Medieval fortress capital full of interesting ruins
06/28/2017 - 06/28/2017 86 °F
Temples, palaces, and more abound at the medieval capital citadel of Polonnaruwa
On my last day of sightseeing in the Cultural Triangle, I had a choice between two major sights: Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. I ended up choosing Polonnaruwa, a medieval capital of Sri Lanka during the 1000s-1200s A.D. Ruins of palaces and temples are scattered across several miles. My guidebook claimed it was the highlight of the Cultural Triangle. It would have to be pretty amazing to beat Sigiriya Rock, by my thinking.
The brick husk of King Parakramahubu's once 7-story palace
The best way to see the ruins is to hire either a tuk-tuk or a taxi for the day, so your driver can drop you off and pick you up at each of the major groupings of buildings. Since the price difference was less than $10, and it was 1-2 hours away, I picked the air conditioned car. My driver, Johann (yeah, I know…odd for a Sri Lankan to have such a German name!), turned out to be the exception when it comes to taxi drivers. He was relaxed, did not accelerate and brake continuously, and instead gave a smooth, comfortable drive.
Border freizes -- especially of lions and dancing dwarves -- are popular on the exteriors of buildings in Polonnaruwa
The ticket counter is attached to Polonnaruwa’s museum, so a visit begins with a tour of ing.its collection of statues and artifacts unearthed at the site. Some of the statues —particularly the Hindu ones — were very nice. Like most Sri Lankan museums, though, no pictures allowed! There are labels in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil, but more information is in Sinhalese. It was a bright, sunny day, but I've learned how easily that can change in Sri Lanka. So, I was eager to get outside and exploring.
The circular Vatadage is the highlight of the Quadrangle group of buildings
My first stop was at a group of buildings called the Royal Palace Group. Much of the brick ramparts survive, as this was the central citadel of the kingdom. King Parakramabuhu’s palace building itself had a brick framed, but much of it was wood. You can see the charred bricks from when it was burnt down in the huge rectangular husk that still stands. The building was seven stories tall, supposedly, but the ruins that remain are perhaps half that height. Next door is the Royal Council Chambers — an elevated platform lined with columns. The walls are lined with horizontal rows of lions, elephants, and dwarves. The dancing, leering dwarves seemed to be a common architectural frieze on the outside of Polonnaruwa’s buildings. The Royal Baths —still filled with water, round out this group. Despite there being a decent amount of visitors at the site, it seemed I had many of the buildings almost to myself. One group that was present, though, were the souvenir vendors. I honestly can't tell how many time I was offered that same stupid wooden elephant with wooden baby inside. Too many times, that's for sure!
Semi-circular moonstones were at the entrance to many of the buildings in Polonnaruwa
The next group was the impressive Quadrangle. The centerpiece is a round building on an elevated platform, with Buddhas facing off in all four directions. The carvings were exquisite, though, with elaborate semi-circular “moonstones” at the entrance to each set of stairs, guarded by deities, lions, and other animals. This was the first of about umpteen million times I would have to take off my shoes to enter. One Buddhist mantra is that “life is suffering” — which I adequately experienced today walking on sharp rocks barefoot, over and over. There were a number of amazing buildings in this group. Some struck me as almost Khmer (think Angkor Wat) in architecture. Soaring, tall, with triangular peaks to their roofs. Some were decorated with Hindu symbols. I saw a number of dancing Shivas and a few apsaras as well. Sri Lanka has always been a battleground of sorts between the two religions — including the Tamil Tiger insurgency/terror threat (depending on your point of view) which ended less than a decade ago. Before coming here, I'd read an excellent, balanced account of Tamil Tiger “troubles,” and it was eye-opening. The dangers of politicians who seek to gain power by stirring fear along racial or religious lines struck home to me. I hope our flirtation with populist, America-first mentality doesn't go as far as it did here, where many are still suffering the effects of a tyranny of the majority.
Similarof architecture between other Hindu/Buddhist temples, such as Angkor Wat, abound
After a quick stop at a Hindu temple, the Shiva Devale, it was off to the fourth largest brick dagoba in the country, the Rankot Vihara. A dagoba is a squat, half-globe of solid brick. Usually, there are tiny niche buildings attached with Buddhist images inside. Rankot Vihara was massive, standing 50 meters tall and a long way around, filled with sharp pebbles that whispered the Buddha’s mantra to me over and over. I saw bigger monkeys than I'd been seeing — Colobus ones? I will have to Google monkeys of Sri Lanka and see what types I actually saw. It actually made me glad to have other tourists nearby as I rounded the backside of the dagoba. A gang of these big suckers could probably do some damage!
Rankot Vihara is the fourth largest brick dagoba in the country
The next grouping was a widely-scattered collection that featured a colossal standing Buddha. It began with Kiri Vihara, another, slightly smaller dagoba painted blindingly white. The guidebooks talk about how when it was discovered during excavations the white plaster exterior was intact. This led a couple tourists I overheard to suppose that present modern white paint WAS that thousand year old plaster. I stifled any chuckles, wondering if they would notice the paint spattering on the ground near it. Next was Lankatilaka, an incredibly elaborately decorated temple housing a headless, standing Buddha. It was at least 20 feet tall, and dominated the narrow interior of the temple. The outside carvings were in great shape, and you could see animals, dancers, dwarves - you name it! Very impressive! I hobbled around this collection of ruins for awhile as the late afternoon heat rose.
Admiring the standing Buddha at Lankatilaka
On the other side of the parking lot where my driver waited was a collection of four statues of the Buddha carved out of a single piece of granite. Each was in a different pose, including a massive reclining Buddha. This is an active place of worship, and they checked your tickets here, despite my opinions that it pales in impressiveness to other parts of Polonnaruwa. The attendants were aggressive at keeping the troop of monkeys besieging the site a bay.
intricate wall carvings at Polonnaruwa
A short drive led to the final temple of the day, the Tivanka Image House. Like Lankatilaka, this one housed a colossal Buddha statue. It also sported elaborately carved walls, and was a fitting grand finale to Polonnaruwa. Was the historical sight better than Sigiriya? Well, there was certainly way more to see. The temples, statues, and historic buildings are in much better shape than Sigiriya, where they are mostly foundations. I think history buffs will really enjoy Polonnaruwa, but Sigiriya’s geological wow factor will have broader appeal.
After a day at Polonnaruwa, I felt like one of these dancing dwarves...ha, ha!