Sri Lanka is a land of many wondrous things and our 25OO year’s old written history stands as testament to this. Seven of our ancient cities have been declared as world heritage sites by UNESCO. Ancient capital cities — Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura in the north-central plains of Sri Lanka are together known as ‘the cultural triangle’ of Sri Lanka. This part is home to some of the richest, largest and most dramatic archaeological heritage sites in Asia.
A sapling of the sacred Bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, the 5th century Sigiriya Rock Fortress with paintings of maidens across the western face of the 200m high rock, and the Jetavana Monastery which happens to be the largest and tallest brick-built monument in the world are some of the most popular places in the cultural triangle.
Facts interspersed with myth and folklore depicting times of tragic power struggles, dramatic invasions, sophisticated and innovative urban planning and architecture, devout religious missions and other feats achieved by the Sri Lankan people centuries ago will evoke a sense of awe and wonder in us even now.
Polonnaruwa is the second largest and the main town of the Polonnaruwa District in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms. The majestic city stands tall today as one of the best planned archaeological relic cities in the country, a testimony to the greatness and the architectural genius of the kingdom’s ancient rulers.
Places to visit in Polonnaruwa:
The Royal Palace: This is also known as Weijantha Prasada, the Royal Palace ruins are still amazing to view. This was built by King Parakramabahu I and known to contain 1000 chambers.
Nissanka Latha Mandapaya: Built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196) and named after him, this is an elevated stone platform with several stone columns carved in a very unique way.
King Nissanka Malla’s Palace: This is believed to be a palace of 2 stories, still has remainings of the magnificent structure. Although it is very small compared to king Parakramabahu I’s Royal Palace, the ancient engineers’ talent is evident from the construction of the remaining pillars.
King Parakramabahu I Statue: 11ft and 2inches tall is said to be King Parakramabahu I but there is also a belief that it could be a celebrated sage of the 12th Century.
Siva Devalaya: Built by South Indian invaders in 13th century AD, Siva devalaya (temple) is one of the fourteen devalaya ruins found in Polonnaruwa. It has been built mainly with stonework.
Alahana Pirivena Complex: This is the great monastic complex built by Parakramabahu 1
Lankatilaka Temple: Built by King Parakramabahu I, the temple has been constructed by flat bricks and rich in designs and carvings.
Gal Vihara (Temple): This is a rock temple of the Buddha built by Parakramabahu during the 12th century.
Parakrama Samudra (Sea of King Parakrama): This is a shallow reservoir, consisting of five separate reservoirs connected by narrow channels.
Demala Maha Seya: This is a gigantic uncompleted Stupa built by king Parakramabahu (1153-1186).
The Sacred Temple of Tooth in Kandy
The sacred Temple of Tooth in Sri Lanka in the historic city of Kandy houses one of Buddhism’s most sacred relics and draws followers of the Buddhist faith from all over the world. The Royal Complex situated around the Temple of the Tooth and Kandy Lake – comprising of the King’s Palace, the Queen’s Palace, the Audience Hall, the Royal Boathouse and the Royal Summer House, represent the zenith of ancient Sri Lankan architecture.
The last stronghold of the Sri Lankan kings against a series of colonial invaders was at Kandy, at 500 meters in the Hill Country. Now a bustling city, Kandy remains a sanctuary for traditional Sinhalese culture, with several important heritage sites in and around the city.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth enshrines Sri Lanka’s most important relic of Lord Buddha. Constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries, this temple is surrounded by a deep moat. Nearby are three impressive shrines or devalas dedicated to guardian deities: Natha, Vishnu, and Pattini. A fourth devala a short distance away, the Kataragama shrine, is famed for its wooden columns with exquisitely carved panels.
The Temple of Tooth was part of a complex of buildings that included the 16th century King’s Palace (part of which now houses the Archaeological Museum), while the Queen’s Palace, home to the National Museum, has a collection of royal regalia. Kandy’s pleasant Lake in the center of the old city was created by the last Sinhalese King in 1807.
In the hills around Kandy, many temples feature the distinctive architecture, murals, and carvings of the late-medieval period. These include two 14th century temples: the beautiful hilltop Lankatilleke and Gadaladeniya, its wooden doors still bearing the original paintings.
Anuradhapura is one of the greatest ancient cities in Sri Lanka. The proud history of Sri Lankans can be still viewed by Anuradhapura city’s ruins. Historical capital, Anuradhapura, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the center of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries. A huge irrigation lake, Tisa Wewa built by Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC and the twin reservoir complex, Kala Wewa, built by the King Datusena in the 5th Century are also some of the main attractions.
Places to be visited in Anuradhapura:
The Sri Maha Bodhiya: Situated very near the Anuradhapura city area, Sri Maha Bodiya is a sacred bo tree that is grown from a branch of the original sacred bo tree under which Lord Buddha attained Nibbana. Situated very near the Anuradhapura city area, Sri Maha Bodiya is a sacred bo tree that is grown from a branch of the original sacred bo tree under which Lord Buddha attained Nibbana.
It is a 2,300-year-old sacred fig or bo tree (Ficus religiosa) which is known to be the oldest tree known to have been planted by a human rather than by natural seeding. It was planted there in 288 BC.
Ruwanwelisaya: Situated very near to Anuradhapura city area this is A stupa built by King Dutugemunu which is also known as Rathnamali, Hemamali, Swarnamali, etc.
Abayagiriya: A great Buddhist monastery and temple built by King Walagamba.
Thuparamaya: A great Buddhist monastery and temple built by king Dewanampiya Tissa at the request of Mahinda Thera.
Mirisawetiya Vihara: A stupa built by King Dutugemunu for asking forgiveness from Sangha for eating a chilly curry without offering.
The Archaeology Museum: The museum contains antiquities found from various regions of Sri Lanka such as Buddha statues, puppets, coins, jewelry, inscriptions, drawings, beads, and other miscellaneous things
The Folk Museum: This museum was established to collect, conserve and exhibit the cultural and religious objects used by the folk community in the Nuwara-Kalaviya area. This has a good collection of traditional objects used by the folk community in Nuwara Kalaviya.
Jetavana: Built by king Mahasen, Jethawana Stupa is the biggest stupa in SriLanka. Also known as Dagaba, this is the 4th tallest structure in the ancient whole world.
The Citadel: The center of the ancient city. The city walls and the other remaining can be found here.
The Moonstone: A beautiful rock carving that is placed at the entrance of ancient monasteries and temples famous for its size and vivid decorations.
Lovamahapaya: Between the Sri Maha Bodiya and Ruwanweliseya there are 1600 stone pillars, which are the remaining of a great building.
Isurumuniya Vihara: Decorated by various rock carvings it is built by king Dewanampiya Tissa who is an important king for Buddhism.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress in Sigiriya
Sigiriya rock fortress, which was called Sinhagiriya (Lion’s Rock) in the past was built by Sinhalese ancient king Kashyapa (477-495 AD). This magnificent rock fortress is listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO and considered an ecological wonder.
King Kashyapa killed his father King Dathusena to become the ruler of the kingdom. King Kashyapa’s brother the rightful heir of the throne, Prince Mugalan escaped to India fearing Kashyapa.
In Buddhism killing own father is a cardinal crime, Kashyapa couldn’t forgive himself for it. Even though he tried to find relief in doing good deeds and religious work he was rejected by Buddhist monks and people. This ultimately led Kashyapa to abandon the magnificent Anuradhapura Kingdom and to move to an isolated place away from all.
King Kashyapa had an artistic eye; he wanted to build his new kingdom as heaven’s city Alakamandawa. According to Buddhist mythology, Alakamandawa is the city of God Kuvera. In his effort to build a city like Alkamandawa, kind Kashyapa built the breathtaking water gardens, terrace gardens, and boulder gardens and Sigiriya Rock Fortress.
Ancient architects of Sri Lanka have done a wonderful job in doing this kingdom. The Staircase (from the ground to Sigiriya mountain top) built by stone is remaining even today. The most renowned Sigiri Apsaras (Rock Paintings or ‘Frescoes of Sigiri Damsels) show the talent of Sri Lankan artists. Sigiriya has one of the most wonderful architectural designs in ancient times.
Sigiri Apsaras (Sigiriya Frescoes)
King Kashyapa built Sigiriya inspired by Alakamdawa. In Buddhist mythology, Alakamandawa is the city of gods, which floats among clouds. To view the Sigiriya rock as a cloud, King Kashyapa painted the rock in white paint. And to adorn the white walls of Sigiriya rock he chose Sigiri Apsaras, the paintings of beautiful women. It is believed there were 500 Sigiri Apsaras on the Rock. Only 19 exist today due to the environmental issues and human intervention others were destroyed.
Sigiriya Mirror Wall
A mirror wall is a gleaming white parapet wall built into the side of the Sigiriya Rock with a two-meter-wide inner passageway. Now it’s colored orange, broken at some parts and discolored and damaged. But it is believed that it was used to be a highly polished glittering white wall. The Mirror Wall is on an average of 2 feet in height and is built for the protection of the climbers. Only 100 meters of the mirror wall exists today. But still, we can see the remains of the past mirror wall which stood there.
Gardens of Sigiriya are truly a wonder, one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. They were architected in a special way to combine the man-made constructions and nature. The gardens are divided into three distinct but linked forms: water gardens, cave and boulder gardens, and terraced gardens.
- Water Gardens: The water gardens are located in the central section of the western precinct. Three principal gardens are found here—the first type of gardens consisting of a plot surrounded by water, connected to the main precinct using four causeways; the second type of gardens containing two long, deep pools set on either side of the path; and third type of gardens located on a higher level than the other two, containing a large, octagonal pool with a raised podium on its northeast corner.
- Boulder Gardens: The boulder gardens consist of several large boulders linked by winding pathways.
- Terraced Gardens: The terraced gardens are formed from the natural hill at the base of the Sigiriya rock.
The Golden Temple of Dambulla – Sri Lanka
Dating back to the First Century BC, the Golden Temple of Dambulla has been the center of pilgrimage for Buddhists and Hindus alike for 22 centuries. It is Sri Lanka’s most popular historic site. The Cave monastery, home to Buddhist monks is covered with exquisite 2,000-year-old murals depicting the life and times of the Lord Buddha. The shrines also house a collection of 157 statues of Buddha in various sizes and poses, including a 15 meter long reclining Buddha and vividly colored frescoes on the walls and ceiling, making this the largest antique painted surface in the world.
Dambulla Cave Temple
To reach Dambulla’s rock temples, pilgrims and tourists alike must climb barefoot up the sloping ground and several series of stairs almost to the summit, 100 meters above the plain. From here, the strikingly distinctive rock fortress of Sigirya is visible, but the five caves or shrine rooms of Dambulla lie just ahead. All of these house multiple images of the Lord Buddha, either lying, standing, or seated. The astonishing frescoes and the sheer size and antiquity of the caves convinced UNESCO that Dambulla should be preserved as a World Heritage Site.
The largest and most impressive of the caves, the Temple of the Great King, is 52 meters from one side to another, and 23 meters from the entrance to the back, with the sloping ceiling seven meters at its highest point. The entire surface of the cave is a mosaic of frescoes with so many themes and styles that it is easy to be overwhelmed. The paintings at Dambulla are representative of many different epochs of Sinhalese Buddhist art, although the classical school of Sinhalese painting (which ceased at the end of the 12th century) is not represented. The so-called New School supposedly influenced by the contemporary South Indian Deccan School — is less successful than the earlier indigenous art forms, using brilliant color schemes with red and yellow predominating. It is not possible to date the Dambulla paintings precisely since they have been over-painted throughout the centuries. Some, however, were originally done by Kandyan artists during the 17th century.
Beyond the endless repetitions of seated Buddhas, and red, yellow, and black geometric motifs, there are bands of sinuous tendrils and flowers; stories of the life of Lord Buddha including the Jataka tales relating his previous lives in the Temple of the Great King. There are also murals depicting battles, and others showing important events in the history of Sri Lanka. To fully appreciate this unique art, it is advisable to either go with a knowledgeable guide or to wander slowly, focusing on whatever seems to be most fascinating, remembering always that Buddhist art is not designed to be creative or original but to impart the teachings of Lord Buddha, the Enlightened One.