Polonnaruwa is a bit of tongue twister name. I kept pronouncing it wrongly through the trip. Being a UNESCO world heritage site, it was on my list for this Sri Lanka Road Trip. But I had no idea about what Polonnaruwa is besides that.
My first insight into this lovely city was at Colombo National Museum where they had a section devoted to Polonnaruwa era of Sri Lanka. It spoke about its mighty kings like Prakrambahu and his contributions.
After soaking in Anuradhapura, next day I headed to Polonnaruwa. I am happy I did not follow my guide’s advice to do both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in one day. It would have been too much to take in one day. At the end of the day, I liked Polonnaruwa far more than Anuradhapura. And I am definitely biased towards the latter.
History of Polonnaruwa
Established by King Vijay Bahu I in 1070 CE, Polonnaruwa is the second ancient capital of Sri Lanka. It was however under Parakramabahu I who ruled for most of 12th CE that this city flourished. Parakramabahu’s imprint can be seen all over the city including a very popular life-size image of him holding a plow in stone.
The city is located close to a large manmade lake called Parakrama Samudra. It is a huge lake even though you see only a part of it from the road. A lot of this lake is behind the hills. Polonnaruwa had an excellent agricultural economy. And its water management systems are worth a research. In folklore, they say in Polonnaruwa not a single drop of rainwater was wasted. He also started trading with other kingdoms. Most of what you see in this ancient city was built by Parakrambahu. Read more about Parakramabahu on his Wikipedia page.
Parakramabahu was followed by Nissankamalla – a king who came from Odisha in India. Nissankamalla could become the king of Polonnaruwa because he had the same royal blood – talk about matrilineal heritage. However, Nissankamalla did not give local aristocrats & landowners the respect they deserved. And as a result, he was murdered by poisoning in the 9th year of his reign. His son was murdered the same day as he was crowned. Brother of King Nissankamalla – King Magh, came from Odisha and destroyed the city eventually in an act of revenge.
After the 3rd king, the city did not see any strong kings. And the internal fighting led to the eventual decline of the mighty kingdom.
Ancient City – Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa is a well-planned city and site. It gives you a great insight into how the cities of that era were planned. Polonnaruwa was clearly divided into three main parts:
- Inner City – meant for the stay of the royal family and the highest officials of the kingdom. It had an elaborate palace and a council hall.
- Outer City – It is the city where the tooth relic of Buddha was kept. I found it the prettiest part of Polonnaruwa.
- The outermost city or Northern City – which was meant for the monks and the general public. So, the monks lived away from the power center but close to the common people who would essentially feed them on a daily basis.
At the southernmost end of the city is a library and the famous statue of Parakramabahu.
A summer palace of the king stands in the middle of the lake. And to go there is a well -designed gate on the edge of the lake.
The three parts can still be seen distinctly in the city that is now more or less in ruins.
Polonnaruwa is compact and easily walkable if weather permits.
This is the place you buy your tickets. I would suggest a quick round of the museum as they have created lovely models of how the ruins would have been in 12th CE. They also have a lot of restoration images depicting ‘before and after’ state of many monuments here.
You can see some copper coins with the image of the king on one side and image of Kubera – the lord of wealth on another. You see Copper Doits – the smallest denomination coins, which are a part of idioms, used when you need to say I have no money. And you see some coins with Lakshmi as well.
There are Veergals or memorial stones that are erected for those warriors who sacrificed their lives in war. On one side, they are shown with their weapons and on another in the heaven living with the gods.
The royal proclamation of King Nissankamalla that led to the destruction can be seen at this museum. It says farmers should farm and not try to become the kings. Kings are gods in human form. Farmers trying to become a king is like a crow trying to become a swan. You can learn about things that Sri Lanka exported like – Gems, Elephants, Rice etc.
Surgical pieces of equipment from a 12th CE hospital are interesting to see – they look very familiar and modern.
Polonnaruwa – Inner City
The inner city being the place where the king and royal family lived is the most well-protected part of the city. It has a high brick wall all around it that can still be seen.
Satmahal Prasada – The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace of Polonnaruwa must have been a sight to see. In its absolute remains, it has the double story brick wall and the five stories above it were all wooden. The holes in the wall would have been to insert beams to support the roof. A total of seven stories gave it the name SatMahal Prasada. Imagine the view of the lake and the hills from this Palace. The Palace is not very big, but it seems quite well planned. All around the palace are quarters that belonged to the staff and the consorts of the king.
The palace was burnt when the invaders destroyed the city. You can still see the marks of burning on the remaining bricks.
I walked around the royal palace and the walls behind it. I wonder what would Parakramabahu think if he saw his palace in this shape.
This is a rectangular building on a raised platform. The most beautiful remaining part of this is the steps leading to the hall. It has a moonstone at the entrance and the lions guarding the two sides of the steps. A bas-relief of elephants runs across the platform wall. Each elephant is carved differently.
On the platform, you see free standing pillars that have lost the weight they once supported. At the end, is the royal seat where King would have sat. The Council of Ministers would have sat on both sides. One wonders what matters they would have discussed here. How many plans would have taken shape here?
Royal Baths or Kumara Pokuna
Royal Bath is a bathing pond and with a chamber that would be equivalent to the changing room. The stone layered pond looks similar to the Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura. You can only imagine it with flowers and perfumed water. I could not figure out how? But my guide told me that there was a provision of shower bath in this pond.
You have to walk down a couple of levels down to see this pond. On way to this pond, I saw two ancient wells lined with terracotta rings. These are a part of the water filtering and storing system of Polonnaruwa.
Polonnaruwa – Outer City
This part is better known as the Quadrangle. This is where the Tooth Relic of Buddha rested during the Polonnaruwa era of Sri Lanka.
I entered from the royal city side and my first rendezvous was with Thuparam Temple or the large image house. A major renovation was going on when I visited it. Through a narrow vestibule, you reach the temple which houses many standing and one sitting image of Buddha. All the images are still worshiped. Music is regularly played here.
Vatadage or the circular structure is the most beautiful place in Sri Lanka. A raised platform has a circular wall with an opening in all four cardinal directions, with a Buddha statue on top. A small flight of steps leads to the platform. Like everywhere else the steps are carved with lion heads. And steps always begin with a moonstone and flanked by guard stones.
I walked around the platform, then climbed it and walked inside the circular wall. As luck would have it, a group of monks came to pray there. Their chanting made the atmosphere come alive even in the ruined state of the temple. They re-enforced my view that it is the devotee and his devotion that make the atmosphere spiritual.
The model of how this temple would have been can be seen at the museum.
Nissanka Lata Mandapa
This is a small platform with pillars – but the most extraordinary pillars I have ever seen. Pillars are not straight but they are carved as a vine or a stalk of Lotus stem. These are sculptures of rare elegance.
Given its name, it’s obvious that it was built by the King Nissanka Malla. He probably used it as his personal meditation hall. There is a small stupa or dagaba that can be seen at the center of this sacred hall. I imagined the floral pillars in the color of white or may be pink lotus that would make the king feel as if he is sitting in a lotus pond and meditating.
Why do we not have these aesthetics in our modern architecture?
This is the shrine bang opposite Vatadage and the home of tooth relic temple. It was built by the first king of Polonnaruwa – Vijaybahu I. What remains is again the pillars and the base and a lone Buddha statue standing.
Gal Potha or the Stone Book
This is an intriguing part of the sacred quadrangle of Polonnaruwa – a stone book. This is actually a long inscription but from a distance looks like a giant book.
A board next to it explains the inscription. It says the stone block was brought from Mihintale – that is roughly 100 km away from Polonnaruwa. It talks about the Kalinga origins of King Vijaybahu and his story of his becoming the king. And then it talks about the taxes he reduced along with tax rates. Taxes reduced with the distance of fields from the water tank – interesting!
It talks about the virtues of the king. And how he would daily donate things worth his, his wives and his children’s weight. It tells the repair works he carried out at various stupas and the new structures he built. Interestingly, he built a Devala at Rameshwaram in India. It talks about his friendly alliance with many kingdoms of India.
In the end, it says: Kalingas are the rightful heirs of the throne of Sri Lanka. Therefore, non-Buddhist kings like Cholas and Pandyas shall not be consecrated in Sri Lanka.
It is an advice from Nissankamalla to the future kings of Polonnaruwa – an advice it seems was ignored soon.
In one corner of the quadrangle stands this lovely tall pyramidal structure. Literature tells me that all sides of this structure were ornate once. All the 7 stories are visible though.
My sense is that this was probably an experimental structure that tried to build a stupa. Probably inspired by the pyramids of Giza or other similar structures known to Kalinga kings.
Polonnaruwa – Northern City
This is where you can see remains of markets, hospitals, cemeteries and monasteries and the common public. Then there were villages surrounding the city, where most of the population would have lived. One of the biggest monasteries is built on the site of a cemetery.
Ran Kot Vihara
This golden pinnacle brick stupa or dagaba built by Nissankamalla is the largest one in Polonnaruwa. Inscriptions say it was called Ruwanweli. Ran in Sinhalese means gold.
Gal Vihara is a cluster of rock-cut Buddha images. This is the closest you would see to the Bahmany Buddhas destroyed in Afghanistan.
3 images here are in open and one is enshrined.
The first image is that of Buddha sitting alone in the lotus pose in Dhyan Mudra on top of a platform.
The second image that is enshrined is also in the same pose but it has an elaborate parasol carved over it along with a Prabha Mandal or a halo. Two smaller images flank the image – probably this is the image of enlightened Budha that is why it gets a shrine. The walls of the shrine have some remnants of paintings. I assume all these idols would have been profusely painted back then. This is called Vidyadhar Guha.
The third image is that of a standing Buddha in a contemplative mood as if he is thinking. This image stands on an inverted lotus. Some historians believe that this is not a Buddha image but that of a monk called Ananda. While others say it depicts Buddha when he was looking at Bodhi tree with gratitude.
The last image is the largest – a 45 feet long image of Buddha in Mahaparinirvana state or the state where he left his material body. This is one of the largest stone sculptures in Asia.
Away from the city, why these statues were carved in the stone remains a question for me. Were there more such
Together these are called Uttara Rama or the northern monastery.
Southern End of Polonnaruwa
Maha Parakramabahu Statue
About 3 km south of Inner Citadel is Potgul Vihara. You walk through the rocky path to reach a shed where the statue of King Parakramabahu stands with the part of a plow in his hand. There is no inscription or any evidence that the statue depicts the king. However, the local folklore has always considered it to be that of the King. It is said to be depicting the beginning of harvesting season when the king would start the ceremony.
It shows the King as a common man but still with a royal stance. Some experts think the sculpture is that of a sage.
A few meters south of the statue is a lovely building with a circular chamber in the middle. This was the ancient library. Standing in that chamber, I could imagine handwritten manuscripts all around. I wonder if anything is left from this library or everything was engulfed by the fire.
Some accounts say that this was the place to listen to stories or some kind of an auditorium. The circular shape that is not very usual in Buddhist monasteries indicates a possibility of this.
Around this Vihara, you can see the monastery building – with most just as the foundations.
As a bibliophile, I had the same feelings that I had at Nalanda when I heard about the libraries burning there for days together.
Hindu Temples at Polonnaruwa
Hindu Temples particularly those devoted to Shiva with a Shivalinga at their core are scattered across Polonnaruwa. Most of them are known as Shiva Devala. Their original names seem to have been lost, most of them are known by numbers. Here is a list of Hindu Temples that I located in this ancient city:
- Shiva Devala No 1 – Just outside the Inner City area. It was home to many bronze sculptures that now can be seen at Colombo Museum and some at the Archaeological Museum in Polonnaruwa itself.
- Shiva Devala No 2 – Outside the sacred quadrangle are a series of Hindu temples. You see the basement and the Shivalinga standing in the middle of them.
- Vishnu Devala – Next to No 2 Shiva Devala is the only Vishnu Devale I found. It is similar to Shiva temple except that in place of Shivalings there is a life size Vishnu statue.
On the same road, there is another Shiva Devala I found, could not gather its number though.
I gather there are many more Devala, but it would take another trip to discover them.
Travel Tips for Polonnaruwa
- Tickets are available at Archaeological Museum only, so that should be your first stop. At the time of writing, tickets for foreigners are priced at $25.
- Pothgul Vihara and Prakramabahu statue in the south are free entry.
- The stones at all the sites can get very hot by 11 AM or so. It is advisable to do Polonnaruwa either early morning or late afternoon. Wearing thick socks may help to some extent.
- Photography is allowed everywhere except the museum.
- The best way to cover Polonnaruwa is on cycles or a combination of walking and using a Tuk Tuk.
Recommend you read following travel blog on places to visit in Sri Lanka.