Polonnaruwa, an archeological gem

Parakramabahu began unifying Sri Lanka’s kingdoms in 1153 A.D.

An eventful year, 1153: While the Treaty of Wallingford ended a civil war caused by disputes over the English crown, 80-year-old Corrado Demetri della Suburra became Pope Anastasius IV, 12-year-old Maol Chaluim mac Eanraig (Malcolm IV) became King of Scots, and 30-year-old Parakramabahu began unifying Sri Lanka’s warring kingdoms.

Anastasius died at 81, having been pope for little more than a year, and Malcolm died at 24 after 12 years on the throne. Parakramabahu (King Parakrama), on the other hand, enjoyed a 33-year career as a ruler, reformer and builder.

The Sinhalese kings relocated their capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa in 993 A.D.

Some background: Having ruled Sri Lanka from Anuradhapura for 1,300 years, the Sinhalese kings had relocated their capital further inland to Polonnaruwa following a Chola invasion in 993 A.D.

The first time I saw these pillars was when my brother Tyrone and I came here with our Dad and his sisters Alice and Mary (Aunt Mary is 95 and lives in Grand Junction, Colorado).

Besides ordering the beautification of the capital, Parakrama built hospitals and irrigation systems, instituted religious reforms, reorganized the army, and sent punitive expeditions to southern India and Myanmar. His crowning achievement was building the Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama), the giant reservoir from which his kingdom got its water supply.

Buddhists call this the vatadage (literally, circular relic house or shrine).

The vatadage was built to safeguard the tooth relic (now kept in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy).

The entrance to the vatadage appears to show some Indian influence, but archeologists believe this style is unique to Sri Lankan architecture of this period.

Parakramabahu’s greatness came at a price. Since he financed his ventures with taxes and relied on rajakariya (a system of compulsory labor) to complete his projects, it’s unlikely that he was regarded quite as fondly during his lifetime as he is today. Among the most popular reforms of his successors were those of King Nissanka Malla, who reduced the taxes Parakramabahu had imposed.

The ruins of the Lankathilaka Viharaya at Polonnaruwa.

The Lankathilaka (“ornament of Lanka”) had a standing Buddha statue in a narrow corridor flanked by massive walls.

Sri Lanka’s department of archeology is doing its best to preserve the Lankathilaka Viharaya.

This statue in the Lankathilaka Viharaya is emblematic of the beliefs of Sri Lanka’s Mahayana Buddhists, who revered Siddhartha Gautama as Lord Buddha, a divine being.

Like Kandy and Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa attracts tourists from Thailand and Japan.

Buddhism is the predominant religion of Sri Lanka; today the majority of Sri Lankan Buddhists follow the path of the Theravada, the monastic school that regards Gautama Buddha as a great teacher, but not as a deity.

Getting to Polonnaruwa

The drive from Colombo to Polonnaruwa is around 132 miles (212 kilometers), and may take four or five hours, depending on road and traffic conditions.

Where to stay

When you’re visiting the Polonnaruwa historic sites, you can stay at a hotel in Polonnaruwa itself, or 23 miles (36 kilometers) away in Habarana. The road between Habarana and Polonnaruwa is excellent by Sri Lankan standards, and you should be able to get there in 45 minutes or less. You can also stay 11 miles (18 kilometers) away at Dambulla or 22 miles (35 kilometers) away at Sigiriya.

We stayed at the Hotel Sudu Araliya in Polonnaruwa; it was OK. It could be that we visited at the wrong time of year (September), but we couldn’t find a decent restaurant. (To be fair, once you’ve had the breakfast, lunch or dinner buffet at either Cinnamon Lodge Habarana or Amaya Lake, you tend to have impossibly high expectations.)

The advantage of spending the night at Habarana or Dambulla when visiting Polonnaruwa is that they are good places to stay if you also plan to head out on an early-morning safari to photograph wild elephants at either Kaudulla or Minneriya National Park. Your driver and guide will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the park before sunrise; you can be back in time for a sumptuous breakfast and then spend the rest of the day among the ruins at Polonnaruwa.

Copyright © David Graham