The ancient city of Polonnaruwa 216 km northeast of Colombo is a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.
One of the most significant kingdoms in Sri Lankan history this medieval capital (11th - 12th Century AD) remains a well-preserved city of ancient stupas, moonstones, beautiful parks, massive buildings and imposing statues. The ruins of this ancient city stay scattered over an extensive area of woodland and can be explored within a day. The city was enclosed by three concentric protecting the royal palace complex at its centre, the religious buildings - called Quadrangle, lie to the North and are very well preserved to this day. The largest monuments are found here including the buildings of the Menik Vihara, Rankot Vihara, Alahana Pirivena and Jetavana monasteries, the incredible Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara, the soaring Lankatilaka shrine, the majestic King's Council Chamber, the Lotus Bath are must see sights. And of course, the giant statue of Polonnaruwa's greatest king - Parakramabahu, and the vast ‘Sea of Parakrama’ – a 12th century man-made reservoir which dominates the city are not to be missed either.
No visit to Polonnaruwa is complete without a visit to the famed Gal Vihare. Gal Vihare means “Rock Temple” in Sinhalese and is one of the main attractions for Buddhists pilgrims as well as local and foreign travellers who visit this ancient city. It is an amazing archaeological site which features two seated Buddha statues, a standing Buddha statue and a reclining Buddha statue all carved out of a single massive granite rock. The Gal Vihare is also known as the Uththaramaya which means the northern monastery. This is said to have been created during the reign of one of Sri Lanka’s most successful leaders, King Parakramabahu the Great (1153AD to 1186AD) during which time Polonnaruwa served as the islands capital.
The larger of the two Samadhi Buddha statues or seated Buddha statues is approximately 16 feet in height while the standing Buddha is 7m in height and unique in comparison to other standing Buddha images found around the Island in that the statues arms are folded and eyes are shut. It is said that this particular statue was a later addition and does not date back to the days of King Parakramabahu the Great. The reclining Buddha is 14m long while the smaller Samadhi Buddha statue found in the small rocky cavity does not boast the artistic prowess seen in the other statues.
Built by the one of Sri Lanka’s greatest ruler’s King Parakramabahu I to retain the monsoon rains, the Parakrama Samudraya is one of the largest man made reservoirs in the country and is an integral lifeline to the residents of the surrounding areas with a steady supply of water during the drier, arid months. It occupies approximately an amazing 2500 hectares and was built by the great king in a bid to conserve water and help foster agricultural activity in the then capital city of the island. The king was famed to have said, “Not one drop of water shall reach the sea, without first serving man”.
Looking out over this amazing reservoir while driving high up on its 14km long embankment, one gets a feeling of actually gazing in to an inland ‘sea’, which the word ‘Samudraya’ translates to in Sinhalese. The famous Polonnaruwa Guest House which has been a reception area for many foreign dignitaries over the years, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, is located at one end of the embankment and is an ideal location to stop for a quiet lunch or a thirst quenching lime juice whilst gazing over the serene “Sea of Parakrama”.
The Statue of Parakramabahu I
Although this statue has not been positively identified as being the statue of one of Sri Lankas’s greatest Kings, King Parakramabahu I, it is a widely accepted belief amongst locals. Located outside the boundaries of Potgul Vihara monastery which is close to the eastern banks of the magnificent Parakrama Samudraya reservoir, the statue is cut into a large rock boulder and is considered to be one of the finest statues on the island. Measuring over 11 feet in height, this impressive statue was presumably built in the 12th century during King Parakramabahu I’s reign. The alternate school of thought is that the statue represents a sage. The identity of the sage has been narrowed down to three – Agastya, Kapila or Pulasti. Irrespective of who the statue actually represents, the statue is a national monument which attracts many local and foreign visitors and is definitely worthy of a visit.
Vatadage - Polonnaruwa
The Vatadage is undoubtedly one of the most architecturally beautiful structures built during the Polonnaruwa period. It is a circular building built to protect a dagoba. A dagoba is usually a sacred mound of bricks used to entomb a relic of Lord Buddha. The entire structure of the Vatadage is decorated with elaborate stone carvings which include a moonstone at the northern entrance as well as a two magnificent guard stones or muragal. These features are thought to be some of the best examples of the exquisite artistic skills of stone masons from the Polonnaruwa period. It is uncertain if the Vatadage was created during the reign of King Parakramabahu I or King Nissanka Malla. Irrespective of this, it is definitely worth a visit as it is possibly the best preserved example of a Vatadage in the country and a testament to the architectural brilliance of this period.
The Pabalu Vehera is a stupa which does not conform to the usual design. It is thought to have been built by Queen Rupavathi who was one of King Parakramabahu I’s consorts. While the ancient name of the stupa is not known, the structure was named Pabalu Vehera owing to the considerable number of glass beads (pabalu in Sinhala) which were recovered during the excavation of the site. This stupa which dates back to the 12th century has nine image houses around it, which is unusual in itself as stupa’s generally have only four image houses around them. It is thought that some of these image houses may have been built at different periods of time by others. On the south side there are two flights of steps leading up to the first and second basal terraces where there were limestone flower alters.
Located towards the northern gate the Manik Vehera is located along a footpath. An interesting feature of the Vehera is the row of terracotta plaques with images of lions squatting and facing forward. There are two guard stones also on display at the entrance of the structure. There are two other structures which are thought to have been an image house and possibly a house for a Bodhi tree. A well persevered stone inscription dating to the time of King Nissanka Malla was located on the east side of the Menik Vehera but has since been moved to the archaeological museum. The platform of the Menik Vehera is paved using bricks.
Built during the reign of King Nissanka Malla, the Rankoth Vehera is an ancient temple which means the “Golden spired Dagoba”. However, this structure was originally known as the Ruvanveli Dagoba which translates to the “Golden Sand Dagoba”. It is the largest completed Dagoba in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Close to the entrance gate of the dagoba there is a stone seat inscription which records the fact that King Nissanka Malla sat on the seat and witnessed the construction of this ancient place of worship. Around the Rankot Vehera are numerous image houses which contained images of Lord Buddha as well as flower alters for worshipper to present their floral offerings.
Lankathilaka Image House of Polonnaruwa
The Lankathilaka Image House is a large brick gedige with walls which measure up to 17m in height. Originally built by King Parakramabahu I, the building is said to have been later restored by King Vijayabahu IV. This image house was once home to a magnificent representation of the standing Buddha which was originally about 13m in height. However, this structure has since perished and only the torso remains standing. The roof of Lankathilaka has also since collapsed but the building must have looked amazing in its hay day, as even today it is definitely one of the most impressive ruins you are likely to come across in this ancient city.
Temple of the Tooth Relic of King Vijaybahu (Atadage)
Having liberated the country from foreign oppression King Vijayabahu I made Polonnaruwa the capital of the island for the first time. As the ruler of the country, he was responsible for protecting and honouring the sacred tooth relic and thus had the Atadage built for this purpose. The Atadage is the only surviving structure dating back to King Vijayabahu’s reign. The structure was built on 54 stone pillars and it is believed that the sacred tooth relic was kept on the second floor which was possibly made of wood, and thus has not survived. There is evidence to suggest that some parts of the building were brought from Anuradhapura such as the moonstone which is seen at the entrance. There is also evidence that the royal bodyguard, which at the time composed of mostly Indian mercenaries, were actively engaged in safeguarding the tooth relic. A large stone slab with inscriptions known as the Valaikkara inscription bears testament to this.
The Thuparama Gedige is said to be the smallest gedige in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. A gedige is a hollow Buddhist temple with thick walls. The Thuparama Gedige was built for the worship of the Buddha image and once housed a seated image of the Buddha which has since perished. However, the structure itself is in a well preserved state and is the only one of its kind with its roof intact. A number of architectural models and stone sculptures can be seen within this building some of which date back to the Anuradhapura period. Thuparama provides an excellent idea of what buildings would have looked like during the height of the Polonnaruwa era and is a site which should not be missed. The building is thought to date back to the reign of King Parahramabahu I.
Located in the southern part of Polonnaruwa, Potgul Vihara was a monastery built by King Parakramabahu I. Also known as the Library Monastery, it is widely known as Potgul Vihara as its ancient name has not been established. This unique monastery consists of a circular building on a central platform which is surrounded by four dagabas. While the roof of the central building has since collapsed, the acoustic effects of this structure have not been lost and are still excellent despite its ruined state. It is thought that the central circular structure is the “circle house” or “Mandalamandira” outlined in the ancient chronicles which say was built by King Parakramabahu for “for listening to the birth stories of the Great Sage, which were related by a teacher”.
Built in the same style as the Rankot Vehera but on a smaller scale, Kiri Vehera lies to the north of the Lankathilaka Image House. Originally known as the Rupavathi Chetiya, this religious monument is credited to King Parakramabahu I’s queen, Queen Subhadra. Its current name, Kiri Vehera means ‘milk white’ owing to the fact that when this structure was re-discovered after 700 years of neglect in an overgrown jungle, the original limestone plaster was in fact still intact. Thus it is possibly the best preserved structure within the walls of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa and a great testament to the country’s ancient builders.
Tivanka Pilimage - Image House
The Tivanka Pilimage or Tivanka Image House is located towards the end of the northern road within the walls of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. On the way to the Tivanka Pilimage you will pass a circular brick building which has been identified as the shrine which housed the sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha during annual processions. The image house itself gets its name from the statue of Lord Buddha which is within the image house and is in a three curved position. The building is most notably the home to the only surviving murals of the Polonnaruwa era, some of which date back to the time of King Parakramabahu I, while others have been restored by other ancient kings that followed. The building also houses a variety of carvings and images, most notably those of energetic dwarfs around the exterior of the structure.
Visitor Information and Museum
Located in close proximity to the Parakrama Samudraya is the Polonnaruwa Visitor Information Centre and Museum. The archaeological museum provides you with an insight to what the ancient city of Polonnaruwa would have been like in all its glory with the scale models of buildings and monuments which are now in ruins. Exhibits are planned in a systematic manner so that you pass through a series of rooms, each dedicated to a particular theme. There is also an amazing collection of bronze artefacts which will truly mesmerise you. Displays are complemented with descriptive texts which help visitors gain insight into the historical significance and importance of them. The museum is well worth visiting. If you are unsure of the history of Polonnaruwa, it might be worthwhile to make the museum your first stop on your tour of Polonnaruwa so that you gain a clear understanding of the significance and history behind each of the ruins you are likely to see.
Nissanka Latha Mandapaya
Located within the ancient city walls of Polonnaruwa, Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is situated in the Dalada Maluwa, which is the area which the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was kept during the Polonnaruwa period. The Nissanka Latha Mandapaya was built by King Nissanka Malla who was the ruler from 1187-1196AD and is thus named after him. The structure was a royal pavilion where the King would come to listen to the chanting of protective Buddhist texts also known as chanting Pirith. The architecture and design of the Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is quite fascinating and consists of sculptures which are quite unlike any other you are likely to encounter. For example the stone pillars which are located on the platform within this building are fashioned to resemble the stalks of a lotus bud. Thus the columns are not straight as is commonly seen in stone architecture from this period, but curved in three places. Elaborately sculptured, the crown of the pillar has been carved to resemble a blossoming lotus bud.