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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.