From Sigiraya, we drove 60 kms to Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka from 1070 to about 1255 AD. One of the reasons we drove here was that there were a lot of ancient Buddhist ruins, something that le hubby has not seen before. Polonnaruwa comprises the monumental ruins of the fabulous garden-city created by King Parakramabahu I in the 12th century, aside from the Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas. Polonnaruwa is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are several sites worth exploring in Polonnaruwa and they can be explored by walking or biking. Some of the ruins, including the archaeological museum, were located literally outside our hotel, the Ekho Lake Guest house. Read about this newly renovated gem, where Queen Elizabeth II of the UK stayed during her visit to Sri Lanka in 1954, in this post. Note that even if the monuments and temples are in ruins, they are still considered sacred sites. Thus entering them requires covering the shoulders and knees in accordance with tradition. I actually had to skip entering some of the temples and just stayed outside because of this.
Here are the sites we visited in Polonnaruwa. The first group of ruins, the Palace Complex of King Nissankamalla (1187-1196), was walking distance from our hotel and can be visited first since the archaeological museum (where tickets to the sites can be bought) is located here as well.
King Nissankamalla Palace Council Chamber
The pillars on this monument have been inscribed the status and titles of various officials of the kingdom. This is how the archaeologists knew that the ruins were once the King’s council chamber.
Parakrama Samudraya Reservoir
Parakrama Samudraya, Sinhalese for Sea of Parakrama, was built by King Parakramabahu and is the largest ancient man-made rainwater reservoir in Sri Lanka. It is the lifeline to the agricultural district of Polonnaruwa and its surroundings. Our hotel is actually located on the banks of this great body of water. Check out the edges of the lake at dawn or dusk and you just might see an elephant in the distance.
Most of the visited ruins in the sacred city were actually in the main archaeological park, a five minute drive from Ekho Lake House. This is a good place to bike around as the sites are quite far from each other. Cars are also permissible inside. I would advise against walking, although this is doable, mostly because it can get really, really hot especially in the midday and the monuments themselves are scattered in an open field without the shade of trees.
Upon entering, the straight road will split to the left and right. You will see the Sacred Quadrangle right away on the left, but turn to the right first to see the ruins inside the Royal Citadel before heading back to explore the Buddhist monuments in the quadrangle. Then, you can head on straight to the rest of the sites up to the park’s exit.
Inside the Royal Citadel
Palace of King Parakramabahu (1123-1186)
The biggest monument in the area, the palace must have been very grand at seven stories high and richly decorated during its time. You can still see the leftover lime plaster that covered the bricks in one of the corners. The buildings of this period used lime mortar and enabled the building of huge brick structures.
The royal bath, a short walk from the palace, and found at the edge of the park. The water enters the pond through the water canals called makara gargoyles.
Royal Audience Hall
Found across the palace is the audience hall, embellished with lion portals, pillars, and a beautifully carved stepping stone.
Inside the Sacred Quadrangle (Dalada Maluva)
An ancient structure, called vatadage, believed to have been built by either Parakramabahu I to hold the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha or during the reign of Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa to hold the alms bowl used by the Buddha. Vatadages are unique architectural features in ancient Sri Lanka and were built for the protection of stupas that held important relics. Both these venerated relics would have given the structure a great significance and importance at the time. It is the best preserved example of a vatadage in the country. The structure has two stone platforms decorated with elaborate stone carvings. Four Buddha statues are seated around a stupa, each facing one of the entrances.
This vaulted shrine was undergoing preservation when we visited. The oldest image house at Polonnaruwa, this building was built during the reign of Sri Lanka’s King Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 AD).
This seven story edifice is constructed in a stepped pyramidal form that contains seven square levels. According to the archaeologists, the layout of the edifice resembles Vat Kukut at Lamphun, Thailand which was built in the eight century. The identity and the purpose of this monument has actually not yet been proven.
Hatadage and Atadage
The Hatadage and Atadage monuments are Sacred Tooth relic temples in Polonnaruwa. The Sacred Tooth relic is currently preserved in Kandy. Both are handsome structures embellished with fine carvings. The Atadage is the oldest building in the Sacred Quadrangle (also built by Vijayabahu I).
Gal Potha is a massive eight meter stone edifice that records the deeds of King Nissankamalla, from his genealogy and to the wars with the Dravidian invaders from South India. The slab of stone was brought from Mihintale, 102 kilometers from Polonnaruwa. The inscription on this stone has been of great assistance to scholars as it reveals the evolution of Sinhala script. Check out the carved carved elephants sprinkling water on the Hindu goddess Lakshmi on the sides of the Gal Potha.
There are two Hindu shrines in the complex and this is one of them. This 11th century temple is built entirely of stone and the Nandi bull, Shiva’s vehicle, can be found outside.
Pabalu Vehera is believed to be built during the late Anuradhapura period and enlarged during the Polonnaruwa period. The stupa is surrounded by four image houses located in the cardinal points with limestone statues of Buddha sculpted in different postures.
The Shiva Devale and Pabalu Vehera sites are a bit ‘off-road’ and are less visited by tourists. We used our GPS to figure out the location of these monuments. In my opinion, they were worth the detour from the main road.
Rankoth Vehera is unmissable as it is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa. It measures 167 meters and was built by King Nissankamalla in the 12th century. There is a huge terrace surrounding the stupa.
Also known as the Rock Temple, Gal Vihara was the last monument we visited in Polonnaruwa. I was excited see this site as I had seen it in a travel magazine years ago and had always been in my bucket list. There are four Buddha statues carved out of the granite boulder. The first one is Buddha seated in dhyana mudra; a second seated but small one called Vidyhadhara Guha, is inside an artificial cave and is covered by wire gate with plastic; a standing image, 7 meters high, in dukkha dukkhitha mudra (sorrow for the sorrow of others); and a reclining statue, the largest of all four, 14 meters in length, and depicts the parinirvana of Buddha. As this area continues to be a sacred site, we were asked to remove our shoes and walk in the dirt. Across the reclining Buddha is a huge rock with a flat surface and can be climbed. It was a nice area to relax and admire the statues after a long day of sight-seeing.
Note: we missed seeing the Lankathilaka Image House (next to Kiri Vehera and are both in the same complex across the pond at Gal Vihara) which houses a monolithic image of Buddha. Most of the information I posted was pulled from this site.