Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Normally I try to do better research before visiting a World Heritage Site.
Often these are places I’ve never heard of before and a richer experience seems to occur naturally when I understand why it is significant and what I’m looking for in particular.
With Polonnaruwa, the ruins of an ancient Sri Lankan capital city, I let myself down in this regard. I had read a brief description – enough to know that it was once an impressive metropolis where civics and religion blended into one – but I had no clear picture in my mind’s eye of what it looked like and what to expect.
A few minutes after arriving, I turn to someone.
“It feels a bit like Angkor in Cambodia, doesn’t it?” I say.
I get an affirmative murmur in response – they’re busy photographing a Buddha statue. So I’m left to ponder on my own.
Interestingly, both Polonnaruwa and the city of Angkor were built at around the same time, in a period stretching over hundreds of years either side of the turn of the millennium.
Styles evolved, different religious emphases waxed and waned, and new leaders wanted to leave their mark with grander designs. But there’s a consistent atmosphere at both sites and a similarity in the development across the two.
It turns out there was also quite a strong relationship between Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) and the Khmer Empire.
As well as consistent trade, each country sent representatives to spend time in the other’s royal courts.
There was also some limited transference of religion but very little in the way of architectural influence.
The fact both sites have similarities probably has more to do with a general shared South Asian culture than any direct link.
After exploring for a while, I bump into the same person I spoke to earlier.
“It’s not nearly as impressive as Angkor, though, is it?”
Again I get just a murmur of affirmation but there’s no photo being taken this time to distract. Perhaps it’s just me that’s the problem.
I’m left to ponder alone once more and I decide I’m right. But that doesn’t take anything away from Polonnaruwa.
While the Cambodian temples are enormous and often defined by their height and land area, the structures of Polonnaruwa show their significance in their artistic details. The way they fit together into an urban design and the relationship to nature are also part of the wonder.
Like any city, there are different ways to get around Polonnaruwa to see the different temples and buildings.
Bicycle is popular, tuk tuk or bus tour another, and it would even be possible to walk. There’s no need to see every remaining structure in the ancient city – that would take too long – but it’s important to see enough variety to appreciate the scope of the site.
Its main history stretches from the 10th century when it was run by followers of Brahmnism (a precursor to Hinduism) to the grand expansion in the 11th and 12th centuries by Buddhists.
I have put together a collection of my photos here of the highlights of Polonnaruwa, which can easily be seen in half a day. Plus there are some extra suggestions that could be included for a longer visit.
What to see at Polonnaruwa
The grand palace of King Parakramabahu. Although it’s in ruins now it was once a seven story building with 40 interconnecting rooms around its main wall.
Royal Court of King Parakramabahu
Situated in front of the palace, there is incredible artistic detail in the ruins of the royal court. The entrance is through stone statues of lions and the roof would once have been held up by 48 ornate columns.
A collection of religious structures with some of the most significant buildings in the city. This includes Hatadage, the shrine used to keep the relic of the tooth of Buddha.
There are a few large stupas in the ancient city. This is the second largest but the oldest original stupa, surviving intact for more than 900 years.
A rock temple made in the 12th century and an important religious site still today. The highlight is the images of four Buddhas carved into a single granite rock face.
You’ll get a lot more out of your time at Polonnaruwa if you have a guide. Here are some tours you could consider:
A cool modern hotel at a reasonable price is My Home Guest.
For a lovely boutique hotel with a pool, I would suggest Thidas Arana Hotel.
And if you feel like treating yourself, Ekho Lake House is a really beautiful place.