A brief history and guide to Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is a must see when in Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa is a must see because the Ancient City is incredibly in tact! The city itself is small in scale and as a result easily walkable (or you can rent a bicycle) within a day or half day. Therefore, it makes it the perfect Ancient City in Sri Lanka to visit in a short period of time.

At first we were plagued with the question: should we visit an Ancient City?
Then: Which one, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa?

We talked to some backpackers who had done one or the other or both. We also researched the web and decided that the smaller of the two was the right choice for us.

As a bit of a nerd I always read up on the history of a site before visiting it. Why? I feel you learn more from understanding then visiting. Not the other way around.

Below is some information for why you should visit Polonnaruwa. I recommend researching before putting your tourist cap on and exploring.

Fun Fact:

Duran Duran filmed their ridiculously bad and exceptional funny 80’s music video “Save a Prayer” in parts of Polonnaruwa and Sri Lanka 🙂

Brick structure in PolonnaruwaA Brief History of Sri Lanka:

Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka’s first great ancient city and Polonnaruwa is the countries second. Anuradhapura was thought to be the capital of the Sinhalese. It was also one of the greatest cities in all of South Asia. Consequently, it is necessary to understand Anuradhapura’s development in order to understand Polonnaruwa.

Between the 4th-11th centuries the Kingdom of Anuradhapura was a major capital of Sri Lanka. The political power and religious center grew in popularity and thus more people settled into a permanent home.

However, Anuradhapura soon became unsafe from Southern Indian invasions. This led to the construction of Polonnaruwa. Eventually Kings would vacation here and Polonnaruwa would become a thriving city that would replace its northern neighbor.

Agricultural development:

It is said that one of the Kings proclaimed,

“no drop of water falling from the heavens was to be wasted and each was to be used toward the development of the land.”
source: Wikipedia

Kings were praised for their ability to utilize the lakes power. The most powerful kings developed underground canals and took advantage of the surrounding resources. Most noteworthy is that the Sinhalese were the first people in ancient history to create tanks to store water for agricultural purposes.

Brick structure in Polonnaruwa

Architecture and Structure:

Polonnaruwa’s massive structures, pagodas, and stupas are built entirely from brick or concrete. Could you imagine the man power that went into building these structures nearly 1,000 years ago? Man created each and every giant cement and brick dome. And probably by hand…

Luckily, the materials used to build Polonnaruwa was much easier to work with than Anuradhapura. Thus, the ancient city was constructed in a much shorter time. Stone was the most common resource in building Anuradhapura while brick was mostly used in Polonnaruwa.

Kiri Vehera in Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa’s large stupa, Kiri Vehera (the present name means ‘milk white’)

Brick structure in Polonnaruwa

Visiting Information:

Entrance fee: $25 includes a museum ticket, a visit to the archeological site, and the rock temple which is extremely impressive (hours: 9:00am-6:00pm).

Tips inside the site: Be respectful: no hats, cover your shoulders and knees. Visitors can rent a bicycle, bring in a scooter, or rent a tuk tuk if you don’t feel like walking.

Around Polonnaruwa: You can stay in the vicinity of Polonnaruwa for a day or two and keep yourself entertained. There is a gorgeous lake close by. In addition to the archeological site you can spend the day swimming, enjoying a meal by the water, or observing local people bathing (not in a creepy way). Also, both Minneriya National Park and Kaudulla National Park are close by. Therefore, if you wanted to stay around Polonnaruwa, you could visit the ancient site then an elephant safari.

Polonnaruwa or Anuradhapura? I can’t personally compare Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa since I’ve never been there. In contrast, Polonnaruwa’s ruins are more in tact and located in closer proximity to each other compared to the other. Therefore, it’ll take you more than a day to see the entire site (and not as well-kept ruins) while you can visit Polonnaruwa in half a day and feel satisfied.

Polonnaruwa’s Archeological Site:

Lankatilaka: this huge brick structure is 17m high and is roofless from collapsing. There is intricate designs on the outside and inside has a massive 41ft standing and headless Buddha, it’s pretty sweet!

the feet of the headless Buddha in Polonnaruwa
Massive feet of the 41ft headless Buddha

Kiri Vihara: this is the best preserved stupa in Polonnaruwa. It’s white color nick-named it “milk white.” It’s also extremely preserved considering it was built 900 years ago.

Rankoth Vihara dagoba in Polonnaruwa

Rankoth Vihara dagoba: is the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa and 4th largest in Sri Lanka. It is impressive at 54m high! Brick and plaster cover the outside.

flower alter in Polonnaruwa
A flower altar at one of the stupas
imagine of Rankot Vihara, Polonnaruwa
Rankot Vihara 54m high dagoba
Rankot Vihara, Polonnaruwa
Rankot Vihara

Rankot Vihara in Polonnaruwa

Rock Temple: We loved this! It’s towards the end of the site and you have to walk maybe 100m to enter, but you see a massive granite rock with Buddha images intricately carved into one granite slab. There is a seated Buddha a 7m tall standing Buddha, and a reclining Buddha which is 14m long (tip: observe the feet – since the toes are separate lengths you know Buddha has passed away).

Quadrangle: This appears to be the most fascinating at Polonnaruwa, but it was also the most packed. Personally, I appreciated the emptiness and grandeur of the stupas compared to this area.

More Polonnaruwa photos:

Detailed carvings in Polonnaruwa
Intricate carvings on the brick structures

Pillars in Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa carved pillars
roofless pillars with detailed carvings

Massive brick structure in Polonnaruwa

Image of the Atadage, Polonnaruwa
Atadage: a shrine for the tooth relic in the Quadrangle
image of the Atadage, Polonnaruwa
The Atadage, Polonnaruwa

My adventures and ramblings through Europe, Australia, and now back the United States. I generally write from daily inspirations or from random thoughts.

Hey! If you enjoyed this post please tell me why or if you want more, let me know what to expand on!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: