In this itinerary, I have outlined some of the best places to visit in Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka, which will surely spark your interest and keep you wanting more.
A part of every traveller’s soul likes to wander on beaches and indulge in luxuries because who doesn’t love a bit of pampering? Well, the other half of you probably wants you to throw away that comfort and seek the true essence of a country. Its people. Its culture. Its history.
If you have a knack for exploring ancient sites, diving beyond their remnants, going deep into their roots, and uncovering the exciting tales behind them, then travel to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
Located in the North Central province of Sri Lanka, about 3 hours northeast of Kandy, is Polonnaruwa - a city that boasts of immense historical, cultural, and architectural value, and is a place you shouldn’t miss!
While one of the easiest ways to get to Polonnaruwa from Colombo is by train, you can also book a cab or take a bus to reach here within five hours. If you need ideas for what to do in one of the capitals of Sri Lanka (yes, there are two!), then check out other guides for tips on top Colombo nightlife spots and the best cafes in the city.
What you will see as you enter the premises of the Royal Palace is the ruins of what was once a magnificent palace.
Primarily the residence of King Parakramabahu I, the palace has also served many other kings. It has been subjected to several foreign invasions, and you can still see the burnt traces on the wooden bricks.
Historical scriptures state that this palace used to be a massive structure with around 1000 chambers in it, but only a fragment of that remains today. You will have to use your imagination to envision how the Royal Palace must have looked like originally.
Let me tell you a bit about King Parakramabahu I though as you will see his name mentioned quite a few times in this article.
Referred to as the most prominent ruler of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom, he contributed immensely to the revival of the agricultural sector in Polonnaruwa and had built many tanks to preserve the local water. He was titled King Parakramabahu the Great as he was revered as a brave king, great warrior, and a true Buddhist.
Also known as the King's Council Chamber, or 'Raja Sabwa' in Sinhala, this is another intriguing site located close to the Royal Palace.
King Parakrambahu I used this chamber as a place to hold appointments with people and conduct meetings.
There's a staircase leading to the audience hall where you will notice two richly-decorated moonstones - one at the beginning and one in the middle of the stairs.
Every structure in the Chamber Hall is beautifully decorated with carvings, and they bear elements that were considered sacred or essential at the time. At the entrance, you will see two lion statues and an inscription stating the functional importance of this structure.
Known as the Stupa House, the Vatadage in Polonnaruwa is another prominent architectural site to visit in the area.
There’s a stupa in the middle of the Vatadage, and four Buddha statues surround it. A circular-shaped wall was built around them, and pillars found around the wall were built to protect the stupa.
Near the entrance, you will see a moonstone decorated with patterned elements. A short flight of stairs will lead you to the stupa, and if you look close enough, you will notice intricate patterns carved on them, too. There are also two guard stones on either side of the staircase with carvings of a traditional Sinhalese woman.
Even though there are many temple houses found in different regions in Sri Lanka, this is considered to be one of the best ones to date.
Sri Lanka was subject to Chola invasions in the latter part of the 9th century, and this is a structure that bears evidence of it.
Interestingly, Shiva Devalaya is the oldest building belonging to Polonnaruwa city. It also shows the influence of Hinduism on the cultural and architectural details on monuments built afterwards.
Shiva Devalaya was constructed entirely out of stone, and due to its sturdiness, it remains similar to its original condition until today. It’s fascinating to observe the intricate patterns carved on the stone and its resemblance to Hindu culture.
As the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa, Rankoth Vehera gets a fair share of visitors every day. The name of the stupa was derived from its golden pinnacle. It’s a massive structure built with close resemblance to another famous stupa known as Ruwanweli Maha Seya in Anuradhapura.
Initially, four gateways allowed you to enter the stupa from all sides, but only ruins of them remain today.
You should see a stone seat near the stupa, which is assumed the king who supervised it sat on it and observed the ongoing construction. There is also an ancient Buddha statue in one of the shrine rooms built around the stupa.
You can easily reach the stupa by a tuk-tuk as it is only seven minutes away from the Shiva Devala.
If you head towards the south of Kiri Vehara, you will come across Lankathilaka, which is an image house of Buddha built by King Parakramabahu I.
Even though the statue of Buddha is not in good condition, it is still worth admiring for its massive size and ornate carvings.
The building is made entirely out of bricks. It is believed to have been twice the size of what’s left of it today. There are also carvings of different images on the walls of this building.
Even though what you see today is the bare brick surface of the stupa, it was initially painted in white. As it resembled the colour of milk (Kiri in Sinhala), it was named Kiri Vehera.
As the second-largest stupa in Polonnaruwa, this is the only one to have survived 900 years and still retain its original condition.
Many believe this stupa housed valuable treasures in the past only to have been stolen by looters. You might find this stupa to be rather plain in comparison to the other decorated stupas in the region. But, this could be because it was built as a learning centre for monks; therefore, little attention was payed to minimalism.
Gal Vihara is a site that is frequented by both Sri Lankans and foreign tourists.
It is famous for its significant Buddha statues carved out of granite rocks by renowned sculptors at the time. It has four caves that house each statue - Cave Vijjadhara, Cave of the Reclining Image, Cave of the Standing Image, and the Excavated Cave.
Gal Vihara was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it portrays the sophisticated craftsmanship that existed back then.
Due to the sturdiness of these statues, they are in good condition even today.
The credit of building Gal Vihara as a place of worship for Buddhist devotees goes to King Parakramabahu I. It’s exciting to observe the intricate details of these statues while enjoying the scenic surroundings.
Visiting this reservoir is one of the popular things to do in Polonnaruwa.
Parakrama Samudra is the largest reservoir built for irrigation activities during the time under the patronage of King Parakramabahu I. It is a collection of five reservoirs, and only a part of the entire construction remains today.
Even to date, this reservoir nourishes vast acres of paddy fields, helping Sri Lankan farmers sustain their livelihood.
You can go cycling around the reservoir, admiring its beautiful views while enjoying the fresh breeze.
There are many hotels around, so consider stopping at one if you're looking for a place to stay, or need a short break before resuming your travel.
You will also come across a statue of Parakramabahu the Great, along with other ruins, believed to be from the palace that was built near the reservoir.
If you are wondering about what to do in Polonnaruwa in addition to visiting temples, you can take a trip to a national park.
Wasgamuwa National Park is located 1 hour and 30 minutes away from Polonnaruwa city, and a cab or tuk-tuk can take you here.
This nature-bound place features an array of interesting wildlife, exotic plant and tree varieties, and rarely-spotted birds.
Gatherings of large herds of elephants are the speciality in the park, and the ideal time to spot them is between November to May.
You will also encounter other exotic animals, like the purple-faced leaf monkey, deer, leopards, buffalos, and sloth bears.
To get around the park, you have to book a safari ride at the entrance. Wasgamuwa National Park is a great place to capture good photographs.
In addition to the above suggestions, Pabalu Vehera, Potgul Vihara, and Thivanka Image House are some other prominent places to visit in Polonnaruwa. You will also come across large paddy fields in Polonnaruwa as it's a major agricultural area in the country.
Even though historical sites are the major attractions in Polonnaruwa, and is a reason why the city makes it on to 'Things to do in Sri Lanka' lists, you can make your tour more enjoyable by chatting with the locals and shopping for souvenirs at the stores nearby.
Make sure to also pay a visit to the historic and beautiful towns of Nuwara Eliya and Ella, which are both about a 4-hour drive south of Polonnaruwa, and Mirissa, which is a coastal town even further south.
As Polonnaruwa is situated in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, you might find it to be a bit warm. The soft breeze near the reservoir can help cool you off though. It is also best to wear light clothes that are comfortable to allow you to travel with ease.
You will come across king coconut and fruit juice vendors along the road, which will help you quench your thirst. There are also plenty of mini restaurants to eat at and take a break in too in between visiting sites.
This article was edited by Loredana Elena and was first published on Feb 2, 2020 12:28 UTC.
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