The Cultural Triangle Travel Guide
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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.
The plains of northern Sri Lanka have been known for millennia as Rajarata, “The King’s Land”, although nowadays the traditional name has largely lapsed and the region is generally referred to as the Cultural Triangle. The origins of the name date back to the 1970s and the government’s attempt to restore and promote the region’s great ruined monuments for the modern tourist industry – perhaps inspired by the “golden triangles” of Thailand and India. The three points of this imaginary triangle lie at the great Sinhalese capitals of Kandy in the south, Anuradhapura in the north and Polonnaruwa in the east, although in fact, this tourist-oriented invention presents a rather warped sense of the region’s past, given that the history of Kandy is quite different and separate – both chronologically and geographically – from that of the earlier capitals.
From Kandy, most visitors heading for the Cultural Triangle plough straight up the main road north to Dambulla, Sigiriya and beyond. If you have your own transport, however, there are several interesting sites en route. Two of these – the famous monastery of Aluvihara and the wonderful little temple at Nalanda – are right on the main highway.
The main road between Kandy and Dambulla is also littered with innumerable spice gardens. The temperate climate of the region – halfway in altitude between the coastal plains and the hill country – offers ideal horticultural conditions, and if you’re interested in seeing where the ingredients of Sri Lankan cuisine come from, now is your chance. Entrance is generally free, but you’ll be expected to buy some spices at inflated prices in return for a look at the various plants and shrubs.
The monastery of Aluvihara sits right next to the main Kandy–Dambulla highway. Despite its modest size, Aluvihara is of great significance in the global history of Buddhism, since it was here that the most important set of Theravada Buddhist scriptures, the Tripitaka, or “Three Baskets”, were first committed to writing. During the first five centuries of the religion’s existence, the vast corpus of the Buddha’s teachings had simply been memorized and passed orally from generation to generation. Around 80 BC, however, fears that the Tripitaka would be lost during the upheaval caused by repeated South Indian invasions prompted the industrious King Vattagamani Abhaya (who also created the Dambulla cave temples and founded the great Abhayagiri monastery in Anuradhapura) to establish Aluvihara, staffing it with five hundred monks who laboured for years to transcribe the Pali-language Buddhist scriptures onto ola-leaf manuscripts. Tragically, having survived almost two thousand years, this historic library was largely destroyed by British troops when they attacked the temple in 1848 to put down a local uprising.
The heart of the complex consists of a sequence of cave temples, tucked away in a picturesque jumble of huge rock outcrops and linked by flights of steps and narrow paths between the boulders. From the first temple (home to a ten-metre-long sleeping Buddha), steps lead up to the main level, where a second cave temple conceals another large sleeping Buddha and various pictures and sculptures demonstrating the lurid punishments awaiting wrongdoers in the Buddhist hell – a subject which seems to exert a ghoulish fascination on the ostensibly peace-loving Sinhalese. Opposite, another cave houses a similarly gruesome tableau vivant showing bloodthirsty punishments meted out by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the last king of Kandy.
From here, steps lead up past the side of the second temple to another cave temple behind, devoted to the great Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa, who worked at Anuradhapura during the fifth century AD (though there’s no evidence that he ever visited Aluvihara) and produced a definitive set of commentaries on the Tripitaka. A statue of Vattagamani Abhaya stands in the corner of the cave, offering the scholar an ola-leaf manuscript, while a brilliant golden Buddhaghosa image from Thailand stands sentry outside. From here, a final flight of steps leads up past a bo tree (apparently growing out of solid rock) to the very top of the complex, where a dagoba and terrace offer fine views across the hills and over to a huge new golden Buddha (also donated by Thailand) that surveys the entire complex from a hillside far above.
Just up the hill to the left of the temple complex, the International Buddhist Library and Museum houses a few random objects including a vast antique ola-leaf copy of the Tripitaka in many volumes. A resident monk may also be on hand to demonstrate the ancient and dying art of writing upon ola-leaf parchment: the words are first scratched out with a metal stylus, after which ink is rubbed into the leaf, causing the invisible words to magically appear.
Wasgomuwa National Park is one of the most unspoilt of all Sri Lanka’s reserves, enjoying an isolated position and being largely enclosed – and offered a measure of protection – by two large rivers, the Amban Ganga and Mahaweli Ganga, which bound it to the east and west. The park straddles the northeastern edge of the hill country, and ranges in elevation from over 500m to just 76m along the Mahaweli Ganga; it comprises mainly dry-zone evergreen forest along the main rivers and on the hills, and open plains in the southeastern and eastern sections. The park features the usual cast of Sri Lankan fauna, including up to 150 elephants, best seen from November to May (and especially from Feb–April); at other times they tend to migrate to Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks. Other wildlife includes sambar and spotted deer, buffalo and rarely sighted leopards and sloth bears, plus around 150 species of bird, including a number of endemics.
For well over a thousand years, the history of Sri Lanka was essentially the history of ANURADHAPURA. Situated almost at the centre of the island’s northern plains, the city rose to prominence very early in the development of Sri Lanka, and maintained its pre-eminent position for more than a millennium until being finally laid waste by Indian invaders in 993. Today, Anuradhapura remains a magical place. The sheer scale of the ruined ancient city – and the thousand-plus years of history buried here – is overwhelming, and you could spend days or even weeks ferreting around amongst the ruins.
At its height, Anuradhapura was one of the greatest cities of its age, functioning as the island’s centre of both temporal and spiritual power, dotted with dozens of monasteries populated by as many as ten thousand monks – one of the greatest monastic cities the world has ever seen. The kings of Anuradhapura oversaw the golden age of Sinhalese culture, and the temples and the enormous dagobas they erected were amongst the greatest architectural feats of their time, surpassed in scale only by the great pyramids at Giza. The city’s fame spread to Greece and Rome and, judging by the number of Roman coins found here, appears to have enjoyed a lively trade with the latter.
The map of Sri Lanka is studded with literally thousands of man-made lakes, commonly known as tanks, or wewas (pronounced, and occasionally spelt, “vavas”). The civilization of early Sri Lanka was essentially agricultural, and the need to ensure a regular supply of water for rice cultivation posed a crucial problem given the location of the island’s early capitals in the dry plains of the north. The climate in these parts – a harsh contrast of famine and plenty, with brief monsoonal deluges separated by long periods of drought – made the use of irrigation, based on the storage of water for the regular cultivation of wet fields, a vital element in early Sinhalese civilization – one which, once mastered, succeeded in transforming the island’s arid northern plains into an enormous rice bowl capable of supporting a burgeoning population.
The first, modest examples of hydraulic engineering date back to the earliest days of Sinhalese settlement in the third century BC, when farmers began to dam rivers and store water in small village reservoirs. With the later increase in royal power, Sri Lanka’s kings began to take an active role in irrigation schemes, while Sinhalese engineers mastered the technology which allowed water in tanks to be stored until needed, then released through sluice gates and channelled through canals to distant fields.
The first giant reservoirs were constructed in the reign of Mahasena (274–301), who oversaw the construction of some sixteen major tanks, including the Minneriya tank, and Dhatusena (455–473), who constructed the remarkable Jaya Ganga canal, almost 90km long and maintaining a subtle gradient of six inches to the mile, which delivered water to Anuradhapura from the huge Kalawewa – whose waters ultimately hastened that unfortunate king’s demise. Further tanks and canals were built during to the reigns of Mogallana II (531–551), whose Padaviya tank, in the northern Vavuniya district, was the largest ever constructed in ancient Sri Lanka, and Aggabodhi II (604–614), who was responsible for the tank at Giritale, amongst other works.
The construction of large-scale irrigation works became a defining feature of early Sinhalese civilization, while the maintenance of such massive hydraulic feats required skilled engineering and a highly evolved bureaucracy. The captured waters allowed a second rice crop to be grown each year, as well as additional vegetables and pulses, all of which supported much higher population densities than would otherwise have been possible. The surplus agricultural produce created by large-scale irrigation and the taxes raised from the system were major sources of royal revenue, allowing expansive building works at home and military campaigns overseas culminating in the reign of the Polonnaruwan king, Parakramabahu I, who famously declared that “not one drop of water must flow into the ocean without serving the purposes of man”, and who oversaw the creation of the vast Parakrama Samudra at Polonnaruwa, one of the last but finest monuments of ancient Sinhalese irrigation.
Of all the two hundred or so kings who have ruled Sri Lanka over the past millennia, none is as revered as the semi-legendary Dutugemunu (reigned 161–137 BC), the great warrior prince turned Buddhist king whose personality – a compelling mixture of religious piety and anti-Tamil nationalism – continues to provide inspiration for many Sinhalese today.
Dutugemunu grew up during the reign of the Tamil general Elara, who seized control of Anuradhapura in around 205 BC and reigned there for 44 years. Much of the island remained outside the control of Anuradhapura, however, being ruled by various minor kings and chiefs who enjoyed virtual autonomy, although they may have professed some kind of token loyalty to Elara. The most important of these subsidiary kings was Kavan Tissa, husband of the legendary Queen Viharamahadevi. From his base in the city of Mahagama (modern Tissamaharama), Kavan Tissa gradually established control over the whole of the south. Despite his growing power, the naturally cautious Kavan Tissa demanded that his eldest son and heir, Gemunu, swear allegiance to Elara. On being asked to make this oath, the 12-year-old Gemunu threw his rice bowl from the table in a fury, saying he would prefer to starve rather than declare loyalty to a foreign overlord, and subsequently demonstrated his contempt for his father by sending him items of women’s clothing – all of which unfilial behaviour earned him the name of Dutugemunu, or “Gemunu the Disobedient”.
On the death of his father, Dutugemunu acceded to the throne. Having fought off an insurrection by his brother Saddhatissa (a clash marked by the great dagoba at Yudaganawa), Dutugemunu raised an army and set off to do battle armed with a spear with a Buddhist relic set into its shaft and accompanied by a large contingent of Buddhist monks, thus casting himself not only as a military leader, but also as the religious liberator of his island – the leader of a kind of Buddhist jihad. Dutugemunu’s campaign was a laborious affair. For some fifteen years he fought his way north, conquering the succession of minor kingdoms which lay between Mahagama and Anuradhapura, until he was finally able to engage Elara himself at Anuradhapura. After various preliminary skirmishes, Elara and Dutugemunu faced one another in single combat, each mounted on their elephants. A mighty tussle ensued, at the end of which Dutugemunu succeeded in spearing Elara, who fell lifeless to the ground.
Dutugemunu buried Elara with full honours, decreeing that anyone passing the defeated general’s tomb should dismount as a sign of respect – this decree was still apparently being obeyed in the early eighteenth century, some two thousand years later, though curiously enough, no one now knows where Elara’s tomb is located. His conquest complete, the new king began an orgy of building works at Anuradhapura, including the mighty Ruvanvalisaya dagoba, which Dutugemunu himself did not live to see finished. He is supposed to have looked on the unfinished structure from his deathbed and said, “In times past…I engaged in battles; now, singlehanded, I commence my last conflict – with death, and it is not permitted to me to overcome my enemy.”
As the leader who evicted the Tamils and united the island under Sinhalese rule for the first time, Dutugemunu is regarded as one of Sri Lanka’s great heroes (at least by the Sinhalese). Despite his exploits, however, the fragile unity he left at his death quickly collapsed under subsequent, less able rulers, and within 35 years, northern Sri Lanka had once again fallen to invaders from South India.
Following the collapse of the great northern Sinhalese civilization, Anuradhapura was reclaimed by the jungle, and largely forgotten by the outside world, except by the communities of reclusive monks and guardians of the sacred bo tree who continued to live here. The British “rediscovered” the city in the nineteenth century, making it a provincial capital in 1833, after which Anuradhapura slowly began to rise from the ashes. Since the 1950s, the considerable Anuradhapura New Town has sprung up to the east of the Sacred Precinct, while in 1980 a huge UNESCO programme began with the goal of effecting a complete restoration of the ancient city. The programme continues to this day, and has assumed enormous national significance for the Buddhist Sinhalese, who see the reclamation of Anuradhapura’s great dagobas and other monuments from the jungle after over a millennium as a powerful symbol of national identity and resurgence.
The kings of ancient Anuradhapura set great store by their shows of piety and beneficence – though in reality they often fell somewhat short of the ideals that they claimed to embody. The true murkiness of the Anuradhapuran royal character is famously encapsulated by the story of King Yasalalakatissa (reigned 52–60), who had seized the throne by murdering his brother. Yasalalakatissa had a weakness for practical jokes. Upon discovering an uncanny resemblance between himself and a palace gatekeeper called Subha, he swapped clothes with Subha in order to enjoy the spectacle of the island’s nobles paying homage to a lowly servant. So greatly did this amuse Yasalalakatissa that he had the prank repeated several times, until one day Subha, playing the role of king, ordered the execution of his “gatekeeper” for impertinence. Yasalalakatissa’s claims to be the real king were met with disbelief, and he was promptly murdered. It says something about the debased standards of the Anuradhapuran monarchy that even when Subha’s deception was unmasked, he was allowed to rule for a further six years before being assassinated in turn.
Anuradhapura divides into two distinct areas: Anuradhapura New Town, which is home to almost all the town’s accommodation and practical services, and the Sacred Precinct to the west, site of the ancient city. The town is hemmed in by three great artificial lakes, or tanks: Nuwara Wewa to the east, and Tissa Wewa and Basawakkulama Tank to the west. The New Town is bisected by Main Street, where you’ll find the post office, banks and other services. Most of Anuradhapura’s accommodation is just east of here on or near Harischandra Mawatha.
Anuradhapura’s scatter of monuments and remains is vast and potentially confusing. The easiest way to get a mental handle on the Sacred Precinct is to think of it in terms of its three great monasteries: the Mahavihara, Jetavana and Abhayagiri – about two-thirds of the main sites belong to one of these complexes.
The most obvious place to start is the Mahavihara, at the physical and historical centre of the ancient city, beginning at the Ruvanvalisaya dagoba and walking south to Sri Maha Bodhi, before doubling back towards the Thuparama. From here you can either head east to the Jetavana Monastery or north to the Abhayagiri complex.
There are further important clusters of sights at the Citadel, between the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri monasteries; and south of the Mahavihara, between the Mirisavetiya dagoba and Isurumuniya Temple. The major dagobas provide useful landmarks if you get disoriented, though beware confusing the Ruvanvalisaya and Mirisavetiya dagobas, which can look very similar when seen from a distance.
MIHINTALE, 12km east of Anuradhapura, is famous as the place where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. In 247 BC (the story goes) the Sinhalese king of Anuradhapura, Devanampiya Tissa (reigned 250–210 BC), was hunting in the hills of Mihintale. Pursuing a stag to the top of a hill, he found himself confronted by Mahinda, the son (or possibly brother) of the great Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who had been despatched to convert the people of Sri Lanka to his chosen faith. Wishing first to test the king’s intelligence to judge his fitness to receive the Buddha’s teaching, Mahinda proposed his celebrated riddle of the mangoes:
“What name does this tree bear, O king?”
“This tree is called a mango.”
“Is there yet another mango besides this?”
“There are many mango-trees.”
“And are there yet other trees besides this mango and the other mangoes?”
“There are many trees, sir; but those are trees that are not mangoes.”
“And are there, beside the other mangoes and those trees which are not mangoes, yet other trees?”
“There is this mango-tree, sir.”
Having established the king’s shrewdness by means of this laborious display of arboreal logic, Mahinda proceeded to expound the Buddha’s teachings, promptly converting (according to the Mahavamsa) the king and his entire entourage of forty thousand attendants. The grateful king gave Mahinda and his followers a royal park in Anuradhapura, which became the core of the Mahavihara, while Mihintale (the name is a contraction of Mahinda tale, or “Mahinda’s hill”) also developed into an important Buddhist centre. Although modern Mihintale is little more than a large village, it remains an important pilgrimage site, especially during Poson Poya (June), which commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, during which thousands of white-robed pilgrims descend on the place.
The ruins and dagobas at Mihintale are relatively ordinary compared to those at Anuradhapura, but the setting – with rocky hills linked by beautiful old flights of stone steps shaded by frangipani trees – is gorgeous. Mihintale can be tiring, however: there are 1850 steps, and if you want to see all the sights you’ll have to climb almost every single one of them (although you can avoid the first flight by driving up the Old Road to the Dana Salawa level). It’s a good idea to visit in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid having to tackle the steps in the heat of the day.