The second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, Polonnaruwa was first established by the Chola dynasty and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Some 800 years ago Polonnaruwa was a bustling commercial and religious centre for the Chola dynasty, as can be seen by the amazing density of ruins of temples, palaces and other buildings. The roots of Polonnaruwa’s emergence started in the late 10th century when the Cholas of Southern India conquered Sri Lanka and chose Polonnaruwa as their new capital, moving it from Anuradhapura. Their reasons were apparently that it was a strategically better place to be protected from attacks from the Ruhunu Sinhalese kingdom in the south-east, and that it had fewer mosquitos.
In 1070 the Chola dynasty was defeated by the Sinhalese kingdom (King Vijayabahu I), which kept Polonnaruwa as his capital. It was during this Sinhalese period that Polonnaruwa reached its highpoint under the second king, Parakramabahu I, who commissioned numerous large buildings and beautiful parks. The third king, Nisanka Malla, tried to match his predecessor’s`achievements and ended up bankrupting the kingdom in his attempt.
In the early 13th century the city’s glory faded and it was abandoned. The capital moved to the western side of the island where Colombo is today.
In 1982 Polonnaruwa as added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
How to get to Polonnaruwa
When we visited Polonnaruwa we were based near Habarana, which is a great place to travel out to Sigiriya, the giant rock fortress, Dambulla Cave Temple and take in an Elephant Safari. Polonnaruwa is only an hour away from Habarana by car.
How to get around Polonnaruwa
It gets really, really hot in this part of Sri Lanka, so I would not recommend walking if you want to cover the main sites in Polonnaruwa. The best way to see the ancient city, especially if you only have one day to see it all, is by (air-conditioned) car. If you are on a budget, you can rent bicycles to get from site to site.
What to wear and etiquette when visiting Polonnaruwa
There are a lot of religious shrines in Polonnaruwa, so it’s important to dress appropriately. Shoulders and knees should be covered (men and women), and you will have to take your shoes off to enter the shrines so bring shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
Taking pictures with your back facing Buddha images or statues is prohibited.
Getting tickets and opening hours
Before you enter the archaeological site you will need to purchase your ticket from the central ticket office. The sites are open daily from 7.30 am until 6:00 pm. Adult entry costs $25.00 (kids are half-price).
In the same building as the ticket office, you will also find the Archaeological Museum where you can learn about the history and archaeological exploration of Polonnaruwa. They have built scale models of the buildings and temples to depict how they might have looked like in their glory days with the wooden roofs still intact. This is a great introduction to what you will see during your visit to Polonnaruwa.
Outside the ticket office, there are many guides that you can hire if you’d like someone to show you around the ancient city and talk you through the history, but they can be very pushy.
If you don’t get a guide then be certain to pick up a map to help you navigate your way around. Beware, it covers a pretty large area.
The historical sites of Polonnaruwa
1. Island Park
A great place to start exploring is Island Park, it is located right next to the ticket office and museum. At the entrance, you will pass a pool, which is beyond it’s best, designed to be in the shape of Sri Lanka. In the park, you will find ruins of Nisanka Malla’s Palace, the royal baths and the King’s Council Chamber.
The island also gives a great perspective of the size of Parakrama’s Lake, which is actually a man-made reservoir, built by Parakramabahu I by breaching the dams of five smaller reservoirs. The area of this vast artificial lake extends some ten square miles.
2. Potgul Vihara
Built by King Parakamabahu, this is the oldest library complex found in Sri Lanka. The meaning of the word “Potgul” is “a place to store books”.
A short walk from the main complex is a statue that is surrounded by some degree of controversy. Some people believe that this is a statue of King Parakrama but there is no written evidence to this effect, what is more likely, due to fact the figure is holding a scroll in his hands, is that this a statue of a scholar or sage, possibly Sage Pulasti.
3. The Royal Palace Complex
The building of the Royal Palace complex dates back to the time of King Parakramabahu I (1153 – 1186). The Palace itself must have been very impressive, measuring 31m by 13m, and consisting of 50 rooms supported by 30 columns. It would have had seven storeys and 3m feet thick walls.
Today, only some of the walls are left, with monstrous slots where the massive support beams for the higher levels would have been. If the building had had four more levels above these stone walls, the archaeologists speculate that they must have been made of wood. It is incredible to believe that a building of this scale was achieved at that time without the use of machines.
One of the more impressive remains in the complex is the Royal Audience Hall, with beautifully carved elephants on the sidewalls and some impressive lions on the steps up to the main pedestal of the building, This is where the King kept all his Royal appointments. Adjacent to the Audience Hall is the Royal bathing pool.
4. The Sacred Quadrangle
The Sacred Quadrangle is a group of monuments including the Vatadage, Hatadage, Sathmahal Prasada, Nishshanka Latha Mandapaya, Gal Potha and more.
The Vatadage is thought to be where the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was enshrined (which now resides in Kandy). At the centre of this shrine are four seated statues of Buddha, positioned in the cardinal coordinates. There are also some lovely examples of moonstones at the four entrances to the shrine.
The Hatadage was built by Nissanka Malla and had been used to keep the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Its name is believed to derive from the Sinhalese word “Hata” meaning sixty and “Dage” the word for relic shrine – suggesting this shrine was built in sixty hours (hard to believe!)
The Hatadage was built using stone, brick and wood, although only parts of the brick and stone walls now remain. It appears to have been a two-storey structure, but the upper storey is no longer there. In the main chamber of the Hatadage are three granite Buddha statues.
5. Rankoth Vehara
Rankoth Vehara, built by King Nissanka Malla, is a massive brown-coloured stupa and is the largest in Polonnaruwa and the 4th largest in Sri Lanka. Its design was based on the Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura. It is about 33m in height and 170m in diameter.
6. Alahana Parivena complex
Alahana Pirivena is the great monastic complex founded by Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186), said to be built on a cremation ground, hence the name Alahana Pirivena. This place is huge and set in park-like grounds.
The Kiri Vehera stupa stands out due to its white stucco exterior. In fact, its name means ‘milk-white temple’. It was built by Karakramabahu to honour Subadra, his wife and queen. It is meant to be bright-white, but is in need of a little TLC to get to a point where it can truly be called “milk-white”!
Lankatilaka Viharaya is an image house close by the Kiri Vehera. It was built by King Parakramabahu the Great. Inside this building is a giant Buddha statue, measuring about 13m in height, which is nearly as tall as the walls of the building at 16m.
To enter Gal-vihara you need to produce your ticket again, so make sure you haven’t misplaced it. This rock shrine consists of a group of rock sculptures showing Buddha seated, standing and lying down.
The reclining statue depicts the Buddha lying on his right side with his head supported by a pillow or his propped up hand and elbow. Though this representation of the Buddha can indicate sleeping or resting, it is most commonly a representation of the final moments at the end of the life of the Buddha.
7. Gal-vihara (Nelum Pokuna)
This pond is set a little way out from the other main sites of Polonnaruwa but is worth taking the detour to if you have the time. The pond gets its names because of its design which resembles a blooming lotus flower.
… In summary
Polonnaruwa is a wonderful place to visit to get a sense of Sri Lanka’s ancient history through its time of the dynastic rule of Kings and the rise of Buddhism. The historical sites are spread over a large area and are best explored in a car or by bicycle. You can easily spend a day exploring this fascinating area.