Travelling the Cultural Triangle – Sri Lanka PART 2

Missed part 1? You can read it first here!

There is something to be said about arriving at your destination by night. First, there is the anticipation of arriving after a busy day of exploring or driving. Then there is the fun involved in making sense of a new town in the dark and trying to make sense of the map – every city’s personality changes after dark. Finally, after you’ve slept off the previous day, you can be sure that everything you see will be a new experience. This is exactly how our second day travelling Sri Lanka’s Cultural triangle started. The first day had taken us from Kandy, hidden in the mountains of the south, down onto the central plains and past Matale, Dambulla and Sigiriya until we reached Polonnaruwa by night.

Throne: The Royal Palace Polonnaruwa

Throne: The Royal Palace Polonnaruwa

We woke, refreshed by the rest and ready to explore the second most ancient of the royal cities that make up the Cultural Triangle. After a quick breakfast we headed to the Polonnaruwa museum to secure tickets and after a brief look at the overview of the huge city precinct, we drove to what we thought would be a suitable starting point.

Heard: The Audience Hall Polonnaruwa

Heard: The Audience Hall Polonnaruwa

Our first stop was the Royal Palace, Audience Hall, and Swimming Pool all of which were not far from the entrance to the exceedingly well maintained sanctuary that protects this UNESCO World Heritage site. Next we headed a short way down the path to inspect the Sacred Quadrangle, an impressive collection of buildings and relics.

Polonnaruwa: The Swimming Pool

Polonnaruwa: The Swimming Pool

Polonnaruwa was founded after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993 and the city ruins are spread around a great deal of the existing town, although the bulk of the sights are within about a 5 km walk of the museum and ticket office on the Parakrama Samudra (one of the irrigation lakes, or tanks, that dot the plains and are the legacy of early Sinhalese ruler Parakrama Bahu).

Ruins: The sacred Quadrangle

Ruins: The sacred Quadrangle

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Wandering through a city that was founded more than 1000 years ago is a strange feeling. On the one hand, you realise that the day is spent inspecting dilapidated brickwork and identifying the foundations of buildings that to the untrained eye, could have been anything. However, there are moments where the passage of time between the city’s heyday and the moment you’ve come to witness is thick in the air. During our morning In Polonnaruwa (and that was all we needed) there were two occasions where I found myself entranced, just by being in the old city.

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As we wandered through the sanctuary, we came across a large dagoba, the Rankot Vihara, in a clearing. There was a man selling trinkets (as there so often is) sitting under a tree along the path up the stairs to the structure, and a troop of monkeys lazed on the outer wall, but we were otherwise alone as we removed our shoes and ambled lazily around the Dagoba. The sun warmed the 1020 year old bricks until we could no longer stand without discomfort and the monkeys retreated to the shaded side of the Stupa and held court on an image house in a lazy mockery of the Kings that built Polonnawura over a century ago.

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We left the monkeys to their business and moved deeper into the complex until we reached a bus stop that clearly serviced a great number of tourists during the busy periods of the high season. We were greeted by the usual collection of salesmen hawking everything from souvenirs to soft drink. Walking quickly away from the hungry eyes of a dozen tourist-starved stallholders, we found ourselves climbing up stairs to a terraced area framed by retaining walls that appeared to form the ruins of a complex of rooms. I left Linh behind to shelter from the morning heat in the shade of some trees and continued exploring. I reached the top of a rise to find what appeared to be a large stone alter and I amused myself imagining a candle-light sacrifice, because that’s just what you do when you find a hilltop alter, right?

Alternate route: The hilltop temple and alter-like structure I found while wandering at Polonnaruwa

Alternate route: The hilltop temple and alter-like structure I found while wandering at Polonnaruwa

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Walking back, I passed a clearing and as I crossed through the gravel, I saw the remains of a massive image house. The roof was long gone, but the columns and the image of the Buddha still remained. The 17 metre tall headless Buddha I encountered here, best referenced as the Buddha Statue at Lankatilaka was one of the highlights of our wanderings through Polonnawura as on this particular day, much like at Rankot Vihara, I shared the vista with no one at all.  Not one other tourist seemed interested in exploring in this direction (during the time we were there). Most elected instead to heed the directions of guides of stallholders towards the nearby Buddha figures at Gal Vihara which, while still impressive, did not affect me in the same way (perhaps because they were under restoration). Gal Vihara felt less connected to the city as they lie in a field next to a tank and are removed from the complex network of ruins where I gazed upon the headless Buddha.

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Overall, we spent almost two hours at the ruins of Polonnaruwa before making our way onwards towards Mihintale and Anuradhapura. We declined a guide at Mihintale, electing instead to read up on how this spot was said to be the meeting place of Mahinda (a Budddhist monk) and King Devanampiyatissa, thus introducing Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The 10 minute walk from the car park was more than worth the view at the top. We skipped the dagoba here, choosing instead to scramble up the rock monolith across the temple grounds. Having enjoyed the view we returned to our driver, who in the time it took us to explore, had organised a guide for nearby Anuradhapura (against our intentions).

Pilgrim: Wandering through the Monastery at Mihintale

Pilgrim: Wandering through the Monastery at Mihintale

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Seeing as we had almost reached our limit in terms of interest in temples, ruins and ancient cities, we accepted the extra ‘help’ on the proviso it would allow us to see a few sites that were different to those we had already experienced. We were assured that we could see Anuradhapura without paying the exorbitant entry fees we had come to expect from Sigiriya and Polonnawura. Most people we spoke with suggested that we see only Sigiriya and one other city as there are a number of similarities between them.

Our tour of Anuradhapura took in 5 primary sites which I feel gave us a decent overview of the city and a slightly different perspective on Sinhalese culture and Sri Lankan Buddhism. First we stopped at Vessagiri Cave Monastery to look at early architecture and worship with the capable aid of a herd of goats.

Goat: Our 'other' guide at

Goat: Our ‘other’ guide at Vessagiri Cave Monastery

Our next stop took us forward in time at the Isurumuniya Rock Temple where the simple Buddhist shelters similar to Vessagiri Cave had been developed into more complex sites of worship. A couple of minute walk from the temple is Ranmasu Uyana, a royal garden close to one of the region’s tanks. The gardens are picturesque mix of botanical garden and royal bath, both aspects of which were directly fed by the nearby irrigation tank.

Rock on: The I Rock Temple

Rock on: The Isurumniya Rock Temple

Royal: The Queen's Bath in the gardens

Royal: The Queen’s Bath in the gardens

Our final stop before the long drive back to Kandy was the Ruwanwelisseya Dagoba, a 103m tall stupa and one of Sri Lanka’s 16 sacred places of veneration. We toured the site and finished our Cultural Triangle adventure at the nearby Bodhi Tree. One final piece of advice about a trip around the Cultural Triangle – driving back to Kandy feels a lot faster when your driver wants to be home!

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