When I first visited Sri Lanka I envisaged beaches, tea and elephants, I had no idea that I would visit archaeological sites that would compare to those in Greece, Turkey and Egypt. On my third visit to Sri Lanka I revisited Polonnaruwa and was pleased to note that this site was definitely worthy of a second visit. Polonnaruwa is situated in the Cultural Triangle where there are four UNESCO World Heritage sites. Also in this area are National Parks, offering visitors the opportunity to mix culture with nature.
For nearly 1,800 years the Sinhalese Kings ruled the island of Tamba-panni, which became known as Taprobane, then Serendib, followed by Ceilao, Zeylan, Ceylon and is now Sri Lanka, from the cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Pilgrims and visitors, who come to admire and respect, visit the remains of these cities and the surrounding areas. These cities are living pilgrimage sites for not only millions of Buddhists but also people of most religions.
Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s second medieval capital city. It reached its peak in the 12th century AD and though ravaged by invasions in the following centuries the old grandeur can still be envisaged as one wanders through the site today. King Vijayabahau I (1055 – 1110) was the founder of Polonnaruwa and ruled from 1073 to 1110AD.
Polonnaruwa is an important site because of the influence on the religious, political and social life of that period as well as the effect on the economy. The lifestyle of the people changed during this period and it is a linkage between the times of Anuradhapura and present times. While many of the sites at Anuradhapura have been destroyed numerous glories of Polonnaruwa have not been lost to the world. There are enough remains of ancient monuments to be able to visualize its former grandeur. Most importantly the essential structural features of the ancient Sinhala Buddhist edifices can still be identified.
Polonnaruwa became a planned garden city with monasteries, libraries and statues, which were a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu art forms. To counter further South Indian domination Vijayabahau reinforced ties with the countries of South East Asia. Peace ushered in a religious revival, as Vijayabahau sought the help of the King of Burma to recognise the Buddhist Sangha, which had been neglected during the years of strife.
Perhaps Polonnaruwa prospered the most under King Parakramabahu the Great (1153 – 1186) as under his rule Polonnaruwa was rebuilt into an excellent city. New roads, buildings, ponds, defensive moats and beautiful gardens were constructed. His love of animals was highlighted by a law that stated that no animal could be killed within a three-mile radius of the city. He also restored many shrines, stupas and dogabas that had been destroyed by the Cholians. Irrigation works were one of the King’s priorities and many reservoirs and canals were built during his reign. Polonnaruwa had regained its glory.
Temples were restored and the monasteries endowed adequately so that they could revert to a peaceful life of meditation and literary activity. Forest hermitages had been gifted to the Buddhist Sangha by the kings and wealthy merchants since the days of the Anuradhapura kings. These cave-dwellings were used by the monks as refuge during times of invasion and war and contemplation and meditation during peaceful times.
A colossal Buddha, 13 metres (42 feet) high, at Avukana, testifies to the increasing hardness of the Sinhalese style. Large images of the Buddha at the Gal Vihara and a figure supposedly representing Parakramabahu at Potgal Vihara, both at Polonnaruwa, are of the 12th century. They are figures of great majesty and surpass contemporary work in southern India. After the 13th century, Sinhalese sculpture began to decline; though work of some decorative value was produced up to the 19th century.
Close by Polonnaruwa is Minneriya National Park, which is famous for “The Gathering”. The Gathering occurs during the dry season, July/August, when between 100 and 200 elephants congregate at the reservoirs every evening. This experience should not be missed.
Sri Lanka is well known for its tea, elephants and beaches; but a visit to the archaeological sites is an educational and wonderful reminder of the days of the Sinhalese Kingdom.