Polonnaruwa - the medieval capital

Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s medieval capital between the 11th and 13th centuries. Enclosed within three concentric walls, the city contained royal palaces, bathing ponds, monasteries and sacred architecture such as dagobas and image houses. Its grandeur was largely the creation of three kings, Vijayabahu, Parakramabahu and Nissanka Malla, although the last-mentioned emptied the coffers in doing so. At nearly 1000 years old, Polonnaruwa is one of Sri Lanka’s ancient capital cities (and part of the famous ‘Cultural Triangle’).

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 greeny environment, amazing ancient constructions, Parakrama Samudraya (a huge lake built in 1200 A.C.), attractive tourist hotels and most importantly nice people with hospitality, always attracted 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 chillyness has been increased noticeably. Although this is surprising to some people, it is more enjoyable for tourists. But sometimes paddy field farmers suffers when there is too much rain.

Although King Vijayabahu 1 was the first to claim the city as his capital, it was King Parakramabahu who made it what it is today, with its massive buildings, ornate parks and the ‘pièce de resistance’ – a 2500 hectare tank called ‘Parakrama Samudra’ (‘Sea of Parakrama’).  The city itself is divided into new and old town with the impressively preserved ruins split into five main areas, including ‘The Quadrangle’ (a.k.a. ‘Terrace of the Tooth Relic’), the Northern City group and the Rest House group (with the royal palace ruins of ‘Nissanka Malla’).  Due to its reasonably compact layout, the ruins can be easily explored on foot, and with the surrounding area’s flat well maintained roads, you can leave the car behind and jump on a bicycle to get around.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa are scattered over an extensive area of dry, gently undulating woodland. The entire site is about four kilometres from north to south, and rather too large to cover by foot. The site is open daily from 7am to 6pm.You can see everything at Polonnaruwa in a single long day, but you’ll have to start early to do the city justice. Polonnaruwa was originally enclosed by three concentric walls and filled with parks and gardens. At its centre lay the royal residences of successive kings, Comprising the Royal Palace Group (containing the palace of Parakramabahu) and the Rest House Group (comprising the less well-preserved remains of Nissankamalla’s palace complex). South of here are the scant remains of the Southern Group, while just to the north of the palaces lies the city’s religious heart, the so-called Quadrangle, which contains the densest and finest group of remains in the city, and indeed Sri Lanka. The city’s largest monuments are found in the Northern Group, comprising the buildings of the Alahana Pirivena monastery, including the famous Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara and the evocative Lankatilaka shrine.

Although Polonnaruwa doesn’t have the huge religious significance of Anuradhapura, the city’s monastic remains are still held sacred by Buddhists and Hindus alike. The great statues of the Gal Vihara hold a revered place amongst the island’s Buddhists, while many of the site’s temples, despite their ruined appearance, are still considered living shrines. Signs outside many of the build­ings ask you to remove your shoes as a token of respect — more of a challenge than you might imagine when the summer sun has heated the stone underfoot to oven-like temperatures. Wimps wear socks.

To the west of the city lies the great artificial lake, the Parakrama Samudra (“Sea of Parakramabahu”), encircled by rugged hills and providing a beautiful backdrop to the town — an evening stroll along the waterside Potgul  Mawatha makes a lovely way to end a day. The lake was created by the eponymous king, Parakramabahu, though sections of the irrigation system date right back to the century AD. Covering some ten square miles, the lake provided the medieval city with water, cooling breezes and an additional line of defense, and irrigated over ninety square kilometres of paddy fields. After a breach in walls in the later thirteenth century, the tank fell into disrepair, and was restored to its original size only in the 1950s.

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