Coming to a Buddhist country without visiting related sites would be a big miss. I know nothing about Buddhism, just understand that it originated from India. Arriving to Sri Lanka, I tried to read as much as I could while visiting Buddhist related sites, hopping to enhance my understanding about this religion (but actually, it didn’t improve much after the trip…haizz).
My first destination was Polonnaruwa, a royal ancient city in the 12th century, recognized as UNESCO World Heritage, located approximately 200 kms away from Colombo airport.
Departing at 9am from my hotel near the Colombo airport, after 4-hour car ride, I arrived Habarana town (the nearest town to the site) around 1pm, had lunch and continued for another 1 hour to reach Polonnaruwa. It was 3:30pm while the site would be closed at 5pm. Anyway, I bought a ticket at the price of 25$ and started my visit. Just a note that in Sri Lanka, foreigners have “special” treat of buying much more expensive entrance tickets, while local people get in for free or pay very less.
Since I didn’t have much time, I quickly passed by the Archaeological museum (next to the ticket office) to see a mini model of the entire ancient city and to decide which sights to visit. It was a nice surprise as I didn’t think the city was that big with many sectors, such as royal palace, meeting halls, many Buddha statues, tombs and stupas. Inside the site, the sectors are located separately from each other, hence it would take half a day to visit them all by walking. Renting a bike to wander around was another interesting alternative to save time. I was lucky to have a car, so could cover the most important sights in a short time (actually in 1 hour and 30 minutes).
Here are my top 5 impressive sights of the ancient royal city Polonnaruwa
1. ROYAL PALACE
The first sight of ruins I visited after entering the entrance of the Ancient City is the Royal Palace. This complex was constructed in 12th century (1153 – 1186) by King Parakramabahu I. Although the site is massive measuring 31 m by 13 m, today not many things are left except some of the extraordinary thick walls (3m).
The row of holes in the front wall seems to hold floor beams for two higher levels. Hence, it is hard to imagine that this complex used to be seven floors tall with 50 rooms supported by 30 columns. The archaeologists speculated that the four more levels above these stone walls must have been made of wood.
Such a magnificent palace in those days!
2. KING’S COUNCIL CHAMBER
Located in front of Royal Palace, King’s Council Chamber is one of the best-preserved structures in the ancient city. It was built in a multi layered platform, accessed by an impressive stair with 2 lions on top of two sides.
The 3-layers base was carved beautifully with reliefs of elephants, lions, and dwarfs. Inscribed into each of the 48 columns in the chamber is the name of the minister whose seat was once beside it.
3. VATADAGE – CIRCULAR RELIC HOUSE
It is my favorite sight in Polonnaruwa thanks to its incredible & unique beauty and it’s a must-see for any visitor. The word vatadage literally means circular relic house. It was inside the Sacred Quadrangle, not far from Royal Palace. The Vatadage was also built in a raised up platform bounded by a wall which looks like an roman arena.
The outermost terrace is an impressive 18m in diameter and has four entrances all flanked by large guard stones in beautiful condition. The half moonstone at the foot of the stair at the northern entrance is reckoned among the finest of their type in all of Sri Lanka. This one has exquisite carvings of (starting from the center) lotus flowers, horses, elephants, and swan.
The four entrances all lead to a central dagaba with four stone Buddhas, facing 4 directions. Three out of four statues are in good conditions as they were in 12th century. The 4th was missing the body and head of Buddha.
Local people usually offer flowers or fruits to the Buddhas. When getting inside the vatadage, people are requested to take off their shoes, walk around on their bare feet to show the respect to the site & Buddhas.
4. RANKOT VIHARA
Rankot Vihara is the largest dagaba (a dome shape shrine) in Polonnaruwa, the fourth largest in Sri Lanka with impressive 54 meters tall. It was built by King Nissanka Malla in the 12th century (1187 – 1196).
It is really an incredible structure that is still in such good condition. Around the enormous dagoba are image houses and flower alters set in the wide sand terrace surrounding the stupa. Everyone is requested to walk with bare foot when getting inside, it makes the experience of wandering around become uncomfortable since the sand was very hot and bumpy.
The dagoba is covered by lots of big trees which are somewhat as old as the dagoba.
5. GAL VIHARA
Gal Vihara is a group of four huge Buddhas which remain as beautiful as ancient time. All were once cut from one long slab of granite. At one time, each was enshrined within a separate enclosure.
The standing Buddha is 7m tall and claimed as the finest of the series, with unusual crossed position of the arms and sorrowful facial expression. The reclining Buddha is 14m long, featuring Buddha entering Nirvana. Notice the relaxing facial expression, the subtle depression in the pillow under the head and the lotus symbols on the pillow end and on the soles of Buddha’s feet. The other two images are both of the seated Buddha. The carvings make superb use of the natural marbling in the rock, bring out a solemn look.
Although it was short, I really enjoyed my time in Polonnaruwa. I met and talked to several students and all of them look very bright and smart. They are the young and potential generation of Sri Lanka.
On the way back to Habarana, the sunset was stunning. I even caught an elephant walking on the road during twilight. Such an amazing day!
- GET THERE: Bus from Colombo (6 hours), Kandy (3 hours), Anuradhapura (3 hours), Dambulla or Habarana (1 hour). Or hire a car with driver from wherever you are as I did (from airpport).
- GET IN: Ticket prices at 25 US$ adult/ 12.50 US$ child
- GET AROUND: Walking, renting a bike, hire a tuk tuk or car
- WHAT TO WEAR: As a common rule when visiting temples/ sacred sites in Sri Lanka, you are recommended to wear clothes that cover your knees and shoulders (especially women). Even when entering some stupas and ruins in the Ancient city, you are asked to remove your shoes and hat.
Traveled in Apr, 2018
Read my other articles about Sri Lanka
The itinerary of 18 days solo in Sri Lanka
Sigiriya & Pidurangula – Climb the mountains in Golden triangle region
Nuwara Eliya – The lush green tea plantations