Sri Lanka: the vast ruins of a garden-city in Polonnaruwa

After visiting the Rangiri Temple in Dambulla I’ve decided to go for a sightseeing tour to the ruins of Polonnaruwa, although the stomach hasn’t returned to full health yet. Even despite the soreness in my legs (yes, weekend entrance to the Adam’s Peak still was noticveable) I undertook an ambitious decision to rent a bicycle! I thought it would be faster and that it would be the most efficient way to liven up my fossilized muscles.

From Dambulla to Polonnaruwa I arrived by bus within an hour. I’ve rented a bike right at the stop (a full day rent costs 400 Rs) and went first to the museum, and then to explore the ruins of the medieval city.

I have to admit that archaeological museum in Polonnaruwa is one of the most interesting in Sri Lanka, mainly due to mockups of buildings that show the scale of this once huge city. Today we can see the ruins, which are only a small percentage of what it used to be but they’re still impressive, though. Rooms in the museum are devoted to each “district” of the city: the Citadel, the external city, monastery, periphery and Hindu statues, and contain a really rich exhibition.

The ruins of the city are strewn around a vast terrain covered with a jungle. Do not expect, however, a jungle similar to that one of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and films about Lara Croft. It is rather more Sri Lankan jungle-like forest with well-maintained roads and … toilets (yes, only in Polonnaruwa I’ve seen toilets with the European standard). Remains of buildings have been cleaned from unnecessary shrubs and bushes, what makes the place less wild (and takes shadow…) but it is still worth seeing.

If you are also wondering whether to visit Polonnaruwa or Anuradhapura (which dates back to even the 10th century BC – according to archaeologists), I met a lot of people, who unanimously said that the Polo is in a much better condition and more interesting shape than Anu (though Anu is bigger). I saw only the Polo’s ruins, so I can only rely on those people’s judgment.

Palace complex in Polonnaruwa was initially fulfilling a function of only a periodic residence of the kings. When Chola (South Indian dynasty of Tamil origin) destroyed in the 10th century the capital in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa was transformed into the main office of the king and expanded over the years. The golden age of the city fell on the second half of 12th century, when the city’s trade and agriculture flourished under the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186).He surrounded the headquarters with triple wall and built a city-garden, where palaces and temples perfectly complemented the landscape.

He also built the extremely efficient irrigation system that stored water during the dry season. For example, he commanded to excavate the Parakrasamudra lake (literally Sea of Parakrama). Today, it is so big that you cannot see the other shore, and that’s because it was combined with two other basins. This is the only artificial lake that never dries up, as it is powered by the waters of the longest river on the island, Mahawelli Ganga. Polonnaruwa at that time was completely self-sufficient state.

Parakramabahu’s successor was Nissanka Malla (1187-1196), who wanted to catch up architectural achievements of its predecessor and as a consequence led the kingdom to the brink of bankruptcy, because he was raising great buildings and, at the same time, reducing taxes and giving money, gold, cattle and other valuable things to his people (he wanted to reduce crime that way). Since that time, the city was dropping slowly into decline, mostly by the Tamil invasions. The city fulfilled capital functions even in the 13th century, but became abandoned soon and swallowed by the jungle.

Sightseeing starts from the Citadel, where are the ruins of the palace of King Parakramabahu. It measured 31×13 m and apparently counted 7 floors. You can still see the holes for ceiling beams in 3-meter thick walls. Today only the remains of the first two levels stand, and if the upper floors actually existed, they had to be made ​​of wood and burned during the Chola’s invasion.

polonnaruwa

Other remains of the Citadel are: a bathing pool and audience hall of the king.
Swimming pool was built deep enough so bathing is possible even at low water, which was brought here by canals from the Parakrasamudra basin.

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

King’s audience hall is on the platform and can be identified by 18 columns and statues of lions placed at the steps. There’s no roof, because it was also made of wood. Legend says that the king met here with his 18 ministers. Apparently, they expected a call while sitting on the wall of the office, and their chancellors, who transmitted the call of the King, were waiting by the columns. Remains of the throne can be seen in the middle of the wall at the end of the hall.

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

Another part which can still be reached on foot is the Quadrangle. The rest of remaining ruins of Polonnaruwa can be reached by bike, tuk-tuk or taxi.

On the way to the Quadrangle there is a Hindu temple of Penis of Shiva, which is still in use (the temple, not penis ;)), so before entering you should take off your shoes and cover your shoulders. Inside the temple on a small altar is a stone-penis topped with flowers.

polonnaruwa

Quadrangle is just few meters away. It’s a complex of temples situated on an elevated square. The Quadrangle includes Buddhist temples: Tuparama, Vatadage, Atadage, Hatadage, some smaller places of worship and book Gal Pota.

The first one is Tuparama. It’s a Buddhist temple but built in the Hindu style, what shows how strong was the influence of Hinduism in these areas. Before Chola’s invasion in 12th century, the temple was the richest in Polonnaruwa. In the middle was a statue of Buddha decorated with gems and his eyes were made ​​of two large sapphires. In front of his head there was a hole in the wall, through which streamed the light and reflected in jewels.

polonnaruwa

The most impressive temple in Quadrant is Vatadage, a circular Buddhist temple with statues of the Buddha (once four, today only two) looking at four directions of the world. Four is a symbolic number here because it represents the Four Noble Truths, and it can be reached by 8 steps, which are the symbol of Noble Eightfold Path. The columns around the stupa probably supported the wooden roof, as nails and tiles have been found around the temple, but another theory says that they were just to hung lamps, curtains and other Buddhist ornaments on them.

polonnaruwa

In the Quadrangle there are several smaller temples. Atadage is one of the few remains of the Vijayabahu I, who moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa.
Hatadage was built by King Nissanka Malla apparently in 60 days. In both the Tooth Relic of the Buddha was kept.

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

At the end of Quadrangle you can see the stone book Gal Pota, which weighs 80 tons (!) and contains information about Nassanka Malla: his achievements, reforms and testament, in which the appointed his successor. On the right side of the book there is the Prasada Satnahal temple in the step-pyramid shape. The building, quite unusual for Sri Lankan standards, was probably a gift from Khmers to the residents of Polonnaruwa. Today, you can see only six levels, but originally there were seven.

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

The final stage of exploring Polonnaruwa is the city of monks, situated north of the Citadel and the Quadrangle. Before reaching it, you pass a lot of other ruins, but these are mostly foundations of buildings, among which there is nothing interesting. But that shows, of course, how great the city once was.

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

Along the way there is one of the largest stupas in Sri Lanka, Rankot Vihara. It measures 55 meters high and was built by King Nissanka Malla.

The last two temples are Lankatilaka, once huge but today only only 17-meter-high walls and large headless statue of Buddha remain, and Kiri Vihara, which was founded by Queen Subhadra, a wife of Parakramabahu. Originally the temple was called Rupavati. The current name means “milk white” and it was given, because after 700 years, when the stupa was purified from the jungle, the limestone from which it is made​​, was still in perfect clean condition. Around the Kiri Vihara you can see few smaller dagobas, which were tombs for monks.

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

polonnaruwa

At the end of the city is Gal Vihara, a group of carved rock statues of Buddha. The reclining statue of dying Buddha is 14 meters long, and at its head is 7 meters-high standing statue. Apparently it also represents Buddha, but there are voices that it shows beloved disciple of the Enlightened, Ananda. However, he usually is presented not at the head, but at the feet of Buddha, so this theory does not have too many followers.

From Gal Vihara can go even further, where few other stupas are, but definitely the Citadel, the Quadrangle, the city of monks and Gal Vihara deserve the most attention.

I took me about 4 hours to see the city by bike. With breaks of course. Well, I admit that cycling in the sun, at 30-something degrees (and felt a lot more, because it was terribly stuffy) and with no wind is quite tiring exploit.

Fortunately, I ended the day in Polonnaruwa meeting Chaminda, who took me to … No, I’ll not tell you now. This story deserves a separate entry. Anyway, I found out once again that sometimes it is worth to trust a stranger.

2 comments

  1. Hi Hanna, just wanted to drop a note to say that I’ve enjoyed reading your posts about Sri Lanka. It’s informative and fun to read at the same time. I’m heading over next week, and I can’t wait for it! 🙂

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