The lost city of Polonnaruwa



Over 100 kilometres from Colombo is Polonnaruwa ancient city, where there is a large number of monuments with high historical value. Polonnaruwa is a leading tourist attraction in the north-central province of Sri Lanka. The city can be easily reached from Colombo by bus or train (train travel in Sri Lanka). There are regular buses and trains to Batticaloa via Polonnaruwa. The tourist accommodation in Polonnaruwa has considerably developed over the past several years and there are several new, luxurious hotels have been built in the past. The site is about 60 kilometres from popular tourist attraction of Sigiriya and a popular activity among the travellers and included in most Sri Lanka tour itineraries. Polonnaruwa is one of the major attractions in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka.

Most of the ancient constructions here are closely related to two religions Buddhism and Hinduism. Other than the several Hindu shrines most historical building in the historical city was dedicated to Buddhism. Thuparama is a popular historical construction in Polonnaruwa and following is a brief description of Thuparama.

Polonnaruwa is the most popular ruined city on the island after Anuradhapura. It was the seat of the administration of the Chola Empire of South India in 993 AC, following the fall of Anuradhapura. Today, travellers can explore the partially damaged temples, palaces, Hindu shrines, courtyards, brick walls, statues and much historical building at the site. Unlike in Anuradhapura, there is a large number of Siva and Vishnu devales within the borders of Polonnaruwa.

watagae of polonnaruwa

The city was abandoned in 13th centuries y the Sinhalese kings, due to the unceasing south Indian invasions, and then the uninhabited city was engulfed by the mud, sand, and thick vegetation for many centuries. The city was first re-discovered by British colonial rulers in 1800s from its ruined state. Thereafter, they have started to restore the city in parallel to other archaeological sites such as Sigiriya and Anuradhapura. Today, Polonnaruwa is a classic example of the advanced civilization existed in the past. They had achieved tremendous engineering feats such as huge tanks, high rise buildings. Their dedication to the religion is convinced by the huge temple and the Hindu shrines existing at Polonnaruwa. Paintings, sculptures and other artistic works show knowledge of arts and crafts of the ancient Sinhalese civilization.

The ruined city of Polonnaruwa is one of the places to witness an Ayurveda hospital complex. The Hospital had been well planned and equipped with all types of equipment for treatments. According to the historical information, the patients were provided with in-house treatments in the hospital and they were given all the facilities at the cost of the state.

The history of Polonnaruwa is essentially associated with three Sinhalese kings. They are:

Vijayabahu 1 – the king ruled the country from 1055 AD to 1110 AD and creator of Dambulla golden cave temple. King Vijayabahu was the first Sinhalese king who ruled the country from Polonnaruwa. He liberated the country from the Chola domination and restored the Sinhala kingship in his person.

Parakramabahu 1 – The king ascended the throne in 1153 AD and ruled the country through 1186 AD, the King ruled the country from Polonnaruwa. He is the grandson of King Vijayabahu 1. According to the historical notes, the king had undertaken a massive task to restore the religion, agriculture and economy of the country, which was extensively damaged under the south Indian rule. The King had unified the whole country. He had constructed a large number of tanks, canals and increased agricultural output of the country. The king had built many religious monuments such as dagobas, image houses, Hindu shrines and most of them were built in Polonnaruwa.

Nissankamalla – The last king to rule the country from Polonnaruwa. He was on the throne from 1187 AD to 1196 AD. The king had travelled widely in the country and left the most number of inscriptions recordings his travels, building activities and conquests.

Important Places in Polonnaruwa

Vishnu Devala No. 4 Polonnaruwa

Vishnu Devala No. 4 is popularly known as the Naipena Vihara (Vihara of the cobra hood). Of the two contiguous Hindu shrines, that on the north is the shrine devoted to the worship of Vishnu. After passing through the entrance porch which stretches on either side of the eastern boundary wall of the premises the devotees going through four antechambers before reaching the sanctum at the western end of the building. No image of Vishnu was found within but the stone-built pedestal for the statue is to be seen. The presence of a five-headed cobra hood in stucco on the dome of the monument which is fallen in ruins behind the sanctum gave the name Naipena Vihara to this Hindu shrine.

Siva Devala No.5

Siva Devala No.5 -the southernmost monument of Polonnaruwa, which is known as Siva Devala No.5 can be accessed through a porch by the side of the road. There is hall proceeding the sanctum within which is placed the lingam and Yoni. During the excavation of the shrine, there was a Yoni and a stone of nine-hole reliquary in one of the holes of which there was a small gold figure of the sacred bull. Among the artefacts unearthed during the first excavation conducted in 1908 were a number of fine bronze of Hindu deities now in the Colombo Museum (J.Royal Asiatic Soc. (Cey.Branch) 16, (1915-16), 189-222. Between September and November 1960 many other bronzes of Siva and other Hindu deities were excavated at this site, and they are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum in Anuradhapura. (J. Royal Asiatic Soc.(Cey.Branch) 7, part 2 (1960), 239-253).

Nissanka pavilion and other Hindu shrines

On either side of the Polonnaruwa signboard in the north and of the town there are more Buddhist and Hindu ruins. To the west of the road on a conspicuous rock outcrop, there are the remains of a brick-built a pillared hall which was known as the Pritidanaka mandapa (Joy-conferring pavilion) and was a resort of refuge even for miscreants, according to an inscription on the site. On the western slope, a shallow flight of steps had been cut giving access to the rocky summit, and to the north of this stairway, the rock surface was prepared for the inscription of Nissankamalla which runs into 45 lines within an area 2.6m square.

To the west of the inscription, down below at ground level, there can be seen, within a rubble enclosure, a brick building which was devoted to the worship of Vishnu. The statue of this many an armed god was removed to the Anuradhapura museum. There is a makara-spout that leads out the sanctum from the northern wall, and on the outer surface of the brick wall of this building, there are niches. The moulded brickwork is bevelled following Hindu tradition.

Nissanka pleasure pavilion

Further to the west there lies on the raised ground a large brick building known as the Nissanka dana vinoda mandapa (Nissanka pleasure pavilion of alms distribution) which is very close to the Topawewa on three sides. This square building with projecting bays on the four sides is entered from the east by two stairways now in ruin, betokened by moonstones, and stone balustrades in the case of the upper flight. The pavilion also has an entrance from the western side at least. There are massive pillars indicative of a substantial building here originally.  

Kali temple

To the south-east of this site, there remains another shrine enclosed by a rubble wall, where the Hindu goddess Kali was worshipped (consort of Siva in her fearful aspect). Two antechambers and a vestibule leading to the sanctum. There is drain giving out to the northern side and at a higher level, one can see lotus-shaped stone support for a pot. The outer wall surface is adorned with pilasters fashioned in brick and the west wall has a simulated makara-arch. The status is shown as standing upon the head of the buffalo demon that she slew (mahishasuramaradini) with her eight arms holding her insignia such as the club, sword, shank, discus etc, was removed to the Anuradhapura museum.

Siva Devala

On the eastern side of the Polonnaruwa signboard, the ruins of a Siva Devala and two subsidiary shrines may be noticed. The linga, yoni, and a statue of the sacred bull that were discovered here were removed to the Anuradhapura museum.

Archaeological Museum

The Archaeological Museum is situated close to the Resthouse by the side of the channel from the Topawewa. Visitors need the permits that obtained from the Archeological Department of Sri Lanka to make photographs in the museum.

Gal Vihara the most important Buddhist temple in Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara or Uttararamaya is another popular historical attraction in polonnaruwa and included in most sri Lanka tour packages. A path leads to northwards from the Kirivehera and across the gravel road we enter the monastery of the Galvihara which contains the most outstanding statuary of the Polonnaruwa period. These image houses are a part of the Uttararama (northern monastery) built by Parakramabahy 1. On approaching the site from the main road we find that the rock outcrop gradually rises and then falls in height from the south-west to the northeast direction. Here the first image house was known as the cave of the seated Buddha though it is not, in fact, a cave but a built image with the rock as background.

The rock-cut seated Buddha with arms folded across the lap in the position of meditation is shown as seated on the throne or seat ornamented with the thunderbolt (vajrasana) and the lion (sinhasana). Behind the head of the Buddha, there is a halo of low relief and higher up an ornamental arch with cusps supported by pillars from which project makara (dragon) heads. In the background are dwellings in the niches of which are seated Buddha figures. All these features are indicative of that aspect of Buddhist worship which includes the recitation of magical verses and which is known as Tantric Buddhism.

The existence of tiny patches of painted limewash on the Buddha statue would indicate that these sculptures were originally painted. The next image house is cut out of the rock and was known as the cave of spiritual knowledge. A small pillared pavilion is sited in front of the cave and the whole area is surrounded by a wall with an entrance from the southern side, thus making this cave shrine an independent monument. Visitors would note the existence a grove above the pillar capitals at the entrance to the cave, indicating that there was once a canopy fixed as a lean-to roof at this position.

On either side of the cave, the rock surface was smoothed to a slope. The work of fashioning the slope on the right side of the visitor was completed and the surface of the rock ruled and a long inscription made on it. This inscription records the convening of a Buddhist council by Parakramabahu 1and the establishment of rule for the proper conduct of monks.

Within the cave, there is a statue of the seated Buddha statue on the throne sheltered by a parasol and flanked attendant bearing flywhisks. At a higher level, there are statues of the god Brahma to the right of the Buddha and Vishnu on the left side.

Beyond the rock inscription of Parakramabahu is the standing statue with the arms placed across the chest, which was at first in an image house of its own, as indicated by the meagre remains of brickwork and the holes in the rock background. There have been two schools of thought regarding the identification of the personality represented by this statue. It was thought that here was shown Ananda, the chief disciple of the Buddha sorrowing at the death of the master. The other theory is that this statue represents the Buddha. There is much to commend both points of view. The latest theory is that the statue represents the Buddha in the second week after enlightenment.

Beyond the standing figure Buddha statue which is in an image house with a separate entrance and two windows in addition. It may be noted that the centre of the cushion on which the head of the Buddha rest is ornamented with the face of a lion a motif found in both Buddhist and Hindu art. The left foot of the Buddha rests on the right and is slightly drawn back. The feet too rest on a cushion and the soles are ornamented with the lotus flower, one of the auspicious signs of the Buddha. Before the sanctum, there is a small vestibule and here can be seen provision for doors.


The gravel road takes the visitor further north and a footpath to the right leads the visitor to a wooded hill the slope of which is strewn with brickbats, and on the flat summit of which there stands a dagoba on rubble platform. The hill represents Demalamahaseya the largest dagoba in the island and is so named as Parakramabahu is stated to have utilized Tamil labour in the form of captured forces from his south India campaign. As the colossal dagoba was not completed a smaller dagoba was built at some later date on the summit of the hill.