The great ruined capital of POLONNARUWA is one of the undisputed highlights of the Cultural Triangle – and indeed the whole island. The heyday of the city, in the twelfth century, represented one of the high watermarks of early Sri Lankan civilization. The Chola invaders from South India had been repulsed by Vijayabahu and the Sinhalese kingdom he established at Polonnaruwa enjoyed a brief century of magnificence under his successors Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla, who planned the city as a grand statement of imperial pomp, transforming it briefly into one of the great urban centres of South Asia before their own hubris and excess virtually bankrupted the state. Within a century, their enfeebled successors had been driven south by new waves of invaders from southern India, and Polonnaruwa had been abandoned to the jungle, where it remained, unreclaimed and virtually unknown, for seven centuries.
Polonnaruwa’s extensive and well-preserved remains offer a fascinating snapshot of medieval Sri Lanka and are compact enough to be thoroughly explored in a single (albeit busy) day. Remains aside, Polonnaruwa is also a good jumping-off point for the national parks at Minneriya and Kaudulla.
The history of Polonnaruwa stretches far back into the Anuradhapuran period. The region first came to prominence in the third century AD, when the creation of the Minneriya Tank boosted the district’s agricultural importance, while the emergence of Gokana (modern Trincomalee) as the island’s major port for overseas trade later helped Polonnaruwa develop into an important local commercial centre. As Anuradhapura fell victim to interminable invasions from India, Polonnaruwa’s strategic advantages became increasingly apparent. Its greater distance from India made it less vulnerable to attack and gave it easier access to the important southern provinces of Ruhunu, while it also controlled several crossings of the Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka’s longest and most important river. Such were the town’s advantages that four rather obscure kings actually chose to reign from Polonnaruwa rather than Anuradhapura, starting with Aggabodhi IV (667–683).
Throughout the anarchic later Anuradhapuran era, Polonnaruwa held out against both Indian and rebel Sinhalese attacks until it was finally captured by Rajaraja, king of the Tamil Cholas, following the final sack of Anuradhapura in 993. Rajaraja made it the capital of his short-lived Hindu kingdom, but in 1056 the city was recaptured by the Sinhalese king Vijayabahu (1055–1110), who retained it as the new Sinhalese capital in preference to Anuradhapura, which had been largely destroyed in the earlier fighting. Vijayabahu’s accession to the throne ushered in Polonnaruwa’s golden age, although most of the buildings date from the reign of Vijayabahu’s successor Parakramabahu, reigned 1153–86. Parakramabahu developed the city on a lavish scale, importing architects and engineers from India whose influence can be seen in Polonnaruwa’s many Hindu shrines. Indian influence continued with Parakramabahu’s successor, Nissankamalla, reigned 1187–96, a Tamil from the Kalinga dynasty and the last king of Polonnaruwa to enjoy any measure of islandwide power.
Nissankamalla’s death ushered in a period of chaos. Opposing Tamil and Sinhalese factions battled for control of the city – the next eighteen years saw twelve changes of ruler – while at least four invasions from India threatened the stability of the island at large. This era of anarchy culminated with the seizure of the increasingly enfeebled kingdom by the notorious Tamil mercenary Magha (1215–55). Under Magha the monasteries were pillaged and onerous taxes imposed, while his soldiers roamed the kingdom unchecked and the region’s great irrigation works fell into disrepair, leading to a decline in agricultural produce and a rise in malaria. Although Magha was finally driven out of Polonnaruwa in 1255, the damage he had inflicted proved irreversible, and Polonnaruwa was finally abandoned in 1293, when Bhuvanekabahu II moved the capital to Kurunegala. The city was left to be swallowed up by the jungle, until restoration work began in the mid-twentieth century.
Many visitors to Sri Lanka only have the time or the archeological enthusiasm to visit one of the island’s two great ruined cities, but as the two are significantly different it’s difficult to call decisively in favour of either. The ruins at Polonnaruwa cover a smaller area, are better preserved and offer a more digestible and satisfying bite of ancient Sinhalese culture – and there’s nowhere at Anuradhapura to match the artistry of the Quadrangle and Gal Vihara. Having said that, Anuradhapura has its own distinct magic. The sheer scale of the site and the number of remains means that, although much harder to get to grips with, it preserves a mystery that much of Polonnaruwa has lost – and it’s far easier to escape the coach parties. In addition, the city’s status as a major pilgrimage centre lends it a vibrancy lacking at Polonnaruwa.
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.
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.
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.