Polonnaruwa – Sri Lanka’s best ancient city

Some time ago I came to know about Polonnaruwa that it is a World Heritage Site. Therefore, during my trip to Sri Lanka, I decided to visit Polonnaruwa. Apart from it being a heritage property, I did not know anything else about it. Even all the way through, I couldn’t even pronounce its name correctly.

I got the primary information about Polonnaruwa from the National Museum of Colombo. An entire section here is dedicated to the Polonnaruwa period of Sri Lanka. From here I also got information about the powerful king Parakramabahu and his contribution towards Polonnaruwa.

Satisfied with the sight of Anuradhapura, I proceeded towards Polonnaruwa the next day. My tour guide advised me to visit Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in a single day. But after visiting Anuradhapura and then Polonnaruwa, I came to the conclusion that I had done a very wise thing by not following the tour guide’s advice. Studying these two cities in depth and in sufficient time in one day would have proved extremely difficult for me. After visiting both of these attractive cities, I concluded that among the two ancient cities, I liked Polonnaruwa a little more.

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History of Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa was the second ancient capital of Sri Lanka. It was established by King Vijayabahu in 1070. Thereafter, during the reign of King Parakramabahu I in the 12th century, Polonnaruwa progressed by leaps and bounds. Therefore, the impression of the good governance of King Parakramabahu is visible everywhere here. Prominent among these is his famous, life-size stone statue where he is shown holding a plough.

Another example of the imprint of the fame of King Parakramabahu is the huge artificial pond called Parakrama Samudra located near the town of Polonnaruwa. Only a part of this huge pond is visible from the road because its main part is situated behind a hill. Polonnaruwa is said to have been famous for its excellent agricultural economy. Also, its advanced water management system can be an excellent subject for research. It is written in folklore that not even a single drop of rain was allowed to fall in Polonnaruwa. Parakramabahu had also established good trade relations with other states. In short, most of the structures visible in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa were built by Parakramabahu. You can get more information about Parakramabahu from his Wikipedia page.

After King Parakramabahu, Polonnaruwa was ruled by King Nishankamalla who came from Orissa, India. Nishankamalla inherited Polonnaruwa matrilineally after Parakramabahu rule. But Nishankamalla was not a skilled and experienced ruler. He did not provide proper respect to the local feudal lords and landlords. As a result, in the 9th year of his rule, he was murdered by poisoning. His son was also murdered on the same day after his coronation. Thereafter, King Nishankamalla’s brother, King Magha of Orissa attacked Polonnaruwa. To avenge the murder of his brother and nephew, he destroyed the city of Polonnaruwa.

After King Nishankamalla, Polonnaruwa was not ruled by any powerful king. As a result of internal differences and conflicts, this grand and powerful empire gradually declined.

Polonnaruwa – an ancient town

Polonnaruwa was a well-planned city. Looking at the present ancient remains, it can be easily inferred that the cities of ancient times were planned in a very systematic manner. Polonnaruwa City was clearly divided into three parts.

  • Inner part – This part of the city was specially reserved for the royal family and the highest officials of the state. A grand palace and an auditorium were established here.
  • Outer Part – This part of the city seemed to me to be the most beautiful part of Polonnaruwa. It was here that the revered tooth remains of Lord Mercury were kept.
  • The outermost or northern part – This part of Polonnaruwa was inhabited by Buddhist monks and common people. That is, Buddhist monks were situated away from royal pomp and political powers and close to the common people. The people used to perform the duty of maintaining the monks and acquiring knowledge from them.

A library and the famous statue of King Parakramabahu were established on the southern border of Polonnaruwa.

The king’s summer vacation palace was established in the middle of the pond. To enter this palace, a special entrance was made at one end of the pond.

These three parts of Polonnaruwa can be clearly seen despite being disintegrated.

Polonnaruwa is a well-built city. If the environment is pleasant then it can be easily seen by walking. To understand the planning of the city, a walking tour is best.

Archaeological Museum

I suggest you visit this museum soon by purchasing a ticket. The museum’s beautiful replicas of the ruins of Polonnaruwa as they originally appeared in the 12th century. The pre-and post-renovation pictures of the monuments which have been renovated are also kept here.

On one side of the copper coins kept here, the picture of the king and on the other side of Kuber, the god of wealth, are engraved. The picture of Goddess Lakshmi is also engraved on some coins. Some copper bars are also kept here.

Memorial stones have also been installed in memory of the warriors who were martyred in the war. On one side these warriors are shown with their weapons and on the other side they are shown with the gods in heaven.

You can see the manifesto of Raja Nishank Malla, which proved to be the reason for the decline of this city, in this museum. According to this manifesto, the king is invincible and the people cannot challenge him. According to this, a farmer should only do farming and should not try to become a king. In other words, the crow should not follow the swan’s tricks. According to this letter, the king is like a god in human form.

It is also known from this museum that gems, elephants, and rice were exported from Sri Lanka.

There was another attention-grabbing object in this museum. They were surgical instruments in use in the 12th century. This equipment seemed very familiar and modern.

interior of Polonnaruwa

The interior of Polonnaruwa, where the royal family and the highest officials resided, is the best-preserved part. The high brick walls erected around it can still be seen.

Rajmahal – Satmahal Prasad

The Royal Palace of Polonnaruwa would have been a palace worth seeing in its golden age. Double-storey brick walls can be seen here, even in a ruined state. Its upper five floors were made of wood. The holes present on the walls were probably made for the earth supporting the roof. Because of these seven floors, this palace is called Satmahal Prasad. A beautiful view of the pond and mountains would have been visible from this palace. Although the palace is not very huge, its planning appears to be very organized. The remains of the residential rooms built for the palace servants and maids can still be seen around the palace.

When the enemies attacked the city, they destroyed this palace in fire. Burn marks are still present on some bricks.

I wandered around this ruined palace and its walls on both sides and tried to bring alive in my imagination the beauty of its golden age. If King Parakramabahu himself had seen this present situation, his soul would surely have screamed.


It is a rectangular building built on a high platform. The most beautiful part of the present remaining building is the stairs leading to the Sabha Mandap. There is a semi-circular circle at its entrance and statues of guarding lions on both sides of the stairs. There are carvings of elephants on the walls of the stage. Each elephant is carved differently.

There are many pillars standing on the stage which once used to bear the weight of the Sabhamandap. At the end of the platform is the king’s seat on which the king’s throne was once placed. Cabinet members sat on either side of the stage. In this hall, the king and ministers must have made many plans and solved many problems.

Royal Bathroom – Kumar Pokuna

There was a bathing pool under the royal bathroom and a dressing room nearby. This bathing pond with stairs is similar to the twin bathing ponds of Anuradhapura. Once upon a time, members of the royal family must have taken a bath here in the floral and fragrant water. I don’t believe it, but my visitor believes that in those times, there was also a provision for showers for bathing.

To view this pond one has to descend some stairs. While descending the stairs, I saw two wells studded with red baked clay bricks. Probably these were part of the water drainage and storage of Polonnaruwa.

outskirts of Polonnaruwa

This part is mostly known as the courtyard. The sacred tooth relic of Lord Mercury is kept here in the Polunruwa era of Sri Lanka.

Thupram Temple

When I visited the Thuparam temple, significant restoration work was in progress. I entered through a narrow door. There are one sitting and several standing statues of Lord Mercury which are still worshipped. The continuously playing musical notes keep the devotees feeling happy.


Watadage i.e. circular structure is the most beautiful place in Sri Lanka. Four gateways in the wall are built around a circular raised platform open in four main directions. The statue of Mercury is installed in an open courtyard above the entrance. Here too, figures of lion heads are engraved on the stairs. Like other monuments, there is a semi-circular circle at the entrance and protector statues on both sides.

I first circumambulated the outside of this circular monument. After that climbed up and toured inside. Fortunately, at that very moment some beggars appeared there to pray. It seemed as if the entire environment and even the ruined buildings were awakened by his chanting of mantras. This environment further strengthened my thought that the environment becomes devotional only because of the devotees and their devotion.

The grandeur of this temple in its golden age can be estimated from its replica kept in the museum.

Nishank Lata Mandap

Here, many pillars stand on a small platform, which are not flat but are carved like creepers and look like the stalk of a lotus. I have never seen such amazing pillars anywhere before. This pillar is a wonderful example of unprecedented elegance.

As is known from its name, it was built by King Nishank Malla. Probably he had it established as his personal meditation room. A Dagaba i.e. Stupa is established in the middle of this sacred chamber. She got lost in the world of her imagination by painting the pillars and stupas resembling lotus stalks in white and pink colors. It seemed as if the king was meditating while sitting in a lotus pond.

I started wondering why we don’t assimilate this amazingly elegant architecture into modern craftsmanship.


Hatadage is built right in front of Watadage where the temple of Buddha keeping the sacred tooth relic is established. It was established by the first king of Polonnaruwa, Vijayabahu. But at present only a few pillars, bases, and a Buddha statue remain here.

Cheek potha or stone book

This is the most amazing part of the sacred courtyard of Polonnaruwa. A book made of stone! Actually, it is a long inscription written on a stone tablet. Yet from a distance, it appears to be a huge book.

This inscription has been explained on the information board placed near this stone book. It is said that this stone tablet is about 100 km from Polonnaruwa. It was brought from Mihintale situated at a distance. In this inscription, the story of King Vijayabahu of Kalinga origin and his becoming the king has been told. It is also noteworthy in this inscription how King Vijayabahu had reduced the taxes and tax rates. The tax was reduced in proportion to the distance of the field from the water tank. Wonderful!

In this inscription, the virtues of the king have been praised. Every day they donated equal to the weight of themselves, their wives, and sons and daughters. He renovated many stupas and also built many new structures. He also constructed a Deul or temple in Rameshwaram. It is also written in this inscription that the king had friendly treaties with many states.

In the end, it is written that Kalinga was the true heir to the throne of Sri Lanka. For this reason, the non-Buddhist kings Chola and Pandya could never achieve prestige in Sri Lanka.

Probably this was advice from King Nishanka Malla to the future kings of Polonnaruwa. It seems this advice was soon forgotten.

Satmahal Prasad

There was a beautiful conical structure in one corner of the courtyard. According to literature, once upon a time, it was a decorated palace. All seven decreasing-area floors of the seven-storey broken structure can still be clearly seen.

Built several centuries ago, this structure is probably one of the oldest structures in Sri Lanka. This is a unique stupa with stairs which probably seems to be inspired by the Egyptian pyramid known to Kalinga or some similar structure.

Northern part of Polonnaruwa

In this part of Polonnaruwa, there are remains of markets, hospitals, mausoleums, Buddhist monasteries, and structures built by the common people. There were many villages surrounding the town of Polonnaruwa where common people lived. One of the largest monasteries has been built on the land of the Samadhi Sthal itself.

Rankot Vihar

This golden-topped Dagaba stupa, made of bricks, is the largest stupa among the stupas built by Nishanka Malla in Polonnaruwa. According to records it is called Ruvanveli. The word Ran means golden in Sinhala language.

Cheek Vihar

Many statues of Buddha have been carved out of a huge stone hill in Gaal Vihar. These statues bear a resemblance to the Bahmani Buddha statues destroyed in Afghanistan.

Three of these statues are on the outer surface of the hill and one has been installed safely.

The first statue is of Buddha in meditation posture sitting in Padmasana on a platform.

The second statue is also in the same posture but it has been installed safely. That is, a canopy has been carved out of a mountain on top of this statue. A halo is also carved on the back. There are two smaller statues on either side of the statue. This statue is of Buddha who has attained supreme knowledge. Probably that is why he has been enshrined inside the temple. The remains of some paintings painted on the walls of this temple still remain. My guess is that during the Polonnaruwa era, all these statues might have been brightly painted. This temple is also called Vidyadhar Guha.

The third statue of Buddha is made in a standing posture in a meditative posture. Regarding this statue standing on an inverted lotus, some people believe that it is not the statue of Buddha but the statue of a Buddhist monk named Anand. Some people consider it to be a statue of Lord Buddha looking with gratitude towards the Bodhi tree.

The last statue is the largest statue at 45 feet tall. It is carved out of a mountain in a Mahaparinirvana state while lying down. Lord Buddha left his body in this posture. The specialty of this statue is that it is the largest statue of Asia made in stone.

It is surprising how such amazing statues could have been created by cutting mountains so far away from the city! Only this many statues must have been made or some statues have been completely destroyed.

Overall these are called Uttar Rama i.e. Northern Math.

Southern part of Polonnaruwa

Statue of King Mahaparakramabahu I

Pothgal Vihar is 3 km south of the majestic city. Here via the unpaved path, you reach the statue of King Mahaparakramabahu I. According to local beliefs, this life-size stone statue is of a king, with a plow in his hand. However, there are no inscriptions or other evidence to confirm this fact. It seems as if the king is leading a ritual related to farming.

Pothgal Vihar

There is a beautiful building just a few meters south of the statue of Mahaparakramabahu. There is a circular chamber in its middle. This was an ancient library. I myself love books very much. As soon as I realized that it was an ancient library, I began to imagine handwritten manuscripts all around me. I started wishing from my heart that all the manuscripts had not been reduced to ashes in the fire and some were still kept safe somewhere.

People believe that this place was an auditorium where the spectators used to sit and listen to stories. Since the circular room is not new in Buddhist monasteries, yet it strengthens the hypothesis of it being an auditorium.

There were many monastery-like buildings around this monastery, most of which only their foundations remain.

Being a book lover, here too I felt the same sense of panic that I felt in Nalanda where books also kept burning for many days.

Hindu temples of Polonnaruwa

Throughout Polonnaruwa, you can see Hindu temples everywhere. Especially many of these temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva, in which Shivalingas are installed. Here he is called Shiv Deul. The original names of these temples have been lost. Hence they are known by numbers. Some of these are-

  • Shiv Deul Sl. 1 – Located on the border of the interior part of Polonnaruwa, this shrine contained many brass statues which are now preserved in the Colombo Museum and the Archaeological Museum of Polonnaruwa itself.
  • Shiv Deul Sl. 2 – There are remains of several Hindu temples on the border of the sacred courtyard. Here only the sanctum sanctorum and the Shivalinga in the middle are left.
  • Vishnu Deul – The only Vishnu temple I could see in Polonnaruwa was Shiv Deul Cr. Located near 2. Inside this temple, built like a Shiva temple, a life-size statue of Lord Vishnu is installed in place of Shivalinga.

Going further on the same route, I saw another Shiva temple, but I did not know its number.

In my estimation, there are many more temples here, to visit perhaps I will have to arrange another trip.

Some tips for traveling to Polonnaruwa

  • Tickets to visit the monuments of Polonnaruwa are available only at the Archaeological Museum. So your first stop will be here. At the time of writing this memoir, the fee for foreign tourists was $25.
  • There is no entry fee for visiting Potgal Vihar and Parakramabahu statue.
  • Since the monuments of Polonnaruwa are stone, the stones become extremely hot by 11 am. Therefore, visit them only before 11 in the morning or afternoon. Thick socks on your feet may help reduce some of your discomfort.
  • Photography is permitted at monuments other than museums.
  • The best way to visit Polonnaruwa is by bicycle. But you can also visit it by mixed means of walking and tuk-tuk.