The second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, Polonnaruwa was first declared the capital city by King Vijayabahu I, who defeated the Chola invaders in 1070 AD. to reunite the country once more under a local leader.
Today the ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned archeological relic sites in the country, standing testimony to the discipline and greatness of the Kingdom’s first rulers. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa has been declared as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Near the ancient city, there is a small town with several hotels (especially for tourists) and some glossy shops, and places to fulfill day to day needs. There are government institutions in a newly built area called “new town”, about 6 km away from the town and the main road.
Polonnaruwa is the 2nd largest city in north central province. But it is known as one of the cleaner and more beautiful cities in the country. The green environment, amazing ancient constructions, Parakrama Samudraya (a huge lake built in 1200), attractive tourist hotels and hospitable people, attract local and foreign tourists.
One recent scientific observation is that of its climate changes, historically, Polonnaruwa had a tropical climate most of the year, although it was occasionally chilly in December and January. But in recent years the rain and chilliness has been increased noticeably. Although this is surprising to some people, it is more enjoyable for tourists. However, there is a setback as paddy field farmers can suffer when there is too much rain.
Parakrama Samudraya (Sea of Parakrama) built by King Parakramabahu the great, is the largest ancient man-made rainwater reservoir in Sri Lanka while it dominates the western flank of the Polonnaruwa district. The great reservoir spreading over an area of 2,500 hectares and having a capacity of 134 million cubic meters of water is the lifeline to the agricultural district of Polonnaruwa and its surroundings. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, 122 hectares in extent, spreading out to a distance of 5 km from north to south and 3km from east to west, is also the beneficiary of cooling breezes of the Parakrama Samudraya.
Within proximity of the Parakrama Samudraya are the ruins of the Kings (King Nissanka Malla) Council Chamber on whose pillars are inscribed the status and titles of various officials of the kingdom.
Statue of King Parakramabahu
On the Southern side of the Parakrama Samudraya and South of picturesque lakeside Rest house is another well known Polonnaruwa monument, a striking rock carved statue of a man of noble disposition holding a stack of manuscripts.
The statue has generated speculations and arguments concerning its identification. The archaeologists haven’t arrived at a concrete conclusion. The sculpture that rises at a height of 3.5 m is believed to be that of King Parakramabahu the great. It could also very well be a representation of the sage Pulasti, after whom the city was named Pulastinagara. Pulastinagara (City of Pulasti) is the pali version of the Sinhala name Polonnaruwa.
Palace of King Parakramabahu
Enclosed by ramparts that are four leagues long and seven leagues wide, the Royal Citadel has many interesting monuments. Palace of King Parakramabahu must have been an imposing edifice once, richly decorated and seven storeys high. The remaining walls of the palace are of extra-ordinary thickness and the drainage system is intriguing. A little further on, is the handsome royal bath, the Kumara Pokuna. Across the way is the beautiful Royal Audience Hall-embellished with lion portals, graceful pillars and a moonstone (a delicately carved stepping stone).
The structural techniques of this period were the same as those of the Anuradhapura period, but there was a greater use of lime mortar, which enabled the building of brick structures of dimensions that were never before attempted.
Gal Viharaya or the Rock Temple, which is unparallel among such ancient monastic edifices, takes the form of a group of colossal Buddha statues carved out of a granite boulder. Most prominent is the standing image, 7 m (23 ft) tall.
Next to it is an enormous 14 m (46 ft) reclining Buddha. The head rests on the right palm, while the left hand is stretched along the left side of the body. The dent on the pillow caused by the weight of the head and the slightly drawn angle in the left leg adds life to the superb rock carved work of poise and balance.
Next to the reclining Buddha statue is the standing figure of Buddha. According to archaeologist Dr. Senerath Paranavitana, the pose and the facial expression of Buddha shows his supreme compassion towards the suffering.
The seated Buddha statue on the southern end with a backrest decorated in an arch is carved in front of the seat.
Nissanka Lata Mandapaya
Nissanka Lata Mandapaya, built by King Nissankamalla, is an innovative work of art depicting the splendour of classical architecture. The pavilion was believed to be used for chanting Buddha’s teaching while the inscription at the pavilion reveals that the king used to listen to the chanting of pirith, which were Buddhist blessings.
The Nissanka Lata Mandapaya pavilion which is surrounded by Buddhist railings, houses a bubble shaped small dagaba, without its upper part, while it is carved out of stone in the centre. It is possible, the stone carved stupa used to hold the relic casket during pirith chanting.
Vatadage, a circular relic house possesses an elegance and beauty that is rare even in ancient Sri Lanka. In line with the outer circle of stone pillars is a tastefully ornamented screen wall patterned with four petalled flowers.
The access stairs at the cardinal points are beautifully carved. At the head of each flight is a Buddha statue in stone. Vatadage is lavished with moonstones and guard stones.
The Sathmahal Prasada
The Sathmahal Prasada or the seven storeyed edifice is constructed in a stepped pyramidal form that contains seven square levels. According to the archaeologists, the layout of the edifice resembles Vat Kukut at Lamphun, Thailand built in the eight century.
The identity and the purpose of the Sathmahal Prasada haven’t yet been proven. According to the historical chronicles of Sri Lanka, King Parakramabahu the Great had built a stupa in the area and some scholars have assumed the building was in fact a stupa. A similar building discovered in Anuradhapura is known by the name of Nakha Vehera.
Hatadage and Atadage
Hatadage and Atadage are Sacred Tooth relic temples in Polonnaruwa built by king Wijayabahu and king Nissankamalla. The 11th century Atadage and the 12th century Hatadage both housed the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha. Both are handsome structures embellished with fine carvings.
Having liberated Sri Lanka from the Dravidian invaders, King Vijayabahu setup his capital at Polonnaruwa and built the Atadage so that the sacred tooth relic of Buddha and the Bowl relic could be deposited. The ground floor was the image house.
The Atadage, an enlarged version of Hatadage, was built by King Nissankamalla to house the Sacred Tooth Relic and Bowl Relic. The impressive building with the ground floor serving as an image house is accessed by a masterfully carved doorway. Inscriptions by King Nissankamalla inscribed on the walls are now discoloured.
Gal Potha (Stone Book)
Gal Potha is a massive 26 ft slab of stone that lies by the side of the Hetadage in which King Nissankamalla had his own deeds recorded in stone.
The inscriptions also contain particulars of King Nissankamalla’s genealogy and his wars with Dravidian invaders from South India. The inscription itself says that the slab of stone was brought to the location from Mihintale.
The inscription has been of great assistance to the scholars since it also reveals evolution of the Sinhala script. On the side of Gal Potha are two stone carved Elephants sprinkling water on goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Prosperity.
Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond)
500 m north of the Demala Maha Saya is the Nelum Pokuna, built by King Parakramabahu the great in a design of 8 petaled lotus flowers. The Lotus pond is believed to have been used for ritual baths for the pilgrims visiting Tivanka-patanaghara image house.
At the southern end of the city, i.e. 100 m south of the statue of King Parakramabahu, outside the Royal Garden of Nandana Uyana is the Potgul Vehera, or the Library Monastery’. A central square terrace houses the principal monument, a circular shrine or library where the sacred books were deposited. It is surrounded four small dagobas.
The superior acoustics of Potgul Vehera leads to the conclusion that the library had doubled up as an auditorium on occasions to read the books, read the tenets of Buddhism and chant the blessings called “Pirith” The buildings called Potgul Vihara or library that was utilized for the same purposes as the shrine at Polonnaruwa, can be seen in some of the Buddhist monuments too.
Shiva Devale 1 A Hindu Temple of chaste and restrained line dedicated to God Shiva of 12th century vintage.
Shiva Devale 2 Past the north gate of the citadel is the 11th century Hindu temple built entirely of stone. Within in the sanctum is a stone carved lingam or phallus, a symbol of Hindu god Diva. In front of the temple is the Nandi bull, God Shiva’s vehicle.
Thuparama, a brick-built gedige (Sinhala: vaulted shrine) is in a fine state of preservation. Thuparama, the oldest image house at Polonnaruwa goes back to the reign of King Vijayabahu the first (1055-1110 AD).
A brick base is about one meter high with three projections that once carried an image of Buddha, which is now simply a pile of bricks. The stone images in the Thuparama date back to the Anuradhapura period.
Pabalu Vehera is believed to be built during the late Anuradhapura period and enlarged during the Polonnaruwa period. The stupa is surrounded by four image houses located in the cardinal points. The limestone statues of Buddha are sculpted in different postures. In the image house on the south is a Samadhi Buddha statue, which is a fine work of art. In front of Pabalu Vehera to the north is the main street of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Now reduced to a mere footpath with encroaching weeds and bushes, it is a fine walk to enjoy the landscape populated with birdlife.
Rankoth Vehera built by King Nissankamalla, is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa. Rankoth Vehera had followed the traditions of early stupas built in Anuradhapura. The enormous dagoba that measures 550 ft. in girth belongs to the Alahana Pirivena monastery complex.
Around the enormous dagoba are image houses and flower alters set in the wide sand terrace surrounding the stupa. At the four central points are Vahalkadasa or front entrance enclosures built of brick, with four flights of steps providing admission to devotees.
The inscription on the stone-seat in front of the dagoba says that King Nissankamalla used to supervise the construction of the Rankoth Vehera. Another inscription on the platform to the south narrates that King Nissankamalla used to worship the dagoba from the pavilion.
At the heart of the Alahana Pirivena is the remains of the towering Lankatilaka shrine, one of the most splendid of Buddhist shrines in Asia in the 12th century. This enormous brick structure consists of include 55 ft. high walls, elaborate carvings and a colossal image of Buddha. The Lankatilaka shrine Image House is a fine example of vaulted shrines called gedige’s. The colossal Buddha statue today sans the head, when intact would have measured 41ft in height. The exterior of the walls are decorated with stucco figures and architectural models. On the right balustrade is carved an exquisite figure of great beauty, which is believed to be Nagini, the female counterpart of Nagaraja. Though Naga images are common in the guard stones at cultural monuments in Sri Lanka, the Lankatilaka shrine is the only example where such images are found in balustrades.
Kiri Vehera is just ahead of Lankatilaka. The milk-white shrine was named Kiri Vehera (Sinhala: Milk coloured stupa) for its exterior of gleaming white, built by Queen Subhadra, a consort of King Parakramabahu. Noted for its perfect proportions, Kiri Vehera is the best preserved of Sri Lanka’s dagobas. A three-chambered relic bloc that was found while excavating a large mound to the east of Kiri Vehera reveals the structure and composition of relic chambers during the Polonnaruwa period. In addition to that, the excavations have unearthed many mounds which were originally minor stupas containing the corporeal remains of the royal family and the prelates of the monastery.
On the lower terrace towards the west of Kiri Vehera are ruins of a chapter-house or a assembly hall for the Buddhist monks.
Tivanka Image House
Tivanka image house, located 400m north of the Lotus Pond, is so named following the thrice bend yet towering The Buddha Statue therein. The head and neck of the Buddha statue have now come off. Tivanka means three bends in Sinhalese. The Buddha statue is bent at three places: at the knees, at the waist and at the shoulders. The inner walls as well as the outer walls of the image house are exquisitely decorated.
The paintings on the outer walls are purely decorative with figures of lions, gansas and dwarfs. The murals on the inner walls are masterpieces. Yet those 12th century frescoes depicting scenes from tales of previous lives of Buddha have now faded. According to the scholars these paintings depict a blend of popular and classical styles.
This is a Modern museum located by the side to the Parakrama Samudraya while at present is home to original artefacts found in Polonnaruwa and also replicas and artistic impressions of the ancient monuments in the area.