The well-preserved ruins of Polonnaruwa are often considered the highlight of the Cultural Triangle. The city was the centerpiece of the Sinhalese kingdom established by King Vijayabahu I, who ousted the invading Cholas in AD 1077. His successor, King Parakramabahu I, steered Polonnaruwa into its golden age during the 12th century. He developed the city on a massive scale and commissioned the construction of monasteries, temples and the enormous Parakrama Samudra, or the “Sea of Parakrama” tank. Nissankamalla was the third of the famous Polonnaruwa kings, and after his death the kingdom descended into chaos, primarily because of weak rulers and constant invasions. The city, finally abandoned in 1293, was quickly consumed by the jungle. Excavation and restoration work began in the 20th century, and in 1982 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The fourth largest dagoba in Sri Lanka, this redbrick structure was built during Nissankamalla’s reign, and is more than 50 m high. Most of the small image houses around the base are now empty.
This enclosure on a raised terrace is the highlight of a visit to Polonnaruwa. It is home to a number of important monuments, including the famous Vatadage that housed the Tooth Relic.
The museum exhibits artifacts recovered from the site, including beautiful bronze statues. It also has scale models of how the city’s buildings would have looked in their heyday.
This shrine comprises a group of four beautiful Buddha’s statues, carved out of single slab of granite. The reclining Buddha is the main attraction, but there are also two seated Buddhas and one in the standing pose.
This image house was built by Parakramabahu I. the towering walls of the shrine enclose a huge, albeit headless, standing Buddha statue. Do not miss the bas-relief on the exterior walls.
Shiva Devale No 2
Dating from the chola period, the well-preserved ruins of this temple are thought to be the oldest in Polannaruwa. There are Tamil inscriptions on the walls. more
Polonnaruwa’s ruins are clustered together in various groups. The Royal Palace Group to the south of the entrance is where the remains of Parakramabahu’s palace and the Audience Hall can be seen, and the spectacular Quadrangle north of the entrance is home to the splendid Vatadage that enshrined the Tooth Relic. There is a large concentration of religious structures in the northern part of the site, outside the original city walls. The Island Garden is situated close to the Polonnaruwa Museum, while the Southern Ruins are found a short distance further south along the lake. The well-preserved ruins of Polonnaruwa are too extensive on foot; cycling is recommended and bicycles are available for rent from guesthouses.
Royal Palace Group
At the centre of the ancient city is the Royal Palace Group, where King Parakramabahu’s Prasada, also known as Vejayanta Prasada, and other buildings were once protected by heavy fortifications. The place is believed to have originally stood seven storeys high with a thousand rooms, although all that remains today is a three-storey building made of brick. The palace’s great hall had a roof supported by 30 columns, and visitors can still see the holes in the walls that held the beams in place.
To the east of the place is the council Chamber, or Audience Hall, where the king would have met with his advisors and various officials. The roof of the chamber is long gone, but the base still remains, decorated with friezes depicting dwarves, lions and elephants. The staircase leading up to the landing has a fine moonstone at its base, ornamented balustrades, and two lions flanking the top step.
Towards the east of the Council Chamber are the geometric-shaped Royal Baths. It is thought that this area may have been a pleasure garden with trees and flowers surrounding the baths. Nearby are the remains of what was probably a bathhouse.
Shiva Devale No 1
Located north of the Royal Palace Group, this shrine, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is thought to have been built during a period of south Indian occupation of Polonnaruwa in the 13th century. No mortar has been used in the construction of the shrine; the stones fit together perfectly. The inner sanctum houses a lingam, and some very fine bronze statues that were found here are now on display in the Colombo National Museum.
Buddha Seema Pasada
Situated near Lankatilaka, Buddha Seema Pasada was a large chapter house within a monastery complex. It is said that the original structure that stood here was as tall as 12 storeys. Monk’s cells surround a pillared hall with a raised platform as its centre, which is thought to have been reserved for the highest-ranking member of the monastery. The hall is connected to the inner courtyard by four entrances, each decorated by a moonstone.
Towards the north of Lankatilaka lies the Kiri Vihara, a dagoba very similar in style to the Rankot Vihara. It is believed to have been dedicated to Parakramabahu’s wife, Subhadra. Kiri means milk in Sinhala, and the dagoba was named after the bright white plaster covering it, which was found in perfect condition when the building was discovered.
Close to the northern gate of the city is a path that leads to the remains of the Menik Vihara. The side has nothing more than the restored foundations of many monastery buildings as well as a small dagoba. The shrine’s fragmented top has revealed the relic chamber within, which can be viewed from a platform.
North of Shiva Devale No 1 is the Quadrangle, one of Polonnaruwa’s premier attractions. This complex is home to a number of fascinating buildings. Built on an elevated terrace, this rectangular enclosure houses the Vatadage, one of the most beautiful architectural structures in Polonnaruwa. A relic house built by Prakramabahu, the Vatadage comprises a central dagobaset on a raised terrace, surrounded by a brick wall. Entrances at the four cardinal points lead to the terrace, from which another four sets of steps climb up to the dagoba. Buddha statues greet visitors at the top step of the landing.
Located opposite the Vatadage, the Heritage is a Tooth Relic temple built by Nissankamalla, and was originally a two-storey building. A beautiful moonstone adorns the entrance, and inside the shrine and three Buddha statues. Adjacent lies the Atadage that was built by Vijayabahu I to house the Tooth Relic when Polonnaruwa was made the capital of the kingdom. A few decorated pillars and the base are all that remains of the ancient building.
On the other side of the Hatadage is Gal Pota, a large granite slap that weights over 25 tons and is over 8 m long. The inscriptions on it relate the works of King Nissangamalla. Beside the Gal Pota is the Satmahal Prasada, which resembles a Khmer temples in its stepped design. Close to the gate west of the Vadatage is Nissangalata, also known as the Lotus Mandaba. Here lies a small dagoba set on a platform, encircled by stone pillars that are shaped like thrice-bent lotus buds on stalks. It is believed that Nissangamalla used this platform to listen to the chanting of religious texts.
The last of the Quadrangle’s shrines is the Thuparama, located in the southwest corner of the enclosure. An image house that dates to the time of Vijayabahu, this ancient structure houses eight Buddha statues, some of which date from the Anuradhapura period. The thick walls of the shrine have loopholes that allow sunlight to penetrate inside, causing the limestone crystals in the Buddha statues to sparkle.
Just behind the Polannaruwa Museum lie what are believed to be the ruins of Nissangamalla’s royal palace. Built on the side of Parakramabahu’s pleasure gardens, the complex comprises the remains of several buildings. The most interesting structure, however is the Council Chamber. Although the roof has now gone, the plinth, and four rows of columns that presumably balanced the roof, survive. At the southern end of the plinth is a large granite lion, most likely marking the position of Nissankamalla’s throne. The columns nearest to the lion have inscriptions identifying dignitaries, such as the prime minister, the record keeper and members of the chamber of commerce, who sat next to them during meetings with the king.
Towards the south of the Council Chamber is a stone mausoleum, possibly the site of Nissangamalla’s cremation. The remains of the Royal Baths, fed by underground pipes from the Parakrama Samudra, are nearby. Also close to the Council Chamber is a mound where the remains of King Prakramabahu’s Summer House can be found.