Welcome to Polonnaruwa, a mythical place not to be missed !
Polonnaruwa is the epitome of alchemy between Sri Lankan Buddhism and craftsmanship combined with royalty and cultural influence from South Indian dynasties. The architecture and other marvels are sure to blow your mind. Polonnaruwa has got one of the highest concentrations of remarkable edifices in the country.
Polonnaruwa is an imperative destination for a visit to the cultural triangle to be complete. Located some 45 kilometres east of Habrana, this little settlement attained prominence when Chola kings from South India who invaded the island in 1017 decided to shift the capital from Anuradhapura to this place. Polonnaruwa thus gained immediate strategic importance in the eleventh century.
Although the Chola rule lasted only five decades and in 1070, Polonnaruwa then became the centre of all attraction of Buddhism. After King Vijaya Bahu Sinhala I defeated the Chola king, the city was fortified by his successor, King Parakramabahu I who also built a huge reservoir, capable of irrigating all the surrounding rice fields. Known as Parakrama Samudra (“The Sea of Parakrama”), it is operational till today.
Polonnaruwa’s lustre gradually declined under the effect of other Indian invasions and destruction. In the thirteenth century, the capital was shifted to Yapahuwa and slowly lush jungle vegetation invaded this once-royal capital.
Plundered by the Portuguese, Polonnaruwa was forgotten until the nineteenth century when it underwent revival after numerous excavations conducted by the British.
Today, the site is exclusively a historic relic, with some urbanization on the fringes supplying amenities to tourists. Contrary to the temples in Anuradhapura, the temples of Polonnaruwa are not active pilgrim destinations.
Polonnaruwa is now listed as World Heritage site by UNESCO.
How to get to Polonnaruwa and how to move around
Getting there - By bus
Polonnaruwa has two bus stops: one in the old town and another a few kilometres east at Kaduruwela. You can reach Polonnaruwa from Colombo (buses every 30 minutes), Kandy and Anuradhapura (very frequent buses). These buses also pass through Dambulla and Habarana. The buses can drop you off at both stops but to be sure of getting a seat, it is better to board from Kaduruwela.
The train station closest to Polonnaruwa is at Kaduruwela, right next to the bus station. Trains on the Colombo-Batticaloa line stop here.
Numerous tourist attractions in Polonnaruwa
The vestiges of the old city of Polonnaruwa are spread over many kilometres. The new town, referred as “Old Town” does not hold anything of real interest to the traveller unless you need to send a postcard, access internet or withdraw cash from an ATM. To visit the old vestiges, you will hence need a means of locomotion to move around. A bicycle can be one of them (you can rent one at your hotel). If travelling with children, you can hire a tuk-tuk for a day.
Access to the site and the museum cost $25 per adult and $15 for children under 12. The main entrance is located on Batticaloa Road, 500 metres north of the museum.
The site and museum are open daily from 7 am to 6 pm. A complete tour of the site requires a half-day minimum. You can make full use of the early opening hours to start your trip just after a quick breakfast to visit the southern part before the heat sets in and northern part after lunch. Whatever be your timing, begin with the main site in the south and continue onward to the ruins in the north that are divided into two zones: an inner main monastic zone and a peripheral monastic area. You can get around the area or a hired tuk tuk or your private vehicle, but renting a bike is probably the best way to enjoy the place.
Guides: You can hire a guide at the museum. Expect to pay Rs.1500 for a half-day tour.
Southern attractions - Parakramabahu I Statue
The king behind the architectural splendour of Polonnaruwa has a stone sculpture in his honour measuring almost 3.5 metres carved on a large boulder. Though many consider this majestic figure with an expression of seriousness and a set of manuscripts in his hands as that of Parakramabahu I, scholars have suggested that the statue depicts Agastya the sage.
Poth Gul Vihara Complex
Just next to the statue of Parakramabahu I is the Poth Gul Vihara Complex, on the eastern shore of Parakrama Samudra, the reservoir built by the King Parakramabahu I. The complex houses the remains of a circular temple which would have served as a library for storing sacred writings and a giant statue (Poth Gul Statue). Notice the four small Stupas at each corner. Admission is free.
Nissanka Malla Palace
This monument situated directly on the shores of the reservoir is about 200 metres north of the archaeological museum. There is little that remains today of the once splendid Palace of King Nissanka Malla. Apart from the boardroom, the royal baths, you can admire a majestic sculpture of a lion that represents the royalty. On the four rows of pillars are the names of the dignitaries who attended the king’s court, in a seating order that helped historians retrace the political structure of those days. There are some other ruins, in a neglected state, all around the palace. Some interesting relics from this site are today housed in the Polonnaruwa Museum.
Admission is free.
Vejayanta Pasada or The Royal Palace
The initial building contained seven stories and is said to have contained more than a thousand rooms. All that is left for visitors to see are the remaining walls that are two stories high. It is said that the palace was destroyed by fire. The thick walls are a testimony to the royal character of the building.
King Parakramabahu's Council Chamber
Also known as Raja Vaishyabhujanga Mandapaya, King Parakramabahu's Council Chamber was the official seat of the king’s government. Located within walking distance from Vijayanta Pasada, the visitor can admire 48 elegantly carved pillars, sculptures and bas-reliefs. Although the wooden roof of the building is no more, one can imagine the building as it used to be thanks to the plan that is provided on site.
At the entrance to the Council Chamber is a moonstone that lack the traditional line of bulls (out of respect to Hindus ?), two short flights of steps and a pair of lions look similar to the ones found in China.
The Royal Baths
Also referred to as Kumara Pokuna, these baths adjoining the Council Chamber and are preserved in perfect condition. They were connected to the Parakrama Samudra by an ingenious system of mains. Today, the water is mossy green (not the kind that will tempt you to take a plunge!) but back in the olden days, fresh water was fed to the pool through spouts carved in stone to resemble crocodile jaws. This whimsical creation, surrounded by fruit-bearing trees in days bygone, was definitely a privileged spot to take a dip!
Shiva Devale, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, is one of the fourteen Hindu temples found in Polonnaruwa. It still contains a lingam in its inner altar.
The temple was built in classic South Indian tradition by the the Cholas in the 10th century when they invaded Sri Lanka. It has remained intact due to the construction technique that consisted of assembling stones without the use of mortar and also thanks to restoration work conducted recently.
The temple is not to be confused with the other Shiva Devale that is situation immediately at the left of the main entrance of the site, that has not withstood the work of time.
About 1 km from the main entrance, stands the Pabalu Vihara, a brick dagoba that is the third largest of its kind in Polonnaruwa. Pabulu Vehera or « Coral Shrine » is said to have been built by Rupavati, one of the queens of Parakramabahu. There are a number of Buddha images dating from the later Polonnaruwa period to be seen around the dagoba.
Dalada Maluwa (Sacred Quadrangle)
This terrace is one of the top archaeological sites in Sri Lanka. In this sacred area (footwear prohibited) there is an impressing well-preserved collection of a dozen or so important structures.
This beautiful circular pavilion is the most impressive part of the Sacred Quadrangle. A wooden roof probably covered the whole structure (as suggested in the model housed in the museum). The four entrances lead to four Buddhas facing the four cardinal directions. At the north entrance is one of the most beautiful moonstones in Polonnaruwa.
Built in the twelfth century by Nissanka Malla, it is said to have housed the tooth relic of the Buddha. The shrine is surrounded by a stone wall with an entrance on its southern side decorated with stone carvings, leading to a stone paved terrace. Murals depicting the life of the king, as well as musicians and dancers are the main attractions here.
If you go around the Hatadage, you arrive at the Atadage. The Atadage dates from the reign of King Vijayabahu I in the 11th century. The name Atadage means "House of Eight Relics". Today there are 54 stone pillars that once held an upper floor. Like its illustrious neighbour the Hatadage, the Atadage housed the sacred tooth relic of Buddha. The Tamil inscriptions on the pillars may attest the fact that the place was guarded by Tamil guards. Admire the 3-metre tall Buddha statue at the end of the hall.
- Chapter Room
Only the base of the building and some pillars remain of this modest structure not far from the Hatadage.
- Gal Pota
Gal Pota or “Stone Book” is a massive piece of engraved stone rock measuring over 8 metres long and 1.5 metres wide that represents an ola palm leaf. Its estimated weight is 25 tons. The inscriptions recount the exploits of King Nissanka Malla against Indian invaders. The stone was supposedly transported from Mihintale over 100 km away.
- Sat Mahal Prasada
A pyramidal seven-storied structure, Sat Mahal (meaning "seven storeyed palace") is one of its kind in Sri Lanka. Similar structures are to be found only in East Asia, a reason why some Archaeologists believe that it was probably erected by Cambodian soldiers who worked here during the Polonnaruwa period.
- Nissanka Latha Mandapaya
This is a superb pavilion compsed of an elevated stone platform with a number of stone columns surrounded by a low stone wall. The king often came here to listen to the chanting of Buddhist scriptures (a nearby stone inscription attests to this fact). The unique feature about Nissanka Latha Manadapaya are the eight granite columns arranged in two rows, carved to ressemble a lotus stem and ending in the shape of a blossoming lotus bud at the top.
This image house is probably the best-preserved building in Polonnaruwa with a semi-cylindrical roof completely made of bricks. It was probably built by Mahinda, a minister to King Parakramabahu to house the tooth relic. Within the sanctuary is a statue of a seated Buddha that devotees decorate regularly with flowers. It is believed that the statue’s eyes had precious stones embedded and light coming in through the windows would reflect on them.
The Northern ruins are reached after getting past the second gate of the citadel. Among the things you can admire are:
This immense dagoba is 55 meters high and reminds the ones in Anuradhapura. Built by King Nissanka Malla (an inscription on rock attests to the fact that the king pesonally supervised its construction), it is ranked as the fourth largest in the country. A small pokuna (“bath”) used by monks can be seen nearby.
Gopala Pabbatha is a set of four caves located north of Rankoth Vihara. The complex is known for its inscriptions in Brahmini script that date back to 2nd century BC. They were probably home to monks who lived in the forest during this period.
This image house, built in the 13th century by King Parakramabahu, was later renovated by King Vijayabahu IV. Contrary to most Buddhist image houses, this structure is rectangular with a unique nave and a standing Buddha statue (minus the head) made of bricks and standing 41 feet high.
At the entrance to the Lankathilaka building are two gigantic pillars made of bricks. The taller one, measuring about 57 feet, probably was twice as taller initially. These awe-inspiring pillars are quite unique in Sri Lanka. Even more awe-inspiring is the Nagini figure, the female form of Naga, that is carved on the inner side of the ballustrade. The Nagini, who is said to perform the role of a guardian to the temple, has her head framed by a serpent with seven hoods.
Visitors can also admire the replicas of religious structures that probably existed during the golden age of Polonnaruwa on the outer walls of the temple.
This very large stupa is said to be a gift from Queen Subhadra to her husband, King Parakramabahu I. The state of conservation of the coating is quite remarkable as it has not suffered any erosion since it was built in the thirteenth century (although you can see traces of restoration work that were carried out after the removal of shrubs and trees that invaded the structure in the late 1800s). Standing at 80 feet, Kiri Vihara also the second largest stupa in the Polonnaruwa complex, is surrounded by other smaller stupas that have been identified as burial chambers of royals and high priests. They have somehow managed to withstand centuries of damage by weather, treasure hunters and invaders.
Menik Vehera Complex
Menik Vehera being relatively small and partially hidden by trees, it is not easy to see the complex from the main route. It is situated approximately 1.6 km from the main entrance of the site, on the left side of the road after passing the second gate that opens to the fortified citadel.
Possibly the oldest stupa in the region, Manik Vehara is built on a plateau that is accessed by climbing a small flight of stairs flanked by two stone guardians.
The complex holds two image houses, the one closer to the stupa has three standing Buddha images and one in a seated position. The other image house, smaller to the first, contains a Buddha statue carved in stone.
If you have time to stroll around, you can admire a Bodhi tree, a few shrines, a clinic, a dining hall and several rooms and buildings that were used by the monks who resided within the premises.
Demala Maha Seya
Located atop a hill, this gigantic Stupa was commissioned by Parakramabahu I but for some unknown reason, the monarch did not complete its construction. It is said that the king wanted it to be visible from India. A smaller dagoba was later built on the unfinished structure. If one day its construction is finished, the final dagoba would be the highest in the world measuring over 180 metres.
Gal Vihara or Gal Viharaya is the high point of any visit to Polonnaruwa. Erected by Pakramabahu I in the 12th century, the centrepiece of the temple is a group of four sculptures of the Buddha, which have been smoothly carved on the face of a single large granite rock. The posture of each of the Buddhas could have been determined by the size of the rock surface available.
The ingenuity of the sculptors can be measured by the fact that the rock has been cut almost 15 feet deep to create both the statues and the background.
Starting from the left, the first statue is that of a seated Buddha in a meditating pose (dhyana mudra). The meditating Buddha is seated on a throne decorated with lions.
The next Buddha statue is much smaller and is kept inside an artificial cave called the Vidyhadhara Guha that was cut into the rock. The base of the lotus-shaped seat of the Buddha image is also decorated with designs of lions. Admire the intricate carving of a throne and a parasol behind the Buddha. If you observe attentively, you can notice a halo behind the Buddha’s head resting between two four-armed deities that could be Brahma and Vishnu.
The third statue, a Buddha standing on a lotus pedestal, is about 7 metres high. This Buddha is quite uncommon for two reasons: firstly, the Buddha is depicted in the para dukkha dukkhitha mudra or "sorrow for the sorrow of others" position, a position rarely seen elsewhere in the country and secondly, even the face of the Buddha reflects the same expression of sorrow.
The fourth Buddha is the most impressive of them all. The reclining Buddha is said to be one of the largest sculptures in Southeast Asia. The Buddha here is in the parinirvana (total nirvana) position lying on his right side with his head rested on his right arm while the left arm is stretched to the full length of his body. Notice the fact that the left foot is slightly withdrawn from the right one to indicate that the Buddha has attained parinirvana, and is not merely lying down to rest. Also notice the care taken by the artists of that time not to carve out a perfectly circular cushion on which the Buddha’s head rests, to give the impression that the cushion has flattened under the weight of the head and to make the observer forget the fact that the statue is carved in hard granite.
The Lotus Pond or Nellum Pokuna is a small pool with five levels in the shape of a lotus flower with eight petals. It certainly dates from the twelfth century when the monks refreshed themselves after a long day of prayer and penance. The finely-cut granite has retained its elegant fashion over the ages. According to ancient chronicles, other similar ponds were built around Polonnaruwa during the reign of King Parakramabahu. But they remain to be excavated.
Thivanka Image House
Built by King Parakramabahu Thivanka, about 2 kilometres from Gal Vihara, this structure is worth a detour for its external sculptures and the interior frescoes. Do not be discouraged by the scaffoldings that support workers busy with restoration work. Some of these sculptures, especially the ones depicting mythological dwarfs are downright comical. Inside the image house, is the statue of the Buddha that gave its name to this temple. The posture of this Buddha is called “tivanka” and refers to the graceful three curves at three different parts of the body: shoulders, hips and knees. The visitor seems to be blind to the fact that the statue is headless and armless thanks to the artistry of that time that conferred a timeless and graceful posture to this statue.
The temple also contains frescoes dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. As they were rediscovered beneath a coat of lime, they are quite faded. You will need a torchlight and patience to admire the delicate paintings that narrate the life of the Buddha. A careful eye can observe a queen feeding a stag, a mediating monk, the Adoration of the Gods, the Buddha’s pregnant mother and many other finely-drawn gods.
A choice of great places to visit near Polonnaruwa
Medirigiriya is famous for its Mandalagiri Vihara, a vatadage built on a small rock with 68 pillars installed on three concentric circles. The pillars on each line are of the same height meaning the roof possibly had three tiers. Some archaeologists believe that possibly there was no roof at all. The pillars encompass a dagoba with four Buddhas in a seated position facing the four cardinal directions.
It is said that in the 12th century the monks of Medirigiriya helped solve a power struggle between Gajabahu II and Parakramabahu. Both leaders being equally matched, the prolonged conflict had a devastating effect on the whole island. The conflict ended only when the monks took a diplomatic lead and battered out a treaty of compromise. By this treaty, Gajabahu who was ageing and heirless agreed to designate young Pabakramabahu to become his suscessor upon his demise. The agreement was inscribed on two stone pillars, one to be kept at Medirigiriya and the other at Samgamuva.
The place is very busy on full moon days.
Entry fee: $10 (to be purchased at the Polonnaruwa Museum)
In addition to the main Stupa, you can also admire the remains of the following structures nearby including:
- a Stupa house with the Buddha in the resting position.
- two other images houses built together holding five images of Buddha (three in a standing posture and the other two in a seated position) in the area known as the Pichcha-mal Viharaya,
- a small Stupa built on a rock from where you can observe and photograph Mandalagiri Vihara,
- two ponds that were used by the monks who lived in these temple,
- the remains of a hospital,
- a medicine boat cut in granite to immerse patients in medicines and
- a very modern-looking toilet made of stone.
Somawathie Chaitiya Sanctuary
Situated only a short drive from Polonnaruwa, the Somawathie Chaitiya Sanctuary refers to the ruins of a long forgotten Buddhist shrine. These ruins are set in a peaceful jungle clearing. Not only are they of prime historical importance, the ancient architecture and engineering are sure to enchant you. The route to the sanctuary is small and winding – not the easiest drive, but well worth the effort!
A sleepy rural community situated to the northwest of Polonnaruwa, Giritale lies around the Giritale Tank, built in the 7th century. It is an ideal base to reside as it offers accommodation at varied prices and serve as a base for your visits to both Polonnaruwa and Minneriya. On the outskirts of the town, you will pass by a recently-erected white Buddha statue in a standing posture very similar to the statue in Avukana.
From Polonnaruwa you can travel to some great beaches of the East Coast
Kalkudah and Passekudah Beaches
If you are keen on enjoying a swim and do not mind a 90 minute jouney, you can travel eastwards to the east coast of Sri Lanka. There, to the north of Batticaloa, you can find two beaches that nuzzle on either side of the palm-fringed Kalkudah mainland. Long touted as the east coast’s touristic jewel, this area was recovering from civil war when the 2004 tsunami hit. One day it will be redeveloped completely. For now, it is quiet and you can have the whole place to yourself.
The smaller, safer but less majestic Passekudah beach lies to the north. Apart form the beach, you can explore the remains of two resorts that were sabotaged by the LTTE during the civil war so that they would not be used as army strongholds.
The longer, creamier-coloured Kalkudah Bay Beach is a tourist paradise, with picture-perfect fishing boats, palm trees and the sea. The easiest approach to this beach is at the end of the Valaichchenai-Kalkudah Road. You can bypass the army camp on the road and use the partly rebuilt beach access lane 300m to the southwest.
Admire Sri Lankan flora and fauna in Polonnaruwa
Angammedilla National Park
The Angammedilla National Park, situated very close to Polonnaruwa, is a wonderful place if you want to get a feeling of wildlife on foot.
The park also happens to be one of the newest national parks of the country as the region was deemed a reserve only in 2006.
The scenery here is utterly eye-catching with an enthralling mix of birds and animals. People who wish to enjoy the park to the fullest can camp on the site. If you wish to enjoy a more comfortable accommodation, you can spend a night at the Wildlife Conservation Department bungalow.
Visitors to the park can spot elephants, buffalo, deer, monkeys, giant squirrels, etc.
The Wasgamuwa National Park that holds a sizeable population of large mammals like wild elephants, wild buffaloes, leopards, wild boars and bears is also close by.
Great things not to be missed in Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum
Possibly the most interesting of all archaeological museums in the country. It is best to visit it before starting the visit of all the vestiges in Polonnaruwa. The museum faces the lake and is next to the canal, near the entrance to the main site.
This museum holds a large collection of models and photos that provide clear explanation in English on the history of various monuments. Each room is dedicated to a particular theme: Polonnaruwa Citadel, monasteries, Hindu temples and the Library. Their collection of Hindu bronzes is simply stupendous.
Entry fee included in the ticket to all the sites.
Open daily from 7 am to 6 pm.