The first capital of Sri Lanka –
and remaining so for 1,400 years – Anuradhapura was
abandoned and swallowed by the dry-zone jungle two centuries
after Vijayabahu I had retaken the country and retained the
Cholas capital at Polonnaruwa in the 11th Century.
The only thing that has managed to live – literally –
throughout the centuries, carefully attended by guardians
all this time, is the sacred Bo Tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi,
grown from a sampling of the Bodhi tree under which the
Buddha attained enlightenment. The original Bodhi tree has
since died, but the Sri Maha Bodhi survives and has been
worshipped for 23 centuries, making it the oldest tree in
The significance of this tree attests to the widespread
influence of Buddhism, of which the surviving shrines of the
ancient city provide more visible evidence. These
dome-shaped monuments of worship are known as dagobas or
stupas, and notable ones include the Ruwanweli Seya,
Thuparamaya and Jetavanarama and Abhayagiri Dagoba.
Monks resided in the Brazen Palace (Loha Prasada), which was
first built by King Dutugemunu in the 2nd Century B.C. and
which, having suffered two fires, underwent numerous changes
at the hands of successive rulers. You’ll have to imagine
what this once-magnificent 9-storey high residence must have
looked like because all you will see now is a massive space
filled with 1,600 pillars in a 40-by-40 grid. Dugutugemunu’s
successor Sadhatissa rebuilt a 7-storey building, which was
destroyed by the Cholas in the 11th Century, and later
restored in the 12th Century by Parakramabahu I, a palace of
which only the pillars have survived to the present day.
Other interesting historical sites to visit include the
Samadhi Buddha, the work of an anonymous master-sculptor
depicting Buddha in deep meditation (an image, in the form
of a photograph, which former Indian Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru sought inspiration from while serving a
prison sentence); the Awkana, a gigantic granite Buddha
statue about 32 miles southeast of Anuradhapura; and
Mihintale, the sacred site at which Buddhism was first
introduced to Sri Lanka in the year 247 B.C.
Otherwise known as the "Great Stupa", Ruwanweli Seya was
built under the order of King Dutugemunu, who lived long
enough to see through its completion in 144 B.C. - on his
The first dagoba built in Sri Lanka; Thuparama is believed
to enshrine the right collarbone of the Buddha, which
Emperor Asoka dispatched in acknowledgment and appreciation
of the city’s conversion to Buddhism. Restoration over the
centuries has altered the original design.
The largest and tallest brick monument in the world, and
only shorter than two Egyptian pyramids, this mighty dagoba
was originally 400 feet high (500 feet including the crystal
finial) and 370 feet in diameter at its base. Erected in the
late 3rd Century A.D. by King Mahasena, it used to house
gold plates containing Sanskrit text of a Mahayana sutra.
The Jetavanarama has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage
Created by King Vattagamani Abhaya in the 1st Century B.C.,
this 75-meter high dagoba was originally the centerpiece of
a monastic complex accommodating 5,000 monks. The Abhayagiri
complex had to honor of being the first place in Sri Lanka
to house the sacred "Tooth Relic".
As early as the 7th Century, when
Anuradhapura was still the capital, Sri Lankan kings had
made Polonnaruwa their country retreat. With the Cholas’
conquest of Anuradhapura in the 11th Century, Polonnaruwa
succeeded it as the capital and remained so for the next 200
years - even when Vijayabahu I eventually defeated the South
The relatively short history of this capital makes it easy
for you to explore all the ruins and if you are inclined
towards a hard day of walking under a sweltering sun, you
could even discover the city on foot. If not, there is
always ready transport, with a guide at your ear.
Traveling north from Giritale with the eastern bank of the
Parakrama Samudra on your left, you'll first arrive at the
Potgul Vehera, a library with splendid acoustics (for
performances perhaps) and "The Sage", possibly the statue of
King Parakramabahu I, though the subject of its identity has
been a matter of some dispute.
Further up is the Royal Citadel of Parakramabahu, of which
the audience hall is particularly interesting, with the
stone carvings on the base of the pavilion depicting
elephants, each in a different position.
Just north of the Royal Palace, you will come to the
Quadrangle, where you might want to spend some more time and
take a tour around the twelve great structures.
The noteworthy ones include the:
Vatadage, probably Polonnaruwa's oldest monument.
Hatadage, a Temple of the Tooth Relic, which once housed
the famous relic that now resides in Kandy.
Atadage, which means "House of Eight Relics" and was the
original Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Thuparama, a magnificent showcase of a ruined Buddha image
older than the Thuparama itself.
Gal Pota or "Stone Book", a 26-by-14 feet slab recording
Nissanka Malla's invasion of India.
More magnificent structures are on your way as you move even
further north, such as the Rankot Vehera ("Golden
Pinnacle"), the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa built by King
Not to be missed is the Gal Vihara, with four
larger-than-life statues of the Buddha in various positions
- including a rare cross-armed standing pose - all carved
from a single wall, with intricate attention to detail.
If you still have energy left to go the distance, you will
be rewarded with more wonderful sights including the late
12th Century Lotus Bath, with steps descending in concentric
rings of eight-petal lotus flowers.
If you travel by car, you’d probably be able to complete all
that in four hours. That’s a whole millennium of Polonnaruwa
history in half a day.
About 12 miles from Sigiriya
you’ll come to the Raja Maha Vihara, otherwise known as the
Dambulla Cave Temple or Golden Temple. This is actually a
series of five temples that finds its origin in the
Anuradhapura period (1st Century B.C.), even though the art
works that have survived to this day are mostly representative
of the Kandyan period (18th Century) due to restoration
These caves used to be places of refuge and have been
embellished by several kings throughout Sinhalese history. Be
awed by the 157 statues of Buddha and royalty, as well as
intricate wall and ceiling frescoes of both religious and
Look out especially for the ceiling paintings in the fourth
cave, which follow the folds of the rock so closely that they
have been mistaken for cloth paintings stuck onto the ceiling.
Desperation can also drive a man
to greatness. It must have been a mixture of fear and guilt
for having his own father slain and stealing the throne from
right under his half brother's nose that motivated King
Kasyapa to erect this magnificent fortress – 'Palace in the
Sky' – in the 5th Century A.D.
The rock rises out of nowhere, towering 600 feet above you.
From the base you can't see the palace, which means you'll
have to climb the equivalent of 75 floors up. A fairly healthy
person would need about two hours to get up and down, but once
you're up there, you'll find that just being on top looking
down at the vast forest below is well worth the climb.
Halfway up, you'll see the Sigiriya Damsels – frescoes
depicting nearly naked nymphets believed to be Kasyapa's
concubines. Out of the 500 or so original paintings, only 26
have survived mutilation by monks who later occupied the
fortress. Then there's the three-meter high Mirror Wall where
visitors to the fortress, more than a thousand years ago,
penned their thoughts on the Sigiriya Damsels.
Eventually you get to a flat piece of land known as the Lion's
Terrace, where a further flight of steps leads you through
what used to be the lion's mouth, into the throat. That's the
only way in. Sigiriya means 'Lion Rock', and now we can see
Once you're at the summit, first congratulate yourself for
having made it. Then look across into the jungle and see if
you can spot a few elephants, probably ant-sized from your
vantage point. And finally, marvel at the buildings, of which
the Royal Summer House is particularly noteworthy. Here you'll
find everything carved out of living rock, from thrones to
rock-and-water gardens to bathing pools.
To think that all this came about, because one man killed his