Exploring the Sacred City of Polonnaruwa

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.

cows grazing in front of an ancient palace complex in Polonnaruwa
View of the ruins
bikes parked by the ruins of the Sacred Quadrangle in Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka
Convenient way to travel
decapitated statue of Buddha in the archeological park of Polonnaruwa
Look around for unusual view of the ruins

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.

Council chamber of the palace complex of King Nissankamalla in Polonnaruwa
A view of the council chamber
stone pillars of the council chamber of King Nissankamalla and a stone statue of a lion guardian in Polonnaruwa
Council chamber and a stone statue of a lion guardian

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.

ancient dam covered by moss the by the reservoir in the King Nissankamalla Palace Complex of Polonnaruwa
Ancient dam by the reservoir in the King Nissankamalla Palace Complex
elephant in the distance by the water's edge in the ancient reservoir Parakrama Samudra
Look closely and you might find elephants by the water’s edge

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.

steps leading to the central hall of the palace of king parakramabahu in the ancient city of polonnaruwa
Central hall of the Palace of King Parakramabahu
exposed brick wall in the ruins of the palace of king parakamabahu in the ancient city of polonnaruwa
Exposed bricks of the imposing walls
collage photo showing the ruins of the palace and what's left of the limestone plaster walls
Views of the palace and what’s left of the limestone plaster walls

Kumara Pokuna
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.

tourists walk along the sides of the kumara pokuna, an ancient royal bath in the city of Polonnaruwa
Kumara Pokuna
steps leading to the bath the the water source, the Makara gargoyles
Steps to the bath and the Makara gargoyles

Royal Audience Hall
Found across the palace is the audience hall, embellished with lion portals, pillars, and a beautifully carved stepping stone.

tourists visiting the royal audience hall of the King Parakamabahu complex in Polonnaruwa
Royal Audience Hall in the King Parakamabahu complex
collage of two carvings in the public audience hall of king parakramabahu in Polonnaruwa
Stone carvings on the public audience halls
a tourists stands on top of the steps leading to the public audience halls of the palace complex of King Parakramabahu
Steps leading to the public audience halls
collage of various stone carvings on the steps and the walls of the royal audience hall in Polonnaruwa
Various carvings on the audience hall

Inside the Sacred Quadrangle (Dalada Maluva)
Polonnaruwa Vatadage
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.

Polonnaruwa Vatadage held ancient Buddha relics and are unique in Sri Lanka
The Polonnaruwa Vatadage
One of the seated Buddhas surrounding the main stupa at the second level of the Polonnaruwa Vatadage
One of the four seated Buddhas surrounding the stupa
the two muragalas or guard stone (on either side of the terrace) of the eastern entrance to the Polonnaruwa Vatadage
Muragalas at the eastern entrance are considered to be the best examples of architecture in the Polonnaruwa period
collage of two of seated Buddhas surrounding the large circular stupa face the four entrances to the vatadage
Seated Buddhas facing the four entrances to the vatadage
Elaborate stone carvings at the Polonnaruwa Vatadage
Elaborate stone carvings at the Polonnaruwa Vatadage

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).

visitors enter the temple of thuparama one of the buildings inside the sacred quadrangle in polonnaruwa
Entrance to Thuparama
different views of the temple including different statues of Lord Buddha
Inside the temple

Sathmahal Prasada
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.

pyramid shaped building Satmahal Prasada inside the sacred quadrangle of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Satmahal Prasada

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).

the atadage is the oldest building in the sacred quadrangle of Polonnaruwa
Atadage is the oldest building in the quadrangle
collage of the temple in Atadage and the Buddha statue inside in the sacred quadrangle in Polonnaruwa
Close-up of the Buddha statue in the Atadage
ruins of the walls surrounding the Atadage
Engravings surrounding the Atadage
Buddha statues inside the temple of Hatadage, an ancient building in the sacred quadrangle of Polonnaruwa
Hatadage, another tooth relic temple, in the sacred quadrangle

Gal Potha
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.

a view of the stone book, Gal Potha, chronicling the the life and rule of King Nissankamalla in the 12th century
Gal Potha or stone book, describes the life and rule of King Nissankamalla
stone carving of two elephants sprinkling water the Hindu goddess Lakshmi
Elephants sprinkling water on the Goddess Lakshmi
stone statues surrounding the gal potha
Surrounding statues at the Gal Potha

Other sites
Shiva Devale
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.

Shiva Devale no 2 is a stone temple and the oldest building in Polonnaruwa
Stone temple Shiva Devale is the oldest building in Polonnaruwa
greenery and an open field surrounding Shiva Devale in Polonnaruwa
View of the temple in the grounds
collage of photos showing the stone statue of Nandi the bull
Statue of Shiva’s mount, Nandi the bull
collage of the different views of the stone temple Shiva Devale
Front and end views of the temple

Pabalu Vehera
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.

view of pabalu vehera, temple of marbles, and one of the nine image houses of Lord Buddha
Pabalu Vehera (Temple of Marbles)
ruins of one of the image houses in front of the temple pabalu vehera
Another image house in front of Pabalu Vehera
statue of Lord Buddha in one of the image houses of Pabalu Vehera
Standing Buddha statue outside Pabalu Vehera

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
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.

tourists explore the area around Rankoth Vehera, the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa
Rankoth Vehera
green trees in an open field with a view of the stone temple Rankoth Vehera in the distancec
View of the Rankoth Vehera from the distance
collage of photos showing the different stone sculptures surrounding the Rankoth Vehera
Stone sculptures in the Rankoth Vehera
collage of the entrance into the Rankoth Vehera and another view of the stone temple
Entrance into the stone temple and the whole of Rankoth Vehera

Gal Vihara
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.

seated stone statue of Buddha in the dhyana mudra
Statue of Buddha in the dhyana mudra
shrine of seated Buddha statue called Vidyhadhara Guha, smallest of four, inside an artificial cave
Vidyhadhara Guha, smallest of all the statues, inside an artificial cave
a Standing image carved in the rock, which is being debated as being Buddha or not
Standing image depicting an unusual mudra
stone carving of Buddha lying down, depicting his parinirvana
Lying statue, depicting the parinirvana of Buddha
Stone image carving of Buddha up close, lying on a bolster
Buddha up close, lying on a bolster
tourist taking a photo of the reclining Buddha is dwarfed by the stone statue
Reclining statue with tourist, to scale and show how big it is

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

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