Polonnaruwa lies 216 km northeast of Colombo, 140kms northeast of Kandy and 104kms southeast of Anuradhapura. Sri Lanka’s medieval capital (11th – 12th Century AD) is a well-preserved city of ancient dagobas, moonstones, beautiful parks, massive buildings and stunningly beautiful statues. The majestic King’s Council Chamber, the Lotus Bath, the Lanka Thilaka Viharaya, the Gal Viharaya (rock temple) and the statue of one of Polonnaruwa’s great kings, Parakramabahu, are a few of this capital’s memorable sights. The Sea of Parakrama – a vast 12th century man-made reservoir dominates the city. Although it is nearly 1000 years old, it is much younger than Anuradhapura, and in much better repair. Moreover, the monuments here are located in a more compact area, and their development is easier to follow.
South Indian Chola invaders were the first to make Polonnaruwa their stronghold after ransacking Anuradhapura in 993 AD. King Vijayabahu I recaptured the throne for the Singhalese in 1073 and became the first to rule from the new capital Polonnaruwa, in a succession spanning 153 years. Vijayabahu did much to develop religion and irrigation, but it was Parakramabahu I reigning from 1153-86 who raised Polonnaruwa to its glorious heights in a grand renaissance of art and architecture, which produced the most beautiful statues and carvings in the country. Parakramabahu built huge structures and laid out beautiful parks and gardens. His monumental feats include the construction of the Parakrama Samudra, a vast reservoir covering 6000 acres next to the city. Nissanka Malla, who contributed many ornate buildings to the city, succeeded him. After about a century of efforts to hold back invaders, Polonnaruwa was finally abandoned to the jungles during the 13th Century.
Polonnaruwa has an old town and new town, and most of the runs begin at the north edge of the old town. The ruins are divided into 5 groups. The first is a small group near the rest houses that has mainly structures dating from the period of Nissanka Malla’s reign, and includes royal baths and the King’s Council chamber. The palace group of buildings dates back to Parakramabahu I’s reign and includes the magnificent royal palace, which is said to have been 7 storeys high, the audience hall with an amazing frieze of elephants, and the Prince’s bathing pool, which still has one of the crocodile mouth spouts. The quadrangle group includes the vatadage (circular relic house), the best example of the gedige architectural style – the Thuparama, the Gal Pota (massive stone slab representing an Ola leaf) and several astonishing temples of Buddhist and Hindu influence and style. The northern group has the Tivanka Image House, the Lotus Pond, a massive monastic convocation hall and many Dagobas and temples. You’ll find a library dagoba called Potugal Vihara and an unusually life-like statue of the Buddha in the southern group. The museum, which is near the rest houses, is open from 8am – 5pm daily.
As at Anuradhapura, the new town is a recent settlement away from the ancient city. You can find plenty of good accommodation in the new and old town. Buses and trains travel daily between Colombo and Polonnaruwa, and you can also get to Anuradhapura, Kandy, Dambulla and Trincomalee from here. The best way to travel around Polonnaruwa itself is by hired bicycle, or car
Very few sights can compare to that of the first glimpse of this great lake as one rounds the corner of a gravel approach road leading to its bund. The wide expanse of water is bordered by grasslands and woods creeping up the low foothills of the Matale range. Between 334 and 362 AD the waters of the Amban Ganga were diverted and held back by a dam over 38 km in length with a height ranging from 12 to over 27 m. The king who completed this colossal feat was Mahasen, the architect of other great works. The tank was repaired by King Parakrama Bahu I in 1153 AD and said to have been linked by a series of lagoons to other water bodies to form the vast Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama). The Minneriya lake is now famous for its abundant birdlife and surrounding natural beauty.
GROUP 1 – ROYAL PALACE
Parakrama Samudra (Topawewa)
Parakramabahu was famous as a guardian of Buddhism and for developing irrigation, but his greatest feat was the construction of a reservoir covering more than 2400 hectares. It is so vast that it was named Parakrama Samudra, which means Sea of Parakrama. The rainwater that collected was drained away by 11 channels which supplied a network of irrigation canals and minor tanks. This great king had also restored 53 tanks in order to increase the supply of rice for his people.
This was Parakramabahu’s great palace, a massive structure measuring 31m by 13m, with 3m thick walls. Nothing remains of its seven stories now but the massive walls show the spaces which received the floor beams for at least two more floors. It is possible that the remaining floors were made of wood and perished long ago. Once, the roof or ceiling of the main hall of 50 interconnected rooms, was supported by 30 columns.
Close to the Royal Palace, stood Parakramabahu’s Audience Hall. The large pavilion has exquisite carvings with elaborate elephant friezes and columns. If you look closer you will notice that each elephant has a different pose. Splendid sculptures of guardian lions sit at the top of the steps, their paws touching an ancient inscription. It was here that the great king held council with his ministers.
Royal Bathing Pool
This still remains in the corner of the palace grounds. Once water flowed along stone conduits and then through a dragon’s mouth into the bath. A stone chamber lies at one end but in the centre of the Pool is a huge stone lotus with superb rampant lions at the corners.
GROUP 2 – THE QUADRANGLE ( DALADA MALUWA )
The Quadrangle refers to the centrepiece of the old city, a compact sacred precint containing the ruins of 12 of Polonnaruwa’s fascinating buildings.
This round relic house is one of the oldest monuments in Polonnaruwa and also contains superb carvings. However, there were later additions like the florid makara balustrade. There are two circular terraces, one above the other with upper one having four entrances. The guardstones at the base of the steps leading to these show exceptional stonework. The four sets of steps lead to four statues of the seated Buddha in the dagoba. Unfortunately, the roof and most of the central dagoba is missing, but you can see what it must have looked like from a detailed scale model in the new museum.
The Thuparamaya is one of the best preserved image houses and one of the best examples of a gedige,a uniquely Singhalese architectural style which reached its height at Polonnaruwa. Though the smallest, it is the only gedige in Polonnaruwa still covered by its roof. The brick walls were extremely thick and barrel vaulted and adorned with stucco figures right round. Even the roof was domed and trussed and the strong Hindu influence can be seen clearly. Inside there are still several Buddha statues in place.
Latha Mandapaya(Floral Altar)
This unique building was put up by Nissanka Malla during a ‘baroque’ period of architecture when the hitherto plain style was replaced with florid ornamentation. This is best seen in the intricately carved columns representing lotus buds on top of scrolled stalks. A latticed fence in stone surrounds a small dagoba with a circle of columns.
Atadage (House of Eight Relics)
The quadrangle also houses the Atadage; the first Temple of the Tooth built by Vijayabahu I in the 11th Century. It is the only surviving structure dating back to this reign. Unfortunately only ornate columns which earlier supported a wooden roof and a Buddha statue remain.
Hatadage (House of Seven Relics)
Similar to the Atadage in name, design and purpose, the Hatadage was probably built after it. It’s thick walled chamber also housed the Tooth relic, as this by now had become the most important symbol of power.
Gal Potha (Stone Book)
Just east of the Hatadage is a gigantic ‘book’ hewn out of rock. The 9m long slab has inscriptions recording the virtues and deeds of King Nissanka Malla, including the information that part of the Mihintale mountain is now missing as this 25 tonne hillside was dragged 100 km from there, expressly for the purpose. Usually this kind of writing was done on traditional ola leaf manuscripts, but the conceited king wanted to ensure that his virtues would not be forgotten.
Satmahal Prasadaya (Seven Storied Edifice)
Archaeologists are puzzled by this building, influenced by obviously oriental architecture, probably Cambodian. Six storeys rise one above the other like a stepped pyramid. A niche in each face of the floors once held figures of which now only remnants remain. The topmost storey is missing.
Just south of the Quadrangle is a 13th century Shiva Devale with strong Hindu features. The excellence of the stonework is especially noteworthy. Unfortunately the domed roof collapsed long ago, but some excellent bronzes that were recovered during excavation work are now in the Polonnaruwa Museum.
GRUOP 3 – NISSANKA KALLA PALACE COMPLEX
Close to the Rest House is a group of poorly preserved buildings, the ruins of King Nissanka Malla’s palace.
Ancient royalty took their baths seriously and architecturally, this aspect of life was not neglected. Water was channelled to this group of square and round pools by underground conduits from the adjacent tank for this major pleasure.
This stone, windowless crypt was also built by Nissanka Malla. Though badly neglected, a little plaster work is still intact showing some colour.
Royal Council Chamber
Furthest from his palace ruins, is one of Nissanka Malla’s most important additions to the city. The columns in the Council Chamber are inscribed with the names of the ministers forming the council, according to royal protocol, providng valuable historical information. The king’s massive stone throne, in the form of a lion is now in the Colombo Museum.
GROUP 4 – NORTH OF THE QUADRANGLE
Pabulu Vihara (Parakrama Vihara)
This ancient dagoba is the 3rd largest in Polonnaruwa and was built by Rupavati, one of Parakramabahu’s queens in the 12th century. A life sized Buddha statue discovered here is thought to have been of the Amarvathi School of Art.
Just past the Pabulu Vihara is the earliest datable monument in Polonnaruwa. This 12th century kovil was built during the period when Chola invaders first built a settlement here. Because it was built exclusively of stone, it has survived perfectly.
GROUP 5 – ALAHANA PIRIVENA GROUP
Rankot Vihara (Golden Pinnacle)
This was Nissanka Malla’s effort to copy Anuradhapura’s Ruwanweliseya Dagoba. The huge 12th century dagoba rises to 55 m in height and is the 4th biggest after the three giants in Anuradhapura.
The soaring walls of this image house reaches 16 m and still show bas-relief work on the outside showing what the buildings looked like at the time. Unfortunately, the domed roof of this gedige has not survived the centuries. There is a huge headless Buddha image and superb murals within this still impressive structure.
Kiri Vihara (Milk-white Vihara)
The best preserved dagoba in Polonnaruwa. When the overgrown vegetation was cleared from the building, the original lime plaster was found intact, 700 years after it was applied. The dagoba is credited to Parakrama’s Queen Kalinga Subhadra Mahadevi. The ruins of a few small structures lie around it.
Buddha Seema Pasada (Convocation Hall)
This tall building was once the chapter house of the monastery. The Hall still contains the official seat of the Abbot and there is a handsome raised platform (mandapaya) with some beautifully carved pillars.
GROUP 6 – NOTHERN GROUP
North of the Alahana Complex are the ruins of another monastic complex, the Uttararama Monastery. Part of this collection is the Gal Vihara with its world renowned statues. There are four figures of the Buddha carved out of a small cliff face of granite, which are considered to be the best rock sculptures in the island. The earliest is the standing Buddha, 7m tall and considered the finest. The others were added later by Parakramabahu. There is a seated Buddha against a background relief and another smaller seated figure inside a rock cut chapel. The largest figure is the 14m reclining Buddha, which is truly eternal peace carved in living stone. Such was the tender, loving skill of the unknown sculptor that every detail was beautifully carved, even the bolster yields to the serene head.
Demala Maha Seya
A little further north is a massive mound, which would have been the largest dagoba in the world at 191m high if completed. It was Parakramabahu’s failed attempt to better the giants at Anuradhapura. The small dagoba is a later addition. All the masonry was made by Pandyan prisoners of war, hence its name (Great Tamil Dagoba).
Tivanka Image House
This shrine, with its splendid classical paintings, is all that is left of the Jetavana Monastery, once part of a complex of 500 buildings yet to be excavated. Skirting the outside wall are delightfully humorous freizes of pot bellied dwarves and all are unique. Some are leering, grimacing or chatting with their neighbours, while they appear to support the whole building.
One of eight beautiful baths that Parakramabahu created this certainly must have been one of the prettiest. Eight concentric granite tiers of lotus petals form this unusual bath for the Jetavana monks, nearly 8 m in diameter.
GROUP 7 – SOUTH OF THE QUADRANGLE
A little to the south of the old town is the Pothgul Vihara, an unusual circular structure, thought to have been either a library or a lecture theatre.
Close to the Pothgul Vihara is a gigantic 12th Century statue of great artistic skill. The stately but reverent sarong clad figure is carved out of a wall of rock, holding a manuscript. It is popularly thought to represent Parakramabahu I, but could also be the great Indian sage Agastaya.