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Places to Visit in Polonnaruwa ancient city

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a living testimony of the splendid bygone era of the island Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is a tourist hotspot, which is an attraction that included in most Sri Lanka tour packages.  Polonnaruwa is accredited with the token “World heritage site” by UNESCO…Here is a list of places to visit in Polonnaruwa on your next visit.

The article feature 9 Places to Visit in Polonnaruwa ancient city, some of these historical places are quite unknown to most travellers.

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a living testimony of the splendid bygone era of the island Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is a tourist hotspot and a polonnaruwa tour is an activity that included in most Sri Lanka tour packages.  Polonnaruwa is accredited with the token “World heritage site” by UNESCO due to its immense share in Sri Lanka’s history and comparable with other historical places such as Anuradhapura. History of Polonnaruwa ->

There are many articles in this blog, revolving around this historically important city and places to visit in Polonnaruwa. But, in order to give more clear insight for our readers and narrow down the list of places to visit in Polonnaruwa, I decide to make this note featuring several important historical places in Polonnaruwa.

From many dozens of historical places, I’m talking about only a few places in this article, because as we know that every traveller can allocate only a limited amount of time for each site during their trip. Because you are not only visiting Polonnaruwa on your trip but also there are many places to explore. I feel these places, listed below, are the most important places in terms of historical value and most importantly they are in good shape.

Usually, Polonnaruwa tour is a half-day program starts either from Sigiriya or Habarana, in fact, that the best way to visit Polonnaruwa. Sigiriya and Habarana and other nearby places such as Dambulla are the popular places for travellers when choosing accommodation in the cultural triangle. When you base in one of these cities, you can visit all important historical places (Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Kandy) in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka from your hotel within 1-hour drive. Therefore making a short tour to Polonnaruwa and other historical from Sigiriya or habaran is the best way of exploring the cultural triangle.

How much does it cost to visit Polonnaruwa monuments?

The entrance ticket to Polonnaruwa historical city cost $25.00 USD. The ticket can be purchased at the historical museum of Polonnaruwa. All monuments listed below located within the border of the historical city of Polonnaruwa and there is nor detour required to visit any of them, and when you purchase the entrance ticket to Polonnrau historical city, you can visit all these places without any additional charges.

What is the best program to visit Polonnaruwa?

Making a half-day Polonnaruwa tour from Habarna or a half-day tour from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa is the best way of exploring Polonnaruwa. I have done both versions of these tours many times with our customers and according to my experience, it is the most convenient way of touring to Polonnaruwa. Time takes to both versions of the Polonnaruwa tour is by and large same.

The Polonnaruwa tour from Sigiriya and Habarana consume only about 6 hours and rest of the day you can dedicate to some other interesting activities such as exploring Sigiriya rock, visiting Dambulla temple, Polonnaruwa safari at Minneriyan national park, village tour in Sigiriya. The Polonnaruwa tour from Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa can also be easily combined with any other tour package or excursion.

I have seen some travellers start the one-day Polonnaruwa tour from Kandy. According to my experience, it involves a bit too much travelling and not recommendable. It takes at least 3 hours from Kandy to Polonnaruwa (one way), therefore, you have to spend at least 6 hours on the road.

Visiting temples on the Polonnaruwa tour, what you need to know

There are many Buddhist temples included in the Polonnaruwa trip, and most of them are historical monuments and ruined condition, however, these temples are still sacred to local people. The Buddhists are worshipping the Buddha statues placed in those temples. Ther are a few rules that you need to stick to, if you are not aware of them read our comprehensive article about visiting the temple in sri Lanka. Visiting Sri Lanka Buddhist temples, Sri Lanka temple dress code and temple of the tooth dress code->

Half-day tour to Polonnaruwa from Sigiriya and Habarana is as below

  • Start the journey from Sigiriya/Habarana
  • Drive to Polonnaruwa-1 hour
  • Purchasing a ticket and visit museum -30 minutes
  • Drive to the historical city-15 minutes
  • Exploring the monument-2 hours
  • The return journey to your hotel in Sigiriya/Dambulla – 1hour

What are the most important places to visit in Polonnaruwa?

  • The Polonnaruwa Quadrangle (Thuparama/watadage)
  • Alahana pirivena complex
  • Lankathilaka
  • Statue at Pothgul Vehera
  • Palace of King Parakramabahu
  • Mausoleum
  • Audience hall
  • Uttararamaya/Galvihara
  • Nissanka pavilion and other Hindu shrines

Palace of King Parakramabahu

The king ruled the country from Polonnaruwa in the 11th century AD (1153-1186). According to the historical information period of 33 years of his rule the country had been very prosperous and the military strength of the island had been so strong the invaders were feared of entering the island. Furthermore, the entire country was under the command of King Parakramabahu the Great. This pious King had contributed immensely for the development of the country and built gigantic lakes, Buddhist temples, gardens, parks, and he built a 7 storied palace in the inner-city of Polonnaruwa. Sinhalese call it “Vijayanth pasada”, which sits in the centre of the inner-city.

The palace of Parakramabahu is among the Places to Visit in Polonnaruwa, and almost none of the visitors of Polonnaruwa miss it. A large part of the palace is destroyed in the past and today the visitors can see what remain like huge walls and granite staircase. The walls of the palace are measured to be 1 meter thick, which is a good suggestion to prove the magnitude size of the palace. It is believed that the palace was destroyed in a fire ignited by invaders. A model of the palace is housed in the archaeological museum of Polonnaruwa.  Archaeological museum Polonnaruwa ->

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Palace of Parakramabahu

Polonnaruwa Quadrangle

Polonnaruwa Quadrangle is a raised stone banked site in the direction of north from the inner-city of Polonnaruwa ancient city. There are numbers of important monuments are built on the site. Most places were constructed for the purpose of storing the tooth relic of Buddha.

Thuparama

Thuparama which is built of rock (Gedige style building) is located in the South-west corner of Polonnaruwa Quadrangle, considered being one of the best-preserved buildings in Polonnaruwa.

Thuparama considered being the best-preserved building among the constructions in the city. History of the building is unknown and it had been used as an image house, and it is aligned east-west with an entrance bay on the eastern side. By considering the external ornamental of the building, it may be dated back to the 12th century. Two other image houses in Polonnaruwa (Lankathilaka and Thiwanka-image house) are shown a lot of similarities with the Thuparama image house. Other two image houses are located further to the north of the medieval capital.

Circumambulation of this monument enables the visitor to observe that the lower reliefs in brick and stucco around the monument are lions with forepaws raised in each figure. Above the stylobate, the walls of the shrine are ornamented with numerous buildings shewn in relief. The image house is very similar to the pronaos (mandapa), which has another side entrance from the direction of north, then a vestibule and finally the sanctum which houses the image of Buddha. The main Buddha statue of the building that is in a seated posture is situated in the centre of the building. The huge Buddha statue which is located on a colossal brick pedestal is severely damaged and be seen close to the back wall of the shrine. At present, there are within the shrine a number of the limestone upright as well as seated statues of the Buddha which date from an earlier period.

Thuparama regarded as the best-preserved ancient monument in the city of Polonnaruwa Quadrangle. Thuparama is an image house on the premises called the Quadrangle, where there are 7 religious constructions. The quadrangle is situated at the highest point of Polonnaruwa.

The age of Thuparama is not known to anybody but most archaeologists opine it was originated during the medieval period, nearly 1000 years old. The external ornamentation of the building had been very helpful to judge the antiquity of the temple. Thuparama is one of the three image houses in Polonnaruwa and other image houses are also located near Thuparama.

There is a large collection of murals on the outside wall of Thuparama. Round the building is lions with a fore-paw raised. Thuparama is a brick building and it is the best-preserved historical monuments in Polonnaruwa. This impressive building had been an image house. There are several standing and a seated Buddha statue even today. It is difficult to imagine this image house was in very bad condition as it was discovered during the British administration in the country.

Thuparama image house is dedicated to Buddhism, the most widely practised religion in Sri Lanka. The main statue of the image house had been placed on a raised platform of bricks. The pedestal is colossal and centrally situated. The pedestal can be seen even today but the statue is not to be seen anymore. At present, there are several standing limestone Buddha statues. Those are in the size of a human. One seated Buddha statue in the meditation posture is also located on the left side of the pedestal.

Vaulted roof and the central part of the buildings are still in good condition, it indicated the manner in which the roofs of other buildings of the period were constructed.

Polonnaruwa vatadage

Vatadage (Circular image house) is located in the direction of North-East from the Thuparama image house. Vatadage is one of the most important buildings in the Polonnaruwa Quadrangle and dated back to the 12th century. There is a dagoba within the circular building. The Dagoba is constructed on a circular platform built of stone masonry, which in turn is built on a bigger circular terrace circumscribed by a rounded kerb with an entrance porch on the northern side. There are four seated Buddha statues placed against the dagoba and around it, Buddha statues are facing the four entrances to the upper terrace in the cardinal directions.

There had been three circles of stone pillars around the dagoba, which suggest an existence of a roof over the dagoba or the area around the dagoba. Outside the second circle of pillars is a brick wall, and a carved stone screen which connects the outermost line of pillars encompasses the shrine. The reliefs on this screen consist of quatre-foil flowers arranged in a diaper pattern with small flowers in the interstices. The remaining wall of the upper terrace is decorated with figures of dwarfs and lions. The guard stones of the Vatadage are in good condition especially the guard stone of the eastern side considered being one of the best-preserved monuments in the city.

Gopalapabbatha

As one proceeds north from Rankoth Vehera (Stupa of Rankoth) access are gained to a group of rocks on the higher ground. Among them is a cave with a drip ledge cut beneath its brow. There are also a number of boulders which would have provided sanctuary for forest-dwelling monks in the early centuries of the present era. On one of these rocks surface, there is an inscription cut in Brahmi letters datable to about the 5th-century A.C giving the name of the site as the Vihara. This spot may be taken as one of the earliest occupied sites in Polonnaruwa. From the find of two Buddha images in one of these caves, it is evident that the cave was used as an image house.

Alahana pirivena complex

The convocation hall named Baddhasima-pasada the Lankathilaka image house and the dagoba known as the Kirivehera are the three main buildings in the monastery known as the Alahana pirivena, which was founded by Parakramabahu 1. Access is gained to the premises of the Baddhasimapasada after traversing a series of terraces north of the Gopalapabbatha. The monument itself is reached from the western and eastern directions. As one come up from the west side there are pillared buildings to be seen on the terraces. On the second terrace up from the east from the gravel road, there is a cave which shelters seated Buddha images cut from the living rock, remaining of models of the Galvihara group to be seen further to the north.

There are four entrances to the large brick building of the Baddhasipapasada which has arches as the window on all four walls. A point worthy of note is that among the thick coats of plaster on the brickwork there is a red coloured plaster too. In the centre of the hall, there is a square platform with provision for a canopy over it. It is here that the monastic ceremonies and rites were performed.

North of the chapter house the other monuments of the Alahan pirivena can be reached either directly from the western side of the former monuments, of along the ancient road at low level on the eastern side.

Lankathilaka one of the most popular places to visit in Polonnaruwa

The main approach to the premises of the Lankathilaka is by a pathway westwards from the ancient road, by way of flights of steps across two terraces. On either side of the path on the terraces, there are cells for the monks of the monastery. As the third terrace is reached to the left of the visitor there is to be seen a conserved stone pavilion which takes the form of a bayed structure. The pillars are ornamented rather like those of the Atadage in the Quadrangle. The stylobate is devoted to a dado of lions reliefs, and there are two entrances, east and west to the pavilion.

The visitor looking west of the pavilion cannot fail to impressed by the sight of the stupendous ruin of a brick-built image house for the standing Buddha known as the Lankathilaka. Like the Thuparama, and the Tivanka image house in the north of Polonnaruwa. This monument to has a second entrance on the north side of the vestibule. From the vestibule, two flights of stairs led up, north and south, to an upper floor. There is an inscription on the inner sidewall of the south balustrade recording that this monument was repaired by Vijayabahu 6 (1270-1272). On the façade of the building, there is a row of lions in relief and at a higher level, there are dwarfs or ganas as ornamentation. As in the Thuparama the walls are ornamented with the relief of buildings in the niches of which there would have been statues of deities. These facades are ornamented with sacred geese and leogrifs.

Statue at Pothgul Vehera

To the north of Pothgul vehera (Pothgul temple), outside the boundaries of the site, lies a rocky boulder of which south face is adorned with a large statue hewn into the rock in high relief. This is among the places to visit in Polonnaruwa in order to witness the best examples of the fine craftsmanship of the ancient artists.

The statue of pothgul vehera is 11 ft and 6 in height. Even though the figure is not identified yet, it believes to be either of king Parakramabahu or depicting a Brahminical sage. Most archaeologist believes it to be the statue of a Brahminical sage and this theory is supported by the evidence of the matted hair, long moustache and beard, very simple dress and lack of ornaments, Brahmanical sacred thread that runs from the left shoulder across the body around the right hip, corpulent stomach and an object reminiscent of an ola leaf book held in the hand.

As for the identification of the sage represented by the statue, the following come to mind Agastya, Kapila, Pulasti. Archaeologists believe that it could not be representing the Agastya on account of the absence of the iconographical attributes of this sage, the pot and the necklace. The figure suggested being present the Kapila for whom king Parakramabahu is reported to have built a dwelling. The third possibility is that it could be representing the Pulasti, a possibility that comes to mind when it is remembered that an early name for Polonnaruwa was Pulastipura.

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Ponds and Baths

Sri Lanka possessed an advanced water management system in the ancient time. Pond and drain spill system, which existed in Polonnaruwa, shows some important evidence to prove it. Underground drains from the rubble-lined embankment of the Topawewa connect with a sluice from which aqueducts carried water through a diverging drain to a spill which borders a pond on its western side. The eastern boundary of this pond is a bow-shaped embankment which permits excess water to flow through two drains into a second pond which is roughly in the form of a square.

Abutting the first pond and to the mouth of it are to be seen the baths of king Nissankamall (1187-1196). There are two baths here, first a circular bath and connected to it at a lower level a rectangular bath. The circular bathe is a little over 5min internal diameter enclosed by a brick wall, but no signs of an entrance can now be seen. The floor of the bath is plastered in a durable lime plaster. The water for this bath was provided by way of a covered brick drain from a cistern within a brick structure situated about 5m slightly west of north.

The second bath which is a sunken chamber is built of brickwork faced with stone and has steps leading down to it from ground level. The water for this was led in from the circular bath over the sill on its northern side. The east side wall bears an inscription of Nissankamalla at the end of which it is recorded that this was the bath of the king. The excess water was led over the south wall into the pond.

To the west of the baths of Nissankamalla and bordering the bund of the tank, there are the remains of a few buildings built of brick which are aligned roughly south to north. Among these structures is a rectangular hall with an entrance on the northern side fronted by a weathered ornamented moonstone cut in limestone, depicting the four animals of the cardinal direction, elephant, lion, horse, and bull. The last of these animals are generally not to be found in moonstone of the Polonnaruwa period, probably due to a certain Hindu influence. It is likely that this particular moonstone belongs to the Anuradhapura when Polonnaruwa was the camp-city. Immediately to the north of the western side of the building a flight of steps leads to the tank.

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Mausoleum

A short distance from Parakrama Samudra is a two-storied building, the lower story walls of the building are intact,  this is the mausoleum which is among the places to visit in Polonnaruwa. The constructions of the building were completed in the 12th century. The walls are ornamented with stucco and friezes of sacred geese. There are some patches of the original painting that beautified the building; the paintings were in a single colour, blue and red. The plaster of the wall is observed to be of high quality. A flight of steps can be seen in the building which was constructed in a later period at the south-east corner of the building. One distinct feature of the architecture of the building is absent of windows that had led to the term mausoleum being applied to the building.

Audience hall

Audience hall is among the quite unknown places to visit in Polonnaruwa, and it is to be found in the direction of north-east from the mausoleum is the audience hall. The long rectangular shaped building is constructed of bricks aligned east-west and has two entrances on either short side. The audience hall is constructed on the platform with a moulded base; the building is with a large open hall that presumably used as the audience hall. Lower platform set against the sidewalls of the north, south and eastern sides serving as seats for the assembly.

The roof of the audience hall was supported by two rows of stone pillars and they are adorned with various forms of stone carvings. Towards the western end of the building is the separated ante-chamber which had an upstairs section. The remains of a right-angled flight of steps can be seen at the south-western corner of the building. A broad couch which is built of brick can be found in the north-east corner of the building that has moulded sides and a flat top. At the back of the couch is the wall of the ante-room and beyond this wall, there is a lavatory.

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Polonnaruwa gal Viharaya , A must-visit place in Polonnaruwa

The image house known as Gal Viharaya houses one of the most outstanding statuary of the medieval period of Sri Lanka and it is one of the most places to visit in Polonnaruwa. This tourist icon is visited by thousands of travellers every day and the rock cuts life magnificent statues takes them by surprise.

Gal Viharaya was built by King Parakramabahu the Great (1153 AD-1186 AD). The statuary is part of the Uttararama temple complex. There are 4 Buddha statues in the statuary. All statues are carved on to the living (a Cronkite biotite gneiss) by the stone craftsmen of that time. This rocky outcrop rises gradually from one side and then falls in height towards the other end.

According to the historical information, there had been four image houses and every image house was surrounded by a protective wall. The first image house is known as nisinnapatimalena. There is a four meters tall meditation Buddha statue n the first cave. The statue is carved on a natural granite rock. The alms of this seated Buddha statue is folded and resting on the lap.  The seat is beautifully decorated with a neatly carved thunderbolt (vajrasana) and the lion (simhasana). There are some patches of painted lime on the statues, which suggest that the statue was painted in the early days of the temple.

The second image house of Gal Viharaya is also cut out of the same rock as the first cave. In front of the second cave are a small pavilion and a wall surrounding the whole area. Next to the second cave is a stone inscription dating back to 12thcentury.

A standing Buddha statue of Gal Viharaya with folded arms across the chest can be seen after the stone inscription. There are some indications such as brickworks to suggest that there had been a separate image house for the statue.

After the standing Buddha statue is the recumbent Buddha statue, which measured to be 14 meters long. It is one of the biggest Buddha statues on the island and the biggest of the row at Gal Viharaya. The rock-cut Buddha statues at Gal Viharaya are in very good condition and regarded as a masterpiece of ancient craftsmen. The Buddha statue was housed in an image house. There had been one entrance and two windows in the image house. The centre of the pillow on which the Buddha’s headrests are decorated with a lion face (kirtimukha). This motif is found in both Hindu and Buddhist art. While the feet of Buddha statue is also rested on a cushion, there are lotus flower symbols are carved on to the soles.

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.  

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