The great ruined capital of Polonnaruwa is one of the undisputed highlights of the Cultural Triangle — and indeed the whole island. The heyday of the city, in the twelfth century, represented one of the high watermarks of early Sri Lankan civilization. The Chola invaders from South India had been by King Vijayabahu and the Sinhalese kingdom he established at Polonnaruwa enjoyed a brief century of magnificence under his successors Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla, who planned the city as a grand statement of imperial pomp. They transformed it briefly into one of the great urban centres of South Asia before their own hubris and excess virtually bankrupted the state. Within a century, their enfeebled successors had been driven south by new waves of invaders from southern India and Polonnaruwa had been abandoned to the jungle, where it remained, without reclaimed and virtually unknown, for seven centuries.
Polonnaruwa’s extensive and well-preserved remains offer a fascinating snapshot of medieval Sri Lanka and are compact enough to be thoroughly explored in a single day, Remains aside, Polonnaruwa is also a good jumping-off point for the national parks at Minneriya and Kaudulla.
The Ancient City
The ruins of Polonnaruwa are scattered over an extensive area of gently undulating woodland above 4km from north to south. You can see everything at Polonnaruwa in a single long day, bubt you’ll have to start early to do the city justice. The site is rather too large to cover by foot; the best idea is to rent a bike.
The city was originally enclosed by three concentric walls and filled with parks and gardens. At the heart of the city lies the Royal Place complex, while immediately to the north is the city’s most important cluster of religious buildings, to so–called Quadrangle, containing the finest group of remains in Polonnaruwa — and, indeed, in Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa’s largest monuments are found in the northern part of the city, comprising the buildings of the Menik Vihara, Rankot Vihara, Alahana Pirivena and Jetavana monasteries, including the famous Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara and soaring Lankathilaka shrine.
To the west of the city lies the great artificial lake, the Parakrama Samudra (“Sea of Parakramabahu”), providing a beautiful backdrop. The lake was created by the eponymous king Prakramabahu, though sections of the irrigation system date right back to the third century AD. Covering some 26 square kilometres, it provided the medieval city with water, cooling breezes and an additional line of defence, and also irrigated over ninety square kilometres of paddy fields. The tank fell into disrepair after its walls were breached in the late thirteenth century and were restored to its original size only in the 1950s.
13km north from Polonnaruwa city to the village of Hingurakgoda, the remains of Mandalagiri Vihara, which was built and flourished during the heyday of Polonnaruwa, are interesting, but the bother of reaching it mean that unless you have a particular interest in Sinhalese Buddhist architecture, you probably won’t find it worth the effort. The main attraction here is the fine eight-century vatadage, similar in size and design to the vatadage in Polonnaruwa ancient city, though the quality of the workmanship is of a far lower level. The remains of other monastic buildings lie around the vatadage, including the base of a sizable brick dagoba, a couple of tanks and assorted shrine and Buddha statues, many of them now headless.
Potgul Vihara is a circular image house surround by four small dagobas and the pillared ruins of monastic living quarters. The central room is thought to have housed a monastic library where the city’s most sacred texts would have been stored, protected by massive walls that reach a thickness of around 2m at ground leval.