The ruins of Polonnaruwa are scattered over an extensive area of gently undulating woodland about 4km from north to south. You can see everything at Polonnaruwa in a single long day, but you’ll have to start early to do the city justice.
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.