North of Kandy, the tangled green hills of the central highlands tumble down into the plains of the dry zone, a hot and denuded region covered in thorny scrub and jungle and punctuated by isolated mountainous outcrops that tower dramatically over the surrounding flatlands. Despite the unpromising natural environment, these northern plains – traditionally referred to as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land”, although now more popularly known as the Cultural Triangle – served as the crucible of early Sinhalese civilization, centred on the great cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, whose grandiose monuments still serve as potent reminders of the golden age of Sinhalese civilization.
At the spiritual heart of the Triangle lies the great ruined city of Anuradhapura, capital of the island from the third century BC to 993 AD and one of medieval Asia’s great metropolises, dotted with vast monasteries, elaborate palaces, enormous tanks and a trio of monumental dagobas, excelled in scale in the ancient world only by the Egyptian pyramids. The remains of Polonnaruwa, the island’s second capital, are more compact but equally absorbing, while few visitors miss the chance to climb the spectacular rock citadel of Sigiriya, perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most extraordinary sight. Other leading attractions include the marvellous cave temples of Dambulla, a magical treasure box of Buddhist sculpture and painting, and the religious centre of Mihintale, scene of the introduction of Buddhism to the island.
Major attractions aside, the Cultural Triangle is peppered with other intriguing but relatively little-visited ancient monuments, including the abandoned cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara; the great Buddha statues of Aukana and Sasseruwa; the absorbing temples of Aluvihara and Ridi Vihara; and the haunting forest monasteries of Arankele and Ritigala. And there is no shortage of natural attractions, either, at the national parks of Minneriya, Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa.