flow of hydrology, reflections and shadow, significant trees, the movement of the sun, the shapes of the buildings, paths and terraces, the layout of lawns and garden beds. Then out pops a hand-drawn design, where elements fade in and out of dominance in the contemporary landscape. My team then builds it and we are left with a composition that is pleasing to the eye of the visitor.

I ponder this as I look down on these gardens, their sensitivity and quality of what I see today. I imagine the layers of history over the last 15 centuries – the jungle must have engulfed the place on numerous occasions. Archaeological digs, grassed over mounds, paths and balustrades to guide the modern visitor. The crafting of terraces, lawns and steps – all made recently – blended into the ancient. The balancing act between preservation and study of the ancient with access to tourists – garden tourists. Decoding what is from when and the fluency of the craftsmanship of these great garden makers by this master gardener today is one of life’s great pleasures.

I hope my watergarden stands the test of time, like Sigiriya, for eternity.

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