Polonnaruwa: The City of Kings

Polonnaruwa is arguably the finest example of Sri Lanka’s rich history, and dates all the way back to the year 400BC. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is part of Sri Lanka’s fabled “Cultural Quadrangle”. I was fascinated by its history, and unlike Anuradhapura further north – which was also an ancient Sri Lankan capital – most of Polonnaruwa’s key temples and ruins are located in close proximity, whereas those at Anuradhapura are more spread out.

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The old city of Polonnaruwa was far more ‘green’ than I had expected. I knew Lanka was a green country, but the tropical jungle around which these ruins were scattered really added to the mystique of the place; in a way, it was comparable to some of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. The absolute highlights of Polonnaruwa were Siva Devale, Thuparama, and Potgul Vehera. However, much like the temples of Bagan across the Bay of Bengal to Myanmar, I like to think of the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa to be a collective whole, rather than individual sites.

Relics at Polonnaruwa
Relics at Polonnaruwa
Not a lot of shade at Polonnaruwa!
Not a lot of shade at Polonnaruwa!

The weather was scorching when I was visiting Polonnaruwa, and as there is very little shade, I would recommend planning your visit to coincide with the early parts of the morning, or the later afternoon when the sun is back on its way down. It reminds me of a time when I left my camera laying down on the ground as I was sitting down taking in the atmosphere, and when I got up to move on, I forgot to pick it up. I did eventually find it again but because it has been exposed to such sunrays, it had actually burnt out the battery. I could not take any photos from that moment onwards, although I got it fixed that night, so luckily when I was due to travel down to Nuwara Eliya the next morning, I was able to resume my photography!

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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.

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The King’s Audience Hall is on the platform and can be identified by 18 columns and statues of lions placed at the steps. There is 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.

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The Quadrangle is a complex of temples situated on an elevated square and includes Buddhist temples: Tuparama, Vatadage, Atadage, Hatadage, and some other smaller places of worship. One of the highlights of this group is Tuparama. This is 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.

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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.

You cannot come to Sri Lanka and not travel up to Polonnaruwa! It’s a must-see place! I would say that the 2800 LKR admission price is well worth it, if you like the ancient ruin scene.

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