Polonnaruwa has many names. It was one of the capitals of ancient Sri Lanka. It was known by the names Jananathamangalam and Thambapanni.
Currently the city is hanging on to Polonnaruwa, which is easier to pronounce than Jananathamangalam. The Tamils from South India called it Polannaruvai and other different names.
Getting to Polonnaruwa’s ancient city
Polonnaruwa is well connected to the rest of Sri Lanka. It is one of the important sites of the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka.
It is a two hour journey from Anuradhapura, fours hours from Kandy and a good six hours from Colombo.
The entrance fee is US$25 for foreigners and US$13 for Indians. It is smaller than Anuradhapura and you can see everything within three hours.
I went in the evening when it was lot cooler. There are guest houses where you can rent bicycles.
Tuk tuk drivers offer to take you on a tour for astronomical LKR 4000 to LKR 6000 without including the entry fee.
What’s Polonnaruwa’s Story?
Anuradhapura is a little closer to South India, so moving the capital closer to Central Sri Lanka looked like a nice thing to do.
The Cholas from South India decided that they will not give up on their claim on North Sri Lankan cities.
However, Sinhala rulers fought each other to decide who will be worthy to challenge South Indian kings showing up at the cities they worked hard to build.
You read about how Mr. Dutugemunu took back Anuradhapura after killing Mr. Ellalan, the veteran badass Chola King.
Polonnaruwa has a similar story as Anuradhapura, but the siege on Anuradhapura is even more dramatic.
The first siege was not as dramatic because Vijayabahu had not figured out how he would defend the city against the Cholas who had an endless supply of soldiers and siege weapons.
He took Polonnaruwa, held it for a while, but had to give up when another Chola army came in to take the city back. He waited a while and tried again.
The Second Siege at Polonnaruwa
Vijayabahu laid siege on Polonnaruwa and seven long months later he took Polonnaruwa. He needed three armies to get the the job done.
He stationed one army at Mahathittha’s port in the Western coast of Sri Lanka to engage boats that came with Chola reinforcements.
Reinforcements kept arriving and Vijayabahu’s soldiers were sent to the beaches and the ports to lie in wait for the boats to arrive.
Some of the soldiers from Mahathittha marched into the North West part of Polonnaruwa. The second army attacked from the East.
Vijayabahu himself led a third army straight into Polonnaruwa. Soldiers threw everything but the public baths at each other during the siege.
In this war, along with cities, human resource and Buddhism took a hit. After the war Vijayabahu became the king.
He helped grow Buddhism, repaired and rebuilt temples. He even quelled a rebellion against him during his rule.
Parakramabahu became the king and beautified the city.
He told his people not to waste water, built hospitals, unified three kingdoms, namely the Rajrata, Dakkhinadesa and Ruhana under him (long story), became friends with the Pandyas against the Cholas who was common enemy, attacked and captured a Burmese kingdom for insulting Sri Lankans and also traded with China and the Middle East.
King Nissankamalla became King after him and he did not do too bad either. He was one of the last monarchs of Sri Lanka. In 1293, the people of Polonnaruwa left the city for good.
Here are some reasons why you need to see this place more than anything else.
1. Today, Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The only beings mostly inhabiting Polonnaruwa ruins are the monkeys.
You can mostly see Langurs and Macaques. The New Town supports the local tourism that tourists use as a base to visit the ancient city.
2. The popular British band Duran Duran were in Sri Lanka. They filmed their song ‘Save a Prayer‘ in Polonnaruwa, the Lion Rock and some beaches.
3. British primatologist Jane Goodall hung out here.
4. Disney made a movie called Monkey Kingdom here.
5. Lake Parakrama Samudraya is so big that the authorities are actually planning to run a number of hovercrafts on it to solve Sri Lanka’s traffic problem.
What to See in Polonnaruwa
1. Parakrama Samudraya
This is a reservoir built by Parakramabahu. It is three different reservoirs namely Topa Wewa, Eramudu Wewa, and Dumbutula wewa connected to each other by channels.
Because of this huge lake and the surrounding forests, Polonnaruwa is easily defendable than Anuradhapura.
2. Archaeology Museum
You walk into the Archaeology Museum. You buy tickets at the reception and go in to the ancient site. No pictures and no making noise.
There are important artifacts from ruins around Sri Lanka, South East Asia, India and China.
I have no idea what happened to the reception team, but they decided to laugh at me, stare at me the whole time, creeping me out. I did not figure out why they laughed.
‘What is the entrance fee?’
‘What time does the site close?’
3. The Citadel Area
The picture shows ruins of King Parakramabahu’s palace. This was a seven storey building which had 50 rooms. This would have been a majestic building during those times.
Scientists say that the walls of the palace was three meter thick. The first three floors are made of stone and the next four levels made of wood.
The Kumara Pokuna or the Royal Bath, built during Parakramabahu’s reign is near to the Citadel area. In the middle in a circular stone and the platform on the edges are resting area for people.
4. Nissankamalla’s Palace Complex
A palace was built during the reign of King Nissankamalla. He had an audience hall to conduct meetings too. The building could have been up to two storyes and the top floor was made of wood. He also had a royal bath near the palace.
5. Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha Devale
This is the ancient trading area. Traders sat here selling their wares.
This second Shiva temple was probably built by the Cholas while they were ruling in Polonnuruwa and one of the oldest building.
There are Hindu temples for Lord Vishnu and Lord Ganesha. There are several temples in the ancient city and this one is the most intact.
6. The Sacred Quadrangle
This is the most interesting part of the city and certainly the most revered by the ancient people.
The Sacred Quadrangle consists of the Vatagade (Stupa House), the Hatadage, the Thuparama Image House, Nissankalata Mandapa, Stone Block and Satmal Prasada.
The Thuparama Image house is the only building where the roof is intact. The roof known as gedige is made of bricks. Archaeologists say that there was a big statue of the Buddha inside the building, but today only a portion of it remains.
At the Nissankalata Mandapa listened recital of Buddhist scriptures, the Pirith. It is a small structure with a pillar structure that stimulates a stalk of the lotus flower.
The Vatadage is a relic house. It was built during the reign of Parakramabahu to hold the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, or during Nissanka Malla to hold the alms bowl of the Buddha.
So it is an important structure in Polonnaruwa’s history. The diameter of outer wall of the structure is 18 meters, and it has four entrances. The doorway has guard stones.
There are four Buddha statues facing the four different doors. The structure once had a wooden roof supported by stone columns. The image at the top is the image of the part of the Vatadage.
The Hatadage is a relic shrine built by Nissankamalla to keep the tooth relic of the Buddha. It is made of stone, brick, and wood, and it a two storey structure.
There are three statues of the Buddha inside the shrine. The name comes from the time it took to build it. Hata means sixty.
The Satmal Prasadaya is a magnificent structure which scientists say is a stupa.
Gal Potha, a stone slab that details the life of King Nissankamalla is inscribed into it. It is at the left of the Satmal Prasadaya.
7. Rankot Vihara
Rankot Vihara is a 54 meter tall dagoba. Inscriptions on a stone identifies this structure as Ruwanweli to resemble it with Ruwanwelisaya at Anuradhapura.
‘Ran’ means gold and Kotha means the pinnacle of the stupa. King Nissankamalla built the stupa which is the fourth biggest in Sri Lanka.
This is an ancient Buddhist temple that has a 17 meter tall Buddha statue without a head. The roof however is missing. At its helm, this was one of the grandest structure in ancient Sri Lanka.
It was built by King Parakramabahu. This site has the Buddha which commands attention which is a deviation from traditional architecture. People usually light incense sticks and pray to the Buddha here.
9. Kiri Viharaya
This dagoba is white in color and has remained so over the centuries. It was built white and it was found in perfect white even after 700 years. Built by a queen of King Parakramabahu, Subadhra. It was originally named as Rupavati Chetiya.
It is in perfect condition all these years and so they did not think about restoring it. However, the treasures were looted over the years by treasure hunters. The smaller stupas are burial chambers of royal priests.
10. Gal Viharaya
When I got here it was almost dark and the monks started the evening ritual. The Gal Viharaya, also called Uttarama is a rock temple dedicated to the Buddha.
The Buddha figures are carved out of the rocks. There is a large sitting Buddha on the left and another Buddha image inside a shrine. There is a standing Buddha and a reclining one.
The standing Buddha might be Ananda, Buddha’s disciple who has a sad expression on his face and he might be mourning the death of the Buddha. There is a rock inscription which teaches the code of conduct for the Buddhist monks.
King Parakramabahu I got these statues made during his reign. The sitting Buddha has flowers carved in the background.
This is the end of the list of important things to see at the ancient site at Polonnaruwa.
Since there are many monkeys here, it would not hurt to combine the tour of the ancient city with tour of the monkey kingdom.
Contact the Monkey Camp for this.