Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa: Sri Lanka

By Vacation India
Buddhist monks polonnaruwa Sri Lanka

Notwithstanding the fact that the second ancient capital of Sri Lanka was involved in raging conflicts for power which left it in a ruined state, a great number of architectural and artistic Buddhist treasures have been preserved.

After the destruction of Anuradhapura, the country’s first capital, Polonnaruwa took over as main city between the 11th and 13th centuries. During its relatively short but celebrated era, Buddhist architecture and arts, infused with large rations of Indian influences blossomed. During its heyday, the city’s magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples, its glorious palaces and great monasteries were guarded by a 4 mile/6 km-long enclosing wall, and it covered many acres of land east of the immense Parakrama Samudra Reservoir. The city had great strategic value, protecting the southern Ruhuna Province which became increasingly powerful by commanding every possible crossing over the River Mahaweli. It earned the name of Kandavuru Nuvara or Camp City as it offered security to soldiers as a military outpost. Historically it ranks second only to Anuradhapura in importance.

Foreign tourist enter the ruins of Lankatilaka Temple in Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital city of Sri Lanka. Although the roof has collapsed long ago, the remains of the high aisle walls give it a dramatic cathedral-like feel © Davorlovincic

Discovering Polonnaruwa

Groups of ruined remains in this ancient city are found clustered together. The Royal Palace Group consists of King Parakramabahu’s royal residence and Audience Hall, and lies south of the entrance. To the north, in the impressive Quadrangle is the spectacular Vatadage that was built to house the Sacred Tooth Relic. Also to the north, but outside the original walls that protected the city, a huge cluster of religious structures is concentrated together. Near the museum the Island Garden can be found, and a little way south, next to the Parakrama Samudra Reservoir lie the Southern Ruins. Because the ruins are spread out over such a large area, it is not advisable to explore them on foot. Bicycles are recommended and can be rented close to the entrance or at guest houses in the area.

The reclining Buddha at the Gal Vihara Rock Temple of ancient Polonnaruwa. This kind of representation shows the Buddha during his last illness, on his way to enter Nirvana © Nuwan Liyanage

The Royal Palace Group

Fortifications once protected Vejayanta Prasada, King Parakramabahu’s seven stories-high palace, Audience Hall and other structures which lay at the heart of ancient Polonnaruwa. The palace was once a grand residence with 1000 chambers, and a huge hall with 30 columns supporting its roof, as is evident from the holes that fixed the beams, which are still visible. Today the former grandeur is only hinted at by the remaining brick structures standing three stories high.

East of the palace the Audience Hall or Council Chamber can be seen. Here the ruler held meetings with his officials and advisors, and although the hall’s roof did not withstand the ravages of time, the base, adorned with friezes of lions, elephants and dwarves remain. Typical of ancient Sinhalese architecture, there is a beautiful moonstone at the foot of the steps going up to the next level. The balustrades are decorated, while two lion figures stand guard alongside the last step.

The square shaped Royal Baths are beautifully multi-leveled and situated to the eastern side of the Audience Hall. It is believed that they were once surrounded by flowers and trees as part of the pleasure gardens for the royals. Nearby ruins might have been a bathhouse. Also for the royals.

Gray langur monkeys at Polonnaruwa. Three different species of these animals live in the ruined city, the other two being torque macaques and the purple faced leaf monkeys who keeps to the tree canopy © Danilovi

Shiva Devale No 1

Immediately south of the Quadrangle is a 13th century shrine built during the time of Indian occupation. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is notable for the outstanding stonework. Constructed completely without the use of mortal the stones were cut to fit perfectly. The domed brick roof has collapsed long ago, but during excavations a few excellent bronzes were discovered that are now exhibited in the National Museum in Colombo.

Highly decorative detail carvings in stone show the excellent craftsmanship in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka © Danilovi

Buddha Seema Pasada

This impressive structure, even in its present ruined state, was once the Convocation Hall where monks gathered to discuss religious affairs. Located near Lankatilaka, is was part of an expansive monastery complex and stood 12 stories tall. An inner raised platform was reserved for monks of the highest ranks. Four entrances connect the hall to an inner courtyard with a beautiful moonstone at each entrance.

Lankatilaka Temple was the tallest structure in ancient Polonnaruwa. It was constructed of bricks, was around five stories high and has a very large Buddha statue missing its head and arms on one wall © Milan Chudoba

Kiri Vihara

Kiri Vihara, similar to the design of the Rankot Vihara, was a shrine for sacred relics or Dagoba, and is situated north of Lankatilaka. Its construction is credited to Subhadra, wife of King Parakramabahu. When it was discovered this Dagoba was covered in white plaster perfectly preserved leading to its name, as Kiri is the Sinhalese for milk.

The Polonnaruwa Vatadage was believed to have been built to protect the stupa holding the Buddha Tooth Relic or the Buddha’s arms bowl. Elaborate stone carvings decorate the platforms © Bethwolff43

Menik Vihara

Near the city’s northern gate, a pathway leads to what ruins of the Menik Vihara. Of the former monastery only the restored foundations of numerous structures and a smaller Dagoba have survived. From a raised platform the visitor can see the interior relic chamber through the fragmented top of the shrine. The stupa stands on an unusually high brick base.

Monks on their way to the Rankoth Vehera, one of the most revered stupas in Polonnaruwa, ancient capital city of Sri Lanka. Made entirely of brick, it is also the largest stupa in this ancient city © Helovi

The Quadrangle  

The highlight of a visit to Polonnaruwa and its main attraction is the magnificent Quadrangle Complex, a short stroll north of the Palace ruins. The square shaped terrace has a compact group of fascinating ancient Buddhist ruins. One of Polonnaruwa’s most striking architectural structures is the Vatadage, built by King Parakramabahu to house the Relic of the Tooth. It is the most sacred and oldest building in the ancient city. A brick wall encircles the central Dagoba, sitting on a platform. The terrace is reached through an entrance at each of the four corners, followed by more steps to reach the Dagoba. Reaching the top, the visitor is greeted by a Buddha statue. 

Facing the Vatadage, the original two-story high Hatadage is an ancient shrine constructed by King Nissankamala to hold the Sacred Tooth Relic. The entrance has a stunning moonstone and inside three grand Buddha statues can be found. The Atadage lies next to the Hatadage. When Polonnaruwa became the capital, King Vijayabahu l built this shrine to keep the relic. Unfortunately, only the base and a few ornate pillars survived. A huge slab of granite, Gal Pota, is located on the opposite side of the Hatadage. It weighs more than 28 tonnes/25 tons, and has a length of more than 26 ft./8 meters. Inscriptions on this so-called Stone Book extol the virtues of King Nissankamala. Next to this slab is a step pyramid, the Satmahal Prasada, similar in design to Cambodian, or Khmer temples. Near the Vatadage’s west gate is the Nissankalata, or Lotus Mandapa, a platform on which King Nissankamala allegedly sat while listening to religious chantings. It got its name from the encircling stone pillars shaped like lotus buds folded back three times on their stalks.

In the Quadrangle’s southwest corner lies the Thuparama Shrine, dating back to the reign of King Vijayabahu. There are eight statues of the Buddha, some dating back to the era of Anuradhapura, first capital of ancient Sri Lanka. Loopholes in the thick brick walls let in sunlight to make limestone crystals in the Buddha statues sparkle and shine.

This meditating Buddha statue is one of a series found at Gal Viharaya Temple, originally part of the king’s northern monastery. The statues represent different stages in the Buddha’s life © Republica

Island Garden

The remains of what is probably the royal palace of King Nissankamalla can be found in the area of King Parakramabahu’s pleasure garden, behind the museum in Polonnaruwa. This complex consists of the ruins of a number of structures of which the Council Chamber is the most interesting. Four lines of columns and the plinth that supported the missing roof remain. A huge granite statue of a lion at the plinth’s southern end probably indicates where the king’s throne was located. The adjacent columns have inscriptions of the names of dignitaries who probably were seated next to these columns when in attendance with the ruler.

Names include that of the prime minister, keeper of records, as well as chamber of commerce members. A mausoleum of stone, most probably the king’s cremation site, lies to the south of this Council Chamber. Nearby are what is left of the Royal Baths with underground water pipes that fed them from the Parakrama Samudra Reservoir. A mound in the vicinity is all that remained of the Summer House built by King Parakramabahu.

Only walls and pillars remain of the former grand temple in Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka dating back to the 11th century © Foryouinf

Southern Ruins

Just a short cycle or pleasant stroll all along the Parakrama Samudra Reservoir bring the visitor to the Southern Ruins. Amongst these is the monastery complex, Potgul Vihara, quite well-preserved, that consisted of various ruins including four Dagobas surrounding a round brick structure. The thick walled central building is believed to have been a library housing sacred books. Legend has it that Parakramabahu constructed it as the venue where he would listen to Pulasti, the great Brahman sage. 

To the northern side of the monastery complex stands a bearded rock statue. It is notably less stylized than other sculpted figures in the ancient city, and theories vary between it being an image of King Parakramabahu or Kapila, a Pulasti sage.

Statue of a sitting Buddha at one of the many shrines in the ancient kingdom city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka © Efesenko

The remains of an ancient Hindu temple in Sri Lanka. Although Hindus make up only 12.6% of its population, temples dating back 2000 years show it to be the oldest religion in the country © Vladkyselov

Polonnaruwa is an ancient city in Sri Lanka and was the country’s capital for 300 years, between the 11th and 13th centuries. The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s second oldest kingdom and ruled over the island, as well as several other territories © Aleskramer

This lion statue carved out of rock stands at the palace complex of king Nissanka Malla who ruled the ancient kingdom during the 12th century, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka © Aar studio

Detail of small statues at Polonnaruwa, the ancient kingdom city which has seen many civilizations coming and going including the Cholas, and South Indian Hindu and Buddhist Sinhalese before its abandonment in the 13th century © Wanderluster

Tourists walk through the ruins of Lankatilaka Vihara, the tallest structure in ancient Polonnaruwa. It was built with bricks and stands five stories high © DavorLovinic

Remains of the large monastic complex of Alahana Pirivenain in Polonnaruwa. The monastery was built on terraces in a beautiful setting with ponds for bathing and storing water, as well as various parks © DavorLovinic

Visitors and young monks walk around the ruined remains of the ancient kingdom city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka © DavorLovinic

Monks in different colored robes sit on a low wall in Polonnaruwa. In its heyday many Buddhist monks resided in the large monastic complex © Helovi

The elegantly carved semicircular moonstone near the royal bathing pool in ancient Polonnaruwa. Moonstones are unique features of ancient Sinhalese architecture and are usually found at the bottom of staircases or entrances © DavorLovinic

The cruciform shaped ancient royal pool in Polonnaruwa had crocodile mouth water spouts and can be found at a corner of the palaces, Sri Lanka © Helovi

Of what was once the grand residence of King Parakramabahu, today only ruined walls remain. It is believed that some of the structures stood up to seven stories high © Helovi

A reclining Buddha, one of the four rock relief statues of the Buddha at Gal Vihara, the rock temple in ancient Polonnaruwa. The temple is the most visited site in this historic ancient city © Mathankumar Devakaran

A sitting Buddha statue, carved from the sold rock face of the Gal Vihara Temple in Polonnaruwa. The four Buddha statues are an excellent example of ancient Sinhalese carving and sculpture © Nuwan Liyanage

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka brims with archeological treasures including temples, palaces, shrines and statue. The statue of a seated Buddha is but one of many found in the kingdom city © Joyt

Four Buddha statues, each facing in another direction around the Vatadage in Polonnaruwa. Vatadages are unique to ancient Sri Lankan architecture and were built around small stupas to lend protection © Saman Weeratunga

This statue of a meditating Buddha was taken in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. The city complex is a World Heritage Site © Radiokukka

A group of cycling tourists ride through a park inside ancient Polonnaruwa. Cycling is a popular means of transport since the ruins are extensive and spread out over a large area © Davor Lovinic

The ruins of a Khmer Hindu temple in Phanom Rung Historical Park in ancient Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka © Photobylove

This reclining Buddha statue in Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa is 46 ft./14 meters long and symbolizes the Buddha entering Nirvana. He lies on his right side, with his head usually resting on his elbow or a cushion © abramovtv

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