Sri Lanka has some incredible ancient city sites that are amongst some of the most impressive you’ll ever see, and will make you wonder why Angkor Wat gets all the attention. Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, amongst others, are located in the cultural triangle in the center of the country, north of the highlands.
Anuradhapura is the largest site, being a city region anchored by three monasteries that are identified by their own dagobas (the Sinhalese term for a stupa). You could spend an entire day and not be done.
Polonnaruwa is a more recently developed city, with more intact buildings, on a smaller site, which is mainly visitable in half a day.
Sigiriya is a palace/monastery site built on Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Ayers’ Rock, around 480 AD, almost 200 meters high – a very defendable position. Unfortunately, the king who built this, King Kasyapa, then chose to descend to the plain below to engage an advancing enemy, and through a miscommunication his troops retreated and stranded him and his battle elephant amongst the enemy. Suicide was the only option. Sigiriya is best approached early in the day, to avoid the heat (beating down on a rock…) and the other visitors who will be huffing and steaming up the steps alongside you.
One logistics point to the ancient city sites is that the entrance tickets are for a single calendar day – foreigners are charged about US$30 (Rs 4,500) which unless you are willing to splurge means you need to plan the visit for a single day. Optimally you’d want to arrive the evening before to get a full day – that applies more to Anuradhapura which is huge, although my 3-hour visit to Polonnaruwa was about right but needed a tuktuk. Sigiriya is a more discrete site that can be covered thoroughly in 3 hours or so.
My take is you could cover all three sites over four days should you wish, noting that it’s at least 3-4 hours between each site using public transportation. I’d keep a whole day for Anuradhapura, certainly half a day for Sigiriya and between half and a whole day for Polonnaruwa.
I caught a minibus from Kandy’s Goods Bus Station (which covers intercity services) for the 3-hour journey to Anuradhapura. Buses are very regular although this was the only time a smaller air-conditioned bus was available, beyond the larger turbo-diesel Lanka Ashok Leyland buses, which are quite comfortable to ride in, even in early afternoon heat. Anuradhapura is a large regional center with the old city mainly lying to the west and north of main downtown strip. It is understood to have first been a capital city from about the 4th Century BC with the major development that we see today developed in the 1st Century BC and which remained the capital until the 11th Century AD, after which it was largely abandoned. The old city is huge and is structured around three monasteries oriented south to north – the Mahaviraha, the Jetavana and the Abhayagiriya .
The monasteries are anchored by their respective dagobas, large bell-shaped towers. A logical place to buy your ticket and start from is the main museum located just south of the Jetavana monastery’s dagoba. Given the site size, you may want to consider getting a bike from a hotel/guesthouse – since none of the attractions, apart from the pretty limited museum, have indoor areas, you can keep them with you. The only exception is if you enter the Dagobas, where there is an entrance area where you have to drop your shoes and remove your hat. Alternatively, you can hire a tuktuk to take you round. I needed the exercise and so walked into the park and then from the Jetavana up through the former palace area and then on to the Abitsaya monastery.
First the Jetavana, which has an impressive dagoba, more so because part of the top has come off, giving a slightly post-apocalyptic feel.
These are important religious sites for Buddhists – while you can walk around the city area freely, the dagobas and at the Bo Tree are very much active religious sites. The dagoba is surrounded by a set of monastery buildings, which show a stone/brick base and first floor level stone posts – in the day, they would have had wooden walls and upper floors.
Further north, the palace citadel has the remains of a small palace and nearby, a previous version of the Temple of the Tooth, as well as water tanks and a trough to distribute rice. Many of the temple and palace entrances have guards at each gatepost:
Finally, I reached the Abhayagiri monastery area, whose dagoba originates from the 1st Century BC. This has the most extensive and atmospheric collection of monastery buildings, scattered through a forested area and complemented by a major pool.
The massive water tank in this monastery site is called the Elephant Pond although at the time was used for storage and not bathing.
There seemed to be uniformity in early medieval toilet design, with footrests and aiming points clearly set out. For some reason the latrines have held up very well over the millenia.
Anuradhapura has a wide range of other dagobas and buildings and is a full day to get round.
I finally visited the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, or Bo Tree, believed to be grown from around 288 BC using seedlings from the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment, and tended for over two thousand years. It has a temple within its compound and these rather cool golden tree limb supports reaching up into the tree.
Accommodation-wise, there are plenty of guesthouses in Anuradhapura and some smaller hotels. The Milano Hotel is a good place to get dinner with a nice outdoor garden area.
The following day, I caught a late morning bus to Polonnaruwa, which was another 3 ½ hour journey from Anuradhapura’s New Bus Station. Polonnaruwa is a smaller town and I was able to book a guesthouse about 5 minutes from the bus drop-off. This time, as I was starting around 3:30pm, I rented a tuktuk and took about 3 hours to see the smaller but still very striking site. Polonnaruwa is a later and more intact creation, built around 1050-1250 and abandoned in the 1300’s. There is relatively greater presence of walled buildings, including palaces and temples and a lesser number of dagobas. There is a major man-made lake to the west of the city, the Parakrama Samudra, created by King Parakramabahu I. The kings of Sri Lanka were major water engineers and to this day the lake is a major water resource in a country that has little rain for much of the year.
The lake palace sits to the south of the site adjacent to the lake and some waterways that lead off the lake. There is a large audience hall, again with the platform and stone posts intact, along with the statue of a lion.
The audience chamber’s side panels with elephants are still there.
Further north, this temple building, the Thivanka Image House, has an 8-meter Buddha statue and some wonderful frescoes whose Photography Forbidden rule is carefully enforced. Enter and see!
The Gal Vihara (Rock Monastery) has three standing, seated and reclining Buddha images carved out from a granite rockface and protected by an incongruous awning.
The Lankatilaka Image House is a partially intact walled temple with a large standing Buddha at the far end.
The citadel complex hosts a range of buildings, including this amazing circular shrine, the Vadatage, containing seated buddhas in each doorway and an elaborate semi-circular moonstone at the base of the entrance.
The treasury building is covered in Sinhalese text.
Finally, the Royal Palace itself.
From Polonnaruwa the plan was to reach Trincomalee by evening, with a side trip to Sigiriya, a fortress/palace complex constructed around and on top of a massive standing rock. Since the most reliable and fastest way to Trinco from Polonnaruwa is via Habarana, it worked best to to leave the bus near there and then get a tuktuk to the Sigiriya site. Specifically, you board the 41 or 48 bus heading westbound through the downtown bus stop at Polonnaruwa tell the conductor “Sigiriya” and after passing about 10 km south after Habarana you alight at the Amanaluwa junction (findable on google maps in fact). The tuktuk drivers waiting there will offer to drive you to Sigiriya for Rs 400-500. They’ll offer to look after your bag but a better bet is at the tourist police office who can look after it for a while – although won’t promise to secure any valuables.
Sigiriya is best visited at the start or end of day, to avoid the heat, get some mellow photographic light, and minimize the crowds. Because I had come from Polonnaruwa, I got going around 11am.
Rather like the ancient cities, there is too little awareness of these incredible constructions in the popular mind. There are extensive gardens on either side of the approach path which date from the original construction and which were linked by underground pipes fed from water tanks in the rock, leading to pools and fountains pumped by natural water pressure, at least during rainy season. The first main thing to see once you have gone through the gardens and up past the rock gardens at the base of the rock are the Sigiriya Damsels, frescoes that are in a rock gallery about a third of the way up, accessed by what appear to be a Victorian-era and a more recent circular staircase.
After descending from the gallery, you then go through a cut-out open passageway containing medieval graffiti (the Mirror Wall), before arriving at the last base area before the top, set off by the Lion Gate, of which only the huge and well-manicured front paws remain. You pass through a stairway and up to the top.
The views once at the upper palace at the top are quite spectacular and the platforms and base structures for a range of palace buildings, water tanks and terraces are still clearly evident.