Most of the surviving ruins date from the reign of Parakramabahu I, the royal adventurer who established his first capital here before finally seizing Polonnaruwa. The city that Parakramabahu created at Panduwas Nuwara is often seen as a trial run for his spectacular achievements at Polonnaruwa, and although the individual remains are relatively low-key in comparison, the overall scale of the place is undeniably impressive, and exudes an Ozymandias-like aura of vanished splendour.
The ruined city sprawls over an area of several square kilometres. At its centre lies the citadel, surrounded by sturdy walls, protected by a (now dried-up) moat and pierced by just a single, east-facing entrance. Inside the citadel, facing the entrance, the main ruin is the two-tiered royal palace, reminiscent in layout of Parakramabahu’s royal palace at Polonnaruwa – far less of it survives, although you can still see the footings for pillars which would have supported the long-since vanished wooden palace building. At the top of the steps on the left stands a table inscription recording a visit by the bumptious Nissankamalla to watch a dancing display. At the rear right-hand side of this terrace are the remains of an ingenious medieval latrine: a water channel leading into a well-like cesspit. The slight remains of a few further buildings around the palace have been neatly restored, but the rest of the citadel remains unexcavated, with the mounds of numerous old buildings still buried under established woodland.
South of the citadel are the extensive remains of a trio of monasteries. The first is some 200m south, with a ruined brick dagoba, bo tree enclosure (bodhigara) and the ruins of a pillared image house (only the Buddha’s feet survive). Immediately south lies a second monastery, with a Tamil pillar inscription at its entrance, plus two more ruined dagobas and further monastic buildings.
Some 250m further south lies the third, and perhaps most impressive of the trio, with the remains of an imposing stupa on a huge raised square base facing a smaller vatadage (on a round base), a high-walled bodhigara and the remains of a tampita (a shrine raised on pillars).
Further south lies a fourth, much more modern monastery, still very much in use. The core of the monastery dates back to the Kandyan period, with a rustic tampita fronted by an old wooden pavilion, surrounded by a cluster of colourful modern buildings.
Just a few metres from the modern monastery lies Panduwas Nuwara’s most enigmatic and intriguing site, comprising the foundations of a small round building at the exact centre of a large, partially walled and perfectly circular depression – a structure completely unlike anything else on the island. According to popular legend, this is nothing less than the remains of the legendary Ektem Maligaya, although the more plausible historical explanation is it served as a place where Parakramabahu received oaths of loyalty, the circular space symbolizing the universe, with the king at its centre.
Panduwas Nuwara Museum
On your way out of the complex it’s worth spending ten minutes at the modest Panduwas Nuwara Museum, displaying finds from the site. Highlights include an unusual polished-stone mirror and a tiny metal figurine of Parakramabahu posed in a very similar style to that of the famous statue of the king at the Potgul Vihara in Polonnaruwa.
Daughter of the legendary King Panduvasudeva, Unmadachitra (which loosely translates as “she whose beauty drives men mad”) was one of the great femmes fatales of early Sri Lankan history. When she was still a girl, a prophecy foretold that her future son would kill his uncles and usurp the throne. Panduvasudeva, anxious to prevent such an occurrence, had Unmadachitra shut up in a windowless circular tower, the Ektem Maligaya. As is generally the case with young princesses locked up in tall towers, however, Unmadachitra rapidly contrived to fall in love with an eligible young prince, a certain Digha-Gamini. The young couple were soon married and had a son, named Pandukabhaya, who was then spirited away into hiding. Coming of age, Pandukabhaya revealed himself and went into battle against his uncles, all of whom were duly killed with the exception of a certain Anuradha, the only one who desisted from taking up arms against the upstart nephew, and in whose honour Pandukabhaya subsequently named his new city: Anuradhapura.