The Sacred Quadrangle

The Quadrangle in Polonnaruwa houses most of the sacred buidlings and shrines of the Polonnaruwa kingdom. It is dominated by the magnificent Vatadage (circular relic house), arguably the most beautiful building in Sri Lanka. Built by Parakramabahu. The remainder of the Quadrangle is packed with a dense assortment of buildings of enormous variety and interest (though none approaches the flamboyance of the Vatadage). Opposite the Vatadage stand the rather plain remains of the Hatadage, originally a two-storeyed building, though the upper storey, which was perhaps made of brick, has long since crumbled away, as is the case with so many other structures at Polonnaruwa. Thought to have been built by Nissankamalla, the Hatadage is also referred to as the Temple of the Tooth, since the relic may have been placed here for a time, probably on the upper floor. It now houses three Buddha statues, the central one positioned to line up through the shrine's doorway with the Buddha directly opposite in the Vatadage. The entrance is marked by a fine moonstone and two nagarajas, whilst carvings of lions and geese run along the top and bottom of tin-exterior walls, which bear the very faint traces of further decorative carving. Two long Sinhala inscriptions can be found on the right of the outer and inner entrances.

The Vatadage

The Quadrangle is dominated by the magnificent Vatadage (circular relic house), arguably the most beautiful building in Sri Lanka. Built by Parakramabahu, it was later embellished by the crafty Nissankamalla, who placed an inscription on the upper terrace claiming credit for the whole building. The entire outer structure is a fantastic riot of artistry, with almost every surface carved in a melee of decoration without parallel in the rest of Polonnaruwa, or indeed anywhere else on the island. The outer wall sports friezes of lions and dwarfs, and is topped by an unusually designed stone wall decorated with an abstract lotus design. Four sets of steps lead to the upper  terrace, each one a little masterpiece, decorated with dwarfs, lions and makaras, as well as magnificently carved nagaraja guardstones and some of the finest moonstones in Sri Lanka — the main entrance is particularly ornate. The remains of further pillars and carved capitals which would once have supported the now vanished roof lie scattered about the upper terrace.

From the upper terrace, steps lead through four entrances, aligned to the cardinal points and each presided over by a seated Buddha, to the eroded remains of the central brick dagoba in which the Tooth Relic may have been enshrined – strangely enough, this inner sanctum is virtually unadorned, in striking contrast to the remainder of the building.

Thought to have been built by Nissankamalla, the Hatadage is also referred to as the Temple of the Tooth, since the relic may have been placed here for a time, probably on the upper floor. It now houses three Buddha statues, the central one positioned to line up through the shrine’s doorway with the Buddha directly opposite in the Vatadage. The entrance is marked by a fine moonstone and two nagarajas, whilst carvings of lions and geese run along the top and bottom of tin-exterior walls, which bear the very faint traces of further decorative carving. Two long Sinhala inscriptions can be found on the right of the outer and inner entrances.

 

 

Neither of these inscriptions, however, prepares one for the Gal Pota (“Book of Stone”), immediately east of the Hatadage, an enormous slab of granite, some nine metres long, covered in a densely inscribed panegyric praising the-works of Nissankamalla, including records of his (in truth, extremely modest) conquests in India — an astonishing display of self-publicity which would pin even a politician to shame. The stone itself, according to the inscription, weighs, 25 tons and was brought over 90km from Mihintale, though exactly why this particular rock was considered remarkable enough to be transported from so far away remains unclear.

 

Next to the Gal Pota stands the strange Satmahal Prasada (the name means ‘Seven-storey temple”, though only six survive). Its unique design perhaps the work of the (Cambodian) craftsmen, although no one really knows. The heavily eroded stucco figures of a few deities in high relief decorate its walls.

 

 

 

 

Behind he Satmahal Prasada are the slight remains of a seventh-century Chapter louse — just a tiny brick outline and a few pillars, including one in the Unusual “thrice-bent” style of the Lotus Mandapa. On the other side of the Hatadage, the Atadage is one of the oldest structures in the city, having been constructed by Vijayabahu to house the Tooth Relic; you can still see the building’s brick base and the remains of finely carved pillars and door frames; a blackened Buddha statue stands in the centre next to the Atadage are the remains of an image house – the brick base inside would have supported a now vanished reclining Buddha. Continuing anti-clockwise, the next building is the small but exquisite Lotus Mandapa (also known as the Latha Mandapaya or Nissankalata), built by Nissankamalla and featuring an unusual latticed stone fence (rather like the famous Buddhist Railing at Anuradhapura;) and a small pavilion surrounded by stone pillars shaped as thrice-bent lotus buds on stalks, a beautiful and very unusual design whose sinuous organic lines look positively Art Nouveau. Inside the pavilion are the remains of a tiny dagoba which was, according to different interpretations, either used to hold relics or which served as a seat for Nissankamalla during religious ceremonies (though not, presumably, both).

Finally, in the southwest corner stands one of the oldest but also one of the most intact of the Quadrangle’s structures, the Thuparama, an exceptionally large and well-preserved gedige (stone image house) thought to date back to the reign of Vijayabahu I.The inner shrine preserves its vaulted brick roof, the only such structure to have survived at Polonnaruwa, as well as exceptionally thick, plaster-covered brick walls whose massive dimensions keep the interior pleasantly cool — the walls are so thick that the architects were actually able to construct a staircase inside them (it’s just through the door on the left), though it’s usually locked. The shrine contains eight beautiful old standing and seated crystalline limestone Buddhas, which sparkle magically when illuminated. The exterior walls are decorated with the South Indian-style niches, and the heavily recessed and elaborately decorated window frames which can be found on a number of buildings across the city. The buildings original name is unknown; it was confusingly christened the Thuparama (“The Stupa”) by the pioneering British archeologist H.C.P. Bell, though it isn’t a dagoba at all.

Shiva Devale no.1

Immediately south of the Quadrangle lies the Shiva Devale no. 1, one of many temples at Polonnaruwa dedicated to either Vishnu or Shiva. It dates from the Pandyan occupation of the early thirteenth century, following the collapse of Sinhalese power; The temple is made of finely cut, slate-grey stone, fitted together without the use of mortar – in fact, it may never have been finished: you can still see protruding lumps which would have helped workers when manoeuvring the blocks into place, and which would later have been carved off (in addition, the code numbers painted on almost every stone during archeological work give the whole structure the curious appearance of an enormous building set). The bottom halves of two rudely truncated guardian figures stand by the doorway, while inside there’s a rather battered lingam – the extraordinary treasure-trove of bronze images found here are now in the National Museum in Colombo. Around the back of the shrine stand cute and tiny statuettes and a couple of venerable and heavily bearded figures which possibly represent Agni, the pre-Aryan Indian god of fire.