Anuradhapura consists of a modern city and the ruins of the ancient city, one of the oldest site in Sri Lanka. We can compare the restoration and maintenance level at this UNESCO World Heritage Site with that of the ancient city of Hampi.
After a two day visit to Jaffna I traveled to Anuradhapura to learn about this ancient city.
Train ride to Anuradhapura
There are trains from Jaffna and Colombo that stop at Anuradhapura. I took the 13:45 train from Jaffna and reached Anuradhapura at 16:30.
The train I took to travel to this place was a Chinese made air condition train which shook while it traveled at full speed.
The first class seat for the price of LKR 500 was nice, a blessing after riding the party bus from Colombo to Jaffna that had played music the whole night and disturbed my sleep.
Anuradhapura’s New Town
The New Town of Anuradhapura is small that has a business area with large hotels, nice eateries, resorts and residences. The town had lots of trees but it could not beat the heat.
You can walk from one end of this small town to the other within an hour. The streets are small and it has a one big avenue where all the city’s best restaurants are at. There are two bus stands, if you are going down South, you got to go to the old bus stand.
Anuradhapura has a weekend market that attracts young people. There are many small fish markets that operate late in the evening.
Liyana holiday resort
Liyana is a small property that is next to a SOS Children’s Village. The resort is near the ancient city. The manager is a nice lady that can speak English.
There is a sit out area where people can dine, and have a chat and the property has a lawn in the middle. The best part is that the staff go an extra mile to help you out.
They will arrange for a tuk tuk if you are going to tour the ancient city and Mihintale which is 10 kilometers from here. Breakfast will consist of eggs, a sweet bread roll, tea and watermelon juice.
Restaurants at the town
My favorite restaurants in Anuradhapura:
Casserole Restaurant: I have been here twice in the two days I was at Anuradhapura for dinner. The restaurant is in the same building as a supermarket, an ice cream shop and a food court. They make Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan food.
Sreedevi Restaurant: Ask the locals, and they will recommend you this restaurant. I went there after the tour of the ancient city. But like I said Casserole is my favorite.
It was 4 in evening by the time I went for my lunch and there was not much food in the buffet. The food is more expensive than other restaurants and I do not recommend to those on a budget.
White House: Another recommended eatery which was a two minute walk from my accommodation. Tasty and delicious. I went there primarily to try their egg hoppers and they did not disappoint me.
Tour of the ancient city
This is the main attraction at Anuradhapura. This ancient city is bigger than the new town. You cannot finish the tour by walk. I started my tour by walk at 9:30 AM, but I was tired by 1:30 PM. By then, I had covered only half of the city.
So I hired a tuk tuk to finish the tour. The tuk tuk driver doubled up as a tour guide who showed me sites that I would not otherwise on foot. The ancient city has many entrances.
Every entrance has a ticket counter and a counter to sign up for bike tour. There are homes inside the ancient city and there are people living in those homes.
Entrance fee: $25 for tourists and half this price if you are from India. You will have to show your passport to avail this ‘privilege’. Many tourists skip the visit of ancient cities due to the high foreigner pricing.
They go to the hills, tea estates in Central Sri Lanka or the umpteen number of beaches instead. If you love history, the visit is worth it. Entrance fees are an inescapable part anyway.
Tuk tuk fee: Exploring on foot is tiresome. I picked the hottest day during the hottest month to explore it. Bad idea, if you are carrying little water. There is an expensive option of hiring tuk tuks.
They charge you up to 4000 LKR for the entire tour. My tuk tuk charged me 2000 LKR for half the tour. There are bike shops that rents out bikes which is equally as expensive as the tuk tuks.
Mihintale: I did not visit this place, but this is recommended if you are staying for a longer duration at the new town.
One of the holiest places in Sri Lanka, it is a half an hour bus ride from Anuradhapura. It is smaller than this town and you can explore the whole site within half a day.
Entrance fee: $10 for the entrance.
What to see in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura was a Marvel of the ancient world and an abode of knowledge and spirituality. It was once a magnificent city where there were thousands of people were living and working.
The city had the best irrigation systems with giant tanks, monasteries, the best university campus, supermarket quarters for traders and royal buildings.
This city is existing since the 5th century BC, or the 10th century; depends on who you will talk to. Is there any Sinhalese movie that can rival the new Bollywood movie Mohenjo Daro?
History of the ancient city
King Pandukabhaya planned the layout of the city and it the capital of Kingdom of Upatissa Nuwara in the 4th century BC. It also became capital of Kingdom of Rajarata and Tambapanni.
113 kings and four queens ruling Anuradhapura in succession, added to the architecture of the city. The giant stupas here are a little smaller than the pyramids in Egypt.
The huge structures made the city famous in the ancient world and foreigners came to trade here. The creation of tanks made this a hotbed for agriculture. The tanks still exist and they are beautiful.
Battle for Anuradhapura
King Dutugamunu famously defeated King Ellalan, a South Indian king of the Chola dynasty. Ellalan or Elara launched an attack on the Kingdom of Rajarata and won.
Dutugammu of Kingdom of Mahagama defeated his own brother who challenged his position in South Sri Lanka. He then marched towards Anuradhapura. The inevitable battle had a young Sinhala prince question a just but old veteran’s right over Anuradhapura.
The battles between Ellalan and Dutugammu is recorded in Mahavamsa and is a Sinhala pride. The duel between war elephants Maha Pambata (big rock) and Kandula belonging to Ellalan and Dutugammu respectively is also stuff of legends.
Siege weapons devastated Ellalan’s army. Dutugammu took losses due to molten pitch Ellalan’s army used. But it was Dutugammu who killed Ellalan and ended one of the most celebrated rule even in Sri Lankan history.
This victory made Dutugammu the overlord of Sri Lanka. Dutugammu built a monument for King Ellalan, but it is famously missing today.
What can you see today?
There are lot of things to see today. There are ancient ruins all over this place. If you get off the street and go into the bushes, you will stumble upon some ruins. These are some of the most important:
* represents Atamasthana, which means one of the Eight sacred places in Anuradhapura. It is holy because the Buddha visited this place.
^ represents Solomasthaana, or the sixteen places of veneration in Sri Lanka. There are sixteen places in Sri Lankan Buddhuism that is holy because Buddha was here. Six of such sites are in Anuradhapura.
The ancient Dagobas
The stupas or the dagobas are the bell shaped structures, towering over other buildings in the city, one of the dagobas is a little smaller than the pyramids of Egypt. The architects of the city built the stupas as a center for meditation and learning.
This was in ruins, but it was restored after a fundraiser in the 19th century. It is the oldest and the most important dagoba in Anuradhapura. King Dutugamunu built this dagoba and it represents the head of the Buddha.
The stupa sits of a platform that has statues of elephants around it. They built this after Dutugammu defeated King Ellalan, a South Indian King from the Chola dynasty in battle for Anuradhapura. This it makes the dagoba supremely glorious.
This is one massive stupa that is little smaller than the pyramid of Giza. This big stupa got smaller, perhaps due to wars. Once upon a time 3000 or so monks used this stupa.
King Valagamba built this stupa and the structure looks like the Thuparama stupa. The vatadage houses the structure.
King Dutugamunu built this dagoba due to guilt he felt for not sharing chilli curry with the Sangha (Buddhist monastic community). Miris means chilli.
The largest monastery complex here, the statue of Buddha in Samadhi (meditation) position is near to this stupa. King Valagambahu built the stupa. 5000 monks used this stupa once upon a time.
The right collarbone of the Buddha is part of Thuparama dagoba. This is the first stupa to be built at the instructions of Mahinda Thero after Sri Lanka embraced Buddhism. Mr. Thero brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The vatadage encloses the the structure. As you approach the building you see an ancient well at the front made of granite. It has guard stones at the entrance and a granite doorway.
Lakes of the ancient city
Kuttam Pokuna – The Kuttam Pokuna or the twin ponds is a tank for the monks to take their daily shower. There are figurines of dancing girls in this pool. So there is an opinion that monks did not use the pool at all.
Eth Pokuna – Also called ‘Elephant pond’ that hides among trees and bushes. It is a water storage for the Abhayagiri monastery.
Tissa Weva – In order to increase the water supply to the city, King Devanampiya Tissa built a huge tank. Later a system of irrigation canals was integrated to it.
Basawkkulama Tank – This is another tank built to supply water to Anuradhapura city.
It is a semi-circular stone at the entrance of an ancient Buddhist school. The ruins of the structure is also said to be Mahasena’s Palace. The carving on the moonstone is elaborate. There are carvings of elephants and butterflies. In Buddhism it denotes life cycle.
The monks belonging to a sect called Pansakulika lived in the Ratna Prasada. It was five storey building tall built by King Kantitthuatissa, but today it is in ruins. The monks of Abhayagiri met here twice a month to confess and rectify their mistakes by reciting Pratimoksha.
Lovamahapaya is also called as the Brazen Palace built by King Dutugamunu. This building was nine storey high. Copper and bronze plates cover the roof of this building. It was once a refectory for the monks.
One of the most worshiped statue in Anuradhapura, perhaps in Sri Lanka. It is a statue of the Buddha in the meditation position or the Samadhi position (Dhyana Mudra). It is near the Abhayagiri Monastery and this granite statue is eight feet tall.
Walk towards the giant Tissa Wewa tank and you will find the Isurumuniya. You have to remove your footwear before entering this vicinity. There are carpet covering the floor to help you not burn your feet. There is a Lotus Pond in the front. The Isurumuni Lovers are carved into the rock which is the main attraction. There is staircase carved into the rock so that the lovers could go to the top of the rocks to enjoy the sunset.
This is the second holiest place in Sri Lanka and the most important site in Anuradhapura. This place has a piece of the tree from Bodhgaya which is famous for the enlightenment of the Buddha. If a leaf from this tree falls on you, you can consider yourself the luckiest person on planet Earth. Many people and monks stand for hours here waiting for a leaf to drop on them. There is always a ritual happening here.
The Museums of the ancient city
The Archeology Museum – This museum has the main reception desk and ticket counter. The museum has important artifacts from Anuradhapura and around Sri Lanka. This is also known as Jethawana Museum because it is near the Jethawana stupa.
Abhayagiri Museum – This museum is funded by the Chinese government. The museum has artifacts such as squatting plates used by the monks, jewelry, model of the ancient city and books about this city.
Other Attractions to See at Anuradhapura
Nakha Vihara – This is identifiable as a structure of a house and some remains of the building are still here. This is off the main road, amidst all trees and bushes.
Main Refectory – In this refectory monks met, discussed with each other and they cooked food here.
People Watching – Lot of people, including monks live inside the ancient city. This place attracts people from around the world. Historians, artists and many others visit here.
After the tour stay for two days in the new town. There is no backpacker scene because of which the budget may inflate. Start here early and finish the tour by noon if you can during the summer.
Where to go after Anuradhapura?
You can go to another ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and then Kandy.