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Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa

Photo by Gavin Thomas

Touring the stunning ruins and shrines of Sri Lanka's great medieval capital

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Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa is one of the island’s must-see attractions, offering a snapshot of medieval Sri Lankan art and architecture at its finest including the iconic Gal Vihara rock carvings and the sumptuous shrines of the eye-boggling Quadrangle.


A bit of history about Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa

Following the sack of Anuradhapura in 993, Polonnaruwa emerged as the second great capital of early Sri Lanka. First made the capital of Sri Lanka by Indian invader Rajaraja, the city was recaptured by Vijayabahu in 1056, and prospered thereafter for three glorious centuries.

The figure most closely associated with Polonnaruwa is the great Sinhalese king Parakramabahu I (“The Great”), who gave Polonnaruwa most of its finest buildings (many designed and built by Indian craftsmen). Parakramabahu was succeeded by Nissankamalla, who further embellished the city, as well as covering it in a notorious scribble of stone inscriptions recording his various great works, both real and imaginary (including bare-faced attempts to nick credit for many of Parakramabahu’s creations).

Nissankamalla’s death was followed by a period of chaos as Sri Lankan and Indian forces vied for control of the city, culminating in the disastrous reigh of Magha, a Tamil mercenary, under whom Polonnaruwa fell into terminal decline.


Plan your visit to Polonnaruwa

Most of the ancient city remains are covered by a single entrance ticket (daily 7.30am–6pm;tickets cost $25 and must be bought at the Polonnaruwa Museum). There are also two further small clusters of ruins south of the main site – the so-called Island Park area (by the museum) and around the Potgul Vihara, 1.5km further south. These are free to visit and open 24hr. If you’re staying the night at Polonnaruwa who could visit these the evening before exploring the main site, preventing ruin-overload and offering a nice appetizer for the following day.

The ruins cover a far smaller area than those at Anuradhapura, while the main sights are arranged in what is effectively a long line, meaning that (unlike Anuradhapura) there’s no difficulty either in finding your way around or deciding the best order to see things in. Count on a full day to explore everything properly. There’s nowhere to eat inside, however, so you might want to take food and drink with you. Alternatively, you can nip out of the exit by the Rankot Vihara and get lunch at one of the nearby guesthouses before returning in the afternoon.

The site is a little too large to cover on foot. You could hire a car or rickshaw, but cycling (bikes are available for rent all over town) is easily the most enjoyable way of getting around, with attractive, pancake-flat tracks through the trees and virtually zero traffic.


Polonnaruwa Museum

You’ll need to come here to buy your entrance ticket to the site, although the museum is one of the best in the island and well worth a look in its own right, with wide-ranging and well-explained displays on the ancient city and its history, architecture and culture.


The Citadel

Start at the Citadel, close to the entrance to the ancient city. This was originally the heart of Polonnaruwa’s royal quarter and is still dominated by the remains of the royal palace of Parakramabahu – although the bare ruins you see now give little hint of the palace’s original size and splendour.

Smaller but more interesting is Parakramabahu’s Council Chamber, nearby, now roofless, although the superb base survives beautifully intact, carved with jolly friezes of dwarfs, lions and jogging elephants and equipped with an elaborate steps guarded by with a pair of quaint, faintly Chinese-looking lions.

Just past here, the small royal baths are also unusually well preserved, carved in an unusual square plus-cross shape. The base of another impressive building – possibly the royal changing room – stands beside.


The Quadrangle

The Quadrangle is without doubt Polonnaruwa’s highlight: a small walled enclosure, barely 100m across, stuffed full of an extraordinary array of ancient monuments of widely varying shapes, sizes and styles. Originally known as the Dalada Maluwa (“Terrace of the Tooth Relic”), the enclosure was home to the precious Tooth Relic during Polonnaruwa’s glory days and central to the religious and ceremonial life of the city.

Entering the Quadrangle, your eye will likely be drawn to the show-stopping Vatadage, an exquisite circular shrine, richly decorated with carvings and moonstones and overseen by a quartet of Buddhas – although they have now lost the roof which once sheltered them. The four sets of steps leading up into the shrine are particularly elaborate, seething with carvings of dwafs, lions, makaras and other beasts both real and mythical.

Opposite the Vatadage, the Hatadage is said to get its name as a result of having been built in just sixty (hata) hours – believe this is you must, but don’t expect anyone else to. The shrine may once have housed the Tooth Relic although no one’s quite certain. What is certain is that the shrine was built by Nissankamalla, who placed a long stone inscription just inside the main doorway to that effect.

The Hatadage inscription, however, pales into utter insignificance compared to the adjacent Gal Pota – the name means “Book of Stone” (although it’s more like an encyclopedia, if not an entire library), comprising a huge 9m-long slab of granite carved in a dense inscription praising the works, character and general all-round-brilliance of his royal highness Nissankamalla. The stone allegedly weighs 25 tons and was brought from Mihintale, some 90km distant – quite why, nobody knows.

Next to the Gal Pota is the unsual Satmahal Prasada, a ziggurat-style temple quite unlike anything else in Sri Lanka and looking, if anything, rather Cambodian in style. It’s been suggested that it built by visiting Khmer craftsman, although again, nobody really knows.

On the other side of the Hatadage, the modest Atadage was built by Parakramabahu to house the Tooth Relic, while continuing clockwise you’ll reach the tiny but very elegant little Lotus Mandapa, with an unusual stone fence and delicately curved pillars.

Continuing anticlockwise you reach the last and one of the largest of the Quadrangle’s shrines, the very solid-looking Thuparama, looking like an enormous stone box and with thick walls sporting carving of vimanas, the mythical houses of the gods.

Outside, virtually in the shadow of the Quadrangle on its south side, don’t miss the cute little toybox-sized Shiva Devale no.1 (one of numerous Hindu temples around the city), made of finely carved stone blocks fitted together entirely without mortar. Two statuettes of an impressively bearded Agni (the Indian god of fire) plus attendants stand along the southern side of the temple.


North of the Quadrangle

Heading north from the Quadrangle you’ll pass another Hindu shrine: the small Indian-style Shiva Devale no.2, the oldest building in Polonnaruwa. Close by, the ruins of the Pabula Vihara include the third largest stupa in the city, although most of its top half has now disappeared.

Further ancient Hindu temples stand clustered around the Northern Gate, including shrines dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesh. Continuing north, you can’t fail to miss the majestic Rankot Vihara, the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa, a mighty mass of stone commissioned by Nissankamalla and built by Tamil prisoners of war.


Alahana Pirivena

Past the Rankot Vihara you enter the Alahana Pirivena area, once home to the city’s largest monastery. Highlight is the soaring Lankatilaka (“Jewel of Lanka”), an unusually tall and narrow shrine housing a huge but now headless Buddha, with further elaborate carvings of heavenly vimanas on the exterior walls.

Just north of the Lankatilaka is the Kiri Vihara (“Milk Temple”), named for the snowy-white plaster which once covered its large stupa, although it’s now faded to a muddy grey. On the opposite (southern) side of the Lankatilaka, the Buddha Seema Pasada served as the monastery’s meeting house, with four beautiful moonstones at each entrance and urns on pillars (a symbol of plenty) in the outer courtyard.

Further north, the Gal Vihara is (along with the Quadrangle) Polonnaruwa’s undoubted highlight: an outdoor sculpture gallery with four huge and exquisite Buddhas carved out of a low rock outcrop. Star attraction is the vast 14m-long reclining Buddha, one of the island’s definitive images, its tranquil, superhuman features flecked with delicate bands of stone. A pensive-looking Buddha stands next to it, followed by two seated figures, each sat against elaborately carved backdrops depicting various gods in their celestial dwellings.


Further north

A couple of further sights remain. A kilometre past the Gal Vihara, the gargantuan Demala Maha Seya was to have been the world’s largest stupa, although unfortunately it never got finished and all you can see now is the supersized base, so big – and so covered in vegetation – that it looks more like a natural hill than a man-made construction.

Further north, past a beautiful lotus pond, you’ll reach the Tivanka-patamaghara, another large and boxy stone shrine, its exterior walls covered in dense carvings of lions, dwarfs and vimanas, it interior decorated with flamboyant paintings – although they’re difficult to see in the gloom.


Southern sights

Next to the Polonnaruwa Museum, the Island Park area comprises the remains of Nissankamalla’s royal palace complex. Most interesting is the fine Council Chamber (similar to the one in the Citadel). The roof has long since gone, but the solid-stone base and various pillars survive, with an impressive, if rather cartoonish-looking lion, at one end.

Around 1.5km further south, the Potgul Vihara is a circular shrine (or possibly a library) surrounded by further monastic ruins. Nearby, an imposing stone statue is said to be the image of the bearded Parakramabahu himself, holding a palm-leaf manuscript, or “Book of Law” – although another theory holds that it’s actually a slice of fruit.


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