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Busy and disorienting Kurenegala is the biggest town between Colombo and Anuradhapura, capital of the Northwest Province and an important commercial centre. The town also sits at a major junction on the roads between Colombo, Dambulla, Anuradhapura and Kandy, so you may well change buses here. There’s no great incentive to visit Kurunegala in its own right, though it makes a convenient base for exploring the cluster of sights situated in the southwestern corner of the Cultural Triangle.
Kurunegala enjoyed a brief moment of eminence in Sri Lankan affairs during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries when it served as the capital of Sinhalese kings Bhuvanekabahu II (1293–1302) and Parakramabahu IV (1302–26), though hardly anything remains from this period. The present-day town is a tightly packed honeycomb of busy streets – a rude awakening if you’re coming from the sleepy backwaters of the Cultural Triangle.
Apart from a pretty stone clocktower and war memorial from 1922, which stands watch impassively over the hurly-burly of the traffic-clogged centre, its main attractions are the breezy Kurunegala Tank, north of town, and the huge bare rock outcrops that surround the town, and lend the entire place a strangely lunar air. The inevitable legend professes that these are the petrified bodies of a strange menagerie of giant animals – including an eel, tortoise and elephant – who were threatening to drink the lake dry, only to be turned to stone by a demoness who inhabited the waters.
If you’ve an hour or so to kill, it’s worth walking or taking a tuktuk up to the enormous Buddha statue atop Etagala (Elephant Rock), immediately above town, from where there are fine views.
The little-visited area north of Kurunegala is home to an intriguing range of attractions: the abandoned cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara; the absorbing forest monastery of Arankele; and the beautiful Kandyan-era temples at Padeniya and Ridi Vihara. If you have your own transport, all of these sites could be visited in a leisurely day’s excursion, either as a round-trip from Kurunegala, or en route to Anuradhapura. (If you don’t want to pay for a car all the way to Anuradhapura, ask to be dropped at Daladagama, from where it’s easy to pick up a bus.)
Around 45km north of Kurunegala, just off the road to Anuradhapura, lies the magnificent citadel of Yapahuwa, built around a huge granite rock rising almost 100m above the surrounding lowlands. Yapahuwa was one of the shortlived capitals established during the collapse of Sinhalese power in the thirteenth century founded by Bhuvanekabahu I (ruled 1272–84), who transferred the capital here from the less easily defensible Polonnaruwa in the face of recurrent attacks from South India, bringing the Tooth Relic with him. The move proved to be of no avail, however. In 1284, Yapahuwa was captured by the army of the South Indian Pandyan dynasty, who carried off the Tooth Relic to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Following its capture, Yapahuwa was largely abandoned and taken over by monks and hermits, and the capital was moved to Kurunegala.
Buried away in the little-visited countryside roughly midway between Kurunegala and Chilaw lie the ruins of the ancient city of Panduwas Nuwara, one of the oldest in the country. The city is popularly believed to date back to the very earliest days of Sinhalese civilization, taking its name – “Town of Panduwas” – from the legendary Panduvasudeva, and said to be the location of the mythical Ektem Maligaya, although as with much early Sinhalese history, the line between fact and fiction is somewhat blurred, if not totally smudged.
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.
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.
Tucked away in beautiful rolling countryside around 20km northeast of Kurunegala, the cave temple of Ridi Vihara is well worth hunting out if you have your own transport (although difficult to reach if you don’t). According to legend, Ridi Vihara, or “Silver Temple”, was built by the legendary King Dutugemunu. Dutugemunu lacked the money to complete the great Ruvanvalisaya dagoba at Anuradhapura until the discovery of a rich vein of silver ore at Ridi Vihara allowed the king to finish his masterpiece – he expressed his gratitude by creating a temple at the location of the silver lode.
Entering the complex, bear left in front of a cluster of modern monastery buildings and a fine old bo tree to reach the diminutive Varakha Valandu Vihara (“Jackfruit Temple”), a pretty little structure built up against a small rock outcrop. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple, the building was converted into a Buddhist shrine around the eleventh century but still looks decidedly South Indian in style, with heavy rectangular columns overhung by a very solid-looking stone roof.
Beyond the Varakha Valandu Vihara lies the main temple, built beneath a huge rock outcrop said to resemble the shape of a cobra’s hood. The temple is in two parts. The older Pahala Vihara (Lower Temple) is built into a cave beneath the rock. An exquisite ivory carving of five ladies stands next to the entrance door, while inside a series of huge statues pose solemnly in the semi-darkness. A huge sleeping Buddha occupies the left-hand side of the cave, in front of which is a platform inset with blue-and-white Flemish tiles, donated (it’s said) by a Dutch ambassador to the Kandyan court and showing pictures of village life in the Netherlands along with a few biblical scenes – a sneaky bit of Christian proselytizing in this venerable Buddhist shrine. The weatherbeaten statues at the far end of the temple include an eroded image said to be of Dutugemunu himself.
To the right of the Pahala Vihara, steps lead up to the eighteenth-century Upper Temple, or Uda Vihara – the work of Kandyan king Kirti Sri Rajasinha. The main chamber has an impressive seated Buddha set against a densely peopled background (the black figures are Vishnus), while the entrance steps outside boast a fine moonstone flanked by elephant-shaped balustrades. Note, too, the door to the small shrine behind, topped with an unusual painting of nine women arranged in the shape of an elephant. Outside, a dagoba sits almost completely covered under another part of the overhanging rock.
Back at the entrance to the monastery, more than a hundred steps, some cut into bare rock, lead up to a small restored dagoba, from which there are fine views across the surrounding countryside.
Hidden away on a jungle-covered hillside some 25km north of Kurunegala, the ruined forest hermitage of Arankele is one of the Cultural Triangle’s least-visited but most intriguing sites. Arankele was occupied as far back as the third century BC, although most of what you see today dates from the sixth to eighth centuries AD, while extensive parts of the site have yet to be excavated. A community of pamsukulika monks who have devoted themselves to a reclusive, meditative life still live at the monastery at the back of the site.
Just before you reach the entrance to the site, note the fine Jantaghara (literally “hot water bath” – perhaps some kind of monastic hospital similar to the one in Mihintale), with a fine old stone bathing tank enclosed in stout rectangular walls.
Immediately beyond the entrance lie the extensive ruins of the main monastery, distinguished by their fine craftsmanship and the staggeringly large chunks of stone used in their construction – the fact that early Sinhalese engineers and craftsmen were able to transport and work such huge rocks slightly beggars belief. Major structures here include the impressive chapter house, surrounded by a large moat to help cool the air, and, beside it, a large step-sided pond. Nearby you’ll find the monastery’s main reception hall, floored with just four enormous slabs of granite; an elaborate stone toilet; and, next to it, a small meditation walkway, originally roofed – the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka (the roof has long since gone, although the footings that supported the columns which formerly held it up can still be seen).
Beyond the main monastery begins Arankele’s remarkable main meditation walkway: a long, perfectly straight stone walkway, punctuated by small flights of steps, its geometrical neatness making a strange contrast with the wild dry tropical forest through which it runs. After some 250m you reach a miniature “roundabout” on the path, popularly believed to have been built to allow meditating monks to avoid walking into one another, although it probably served as a rest area, covered with a (long since vanished) roof. Close by stand the remains of the principal monk’s residence, with the base of a large hall, the inevitable toilet and a jumble of pillars, partly collapsed, which would have supported an open-air meditation platform.
The meditation walkway continues a further 250m or so, ending at a small cave-shrine built beneath a rock outcrop. This is the oldest part of the ruins, dating back to the third century BC – the original drip-ledge and the holes where a projecting canopy was once fixed can still be seen. Inside, a small Buddha shrine sits flanked by two tiny meditation cells.
Beyond here the path continues to the modern monastery, with a long covered walkway leading to the rear entrance to the site.