A concise guide about the history of Polonnaruwa and the must-see places, in and around the ancient capital of Lanka.
Polonnaruwa, despite the conflicts for control which raged around it, this medieval capital still preserves some fabulous reminders of times past.
Polonnaruwa is the well preserved medieval capital of ancient Lanka and a must-see for any visitor to the Cultural Triangle (North Central region of the island). In its prime, the city was protected by 6 km (4 miles) of strong encircling walls. Strategically, it commanded all the crossings over the mighty Mahaweli River, guarding the increasingly powerful southern province, Ruhuna. Its importance as a secure outpost for armies gave it the name Kandavuru Nuuvara (camp city). It ranks alongside onlyAnuradhapura in its historical significance.
POLONNARUWA – A CONTENTIOUS CAPITAL
In AD 993 the Tamil Cholas looted and burnt Anuradhapura and used Polonnaruwa as their military base for 77 years, resulting in a unique mixture of south Indian Hindu culture and Sinhalese Buddhist art and architecture. They ruled the city through a viceroy and gave it a new name, Jananatha Mangalam. The valiant King Vijayahahu I (1055-1110), defeated the Cholas in 1073, establishing Polannaruwa as the capital. He was responsible for the resurgence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, bringing monks down front Burma to rejuvenate the religion, which had suffered heavily under Hindu rule.
Forty years of bloody civil war followed his death, and in 1161 Parakramabahu, the hero of the Culavamsa – the lesser chronicle in which the history of Lanka was recorded – captured Polonnaruwa and assumed control of the whole island. Regarded as the last great king of Lanka, Parakramabahu’s greatest contribution was his protection of the Buddhist faith. Nissanka Malla, his nephew and successor, also embellished the city with many new buildings, although in many cases doing little more than adding to existing structures and claiming the glory. Around 1293,Sri Lanka was once again invaded byIndia, and Polonnaruwa was abandoned and left to the elements until it was rediscovered amid thick jungle some 500 years later.
THE KING’S SEA
Much like Anuradhapura, the rulers here faced the formidable task of providing irrigation for the growing population. Legend has it that King Parakramabahu declared “Not even a drop of water from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man”. He responded by building Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama) which covers an area of 2,430 hectares (6,000 acres). This monumental feat of engineering had 11 channels leading water off in different directions to feed a network of irrigation channels and minor tanks. It is well worth of hiring a boat from one of the fisherman and seeing for yourself the sheer scale of the project. Elephants often come to the far side of the tank in the late afternoon. The government-run rest house is right on the shoreline of the tank; its rooms opening onto a verandah with beautiful views.
The Archaeological Museum (open daily, 7.30am-6pm; with an entrance charge) nearby, may not look impressive, but it is interesting for its superb Chola bronzes and other artifacts. On a promontory by the lake is the Dipuyyana (Island Garden), which was Parakramabahu’s royal retreat. The Culavamsa (chronicle) compares its splendor to the Versailles palace of Louis XIV. The surrounding water must have kept the gardens wonderfully cool throughout the year. Among the pleasures to be enjoyed in the gardens were the Baths, a collection of circular and square pools which were fed by underground pipes from the tank. Parakramabahu’s intrusive successor built the windowless stone Mausoleum next door, now an uninspiring sight due to neglect, although some of its red, white and blue painted plaster is still intact. Even less remains of a wooden columned Audience Hall that was built beside it.
However, one of Nissanka Malla’s buildings is of great in importance, though not for its architectural merit. The columns of his royal Council Chamber were inscribed with the positions to be occupied by the King’s Council, following a strict protocol, giving us a picture of the political scene at the time. There is an island pavilion in the lake where brick benches provide rest and views across the vast expanse of water. On a peninsula projecting from the northern shore is the Parakramabahu’s Summer Palace, which has become home to a variety of birds.
THE SOUTHERN MONASTERY IN POLONNARUWA
A detour south along the bund (embankment) to see the Pothgul Vihara (Southern Monastery) is worthwhile, particularly if you like puzzles. Here you will find four small dagobas surrounding a circular brick building on the central platform. The acoustics of this enigmatic building are excellent, even without the corbelled roof that it would have had when it was built. This has led to a suggestion that it was a lecture theatre where the tenets of Buddhism were read aloud. A little further north there is additional evidence to back up this theory. The Statue of Parakramabahu/Agastaya is a huge 12th-century rock sculpture of great craftsmanship. A barefoot figure, clad only in a sarong, steps forward out of the wall of rock from which he was carved. His broad face, with its beard and walrus moustache, has a look of seriousness softened by spirituality, as he holds a sacred manuscript from which he appears to be reading aloud. It seems certain that he is a religious teacher, which would coincide with the theories about the function of the Pothgul Vihara.
The subject of the statue is a matter of debate: a Saivite rishi (holy man) named Agastaya is the most likely candidate, but it has also been suggested it is a representation of the city’s great hero, Parakramabahu. Whoever it represents, this 3.5-metre (11 -ft) figure is a masterpiece.
THE INNER CITADEL OF POLONNARUWA
The administrative centre of Parakramabahu’s capital was surrounded by walls that can still be clearly seen. Within them the Vejayanta Pasada, the royal palace of Parakramabahu, is still impressive, and the massive brick walls of the main hall stand amid the ruins of about 40 interconnecting rooms. The palace and its courtyard were surrounded by walls which were further protected by an outer wall. According to the Culavamsa chronicle, the palace rose to seven storeys, but since the upper floors were wooden, no trace of them remains.
Further east is his Audience Hall, containing exquisite stone carvings. You can imagine the great king seated under these elegantly carved pillars holding court. The base of this building is supported by bas-relief elephants. The entrance has two flights of steps with moonstones flanked by makaras – mythical dragon-like animals that represent time. Outside the citadel’s eastern walls is where the ladies of the court would have taken their evening dip in the Kumara Pokuna – or Royal Bath.
THE QUADRANGLE IN POLONNARUWA
The centerpiece of the ancient city, the Dalada Maluwa (Terrace of the Toot Relic), was a sacred precinct containing 12 magnificent buildings. Today it is known as the Quadrangle. As you enter, the circular Vatadage is to your left. This is one of the oldest monuments in Polonnaruwa, but has under gone many additions (the very elaborate makara-decorated balustrade was Nisanka Malla’s) and subtractions. It has lost the conical roof, and most of the dagoba that was the central core of the building and the reason for its existence. It has even lost one of its guard-stones at the base of the steps. These stone depicting nagaraja (king cobra) figures with seven-hooded cobra heads were believed to prevent evil from entering the premises.
The well-preserved Thuparamaya is an image house built for the worship of the Buddha. It is in the style of the stunningly original architecture of Polonnaruwa. These barrel-vaulted and domed buildings had brick walls of great thickness, stuccoed and painted with figures and architectural subjects. The roof of the Thuparamaya is intact and several images are still in place inside.
Passing a lone statue of Boddhisattva you will find the extraordinary, wobbling columns of the Lath Mandapaya (Flower-scroll Hall), built by Nissanka Malla. The columns are representative of lotus stems and are part of a baroque period in Sinhalese art in which an austerity of style gave way to heavy ornamentation.
The Atadage, or House of Eight Relics, was the first Tooth Temple built by Vijayabahu in the 11th century. A neat plantation of 54 stone columns, some of them intricately carved, others embedded in brickwork, would have supported a timber upper floor in which the relic was kept. An image of the standing Buddha almost 3 meters (10 ft) high is situated among the columns. As you stand in front of the statue, your imagination is free to rebuild the stairs, of which only the bottom ones made of stone survive, and then climb them to the upper floor. You can also imagine what carvings and paintings decorated this most sacred temple, as they have all been replaced by air.
The Hatadage resembles the Atadage in plan, as well as name, and was built for the same purpose when the protection of the Tooth Relic became a symbol of royal power. Its thick stone walls still contain three Buddha images inscribed with Nissanka Malla’s name, though this doesn’t mean it was built in his reign.
An enormous stone slab that you can see beside the temple is the Gal Potha (Book of Stone). It has glowing inscriptions praising the work of Nissanka Malla, leaving no doubt who the author might be. Ola-leaf parchment was the usual medium for writing, but these rectangular leaves were small and easily overlooked, so the vainglorious king had this giant petrified version, 8 meters (26 ft) long, dragged all the way from Mihintale, which is 100 km (62 miles) away.
The Sathmahal Pasada (Seven-storey Edifice) is of a simple stepped design, but is deeply perplexing to historians. The Culavamsa chronicle makes no mention of it, and archaeologists are stumped as to its origin. All they can say is that it is unlike anything else seen on the island, and conjecture about Babylonian ziggurats. Each floor has niches to contain figures, remnants of which survive. It is very satisfying to look at this mysterious edifice and appreciate its inspiring shape and religious power, and for once know almost as much as the experts.
BEYOND THE CITY WALLS OF POLONNARUWA
Going north, a long trail will take you through the busy streets of the medieval city that has long since disappeared, its lesser buildings gone, its inhabitants replaced by tourists and monkeys. Turning right at the crossroads is the ancient street on which lies the Pabulu Vihara, a brick dagoba supposedly built by Rupavati, one of Parakramabahu’s queens. It is surrounded by image houses – an innovation of the Polonnaruwa period although the early style of the sculptures suggests that they may have been brought here from Anuradhapura. At the end of this road is the Shiva Devale; although the dome has collapsed, the stone-work is still intact and very finely wrought. This shrine was probably built by the south Indian Cholas in the 11th century – its alternative name, Vanam Madevi lsvaram, commemorates the queen of Rajaraja I, the Chola conqueror of Sri Lanka. It has a character that contrasts with the Sinhalese buildings – despite its modest size, it is ebullient rather than serene. Some superb bronzes were found here and are displayed in the Archaeological Museum.
Return to the crossroads and travel north, passing more Hindu temples, then on through the northern gate entrance. Here footpath on your left leads to the Menik Vihara with terracotta lions at its base. An image house with standing Buddhas is nearby. The first monastic complex to the north is Alahana Pirivena, the royal cremation grounds, where Nissanka Malla’s colossal (55 metres/180 ft) 12th?century Rankot Vihara I (Golden Pinnacle) is modeled after the Ruwanweli.
A spreading banyan tree crowns Gopata Pabbat (Hill of the Cow Herds) with its far-reaching roots stretching down the rock face. On the highest platform is the Buddha Sima Pasada, the chapterhouse with the sacred functions of enforcing the rules of the Sangho Buddhist sect. The impressive walls of Lankatilaka image house soar to a height of 16 meters (55 ft), and the unique brickwork is extraordinary. Inside the shrine stands the headless statue of the Buddha, and the interior walls are adorned with excellent murals. It is larger than the Thuparamaya image house, with a more elaborate plan. The outside walls are horizontally divided into five floors and adorned with reliefs of architectural subjects, which give an indication of the type of domed roof it would have had. Inside is a single tall space, which is still very impressive, though open to the sky. To the north is the milk-white Kiri Vihara, the best-preserved dagoba with its original lire-plaster stucco intact, and smaller remnants clustered around it.
THE GAL VIHARA ROCK SCULPTURES
Sri Lankans, while quick to boast of the age and size of their monuments, are strangely reticent about the artistic quality of the best. If you have come to Sri Lanka mid you haven’t heard of the Gal Vihara you can be forgiven, although once seen it will certainly remain in your memory. Out of a cliff-face of granite, unknown artists carved three figures of the Buddha and a chapel. The earliest figure shows the Buddha standing on a lotus plinth in the blessing posture, his arms folded and his eyes half-closed. The sculptor was working in a material that to some extent dictated the output. Dark strata in the rock sweep contour lines across the delicately carved features of his face, like the slipstream from a dream. Later, in the reign of Parakramabahu, this image was joined by the other figures. The seated Buddha meditates cross-legged against an interesting relief of buildings – another hint of how Polonnaruwa’s temples originally looked. The rock-cut chapel alongside contains a further seated Buddha surrounded by attendants waving fly whisks and other decorations showing traces of paint. On the other side is the largest figure, a 14-metre (46-ft) reclining Buddha of such beauty that it inspired hundreds of years of Sinhalese art, but was never matched in the standard of its artistry. Here the variations in the colour of the rock appear as a veil of ripples washing over the figure of the Buddha as he slips into Nirvana. The rock was not always kind to the sculptor; a pale line of rock has inflicted a scar on the chin of the Buddha. But the reverent tenderness with which every detail, including the bolster-like pillow, has been carved makes it is easy to forget how difficult the sculptor’s task must have been. Later works in this idealised style arc cold and mechanical in comparison, but the Gal Vihara figures manage to convey an emotional power while sustaining the most exquisite serenity. The liquid flow of the robes and the calm facial expressions are interpreted beautifully.
NORTHERN SITES OF POLONNARUWA
The Demala Maha Seya is an incomplete emulation of the giant dagobas of Anuradhapura, conceived by Parakramabahu I who successfully imitated the ancient kings in most respects. If completed, it would have been 191 meters (625 ft) high and would have rated as the largest stone structure in the world. The vast mound of bricks was made by Pandyan prisoners of war from Parakramabahu’s Indian campaigns. The small dagoba on the top is the work of a later and lesser king, looking like a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giant.
Continuing north, to the left is one of the few surviving relics of the Jetavana Monastery. The area once consisted of around 500 buildings, of which most remain unexcavated. The elegant Lotus Pond “Nelum Pokuna” (whose design was the inspiration of Colombo’s newest entertainment theater complex) was built in tiers of eight-petal lotus flowers, a clever and original idea that didn’t really catch on, perhaps because there were too many sharp corners for comfort. You would certainly have to watch your step climbing in, but once seated on a petal with all your fellow monks forming a circle, the whole experience must have been very refined.
The most important building in the old Jetavan Monastery is the Tivanka, the image house which copies the style of the Thuparama and the Lankatilaka. Its walls are covered in stucco decoration depicting small temples and figures. The name derives from the image of the Buddha in the narrow antechamber, which is seen in the Tivanka, or thrice-bent posture. Bent at the knees, waist and shoulders to set the body in flowing diagonals, this pose denotes ease and grace, normally reserved for female statues.
The most important paintings of the Polonnaruwa period were found on the walls of the Tivanka, though since their excavation they have deteriorated for lack of proper protection and have practically all rubbed away. The cella (inner room of the shrine) is decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha, the antechamber with incidents from the Jataka (Buddhist tales). Outside there are stucco friezes of lions and a particularly delightful parade of ganas (dwarfs), grimacing and clowning in amusing poses, whilst apparently supporting the entire weight of the building. The majority of these frescoes date from the reign of Parakramhahu, who attempted to restore Polonnaruwa, but others that are much older.
THINGS TO SEE AROUND POLONNARUWA
This region is one of the easiest in which to spotSri Lanka’s legendary elephants. The country has the highest density of any in the world but sadly out of season probably the most reliable place to spot them now is at rubbish dumps along the roads. Efforts are been made to protect their natural habitats but its diminishing at an alarming rate.
Nevertheless, during the dry season when the tanks are low, it is equally easy to view some of the biggest herds in Asia. From June to September a herd of up to 200 elephants can be seen by the Minneriya Tank on the way to Habarana, which from a distance has all the appearance of a real Jurassic Park scene.
Just 38 km (24 miles) north of Polonnaruwa, via the Habarana road through Hingurakgoda, are the remains of a Circular Relic House in Medirigiriya, Built on top of a bare rock, and this beautiful vatadage contained brahmi letters in the centre. There are three concentric rows of pillars surrounding four seated Buddhas facing the cardinal points. This, like many of the sites in the Cultural Triangle was destroyed by the Tamil invaders but was renovated by King Vijayabahu I in 11th century AD. Enveloped by the jungle, it was rediscovered by the British archaeologist, Gertrude Bell in 1897 who described it as an “architectural gem”.
Southeast of Polonnaruwa is the rock spire of Dimbulaga. Meditating monks from the earliest Buddhist times up to the present day have used this hermitage of 500 rock caves. New monks are ordained in theMahaweliRiver, as was the saintly monk Kassapa, who reformed and united the Buddhist order. Even now their presence in the village has a moralizing influence.
Target Travels Sri Lanka endeavors to offer all our travelers the chance to explore this great ancient city yet as responsible travel partners we take all measures to ensure the protection of this valuable heritage sites and preserving the natural environment of the region.