Polonnaruwa was originally enclosed by three concentric walls and filled with parks and gardens. At the heart of the city lies the royal palace complex, while immediately to the north are the city’s most important cluster of religious buildings, the so-called Quadrangle, containing the finest group of remains in the city – and, indeed, Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa’s largest monuments are found in the northern part of the city, comprising the buildings of the Menik Vihara, Rankot Vihara, Alahana Pirivena and Jetavana monasteries, including the famous Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara and the soaring Lankatilaka shrine.
To the west of the city lies the great artificial lake, the Parakrama Samudra (“Sea of Parakramabahu”), providing a beautiful backdrop to the town – an evening stroll along the waterside Potgul Mawatha makes a scenic way to end a day. The lake was created by the eponymous king, Parakramabahu, though sections of the irrigation system date right back to the third century AD. Covering some 26 square kilometres, the lake provided the medieval city with water, cooling breezes and an additional line of defence, and also irrigated over ninety square kilometres of paddy fields. After a breach in the walls in the late thirteenth century, the tank fell into disrepair, and was restored to its original size only in the 1950s.
Although Polonnaruwa doesn’t have the huge religious significance of Anuradhapura, the city’s religious remains are still held sacred and signs outside many of the ruins ask you to remove your shoes as a token of respect – quite painful, unless you’re accustomed to walking barefoot over sharp gravel, while the ruins’ stone floors can often reach oven-like temperatures in the midday sun. Wimps wear socks.
Parakramabahu the Great
Parakramabahu the Great
The Sri Lankan monarch most closely associated with Polonnaruwa is Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153–86), or Parakramabahu the Great, as he’s often styled, the last in the sequence of famous Sinhalese warrior kings, stretching back to the legendary Dutugemunu, who succeeded in uniting the entire island under the rule of a single native monarch.
Parakramabahu (a grandson of Vijayabahu) was born at Dedigama, capital of the minor kingdom of Dakkinadesa, which was ruled by his father. Upon becoming ruler of Dakkinadesa, Parakramabahu established a new capital at Panduwas Nuwara before launching a campaign against the king of Polonnaruwa, his cousin Gajabahu. After an extended series of military and political manoeuvrings, Parakramabahu finally triumphed and was crowned king of Polonnaruwa in 1153, although it took a brutal and protracted series of military campaigns before the entire island was finally subdued.
Even while Parakramabahu was mopping up the last pockets of resistance in the south, he began to embark on the gargantuan programme of building works and administrative reforms which transformed Polonnaruwa into one of the great cities of its age, as well as finding the time to launch a couple of rare military offensives overseas, first in Burma and then India. According to the Culavamsa, the new king built or restored over six thousand tanks and canals, including the vast new Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa, as well as restoring the three great dagobas at Anuradhapura and rebuilding the monastery at Mihintale. It was at his new capital, however, that Parakramabahu lavished his greatest efforts, supervising the construction of a spate of imposing new edifices including the Royal Palace complex, the majestic Lankatilake, and the beautiful Vatadage, the crowning achievement of medieval Sinhalese architecture.
Nissankamalla the Vainglorious
Nissankamalla the Vainglorious
Following Vijayabahu and Parakramabahu, Nissankamalla (reigned 1187–96) is the third of the famous trinity of Polonnaruwan kings. A Tamil prince, Nissankamalla originally hailed from South India, but married into the Sinhalese nobility by wedding a daughter of Parakramabahu, and then succeeded in attaining the throne after a brief political skirmish following the death of his father-in-law.
Nissankamalla was notable chiefly for being the last king of Polonnaruwa to exercise real power over the whole island, even feeling secure enough to launch military expeditions against the Pandyans of South India. Perhaps conscious of his foreign birth, he seems to have endeavoured to become more Sinhalese than the Sinhalese, making a great show of his religious orthodoxy, purging the Sangha of disreputable monks and becoming the first king to make the pilgrimage to the summit of Adam’s Peak. He is also known to have embarked on extensive tours of the island to discover the conditions under which his subjects were living, rather in the manner of a contemporary politician at election time – not that Nissankamalla would have worried much about public opinion, since he considered himself (as did many later Sinhalese kings) a living god.
For all his genuine achievements, however, Nissankamalla is best remembered for the long trail of inscriptions he left dotted around Polonnaruwa and other places in Sri Lanka, recording his valour, wisdom, religious merit and other outstanding qualities – he seems to have been the sort of monarch who wasn’t able to sneeze without erecting a monument to commemorate the event. Nissankamalla’s bombastic scribbles can be found in Polonnaruwa at the Gal Pota, Hatadage and Vatadage in the Quadrangle, and at the Rankot and Kiri viharas (plus a couple more in the Polonnaruwa Museum), though some historians regard the claims made in them as somewhat dubious, while Nissankamalla also stands accused of having stolen the credit for many of the building works carried out by Parakramabahu.
The only image of Nissankamalla stands in the Maharaja cave temple at Dambulla. Ironically for this great self-publicist, it’s tucked away in a corner, and almost completely hidden from sight.