Polonnaruwa – A Journey to Sri Lanka’s Ancient Glory

Collage of tourist attractions in Polonnaruwa and surrounding area

Nestled in the heart of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa stands as a living testament to the island nation’s rich history and cultural heritage. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a treasure trove of architectural marvels, intricate carvings, and a vivid tapestry of the past. In this blog post, we’ll embark on a virtual journey through Polonnaruwa, exploring its historical significance, iconic attractions, and the unique experiences it offers to every traveler.

The Rise and fall of Polonnaruwa kingdom:

Sri Lanka has had multiple cities serve as its capital over its lengthy history, and various kingdoms have been established in and around those cities. Anuradhapura was the first of nine such kingdoms, which we got to know from a previous post named “Why Anuradhapura is famous and what can you see there“. In the 11th century, following the South Indian Chola attacks on Anuradhapura and its fall, Polonnaruwa emerged as the second capital of Sri Lanka, succeeding Anuradhapura. This strategic move was driven by its central location and accessibility.

The city flourished under the Chola and Sinhalese dynasties, leaving behind a legacy that continues to captivate visitors to this day.

Sunrise near Lankathilaka temple and Sunset near Parakrama samudraya-Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

When you visit Polonnaruwa, you will notice the Hindu influence on the constructions in the Polonnaruwa kingdom because the religion of the Chola dynasty was Hinduism.

The Chola rule in the Polonnaruwa kingdom ended after the Sinhala king Vijayabahu Ⅰ defeated them in 1070. He ruled in Polonnaruwa for 40 years. After his death, King Parakramabahu ascended to the throne.

Under King Parakramabahu Ⅰ, Polonnaruwa became a prosperous, self-sufficient kingdom. Sri Lanka was known as the “Granary of the East” during his rule due to the extensive rice production thanks to his highly developed irrigation network. Polonnaruwa kingdom was at its peak under the rule of King Parakramabahu Ⅰ.

You will witness the massive tank built under his reign called “Parakrama Samudrya” when you visit Polonnaruwa. “Parakrama Samudrya” literally means the Ocean named Parakrama due to the sheer size of the tank. When thinking that this massive structure was built almost a thousand years ago, without any modern engineering technologies we can’t help but bow to our ancestors for their creations.

Beautiful sunset near Parakrama Samudraya in Polonnaruwa - Sri Lanka
A Serene Evening by Parakrama Samudraya, Polonnaruwa

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King Nissankamalla is another prominent ruler in the Polonnaruwa kingdom who succeeded after the reign of King Parakramabahu Ⅰ. He has many stone inscriptions throughout the country. The Galpotha (Stone book) is one of his most popular stone inscriptions that you will be able to see in Polonnaruwa. It is the largest stone-slab inscription in Sri lanka. King Nissankamalla’s policies and his need to outdo King Parakramabahu Ⅰ work led the Polonnaruwa kingdom to bankruptcy and the power shifted towards the western part of the island.

Places to see in Polonnaruwa:

Just like Anuradhapura, here you can see well-preserved ruins of a great kingdom, stupas, and beautiful tanks. Not only that, there are many other activities like going on safaris, elephant watching, and sightseeing that you can do if you visit Polonnaruwa, even if you are not a history buff.

Did you know?

Polonnaruwa is situated in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.

Compared to Anuradhapura, where the ruins are situated across a large area, Polonnaruwa has a concentrated area of ancient monuments inside a well-maintained park in which you can explore easily by bicycle.

Cycling through these ancient ruins under the shade of giant trees that probably witnessed the rise and fall of a great kingdom thousands of years ago, while taking breaks to drink a king coconut and quenching your thirst will be a wonderful experience that you will remember forever.

Bicycle by the serene lake in Polonnaruwa
In Polonnaruwa, cycling through the historic city is a popular activity.

1. Archeological Museum of Polonnaruwa

This is the portal to the Ancient Kingdom of Polonnaruwa. By visiting the museum you will get a detailed insight into this archeological site, its history, and its importance. So this is the best place to start your journey to the ancient city.

The museum has a layout of the archeological site which will be useful to get a bearing of where you are and which places you want to visit. But don’t worry about remembering landmarks because the site itself is very well labeled and you will have no problem finding all the important monuments and ruins inside the ancient city grounds.

2. The Royal Palace complex of King Nissankamalla:

The Royal Palace complex of King Nissankamalla-Polonnaruwa
Palace complex of King Nissankamalla

Close to the museum and ticket office is the Palace complex of King Nissankamalla. You’ll see remnants of the palace, the bathing pool, and the King’s council in this complex.

3. Pothgul viharaya

This is a temple built to store books built by King Parakramabahu Ⅰ. Poth (Books) Gul (Cave) Viharaya (Temple). This is the oldest library complex in Sri Lanka.

Maybe the “gul (cave)” part in the name is because this temple consists of a series of square walls that get progressively smaller towards the center where a small circular building is located which is believed to be the main area for storing books.

4. The Royal Palace complex of King Parakramabahu

This grand structure which consisted of thousands of rooms and elevated seven stories is believed to be one of the tallest buildings at that time. Even to this date, visitors are surprised by the sheer thickness of the walls that are remaining and the vast foundations of this massive structure.

The palace of King Parakramabahu the Great in Polonnaruwa-Sri Lanka
Palace complex of King Parakramabahu The Great

Taking into consideration that this colossal structure was built almost 1000 years ago, these ruins are living proof of the developed architectural skills of Ancient Sri Lanka.

Next to the palace, you will see the king’s audience hall and the swimming pool.

5. Dalada Maluwa (Sacred Quadrangle)

Dalada Maluwa consists of closely located, well-designed religious monuments of Polonnaruwa. You can see more than ten such constructions by visiting Dalada Maluwa including Vatadage, Hetadage, Atadage, Image of Bodhisattva, Sathmahal Prasadaya, Nissanka Latha Mandapaya, and Thuparamaya.

Vatadage - Polonnaruwa

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The name “Dalada” may sound familiar to you because of the Kandy Dalada Maligawa a.k.a The Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. “Dalada” means Tooth Relic. During the Polonnaruwa kingdom, The Tooth Relic was located in Vatadage under the rule of King Parakramabahu and then in Hetadage under the rule of King Nissankamalla.

Ancient ruins of a temple in Polonnaruwa - Sri Lanka

As a tradition, the ruler who possesses the ownership of the Tooth Relic is considered the king. So the location of the Tooth Relic has changed with power shifts throughout history and now it is located in the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. If you haven’t read my post on The Temple of the Tooth Relic I recommend you to read it before visiting the holy temple.

6. Pabalu vehera

Pabalu Vehera is a stupa built under the supervision of Queen Rupawathi, one of King Parakramabahu’s wives. This stupa has an unusual shape, unlike other stupas you see in Sri Lanka. Other than having an unusual shape this stupa has 9 image houses surrounding it compared to 4 image houses that surround a stupa usually.

7. Rankoth vehera

Rankoth Vehera means the stupa with a golden pinnacle. It is the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa and is well-preserved to this day.

Rankoth Vehera - Polonnaruwa - Sri Lanka
Rankoth vehera - Polonnaruwa

8. Lankathilaka Temple

Built by King Parakramabahu, this temple was one of the most prominent Buddhist temples at that time. Towering brick walls lead to a standing 13m tall Buddha statue. Unfortunately, only the torso of the Buddha statue remains today.

Lankathilaka Temple-Polonnaruwa-Sri Lanka
Lankathilaka Temple - Polonnaruwa

9. Kiri vehera

Close to Lankathilaka Temple, you will see Kiri Vehera. It is the best-preserved stupa in Polonnaruwa that even has its original lime plaster.

10. Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara means the Temple built with stones. This is a collection of 4 massive Buddha statues carved out of a single massive granite slab which are perfectly preserved to this date. When you think about the craftsmanship of ancient Sri Lankan sculptors who could discipline a heatless rock into not one but four incredibly calming Buddha statues, you will be left in awe.

Gal Viharaya-Polonnaruwa
Seated Buddha statue in Gal vihara - Polonnaruwa

Pay attention to the details of the stone-carved pillow of the 14m reclining Buddha statue and the evenly carved folds of the “civara” (Buddhist monk’s clothing). You will see how talented these sculptors were.

Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya at night
Polonnaruwa Gal viharaya at night

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Immerse in Sri Lankan culture:

Polonnaruwa isn’t just a collection of stone structures; it’s a living testament to Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage. Engage with locals, savor traditional cuisine, and witness cultural festivals that bring ancient traditions to life. Through interactions with the community, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the rich tapestry of Sri Lankan culture.

Practical Tips for Explorers:

Explore the beauty of ancient kingdoms in Sri Lanka

Best Time to Visit: Months from  December to April are suitable for visiting the North central part of Sri Lanka where Polonnaruwa is located. The period between February and April offers pleasant weather and clear skies, making it the ideal time of the year for exploring the historical wonders of Polonnaruwa.

The earlier you get to the entrance; the better. You will avoid unnecessary crowds and heat from the sun in the afternoon. The historical site is open from 7 am to 6.30 pm. If you can get there around 7.00 – 8.00 am that would give you plenty of time to explore the ancient city before the sun starts heating the sandy floor near the ruins.

How to get to Polonnaruwa? Conveniently accessible from major cities like Colombo and Kandy, Polonnaruwa can be reached by train, bus, or private transportation. 

Just like any other place in Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa is easy to get to.

Polonnaruwa can be reached by many transport options. Buses, trains, tuk-tuks. If you are taking the bus, just know that the main bus stand is in Kaduruwela which is very close to the main attractions of Polonnaruwa.

Exploration Essentials: Comfortable clothing, sturdy footwear, sun protection, and plenty of water are essential companions for your journey through the ancient city.

Guided Tours: Consider joining a guided tour to gain insightful historical and cultural context about the attractions. You can hire a guide or join a pre-booked tour. There are cycling as well as tuk-tuk tours. Tours are well worth the money considering that you will get to know the history behind all the monuments you visit and you won’t have to worry about keeping track of the roads. In my opinion, tuk-tuk is the best method to explore archaeological sites because it will be hard to paddle your bicycle under the scorching sun in the afternoon.

When entering sacred spaces like Dalada Maluwa, Stupas, and Gal vihara you will have to remove your shoes. So it is better if you wear sandals or such kind of footwear which is easy to remove and put back on without too much effort. You don’t have to remove socks when entering sacred spaces. So wearing socks can protect your feet from the heated sand on the ground in these places.

Walking bare feet

Be mindful not to take pictures with your back towards Buddha statues. It is considered disrespectful.

Cover your shoulders and knees. I know covering up your body in a place like Polonnaruwa is not very comfortable considering the hot climate there. So wear anything comfortable, but take a cloth to cover up your shoulders and knees only when you enter religious places. As a conservative country, in Sri Lanka, it is a must to cover up shoulders and knees when entering religious grounds.

The Entrance fee is 25$ per person. For visitors from SAARC countries, there is a 50% discount. I know it’s pricey. But it includes entrance to the huge museum complex and entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa.

Even Though card payments are available at the ticket office, it will be convenient if you can take cash since sometimes the card payments can stop working due to technological issues.

Compared to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa is visited by a lesser number of tourists. If you’re looking for an ancient kingdom in Sri Lanka where you can walk freely without worrying about crowds, Polonnaruwa is a great alternative for you.

More @ Polonnaruwa

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Polonnaruwa is not all about History. Here are some other interesting attractions that are situated in the Polonnaruwa area which you can add to your itinerary to make it a diverse experience.

Minneriya National Park: Where Nature and Wildlife Converge

You can browse through amazing photos from Sri Lanka and purchase some for yourself by visiting our profile @ iStock by Getty Images.

Discover the enchanting world of Minneriya National Park, a captivating sanctuary in Sri Lanka. Home to the famous Elephant Gathering, this park offers a breathtaking spectacle as herds of elephants gather around the ancient Minneriya Tank.

Beyond elephants, the park’s diverse ecosystem shelters a range of wildlife, from elusive leopards to vibrant birdlife. Immerse yourself in the park’s rich history, as ancient ruins whisper tales of times gone by. With its remarkable blend of wildlife and heritage, Minneriya National Park invites you to explore the wild heart of Sri Lanka’s natural treasures.

Elephants - Sri Lanka

Angammedilla National Park: Serenity Amidst Wilderness

Angammedilla National Park, a hidden gem in Sri Lanka, offers a tranquil escape into untouched wilderness. Nestled away from the crowds, the park showcases a diverse landscape of lush forests, meandering streams, and rugged terrain. Its pristine beauty is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, boasting sightings of endemic species like the Sri Lankan leopard and elusive sloth bears.

As you explore its trails, you’ll uncover a sanctuary where nature thrives undisturbed. Angammedilla National Park invites you to embrace the serenity of the wild and connect with nature in its purest form.

Parakrama Samudraya: Sri Lanka's Ancient Reservoir of Abundance

Beautiful sunset near Parakrama Samudraya in Polonnaruwa - Sri Lanka

Parakrama Samudraya, an ancient reservoir nestled in the heart of Sri Lanka, stands as a testament to the engineering marvels of bygone eras. Built by King Parakramabahu I, this vast water reservoir was designed to harness monsoon rains, ensuring prosperity for the kingdom’s agricultural lands.

The reservoir’s tranquil waters mirror the skies and surround lush landscapes, creating a serene oasis that continues to provide sustenance to the region. Parakrama Samudraya’s historical significance and enduring importance make it a captivating destination for those intrigued by the harmonious union of human ingenuity and nature’s bounty.

Giritale Wewa: Where History Meets Tranquility

Beautiful sunset near a tank in Polonnaruwa - Sri Lanka

Giritale Wewa, a picturesque ancient reservoir in Sri Lanka, weaves a tale of history and natural beauty. Carved centuries ago, this reservoir served as a lifeline for agriculture and sustenance, a testament to the ingenuity of ancient engineering. Nestled against a backdrop of verdant landscapes, Girithale Wewa offers a serene haven for visitors seeking tranquility.

The peaceful waters mirror the sky, creating a soothing oasis that invites reflection and connection with the past. Explore the shores and immerse yourself in the harmonious blend of history and nature at Girithale Wewa.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress: Ancient Majesty Amidst the Skies

Sigiriya rock-Sri Lanka

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Rising dramatically from the lush plains of Sri Lanka, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress stands as a remarkable testament to human innovation and artistry. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this ancient rock citadel boasts towering heights crowned by the remnants of an ancient palace. Adorned with mesmerizing frescoes, Sigiriya narrates tales of a bygone era.

The steep ascent leads to panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, a breathtaking reward for those who conquer its steps. With its captivating history and awe-inspiring architecture, Sigiriya remains an enduring marvel that invites travelers to step into the past and bask in the splendor of ancient Sri Lanka.

If you haven’t read the article “7 Things to Know Before Visiting Sigiriya,” I recommend reading it.

You can browse through amazing photos from Sri Lanka and purchase some for yourself by visiting our profile @ iStock by Getty Images.

Polonnaruwa transcends time, inviting us to walk in the footsteps of ancient kings, artists, and devotees. This remarkable destination not only showcases Sri Lanka’s rich heritage but also inspires a deeper understanding of human creativity and spirituality. So, whether you’re a history enthusiast, a cultural explorer, or simply seeking a connection with the past, Polonnaruwa awaits, ready to weave its enchantment around you.

I’ll meet you with another “Letter” from Ceylon. Until then… 

නැවත හමුවෙමු😉 (Newatha hamuwemu = Let’s meet again)

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