Polonnaruwa (140 kilometers northeast of Kandy) is Sri Lanka’s most charming ancient city. Blending south Indian Hindu culture with Sinhalese art and architecture, it is not as old as Anuradhapura but it is better preserved and set in a delightful park setting among trees and a large lake. The city was reportedly founded where it was because it was strategically located to put down Sinhalese rebellions and there were not many mosquitoes.

The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1982. It lies next to the Parakram Samudra (Parakrama’s Sea), a large tank (lake-reservoir) named afer the city’s greatest king. The entire site covers a large area and is best explored with a bicycle that can be rented in the town. Be warned that the bicycles are generally in poor condition but the will get you there and back. In the park with the ruins there are several large troops of monkeys. Black and white langur monkeys are also sometimes seen in the area.

Polonnaruwa replaced Anuradhapura, located further north, as the capital city of Sri Lanka because it was less vulnerable to invasions from south India. According to UNESCO: Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. It comprises, besides the Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas, the monumental ruins of the fabulous garden-city created by Parakramabahu I in the 12th century.”

Polonnaruwa is the name of the ruined ancient city and the modern town where the ruins are found. The modern town is divided into an old town and new town. The ruins cover an area of about three square kilometers south of the old town. Most guest house and cheap hotels are in the old town. the bus station and the train station is in the new town to the south. Admission to Polonnaruwa is US$25.

History at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka from the A.D. 11th to 13th century. It is believed to have been founded by Hindu kings from the Chola dynasty in southern India after they sacked Anuradhapurra. They Cholas were thrown out by the Sinhalese king Vijay I in 1070. He kept Polonnaruwa as the capital and maintained good relations with India, its big, powerful neighbor to the north. He and other Buddhist Sinhalese kings who followed had Hindu wives from India. They maintained Hindu temples and had Hindu touches added to their Buddhist temples. A number of fine Chola bronze statues have been recovered from shrines to the Hindu god Shiva erected at Polonnaruwa.

King Parakramabahu (A.D. 1153-86) ruled Polonnaruwa when it was at its height. He invaded southern India and made a brief incursion into Burma. He also engaged in a massive building campaign, constructing several large tanks, royal palace, pavilions, baths, parks, pleasure gardens, holy palaces and colonnaded monuments, temples and a 10.5-meter (35-foot) -high standing Buddha and a 27.40meter (90-foot) -long reclining Buddha carved into the side of a granite cliff. The king’s plan was to make all of Sri Lanka "a festive island...like unto a wishing tree."

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this ancient city was its water system. The system of huge water storing tanks and irrigation canals is still one of the largest in Sri Lanka. The bund (barrier that diverts runoff coming from external catchments) damming the valley stretches 14 kilometers. At capacity, the man-made lake covers 7,300 hectares (18,000 acres). The greatest achievement was the 2,400 hectare tank that was so large it was called the Parakrma Sumudra (Sea off Parakrama) It is not exactly clear whether the current tank is the one he created,

King Parakramabahu is believed to have weakened the kingdom by overextending its manpower resources. Nissankamalia, who ruled Sri Lanka from 1187 to 1196 from Polonnaruwa, also invaded of India. He attempted to emulate Parakramabahu’s building effort and bankrupted the kingdom in the process.

In the 13th century, Sinhalese civilization collapsed for reasons that are still debated. Possibly explanations include a malaria outbreak, an invasion from India or an internal conflict. After this the Sinhalese population shifted to the southwest.

Early History of Polonnaruwa

Prof. W. I. Siriweera wrote: Just like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa was also a centre of habitation in the pre-historic era, but unfortunately archaeological research on pre-historic Polonnaruwa has not been satisfactory. In the historical era beginning from the third century B.C. there were several settlements in and around Polonnaruwa as testified by the Brahmi inscriptions found at places such as Enderagala, Duvegala, Galkandegama Kanda, Konattegodagala, Lunuvaranagala and Mutugalla. The proximity of Polonnaruwa to the Mahaveli river and to the east coast had resulted in the development of settlements in the region throughout centuries. The region was agriculturally developed at least as early as the fourth century A. D. Long before that Polonnaruwa was an important military post due to its strategic location and therefore it was known as the Kandavurunuvara. The strategic importance of Polonnaruwa lay in the fact that it controlled access into Rohana and from Rohana into the northern plain through the passes at Dastota and Magantota along the Mahaveli river. [Source: Prof. W. I. Siriweera, Vice Chancellor, Rajarata University]

Five of twelve great reservoirs mentioned in the ninth and tenth century inscriptions, namely Padaviya, Vahalkada, Kantale, Kavudulu and Minneri and a large number of village irrigation works were located around the lower Mahaveli basin in the Dry Zone and the north eastern part of the Island. The construction of irrigation works and the concommitant agricultural development created dense clusters of population in this area, resulting in the emergence of new economic and political forces which changed the demographic pattern and the cultural landscape of the island.

From the sixth century A. D. onwards Polonnaruwa became increasingly important. The demographic expansion in the Polonnaruwa area after the sixth century is indicated by the construction of shrine rooms, an alternative residence for the Anuradhapura kings and hospitals at Polonnaruwa during the reigns of Silakala (518-31), Aggabodi III (629-39), Aggabodhi IV (667-83) and Udaya I (793-801).

Polonnaruwa as the Capital of Sri Lanka

The important kings of the Polannaruwa period were King Vijayabahu I, King Parakramabahu I and King Nissankamalla. Prof. W. I. Siriweera wrote: Anuradhapura was superseded by Polonnaruwa as the principal centre of dynastic power in the eleventh century. The South Indian Chola empire which conquered the northern part of Sri Lanka in 1017 A.D. established its capital at Polonnaruwa and held sway over the Dry Zone regions for 53 years until 1070 A. D.

When the South Indian Chola kings ruled Sri Lanka, a Sinhalese prince named Keerthi formed an army and became ruler the Ruhuna principality in the southern Sri Lanka in 1055. The climax of a 17 year campaign against the Cholas was an attack Chola-occupied Anuradhapura, the capital of Sri Lanka from the 3rd century B.C. to A.D. 11th century. He drove out the Cholas in 1070 and become the King Vijayabahu I. Vijayabahu I did not have time to develop the country but he united it. He shifted the capital of Sri Lanka from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. Vijayabahu built his palace

After the Cholas were expelled the Sinhala kings too selected Polonnaruwa as their capital and it flourished for nearly two centuries until 1215 A. D. The foreign invader Magha conquered Polonnaruwa in 1215 and with his atrocious rule the Sinhala nobility drifted to the South west and established kingdoms in places such as Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa. [Source: Prof. W. I. Siriweera, Vice Chancellor, Rajarata University]

When Polonnaruwa was the centre of political authority it exercised a relatively high degree of central control. Therefore the administrative function was one of the important factors which contributed to the development of the city. The city supported vast royal, administrative and military establishments. As the city stood in the open plains and lacked the advantage of natural defences its decence systems had to be artificially created by constructing walls, moats etc. Therefore, Polonnaruwa maintained a substantial standing army and there was a concentration of Military power in the city.

Economic Activity in Polonnaruwa

Prof. W. I. Siriweera wrote: The increase in the market or commercial activity was another important function that led to the growth of the city. In order to cater to the needs of a large population, the city had centres of commercial activity such as markets, fairs and bazaars. According to the chronicle, the Culavamsa, in the city of Polonnaruwa there were various bazaars in which all sorts of commodities were available and there was incessant traffic of elephants, horses and chariots in the streets. In order to facilitate foreign trade the city accommodated emissaries from foreign countries and also foreign merchants. The market area just outside the citadel and monastic complexes has been excavated recently. [Source: Prof. W. I. Siriweera, Vice Chancellor, Rajarata University]

Not only the presence of foreign diplomats and merchants but also the presence of army personnel, administrative officers, craftsmen, city cleaners and various other groups led to a complex occupational structure in the city. The maintenance of the monastic establishments and collosal monuments also required the settlement of a large number of persons for the performance of professional and menial services.

Like any other city Polonnaruwa was by no means associated with agricultural production. It was entirely dependent on the hinterland satellite settlements of craft production and trade for its supplies. Surplus food production in the countryside was an essential requisite for the development of the process of urbanization of Polonnaruwa as in any other South Asian City. Food production in the environs of Polonnaruwa was facilitated by Parakramasamudra (1153-86) and other reservoirs. The Parakramasamudra was constructed by joining three earlier reservoirs Topavava, Dimbutuluvawa and Eramuduvawa. Being the largest of the ancient reservoirs, its embankment is eight and half miles long and rises to about 80 feet.

Parakramabahu: the Great King of Polonnaruwa

King Maha Parakramabahu ruled Sri Lanka from 1153 when he united Sri Lanka to 1186 when he died. During his reign he built or restored 165 dams, 3000 canals, 163 major tanks and 2376 minor tanks. Of all these the biggest tank was Parakrama Samadra. He was very interested in irrigation and architecture. His saying “let not even one drop of water goes to the sea without serving the agriculture and mankind” is still repeated by Sri Lankans. Under Parakramabahu relationships with foreign countries were improved and trading was done with South Asia, Arabia and China. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]

Parakramabahu is the greatest hero of the Culavamsa, and under his patronage, the city of Polonnaruwa grew to rival Anuradhapura in architectural diversity and as a repository of Buddhist art. Parakramabahu was a great patron of Buddhism and a reformer as well. He reorganized the sangha (community of monks) and healed a longstanding schism between Mahavihara — the Theravada Buddhist monastery — and Abhayagiri — the Mahayana Buddhist monastery. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Parakramabahu's reign coincided with the last great period of Sinhalese hydraulic engineering; many remarkable irrigation works were constructed during his rule, including his crowning achievement, the massive Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama or Parakrama Tank). Polonnaruwa became one of the magnificent capitals of the ancient world, and nineteenth-century British historian Sir Emerson Tenant even estimated that during Parakramabahu's rule, the population of Polonnaruwa reached 3 million — a figure, however, that is considered to be too high by twentieth-century historians.

Parakramabahu's reign was not only a time of Buddhist renaissance but also a period of religious expansionism abroad. Parakramabahu was powerful enough to send a punitive mission against the Burmese for their mistreatment of a Sri Lankan mission in 1164. The Sinhalese monarch also meddled extensively in Indian politics and invaded southern India in several unsuccessful expeditions to aid a Pandyan claimant to the throne.

Although a revered figure in Sinhalese annals, Parakramabahu is believed to have greatly strained the royal treasury and contributed to the fall of the Sinhalese kingdom. The post- Parakramabahu history of Polonnaruwa describes the destruction of the city twenty-nine years after his death and fifteen rulers later.

For the decade following Parakramabahu's death, however, a period of peace and stability ensued during the reign of King Nissankamalla (A.D. 1187-97). During Nissankamalla's rule, the Brahmanic legal system came to regulate the Sinhalese caste system. Henceforth, the highest caste stratum became identified with the cultivator caste, and land ownership conferred high status. Occupational caste became hereditary and regulated dietary and marriage codes. At the bottom of the caste strata was the Chandala, who corresponded roughly to the Indian untouchable. It was during this brief period that it became mandatory for the Sinhalese king to be a Buddhist.

Layout anf Buildings of Polonnaruwa

Prof. W. I. Siriweera wrote: Like any other ancient South Asian city, consisted of a citadel within which the royal precinct was located, a defense wall system and moats, monastic and devale complexes which were the ritual centres and a well laid out market complex. In the periphery of the city were centres of craft production and beyond them the agricultural hinterland. [Source: Prof. W. I. Siriweera, Vice Chancellor, Rajarata University]

Polonnaruwa was a fortified city. What is now known in Polonnaruwa as the citadel was the fortified portion of the inner city within which the palace and other royal establishments were located. The chronicle Culavamsa claims that the city was surrounded by three moats and four fortified walls of receding height in the 12th century. The excavated portions of the city justify the claims of the Culavamsa.

The architectural remains of the royal palaces and other establishments are very imposing and occupy a prominent position among the excavated ruins. One remarkable feature at Polonnaruwa is that its secular aspect was not so thoroughly and completely overshadowed by religious establishments as in Anuradhapura.

Outside the royal precinct were religious establishments. The Tooth Relic and the Alms bowl of the Buddha were almost always under the custody of the monarch and had by this time become a sort of national palladium, symbols for the legitimization of political authority. The Atadage, Watadage and Hatadage, three of the first and imposing monuments of Polonnaruwa were presumably designed as temples for enshrining the Tooth Relic by different kings. Monks belonging to various fraternities were accommodated at exceptionally large monastic dwellings in the city of Polonnaruwa. King Parakramabahu I is credited with the construction of eight monasteries of which the Jetavana was the largest.

Within its precincts were three sermon halls, two libraries and seventy five parivenas or residences of monks. Another monastic complex of large proportions completed by Parakrambahu I was the Alahana Parivena which included within its precincts the monumental stupa now known as the Kirivehera. The Gal vihara, Rankotvihara, Potgulvihara and Satmahal Pasada were among the other monumental edifices constructed in Polonnaruwa during the twelfth century. Besides these Buddhist religious buildings, there are also the architectural remains of no less than sixteen Hindu temples scattered over the city of Polonnaruwa .

Ruins at Polonnaruwa

Medieval Polonnaruwa consists of a fortified citadel surrounded by numerous Hindu and Buddhist religious complexes. The ruins are mainly located in five main groups: 1) those near the Parakrma Samudra; 2) the Royal Palace group; 3) the Quadrangle; 4) the Northern Group; and 5) the Southern Group. Most of the structures are made from brick. Originally they had a stucco exterior.

Parakrama Samudra is a massive 2,400 hectare tank whose name means Sea of Parakrama. It is not exactly clear whether the current tank existed in medieval times or is comprised on several tanks used at that time. In any case the tank or tanks, plus the tanks at Giritale and Minneriya in the Polonnaruwa region made extensive irrigation possible and are still used today.

A nice rest house juts out into the tank. Nearby in a museum The museum contains galleries with artifacts and art works excavated at the archeological sites and maps and models with descriptions in English. Particularly interesting are the models that show what ruined buildings looked like when they weren’t ruins. The ruins here are mostly just foundations and walls. These including the palace of Nissanka Malla. Remains of the royal bath are near the rest house. A throne in the shape of a stone lion once rested in the King’s Council Chamber. It is now in the Colombo National Museum.

Southern Group of Polonnaruwa (south and west of the modern town of Polonnaruwa, near the Parakrama Samudra) contains an unusually lifelike statue of some unknown person. It contrasts with the usual idealized Buddha statues. Potgul Vihara is a structure sometimes called the library. It is an unusual hollow stupa-like structure that may have been used to store sacred materials.

Royal Palace Group

Royal Palace Group (near the modern town of Polonnaruwa) is comprised of building built during the reign of Parakramabahu, The three main structure here are 1) the Royal Palace; 2) Audience Hall, known for its frieze with elephants in different positions; and 3) the Bathing Pool, with the remains of two crocodile-mouth spouts. All of these places are situated in the inner city (citadel), which covers about 10 hectares (25 acres) and is enclosed by a high wall.

Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu I is an impressive 31-x–13-meter structure with three-meter-thick walls that may have had as many as seven stories and whose main hall had 50 rooms and a roof supported by 30 columns. The royal palace is located in the inner city. The palace was named " Vijayantha Pasada", after the palace of God Indra. The chronicles of Sri Lanka describe it as a seven storied building with a thousand rooms.

Polonnaruwa Quadrangle

Polonnaruwa Quadrangle (north of the Royal Group) features structures grouped together on raised platforms. Latha-Mandapaya, or lecture hall, is roofless temple with lotus bud pillars. Here King Nissanka Malla came to listen to the readings of Buddhist texts. Shiva Devales (near the Polonnaruwa Quadrangle) offer evidence of the Hindu influence at Polonnaruwa. The Thuparama is the only Hindu-style gedige (a kind of windowless structure) with its roof intact.

Gal Potha (Stone Book) (near the Latha-Mandapaya) is the stone book of King Nissankamalla (1187-1196). The largest slab inscription in Sri Lanka, it weighs 20 tons and is comprised of three pages with 27 lines. The slab is eight meters (26 feet) long, 4.5 meters (14 feet) high and three meters wide. It is believed to have been brought from Mihintale using elephants and logs. The stone book describes the places the king visited, connections he had with foreign countries, information about wars and rules and regulations to be obeyed even after his death. The inscription of Nissankamalia records the founding of the city and kings achievement, including his invasion of India. On one side of the stone two elephants give Lakshima, the Hindu goddess of wealth, a shower.

Vatadage contains the Temple of the Tooth (the Hatadage) and the Nissaanka Lata Mandapaya. The Vatadage is a spacious circular structure built to house sacred relics. Set on a series of terraces, the largest being 18 meters in diameter, it has four large seated Buddhas and wonderfully-carved guards tones. At the entrance to some buildings are moonstones, carvings that serve as welcome mat fore people entering the buildings.

Northern Group of Polonnaruwa

Northern Group of Polonnaruwa (three to four kilometers north of the modern town of Polonnaruwa) is a spread out ruins of ruins best explored with a bicycle. Rankot Vihara is largest dagoba (bell-shaped stupa) at Polonnaruwa, and the fourth largest in Sri Lanka after the three massive ones in Anuradhapura. Rankot Vihara is 55 meters (180 feet) high. Visitors are expected to take off their shoes when they walk clockwise around the structure as pilgrims do. Gal Vihara is another large dagoba found in the Northern Group. It retains much of its original lime plaster covering.

The Lankatilaka Viharay, or image hall, is a monolithic, windowless gedige (Buddhist building) built for a standing Buddha (now headless). The walls are 17 meters high. The walls are decorated with bas-reliefs and show a unique style of brickwork. The Tivanka Image House has some Buddhist frescoes from the 11th century. The Lotus Pond features a staircase comprised of five concentric stone lotus pedals. Nearby is Demala Maha Seya. It looks like a hill but is an attempt to produce the world’s largest dagoba.

Buddhist Images at Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara (within the Northern Group of Polonnaruwa) is the most photographed of Polonnaruwa’s attractions Here are four Buddha images carved from a single 32-meter (100-foot) -long granite outcropping in the 12th century. They are regarded as among the most beautiful ancient Buddhist statues in the world. A five-meter (15-foot) -tall seated Buddha is flanked by a life-size image. The standing Buddha is about eight meters (25 feet) tall. The languid, graceful reclining Buddha, stretches for 12 meters (50 feet). A few pilgrims come here and leave offerings. Most of the visitors are tourists. The images of Gal Vihara were made during the rule of King Parakramabahu I. The first is a samadhi image in a meditation posture. The second is inside a cave. The third is standing Buddha image with crossed arms. The fourth is a reclining Buddha depicting the Buddha’s death or moments before death before he achieves nirvana after death. The third, standing, Buddha image is highly appreciated as it indicates Buddha’s great mercy and sorrows also see the ability of the artist who made the black patch going over the nose and avoided going over the eyes.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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