I wrote this guide to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa drawing from experiences of backpacking in Sri Lanka. There are many things to do in Polonnaruwa, and in this blog, I will try to list the best places to visit in Polonnaruwa.
History of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa, the small sleepy town, on the central eastern side of the Sri Lankan island was once a bustling capital of Chola and then Sinhalese kingdom.
The history of this ancient capital has been anything but dramatic. It has seen empires rise and fall, it has been a story of growth and then it has seen the sudden abandonment.
Today, Polonnaruwa enjoys the status of being titled as World Heritage Site and is one of pillars of the famous Sri Lankan cultural triangle. I was really confused between choosing Polonnaruwa vs Anuradhapura and in the end went with Polonnaruwa.
What I gathered were from other blogger trip reports was that Polonnaruwa ruins were in much better shape and the area was compact enough to complete in a day on a bike. And what can I say, I wasn’t disappointed I really enjoyed this ancient capital.
Due to its strategic location, Polonnaruwa was chosen as the new capital of Chola (South Indian) kingdom from the erstwhile capital Anuradhapura. Doing so helped Cholas shield their newly conquered territory from the Ruhunu Sinhalese kingdom.
Chola dynasty was finally overthrown in 1070 by the Sinhalese king Vijayabahu I. He didn’t move the capital and instead chose to built his empire around this area.
But it was the King Parakramabahu I under which the kingdom flourished and Polonnaruwa reached its peak. The king focused on the irrigation and built several Buddhist temples.
Much of the ruins of the structures you will see in Polonnaruwa are built either by Parakramabahu or completed by him. Polonnaruwa was the medieval capital of Sri Lanka between the 11th and 13th Centuries. Go to which ancient city – Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa?
Here’s a list of top places to visit in Polonnaruwa:
1. Archaeological Museum | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
There are numerous museums in Sri Lanka and then you have Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum, with absolutely brilliant collection. The museum houses the artifacts collected from the nearby ancient sites.
I specially loved the very well preserved Hindu Gods and Godesses statues kept towards the end of the museum. These statues were recovered from the Hindu temples, Chola being a Hindu kingdom.
2. Parakrama Samudra Reservoir Complex | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
Directly opposite to the museum is the vast reservoir aptly named Parakrama Samudra, samudra which literally translates to Sea in Sanskrit. In fact, Parakrama Samudra is a reservoir complex which includes Topa wewa, the oldest, and Bendiwewa, the section right in front of the museum. Narrow channels connect s them with each other.
The reservoir covers 2400 hectares and has a depth of 12m and largely built under the rule of Parakramaprabhu. The primary purpose of the reservoir was to collect rainwater to be used for irrigation.
The ancient sites are congregated as a part of an archaeological park about 3 kms from the museum. Before you enter the park you entrance ticket is checked, so make sure you have one or prepared to go back. The park is jam packed with sites that can be easily navigated on a bike, alternatively you can take a tuk-tuk if you feel you cannot handle the heat.
I had been to Alps one summer and it reminded me of the humid and sultry summer of Delhi, so no excuses my European friends! (Yeah, if you are a Canadian you are allowed to hire a tuk-tuk.)
3. The Royal Palace or Vejayanta Pasada
The Royal Palace is a part of larger section, The Royal Complex. Take the dirt road on the right after you enter the park. Only ruins of the walls remain of what once a massive seven story structure.
The archeologists have theorised that the upper floors were built with wood and the is the reason nothing remains of them. However, the walls themselves are impressive measuring 31×13 meters and with a thickness of 3m.
4. Swimming Pool or Kumara Pokuna | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
Outside the royal palace, and taking the steps down you will see the Royal Swimming pool of the king Parakramaprabhu. You can give it a miss without much regret as the pool remains are in poor condition today with slimy, stagnant water.
5. Audience Hall
Another important structure near the royal palace, Audience hall is where the King’s council used to be held. Lookout for the beautiful carvings on the stone wall along the perimeter.
At the top of the staircase are the stone lions in a seated position while the statues of elephants adorn the base of the staircase. Also, at the base of the stairs are decorative moonstones, a signature art piece of Sri Lankan architectural heritage.
Although the ceiling of the Audience Hall is missing but you cannot remain unimpressed by the mighty columns which once held the roof.
Tip: If you are pressed for time you can give Royal complex a skip, instead make Sacred Quadrangle and Gal Vihara the two must visits.
6. Sacred Quadrangle | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
To get to the sacred quadrangle you need to come back to the main road to the point you took the dirt road. Keep straight on the main road for few hundred meters and you should see a ruined complex on your left.
Sacred Quadrangle consists of a group of religious sites enclosed within a walled compound and each constructed by a different Sinhalese king. At the peak of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa Sacred Quadrange was the centerpiece of the kingdom.
These temples were built to house the sacred and much revered the Tooth Relic. Tooth Relic refers to the tooth of Buddha which is now kept in the Temple of the tooth in Kandy. According to the records, the Sinhalese rulers built their own temples here in Sacred Quadrangle to house the tooth relic.
The Dalada Maluwa (the Terrace of the Tooth Relic), was a sacred precinct containing 12 magnificent buildings – each built by a king. rulers each made sure they built their own Tooth Temple
7. The Vatadage
The Vatadage lies to your left as you enter the Sacred Quadrangle. It is a circular structure 9m in diameter with a dagoba built right in the center of the terrace. There are four entrance to the vatadage and each one is guarded by what looks like a pair of Hindu deities.
As it goes with every religious site in Sri Lanka, observe the conservative dress code and take off the slippers before entering.
Also, check out the beautifully carved moonstone on the northern entrance.
The Vatadage is believed to be built by Parakramaprabhu (no surprises here) and was improved by the King Nissanga Malla in 12th century.
8. Shiva Devale No. 1 | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
As the name suggests Shiva Devale no.1 is a hindu temple built somewhere in 13th century.
The beautiful bronze statues recovered from the temple can today be seen in the Polonnaruwa museum (remember the last section?).
The temple is built in Dravidian Indian style and more than makes up for its small size with beautiful stone carvings on the enclosing wall.
9. Shiva Devale No. 2
You reach Shiva Devale No. 2 by continuing on the main road and then taking a detour to the right. The temple is perhaps the oldest structure in the entire park with history going back to the
Chola dynasty period (around 1070). The other interesting thing about the temple is its excellent condition. The well preserved stone temple still has its ceiling intact, no other structure in the entire park has the ceiling!
10. Rankot Vihara | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
Rankot Vihara at 55 meters tall is the largest dagoba (and 4th in SL) in entire Polonnaruwa. The dagoba of Rankot Vihara was constructed somewhere in late 12th century by a queen of Parakramabahu and was later updated under the reign of King Nissanka Malla.
11. Kiri Vihara
Kiri Vihara is my pick of daobgas in Polonnaruwa for its milky white appearance. Surpringly, when it was discovered the lime plaster was found still intact surviving 900 years of dust and rain.
Sadly, today you can see the white wash is coming off evident from the white and brown patches. The dagoba was commissioned by Subadra, one of the queens of Parakramabahu.
Kiri Vihara also holds distinction of being the second biggest dagoba in the Polonnaruwa.
12. Lankatilaka | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
Lankatilaka appears more like a European styled cathedral than a dagoba. The structure is 16 meter tall and houses a clay statue of Buddha towering nearly to the same height (13m to be precise).
Unfortunately, the head off the statue has been taken away but that doesn’t deters the locals who throng in numbers to pray here.
Lankatilaka literally translates to jewel of Lanka and was built by none other than king Parakramabahu. The structure is located right next to Kiri Vihara. And while you are there check out the murals on the outside wall.
13. Gal Vihara | Things to Do in Polonnaruwa
Gal Vihara is not only the icon of Polonnaruwa but also a holds a prominent position in the entire Sri Lanka. Gal Vihara consists of three rock cut statues of Buddha in three different positions.
The statues were supposedly built by Parakramabahu (who else could it be) as part of the greater Uthararama Complex. The site is equally popular with the locals as well as foreign visitors making it crowded and bit difficult to get a clear shot of the statues.
Being your visit with the huge statues of Buddha medidating sitting atop a lotus. If you look closely you would see the rock directly behind the statue has vimana carving.
For the uninitiated, the vimana was a flying chariot used by Lord Rama during his return from Lanka in the Hindu epic Ramayana.
Next is standing Buddha which streches to a height of 7m. Notice the folded arms, it is considered the blessing posture.
At the end of the large granite slab is the statues of reclining buddha 14 m in length. There are a set of giant boulders right opposite which provides you with some interesting angles to take picture.
Experts argue that is the buddha on his deathbed and not a sleeping buddha. The state is called parinirvana i.e. nirvana after death, concluded as the higher foot is little behind the lower one.
Polonnaruwa Complex Entry Fee
Before you begin your trip you need to purchase the ticket, the entrance ticket is sold from the same building where the Archaeological Museum is. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an official site of the museum or the Polonnaruwa tourist department.
The queues are usually short even in the peak season. I went there in December last week and it took me not more than 10 minutes to get the ticket.
The entrance ticket costs $25 which includes video and camera fee. Also, the museum comes with the entry fee.
If you are from SAARC nation you need to pay half the price but in order to get this discount you have to show the officials your passport. There are no exception to the passport rule and I had to go back to my hotel as I wasn’t carrying one.