Kings ruled the central plains of Sri Lanka from Polonnaruwa 800 years ago, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. From here, free marketeers haggled for rare goods and the pious prayed at any one of its numerous temples. The glories of that age can be found in archaeological treasures which give a pretty good idea of how the city looked in its heyday. Exploring this compact archaeological park is an Ancient Cities must experience. The Quadrangle alone is worth the trip. That Polonnaruwa is close to Minneriya National Park.

History of Polonnaruwa

For three centuries Polonnaruwa was a royal capital of both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms. Although nearly 1000 years old, it’s much younger than Anuradhapura and generally in better repair (though smaller in scale).

The South Indian Chola dynasty made its capital at Polonnaruwa after conquering Anuradhapura in the late 10th century Polonnaruwa was a strategically better place to guard against any rebellion from the Ruhunu Sinhalese kingdom in the southeast. It also, apparently, had fewer mosquitoes! When the Sinhalese king Vijayabahu I drove the Cholas off the island in 1070, he kept Polonnaruwa as his capital.

Under King Parakramabahu I (r 1153–86), Polonnaruwa reached its zenith. The king erected huge buildings, planned beautiful parks and, as a crowning achievement, created a 25-sq-km tank, which was so large that it was named the Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama). The present lake incorporates three older tanks, so it may not be the actual tank he created.

Parakramabahu I was followed by Nissanka Malla (r 1187–96), who virtually bankrupted the kingdom through his attempts to match his predecessors’ achievements. By the early 13th century Polonnaruwa was beginning to prove as susceptible to Indian invasion as Anuradhapura was, and eventually it, too, was abandoned and the centre of Sinhalese power shifted to the western side of the island. In 1982, Unesco added the ancient city of Polonnaruwa to its World Heritage list.

This group of buildings dates from the reign of Parakramabahu I. Parakramabahu’s Royal Palace was a magnifi cent structure measuring 31m by 13m, and is said to have had seven storeys. The 3m-thick walls have holes to receive the fl oor beams for two higher floors however, if there were another four levels, these must have been made of wood. The roof in this main hall, which had 50 rooms in all, was supported by 30 columns. Parakramabahu’s Audience Hall is notable for the frieze of elephants, each of which is in a diff erent position. There are fi ne lions at the top of the steps. In the southeast corner of the palace grounds, the Bathing Pool (Kumara Pokuna) has two of its crocodile-mouth spouts remaining.

Only a short stroll north of the royal palace ruins, the area known as the Quadrangle is literally that a compact group of fascinating ruins in a raised up area bounded by a wall. It’s the most concentrated collection of buildings you’ll fi nd in the Ancient Cities an archaeologist’s playpen. Besides the ruins described here, look for the recumbent image house, chapter house, Bodhisattva shrine and bodhi tree shrine.

In the southeast of the Quadrangle, the vatadage (circular relic house) is typical of its kind. Its outermost terrace is 18m in diameter, and the second terrace has four entrances fl anked by particularly fi ne guardstones. The moonstone at the northern entrance is reckoned to be the fi nest in Polonnaruwa, although not of the same standard as some at Anuradhapura. The four entrances lead to the central dagoba with its four Buddhas. The stone screen is thought to be a later addition, probably by Nissanka Malla.
Thuparama Gedige

At the southern end of the Quadrangle, the Thuparama Gedige is the smallest gedige (hollow Buddhist temple with thick walls)
in Polonnaruwa, but is also one of the best and the only one with its roof intact. The building shows a strong Hindu infl uence and is thought to date from the reign of Parakramabahu I. There are several Buddha images in the inner chamber, but they’re barely visible in the late afternoon light.
Gal Pota

On the north side of the Gal Pota (Stone Book) is a colossal stone representation of an ola book. It is nearly 9m long by 1.5m wide, and 40cm to 66cm thick. The inscription on it the longest such stone inscription in Sri Lanka (and there are many!) indicates that
it was a Nissanka Malla publication. Much of it extols his virtues as a king, but it also includes the footnote that the slab, weighing
25 tonnes, was dragged from Mihintale, a mere 100km away.

Also erected by Nissanka Malla, the Hatadage is a tooth relic chamber; it is said to have been built in 60 days. Stand at the entrance and admire the symmetry of the doors receding into the distance.

The busy Nissanka Malla was also responsible for the Latha Mandapaya. This unique structure consists of a latticed stone fence a curious imitation of a wooden fence with posts and railings surrounding a very small dagoba. The dagoba is encircled by stone pillars shaped like lotus stalks, topped by unopened buds. It is said that Nissanka Malla sat within this enclosure to listen to
chanted Buddhist texts.
Satmahal Prasada

In the northeast corner stands the unusual ziggurat style Satmahal Prasada, which consists of six diminishing storeys (there used
to be seven), shaped like a stepped pyramid.

shrine for the tooth relic, the Atadage is the only surviving structure in Polonnaruwa dating from the reign of Vijayabahu I.
Shiva Devale No 1

Just south of the Quadrangle, the 13thcentury Hindu temple Shiva Devale No 1 displays the Indian infl uence that returned after Polonnaruwa’s Sinhalese fl orescence. It is notable for the superb quality of its stonework, which fi ts together with unusual precision. The domed brick roof has collapsed, but when this building was being excavated a number of excellent bronzes, now in the Archaeological Museum, were found.
Shiva Devale No 2

Similar in style, Shiva Devale No 2 is the oldest structure in Polonnaruwa and dates from the brief Chola period, when the Indian
invaders established the city. Unlike so many buildings in the Ancient Cities, it was built entirely of stone, so the structure today
is much as it was when built.
Pabula Vihara

Also known as the Parakramabahu Vihara, Pabula Vihara is a typical dagoba from the period of Parakramabahu I. It is the third largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa.
Rankot Vihara

The 54m Rankot Vihara dagoba, the largest in Polonnaruwa and the fourth largest on the island, has been ascribed to the reign of King Nissanka Malla. Like the other major dagobas in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the dome consists of earth fill covered by a brick mantle and plaster. The construction clearly imitates the Anuradhapura style. Surgical instruments found in a nearby ruined 12th century hospital are said to be similar to those used today.
Buddha Seema Prasada

The highest building in the Alahana Pirivena group, this was the monastery abbot’s convocation hall. This building features a fine mandapaya (raised platform with decorative pillars).

Built by Parakramabahu and later restored by Vijayabahu IV, the huge Lankatilaka gedige has 17m-high walls, although the roof
has collapsed. The cathedral-like aisle leads to a huge standing headless Buddha. The outer walls of the gedige, decorated with basreliefs, show typical Polonnaruwa structures in their original state.
Kiri Vihara

Construction of the dagoba Kiri Vihara is credited to Subhadra, King Parakramabahu’s queen. Originally known as the Rupavati Chetiya, the present name means ‘milk white’ because when the overgrown jungle was cleared away after 700 years of neglect, the original lime plaster was found to be in perfect condition. It is still the bestpreserved unrestored dagoba at Polonnaruwa.
Gal Vihara

This is a group of beautiful Buddha images that probably marks the high point of Sinhalese rock carving. They are part of Parakramabahu’s northern monastery. The Gal Vihara consists of four separate images, all cut from one long slab of granite. At one time each was enshrined within a separate enclosure. You can clearly see the sockets cut into the rock behind the standing image, into which wooden beams would have been inserted. The standing Buddha is 7m tall and is said to be the fi nest of the series. The unusual position of the arms and sorrowful facial expression led to the theory that it was an image of the Buddha’s disciple Ananda, grieving for his master’s departure for nirvana, since the reclining image is next to it. The fact that it had its own separate enclosure, along with the discovery of other images with the same arm position, has discredited this theory and it is now accepted that all the images are of the Buddha. The reclining image of the Buddha entering parinirvana is 14m long. Notice the subtle depression in the pillow under the head and the wheel symbol on the pillow end. The other two images are both of the seated Buddha. The one in the small rock cavity is smaller and of inferior quality.

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