Polonnaruwa, a city with a glorious history tracing back to the 7th Century AD, was the second capital of Sri Lanka after Anuradhapura, and stood strong for nearly six centuries. The ruins and relics of this city still remain a wonder, and give a glimpse of Sri Lanka’s glorious history.
The ancient city’s imposing grandeur sits perhaps uneasily with the contemporary Polonnaruwa, and it is solely this old-world grandeur that has made Polonnaruwa a popular tourist destination. Renowned as being one of the best planned archaeological sites in the country, it is also considered one of the cleanest and most beautiful cities in Sri Lanka. Despite its relative cleanliness, Polonnaruwa is still a developing town and modern amenities are limited mostly to hotels.
Places/Activities in Polonnaruwa
Vatadage refers to a Buddhist structure, circular in shape, which is unique to ancient Sri Lankan architecture. The Polonnaruwa Vatadage, one of ten vatadages remaining in the country, is believed to have been built during the reign of King Parakramabahu, to hold the tooth relic of the Buddha, or during the reign of King Nissanka Malla to hold the alms bowl used by the Buddha. The Polonnaruwa Vatadage is the best preserved vatadage in the country and is considered the ‘ultimate development’ in this form of architecture.
Built in the 11th century to house the tooth relic of Buddha, it is believed to be the only surviving building built by King Vijayabahu. The first tooth relic temple of Polonnaruwa, Atadage means ‘House of Eight Relics’, and is supposed to have housed seven other relics besides the main tooth relic.
Believed to have been built in just 60 hours, the Hatadage housed the tooth relic of the Buddha during the reign of King Nissanka Malla (1187–1196). Three Buddha statues carved out of granite rock are located within a chamber of the shrine, which was originally a two-storey structure. Today, only the lower storey remains.
One of the oldest buildings in Polonnaruwa, there is much speculation among historians regarding its actual date of construction. However, Thuparamaya has miraculously survived over 900 years with much of the building still intact. Thuparamaya has a pyramid-shaped roof made solely of bricks and is a ‘mix’ of the architectural styles of the Hindus, the Mauryas of North India and the Sinhalese.
– An unusual structure, the Sathmahal Prasada, which means ‘Seven Storey Edifice’, is a stepped pyramid building similar to those found in Cambodia and Thailand. It is speculated that the site housed Cambodian soldiers who were working under the king, but its purpose largely remains a mystery to historians.
Built by King Nissanka Malla as a hall to listen to ‘Pirith’– the chanting of Buddhist scriptures—the building is unique as the stone columns of the structure are carved in a style not found anywhere else in Sri Lanka.
The highest building in the Alahana Pirivena group, a monastic university that extends over 80 hectares, the Buddha Seema Prasada was the abbots’ convocation hall, and features a ‘mandapaya’ or raised platform with decorative pillars.
– A monolithic Buddha image house, the Lankathilaka is also part of the Alahana Pirivena group. The structure contains a Buddha statue built completely out of clay brick, and it stands 41 feet tall. Inside are two uniquely built staircases, with steps only four inches wide and one foot high, making it very difficult to climb. The reason behind this design is to prevent people from climbing up the Buddha statue, which is considered extremely disrespectful.
Built during the occupation of Polonnaruwa by the South Indian Empires, the Shiva Devala is a place of worship for Hindu devotees, and has been partially restored. It contains two main devalas: one for Lord Vishnu and the other for Lord Shiva.
– Standing 55 metres tall, the Rankot Vihara is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa, and the fourth largest in Sri Lanka, and is located north of the Hindu shrines.
The Gal Vihara or Rock Temple, is probably the most admired and venerated monument in Polonnaruwa. It holds magnificent sculptures of the Lord Buddha in seated, standing and recumbent positions. The standing image is seven metres tall, while the enormous reclining statue is 14 metres long.
‘Thivanka’ means three bends in Sinhalese. Inside the Thivanka Pilimage you find a statue of the Lord Buddha bent in three places: at the knees, at the waist and at the shoulders. The Thivanka Pilimage also holds some of the most exquisite examples of 12th Century Sri Lankan murals.
This pond, styled in the form of a lotus flower with eight petals, was believed to be the ritual bathing place for pilgrims visiting the Thivanka Pilimage.
The Sandakada Pahana or the Moonstone is a unique architectural feature of ancient Sri Lanka. It symbolises the cycle of re-incarnation that all souls go through on their path towards enlightenment and profound peace. The moonstones evolved throughout different epochs of Sri Lankan history, so they differ from one ancient stronghold to another.
The ‘Library Monastery’ lies at the southern end of the ancient city, outside the Royal Garden of Nandana Uyana. A circular shrine housed in the central square used to be the repository of sacred books. It is believed that the monastery also doubled as an auditorium for religious rites due to its noted acoustics.
The rock carving of a man attired in the garb of nobility stands about 100 metres away from the ‘Potgul Vehera’. Although much speculated upon, the figure is believed to be that of the greatest king of the Polonnaruwa era – King Parakramabahu the Great. The great king holds in his hand a stack of manuscripts written on Ola leaves, which contain the oath taken by him on his ascent to the throne.
A modern structure located beside the Parakrama Samudraya protects several archaeological artifacts and presents a few artistic impressions of ancient monuments and reconstructed models of important sites. To enter the museum you will need to buy a one-day ticket. With an excellent view of the ruins and reconstructions of ancient monuments, this is the best starting point for your Polonnaruwa excursion.
In Polonnaruwa cycling is a better option than walking to the sites as they are not located in close proximity. Bicycles can be hired from most guesthouses for around Rs.300. Three wheelers are also a good option, but will cost more. Make sure you agree on the fare before the hire, to avoid being cheated.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ascent of Polonnaruwa to the status of the capital of Sri Lanka parallels the rise of the South Indian Empire. Frequent invasions forced the Sinhala kings to shift southward, moving from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. However, the history of Polonnaruwa dates further back, to the very origin of the country, with historians believing that the first inhabitants of Sri Lanka settled down in the area. The Sabara tribe, believed to be one of first tribes to settle down in the area, is speculated to have lived in the Habarana forest. The descendants of the Sabara tribe are the Vedda community, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. In fact, Vedda communities are still concentrated within the North Central Province, where Polonnaruwa is located.
The shift from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa by the Sinhala kings was initiated by King Vijayabahu, but it was in fact his grandson, King Parakramabahu who transformed Polonnaruwa into a city far ahead of its time. His reign, considered the Golden Age of Polonnaruwa, saw the growth of trade and agriculture (the latter to this day remains the primary industry of its residents) and the development of irrigation systems far superior to those of Anuradhapura. The much-marveled irrigation system revolves around the Parakrama Samudraya – also known as the Sea of Parakrama – a reservoir so large that one cannot see the opposite shore when standing on its embankment. The Parakrama Samudraya not only provided the city and its farmers with water during droughts, but also doubled as a moat to protect Polonnaruwa from invaders. This irrigation system is still used today, and plays as big a role in the sustenance of modern Polonnaruwa as it did in the past.
Eventually, the city fell due to matrimonial alliances between the monarchs of Polonnaruwa and the South Indian Empires, leading to the invasion by King Kalinga Magha in 1214. Eventually, power passed into the hands of a Pandyan King following the Arya Chakrawarthi invasion of Sri Lanka in 1284, resulting in the capital being shifted to Dambadeniya.
Travel Tips and Planning Information
- All sites are open from around 07.30 am to around 7.00 pm. The most comfortable times to visit these sites would be the mornings and evenings.
- If you are travelling to Polonnaruwa for one day, start early, considering that the drive will take about 6 hours. However a day trip to Polonnaruwa is not advised.
- Carry drinking water, sun hats, sun glasses and sun block. Mosquitoes are a concern, so carry insect repellent.
- Wear light clothing that covers your arms and legs. Sandals or slippers are best as you will be required to remove footwear when entering places of worship or sacred areas.
Polonnaruwa is blessed with a tropical climate with temperatures ranging between 25°C and 32°C, although November through January might be a bit chilly at night. The best times for site seeing are in the mornings and the evenings.
What to Wear
Mosquitoes are a concern and should be considered when selecting attire for your expedition. Wear light clothes (preferably cotton) that will cover your arms and legs in order to protect yourself from insects. Such clothing will also serve the double purpose of being appropriately attired for excursions into sacred sites. Sandals or slippers would be ideal footwear as you will be required to enter sacred areas barefoot.