Sri Lanka is a country oozing with cultural heritage. Tourists from different parts of the world flock to the island to soak in the sun and relax on the tropical beaches. Of course, chilling by the beach can never get old. However, on your next escapade to Sri Lanka, if you are looking to do something different, you must consider exploring the ruins, temples and shrines.
While Kandy and Dambulla are heard-of heritage sites, this time around, visit Polonnaruwa, the ancient city of Sri Lanka. Along with Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa also forms part of the ‘cultural triangle’. It served as the capital city of Sri Lanka for nearly two centuries between 11th and 13th centuries AD after replacing the previous kingdom of Anuradhapura. The capital grew to be a thriving commercial and religious center.
During it’s time as the capital, Polonnaruwa was ruled by the Kings Vijayabahu I, Parakramabahu the Great and Nissanka Malla. During their rule, they devoted themselves to fostering agriculture and religious and social development.
Under King Parakramabahu’s rule, he ordered the construction of many buildings. Today, when you visit the archaeological site, you will witness palace buildings, dagobas, temples and other historical architecture. Polonnaruwa is also a known UNESCO World Heritage site. It was christened with this status in 1982.
Also Read: Kandy – The Hill Country of Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa is vast, huge and extremely impressive. It is also a well-planned city and site. Despite the turbulence back then with regard to the ruling king, it’s amazing how the city is so well-planned. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is divided into three main parts:
- Inner city: This part is meant for the stay of the royal family and the highest officials of the kingdom. It comprised of an elaborate palace and council hall.
- Outer city: It is in this part where the tooth relic of Buddha was once kept.
- The outermost or Northern city: This part was meant for the monks and general public. The monks were asked to live away from the kings but were close to the common people that would essentially feed them on a daily basis.
At the southernmost end of the city, there is a library and a statue of the last ruler, Parakramabahu.
How to get to Polonnaruwa?
Owing to Sri Lanka’s extensive rail network and amazing roads, getting to Polonnaruwa isn’t difficult at all. It all depends on where you are coming from.
Polonnaruwa is a city in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. From the capital city – Colombo, it is just 216 kilometres.
If you are in Colombo, train is the best option. You can catch the train from Colombo Fort Station. It costs about $22 one way and is a 6.5 hour journey.
If you would prefer going to Polonnaruwa by road, you will have to hire a taxi and driver. This is the easiest way of reaching but the most expensive. However, the advantages of opting for a taxi are plenty. The drive is beautiful and you get to enjoy it all in an air-conditioned vehicle, considering Sri Lanka can get very hot during the day. Renting a sedan car would cost $100 one way. The distance by road is approximately 5 hours.
The third and the most reasonable option is bus. There are several buses that leave from Colombo Fort daily. You’ll have to take intercity to Polonnaruwa. You should arrive in six to eight hours. The ticket price per person is roughly $6.
If you don’t only want to witness the cultural beauty of Polonnaruwa, and want to get a whiff of the neighbouring cities as well, you can base yourself in Sigiriya. It is just a three hour drive from Colombo.
During your stay, you can explore the Dambulla Cave Temple or go on a safari in Minneriya or Kaudulla National Parks. Once you’ve finished with that, you can drive to Polonnaruwa, which is just an hour and a half away from Sigiriya by car.
Where to stay in Polonnaruwa?
Polonnaruwa has three areas – Old town, New town and Kaduruwela. Old town is the best place to stay as its right by the tank and ancient city. There are many hotels and guest houses you will find. We would recommend:
- Seyara Holiday Resort: This family run hotel will make you feel right at home. The rooms are basic yet comfortable. They have a lovely swimming pool as well. A night’s stay for two costs $18.
- Deer Park Hotel: This is a high end hotel in Polonnaruwa and is best suited for honeymooners and couples. The hotel has the most beautiful location as it overlooks the beautiful Giritale Lake. The rooms are spacious too and are equipped with excellent amenities such as swimming pool and gym. In the evening, you can sit and watch the elephants come to the lake to drink water. The room tariff starts at $80.
- Tishan Holiday Resort: This is a budget-friendly abode option. The rooms are extremely clean and the food served is excellent too. It is well-located to explore the ruins. There is a swimming pool too. The room tariff starts at $25.
If you don’t want to burn a hole in your pocket by staying at any fancy place, you can also opt for guest houses which are available in plenty. Some of the popular ones include Manel, Cannel Side, Hotel Ancient Village and The Lake Hotel.
Must-See Attractions in Polonnaruwa
If you want to engulf yourself in the traditional essence of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa is a must visit.
Before you enter the archaeological site, you will have to purchase a ticket from the ticket office. Just next to the ticket office, you will find the archaeological museum. After you purchase your tickets, you can spend a few minutes here, learning about the history and excavation of Polonnaruwa. The ticket cost per head is $25.
Traveller tip: In case you need to use the toilet, use it while you’re in the museum as you won’t find one within the complex.
After entering the ground of the ancient city, the first group of ruins you’ll meet is the Royal Palace group. The group belongs to a period from King Parakramabahu’s rule. It is a massive structure measuring 31m by 13m. It was a seven-storey building comprising on 1000 rooms. However today, only 3 stories with 55 rooms are remaining. Even today, it’s quite an impressive building. The palace is said to have been destroyed by an invader from South India named ‘Maga’.
The Sacred Quadrangle is a compact group of beautiful ruins. It has a raised platform bounded by a wall. It is a representation of the grandest architecture that the ancient city of Polonnaruwa has to offer. Four large Buddha statues surround the middle of the shrine.
In the Royal Palace group, the king’s Audience Hall is one of the best preserved structures. It is a monument having beautiful stone-carved elephants alongside each of its walls. The steps to the entrance of the audience hall are immensely beautiful with lions on top of each side.
The swimming pool: The swimming pool is situated at the corner of the palace grounds. Crocodile-mouth spouts are used to lead fresh water into the pool. Despite being made beautifully, the green water is not very tempting to go for a swim.
Shiva Devale No. 2: The Shiva Devala is considered the oldest building in Polonnaruwa. It dates way back to the South India Chola dynasty period when the Indian invaders had established the city. It is a Hindu temple that comprises of a stone statue of Lord Shiva and Nandi, the bull. Since it is one of the very few structures made of stone, it is in the same condition even today.
The Rankot Vihara stupa has been created by the third king, Nissanka Malla. He ruled the country for almost a decade from 1187 to 1196. It has been created keeping in mind the age-old tradition of Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya. The height of the structure is 54 metres.
Pabalu Vehera: Pabalu Vehere is a typical dagoba that was built by King Parakramabahu. The structure is still in very good condition.
Buddha statue at Lankatilaka: The Lankatilaka Vihara is said to be one of the most emblematic structures in Polonnaruwa. The walls are 17 metres high. Although the roof is gone, it radiates a cathedral-like feeling about it. The aisle leads to a huge standing headless Buddha statue.
Buddha figures at Gal Vihara: Gal Vihara is a group of beautiful Buddhas still in such good condition. The reclining Buddha statue is 14m long, which represents Buddha entering the Nirvana stage. On the other hand, the standing Buddha is considered to be the finest of the series. It is 7m tall and has an unusual position with its arms and sad facial expression.
Polonnaruwa Tank: After covering all the beautiful ruins and historical sites of Polonnaruwa, the best place to end your day is Polonnaruwwa Tank. The tank is believed to be an ancient reservoir of the city. The ancient city is situated on the banks of the Topa Tank.
Travel tips for Polonnaruwa
There are many travellers who visit Polonnaruwa without any knowhow. We would recommend doing a great deal of research before actually making a visit. We’ve rounded up some handy travel tips for you:
- Polonnaruwa is popular with tourists as well as locals. The region witnesses tropical climate with humidity all year round. Pleasant weather conditions prevail from January to June and thus this is the best time to visit. However, showers in the city are erratic and can occur any time of the year.
- The tickets to explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa are only available at the archielogical museum. As mentioned earlier, the ticket price for foreigner is $25/adult and $12.5/child.
- The best way to cover every ruin of Polonnaruwa is hiring a bicycle or tuk-tuk. You can take breaks and walk around too.
- Pothgul Vihara and Prakramabahu statue in the south are free entry.
- The stones at all the sites can get very hot. Thus, it is advisable to visit Polonnaruwa either in the morning or late in the afternoon.
- Photography is allowed everywhere except the museum.
- Both men and women should wear clothes that cover their knees and shoulders. Also, avoid wearing black. White is ideal but can easily get dirty.
- Remember to carry a hat and apply loads of sunscreen.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is by far the most intriguing and mysterious places you will find in Sri Lanka. Many tourists give it a miss in favour of the highlands and coast. However, we would recommend visiting Polonnaruwa at least once. It is a haven of Buddhist art and architecture.
Discover the city for yourself and you’ll realise how incredibly beautiful and peaceful it is.
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