Discovering the Ancient Ruins of Polonnaruwa

Sri Lanka has been full of surprises. It was never on our "must visit" list of countries. However, when taking a gap year to see the world we knew we would have to be open to going where the cheap flights, busses, boats, trains or cars would take us. We are so glad that one of those flights landed us on this special tear-drop shaped island off the Southern coast of India. 

One of the major highlights of our trip to Sri Lanka was getting to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Polonnaruwa, we know, it's a mouth full to try and say. Polonnaruwa is a city in the North Center Province of Sri Lanka. At one point, like many other cities in Sri Lanka, it was the capital of the country. In fact, it is the second most ancient capital. Today it is a mass of ruins crawling with cute little monkeys and travelers like us exploring the past. 

We decided the best way to explore this city was by our favorite means of transportation, the bicycle. We would recommend this. For only 300 lkr per person (about $2 USD) we set off to explore the ruins...or so we thought. At the entrance we were turned away because we did not have a ticket. It turns out that you have the by the tickets from the Archeological Museum 1km back into town. After shelling out 3750 lkr ($25 USD) each, we biked back to the entrance and started to discover the 5 areas of this wonderful ancient site. 

1. The Royal Palace Grounds

This part of the city contains the Royal Palace, Council Chamber and the Kumara Pakuna (bathing pool). They say first impressions are all you get and we were wowed. 

The Royal Palace was thought to have been a 7-story high palace in it's time but now only stands as a three story ruin. Records saw there use to be up to 1000 rooms in this grand palace. A fantastic way to start our exploring.

The Council Chamber was where the King's throne use to be. As you walk the few flights of stairs you are greeted by two stunning carved lions.  

We would not suggest taking a dip in the stagnant bathing pool, however, it was awesome to see the remnants of how this civilization would gather in communal bathing. 

2. Quadrangle 

The Quadrangle was one of our favorites. The entire area is sacred ground so we had to remove our shoes and hats. Shoulders and knees are not supposed to be shown either, so out of respect, people will wrap a scarf around their waist or throw a shawl over their shoulders. Sri Lanka is a hot country and the ground you are walking on is stone and gravel, so at times we would need to find a shaded spot to cool our feet off. 

The vatadage in the Quadrangle is an 18 meter round relic house. Their are four entrances that lead to the central chamber which houses four Buddha statues. At the base of the northern entrance is a moonstone that is the best in all of Polonnaruwa.

The Thuparama Image House is one of the few buildings where you can see a roof still intact. This building has survived for over 900 years and takes some maintenance to keep up appearances. 

Atadage Dalada Maligaya is where the Tooth Relic of the Buddha was kept in Polonnaruwa. This would have been a very sacred place where people would have come to worship and meditate. The Velikkara pillar of inscription tells the story of protection of the Relic of the Tooth. 

Sathmahal Prasadaya is the most popular square shaped stupa in all of Sri Lanka. It's seven-stories high and is a defining structure in the Quadrangle. 

Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is a building featuring fine stone carved pillars shaped like a stork topped with a lotus flower. They are a fun and unique feature in Polonnaruwa. 

Gal Potha is the "Stone Book" which tells of King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196). It describes his life as the ruling king and why he was eligible to be king of Sri Lanka. The stone is 26'10" x 4'7" and weighs around 25 tons. Pictures is the side showing a beautiful carving of two elephants showering the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. 

3. The Outskirts

These few sites were a little off the beaten path but we had bikes so it was not a problem hitting all the spots. 

Shiva Devale No. 2 is the oldest structure in Polonnaruwa and is virtually unchanged from when it was constructed.

Manik Vehera is one of the oldest stupas (a domed shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine) in the ancient city. It is small compared to the other stupas in Polonnaruwa but still packs a punch. 

The Pabalu Vehera stupa is one of mystery. It is unknown when and who built this unique shaped building. Traditionally stupas have only four image houses surrounding them, however, Pabalu has nine.

4. Northern City

The largest area in Polonnaruwa is the Northern City. Here is where you will find notable sites such as Rankoth Vehera, Kiri Vehara, Alahana Pirivena, and Lankatilaka temple.

Ronkoth Vehera is huge. It's a 54 meter high stupa whos name translates to "Golden Pinnacle Stupa." It is one of the most iconic stupas in Polonnaruwa.

Lankatilake temple houses a colossus size carving of the buddha. The power of it's grand scale is matched by the remaining walls surrounding the sacred ground. Across are the monastic ruins of Alahana Pirivena where the monks would have lived.

Kiri Vehera, or "the milk stupa," is only 30 meters tall but is hundreds of years older than the more recognized Rankoth Vehera. It is estimated to be from the 6th century BC. 

5. Gal Vihara

The final area of the ancient royal ruins of Polonnaruwa was a site to be seen.

Gal Vihara is a buddhist rock temple with four buddhas carved from a single piece of granite rock. It is considered the best example of carvings from it's time. 

Not knowing what to expect as we rode the bus from Dambulla to Polonnaruwa turned out to be an awe inspiring experience. Even though the day was scalding hot and at times we felt exhausted by the sun, we had a fantastic time in Polonnaruwa. 

We are two en route to more ancient discoveries