In 1978, UNESCO approved a project to safeguard the centuries of cultural achievements of six exceptional sites in Sri Lanka. They called the sites, bounded by Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the Cultural Triangle.
When South Indian invaders sacked the early capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second medieval capital of Sri Lanka, from the 11th century to the end of the early part of the 13th century. The early history of Polonnaruwa, before it became the capital, is a story of reservoirs.
Being located in the dry zone, water was a much needed commodity and no city could ever be built without it. Once the reservoirs were built in the 4th century AD, agriculture took hold and Polonnaruwa became a flourishing city. From around the 7th century the royalty from the then capital Anuradhapura built their residences here on this thriving ancient highway.
On our second day in Sri Lanka, we visited the ruins of Polonnaruwa. When we arrived, our driver, Aslam, introduced us to our hand-picked guide, Nihal, a young man extremely knowledgeable about the ancient cities.
He took us through the museum first, especially explaining about the different buildings that existed and why shown by models. The wood structure has completely burned up, lost in the 13th century after the South Indians invaded during a time of weak kingship. In a period of 50 or so years prior to this there were 20 kings.
Once we were finished getting an education in the museum, we spent about 2 hours walking through the ruins, in astonishingly good shape considering their age. Visit Wikepedia for a more complete chronology and history of Polonnaruwa..
According to the UNESCO publication, The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, published in 1993,
The Buddhist monasteries of Polonnaruva provide the best surviving examples of image shrines, stupas, chapter houses, hospitals and ponds. Three colossal brick-build shrinds: the Thuparama, Lankatilaka and Tivamkapatimaghara, throw much light on teh vaulted viharas (gedige) type described in commentaries from the thirteenth century.
Vatadage or Circular Stupa House, 12th century
The conical timber roof was lost to fire in the 13th century, but the stone and brick remain giving testament to the lives of the people who lived and worshipped in this ancient city.
Lankatilaka Image House, 12th century
Originally brick vaulted with stucco exterior. Pilgrims walked up one side of the shrine’s wall (on a narrow staircase (shown on the left), and down the other wall on an even narrower stairway (shown on the right) so they never had their back to the Buddha.
This is the “Northern Monastery” founded by one of the great kings, Pakramabahu I and is the most celebrated site at Polonnaruwa. Scanning this colossal trio from left to right we have the sitting Buddha, the standing Buddha and the reclining Buddha. The hands crossed on the chest of the standing Buddha are mired in a bit of controversy, but my UNESCO book says that this “probably” represents the second week after Enlightenment.