Throughout our trip around Sri Lanka, the Ancient Cities situated in the inland had been in the back of our mind – To go or not to go? We had postponed the decision as long as possible, but when we reached Kandy city the decision had to be made! We decided to go, and then the follow-up question was: Go to which ancient city – Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa?
We asked our fellow travelers at the hotel we stayed at in Kandy. Most of them recommended Polonnaruwa, the reason being that even though it is smaller in scale, the ruins and temples are within a much more compact area, and they are in better condition. So with that decision taken, we headed north-east to Polonnaruwa!
After a 5-hour car ride (including a walk up Lion Rock Sigiriya) from Kandy, we finally reached Polonnaruwa. We arrived in the evening, so it was dark and we came through a road that did not go near the ruins of the Ancient City. We drove through thick jungle, with just the rare light from a house or a shop piercing the darkness, so it felt like being in the middle of nowhere! Had we made the right decision choosing Polonnaruwa over Anuradhapura?
We had not pre-booked any accommodation, so we had to drive around until we finally found a hotel – Seyara Holiday Resort. The owner made us feel very welcome, and we felt like home straight away!
The next morning, after a lovely breakfast at the hotel, we took a tuk-tuk into town where we rented bicycles and headed out on the dusty roads through the Ancient City Polonnaruwa.
The history of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa was the thriving commercial and religious center of Sri Lanka some 800 years ago. It consists of a lot of temples and religious buildings. For three centuries it was the royal capital, of both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms. In Polonnaruwa, it all started in the late 10th century when the South Indian Chola dynasty had conquered Sri Lanka.
The Cholas chose Polonnaruwa as their new capital and moved the capital from Anuradhapura. Their reasons were apparently that is was a strategically better place to be protected from attacks from the Ruhunu Sinhalese kingdom in the south-east, and that it had fewer mosquitos!!! LOL, it didn`t feel like there was a lack of mosquitos here, especially in the evenings when they came out in swarms……
In 1070 though, the Chola dynasty was overtaken by the Sinhalese kingdom (King Vijayabahu I), which kept Polonnaruwa as his capital. And it was during this Sinhalese period that Polonnaruwa reached its high glory.
The second king (King Parakramabahu I, 1153-86) built many large buildings, beautiful parks, and a huge lake/ tank of water (25 square km). The third king (King Nisanka Malla, 1187 – 96) tried to match his predecessors`achievements, and ended up bankrupting the kingdom in his attempts!
In the early 13th century the cities glory was fading, it was abandoned, and the capital moved to the western side of the island where Colombo is today. That was the sad end of the era of beautiful Polonnaruwa as a capital.
Top 10 must-sees in the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Before we went into the ruins of the Ancient City, we visited the Archaeological Museum (next to the ticket office). The museum served as a nice introduction to what we had in front of us, but being anxious to see the real thing, we didn’t spend very much time there. The museum is designed for walking through, with a series of interconnected rooms each dedicated to a particular theme.
They also had scale models of the buildings and temples of the city, showing how they might have looked like in their glory days with the wooden roofs still intact. But if you are in a hurry, and don`t have that much time in Polonnaruwa, then I would recommend skipping the museum. It is much better to see the ruins and temples in real life than on pictures and models at the museum! Here are our top sights of the Ancient City Polonnaruwa:
1. Royal Palace
The first group of ruins you meet after entering the ground of the Ancient City is the Royal Palace Group. This group of buildings dates from the period of King Parakramabahu I (1153 – 1186). The King`s Royal Palace is a massive structure, measuring 31 m by 13 m, once including 50 rooms supported by 30 columns. Even today it is quite an impressive building, but picture it being seven floors tall with 3 m thick walls, as the archaeologists claim it once was!
Today only some of the walls are left, with holes to hold floor beams for two higher levels. If the building had four more levels above these stone walls, the archaeologists speculate that they must have been made of wood. Impressive building such a big palace in those days without machines!
2. Audience Hall
The king`s Audience Hall is one of the best-preserved structures in the Royal Palace Group, with beautiful stone carved elephants on the walls.
Each elephant is in a different position and looks different from the other.
It was incredibly warm this day, especially around noon, so I had to buy myself a lovely hat. Don`t I look fashionable? 🙂
The stairs to the Audience Hall was pretty impressive, with beautiful lions on the top of each side.
3. Swimming Pool
In one corner of the palace grounds is the king´s swimming pool, with crocodile-mouth spouts used to lead fresh water into the pool. Today the water is not very tempting to go swimming in, alien-green as it is!
4. Sacred Quadrangle
The Sacred Quadrangle is a compact group of beautiful and impressive ruins within a raised up platform bounded by a wall. This is the most concentrated collection of buildings in the whole Ancient City, and a must-see for any visitor!
In the middle of the Quadrangle is The Vatadage, a circular relic house typical of its kind. The outermost terrace is an impressive 18m in diameter and has four entrances all flanked by large guard stones in beautiful condition.
The four entrances all lead to a central dagaba with four Buddhas.
5. Shiva Devale No. 2
This is the oldest building in Polonnaruwa as it dates back to the brief South Indian Chola dynasty period (around 1070) when the Indian invaders established the city. This is one of the few Hindu temples on the grounds. Because it is among the few buildings built entirely of stone, it is basically in the same condition as when it was built.
6. Pabalu Vehera
Pabalu Vehera, is another typical dagaba, dating back to King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186). This is the third largest dagaba in Polonnaruwa, and in excellent condition.
7. Rankot Vihara
Rankot Vihara is a huge dagaba in excellent condition, of impressive 54 meters tall! It is the largest dagaba in Polonnaruwa, the fourth largest in Sri Lanka, and dates back to King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196).
In between the ruins and temples, we also found traces of the jungle trying to take over the ancient city. Wandering around these impressive structures that are still in such good condition, it ‘s incredible to think about all the hard work done to restore them since the archaeologists first discovered the Ancient City all covered with trees.
Polonnaruwa is close to elephant populated national parks. Of course, the elephants don`t understand where the national parks end, and sometimes they walk into areas they are not supposed to be in (like the Ancient City or farmers grounds). All around the jungle, there are huts up in the trees, for spotting elephants who wander away from the National Parks.
8. Dagaba Kiri Vihara
The beautiful dagaba Kiri Vihara (meaning “milk-white”) was built in honor of the King`s Queen. When the archaeologists came to the area and cleared it from the overgrown jungle, they found the original lime plaster still in white perfect condition after 700 years! This is the best-preserved unrestored dagaba in Polonnaruwa.
9. Buddha statue at Lankatilaka
The huge Lankatilaka is impressive with its 17 m high walls! Although the roof is gone, it still has a cathedral-like feeling about it, and the aisle leads to a huge standing headless Buddha.
10. Buddha figures at Gal Vihara
Gal Vihara is a group of four beautiful Buddhas in perfect condition, cut from one long slab of granite.
The standing Buddha is 7 m tall and is said to be the finest of the series, with its unusual position of the arms and sad facial expression.
The reclining Buddha is 14 m long, picturing Buddha entering Nirvana.
We really enjoyed our day at the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa! What a lovely and peaceful place, and it was so fun to go around the ruins on bicycles! It is of course also possible to travel around the ruin ruins and temples by tuk-tuk or car.
With this picture, of us cycling towards the magnificent Shiva Dalave No. 2 Hindu temple in the sunset, we say hasta la vista from Polonnaruwa!
PS! This picture was by the way tough to take! While we were struggling cycling back and forth a dozen times, with our camera on the ground using the self-timer, two military guys were so kind to help us out (so they are the photographers of this photo). Thank you so much! 🙂
Here is a map of the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa:
How To Get There
Bus from Colombo (6 hours), Kandy (3 hours), Anuradhapura (3 hours), or Dambulla (1 hour). Or hire a car with a driver from wherever you are as we did (from Kandy).
How Much Does It Cost
Tickets prices are 25 us$ adult/ 12,50 us$ child
What To Wear
Wear clothes that cover your knees and shoulders (especially women), since some of the ruins of the Ancient City are sacred.
Where To Stay In Polonnaruwa
We stayed at Seyara Holiday Resort
This is a small family driven hotel. The owner and his family are very friendly and made us feel right at home. The traditional Sri Lankan breakfast was excellent. The rooms vary in standard and our room was fairly basic. Wi-fi is available in public areas, but not in the rooms. Since we were there they have built a large pool that looks excellent.
- Address: 34,samagi place, bendiwewa, polonnaruwa, Bendiwewa, Polonnaruwa
- Price range: from 18USD
- Click here for the latest prices
Tishan Holiday Resort
This is another budget-friendly place that is getting rave reviews and offers excellent value for money. It is well located for exploring the ruins and offers 10 basic but very clean rooms. Travelers highlight the excellent food and friendly service. Air Conditioned rooms are available and all rooms have free wifi access. The pool looks great, and bikes are available for rent.
- Address: No: 1580, Bendiwewa, Bendiwewa, Polonnaruwa
- Price range: from 25USD
- Click here for the latest prices
Deer Park Hotel
Deer Park Hotel is probably the best higher-end hotel in Polonnaruwa. This hotel location can’t be beaten as it overlooks the beautiful Giritale Lake. Rooms are very spacious, has an excellent view of the lake and provide all modern amenities such as Satellite TV, AC, mini-bar, and free in-room Wifi. There is a large gym, as well as an excellent pool. In the evening you can sit and watch as Elephants come down to the Lake to drink and bathTravelersrs rave about the excellent food and personal attention to service.
- Adress: Giritale, Polonnaruwa, Giritale Tank, Sigiriya
- Price range: from 80USD
- Click here for the latest prices
We used the Lonely Planet`s Sri Lanka travel guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below which will take you to Amazon.com (affiliate links):
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Would you like to visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa? Do you think bicycling is the best way to see it, or do you prefer tuk-tuk or a taxi? Please share your thoughts in the comment area below! 🙂
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