The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a remarkable monument to a kingdom whose ancient temples and palaces provide a playground for monkeys and an excellent day’s cycling in Sri Lanka.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, deep in the central plains of Sri Lanka, was the playground of kings and the capital of the country. But time has taken its toll. What was once the centre of an empire is now a mix of ancient ruins, crumbling temples, and mischievous monkeys.
Like many travellers to Sri Lanka we wanted to visit one of the ancient capitals. Anuradhapura, the capital for over 1400 years, is older and more important historically. But its ruins are a faded version of its former self, sprawling across a large area.
Polonnaruwa, on the other hand, has well-maintained ruins in a well-organised park. As a relatively compact area, it’s the ideal place to explore on 2 wheels. Huge numbers of temples, monuments and stupas stand within easy proximity of each other, connected by tree-lined boulevards. Cycling between them is a breeze.
With plenty of shady spots, good roads and refreshing local drinks at every entrance, cycling the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a great way to understand one of Sri Lanka’s historic treasures.
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HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT CITY OF POLONNARUWA
The Sinhalese Kingdom of Anuradhapura, which had stood for 1400 years, was plundered and destroyed in 1017 by the South India Chola dynasty. They chose Polonnaruwa, a strategic location overlooking a key river crossing, as their new capital.
But the Chola dynasty didn’t last long. Sinhalese lineage was returned to the throne when King Vijayabahu I defeated the Cholas in 1070. It was to be the beginning of 150 glorious years for Polonnaruwa.
The city peaked during the reign of King Parakramabahu (1153-1186) who unified Sri Lanka and oversaw the expansion of Polonnaruwa. He built magnificent temples, palaces and pools as well as a comprehensive irrigation system that is still in use today.
King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196) continued the expansive building but failed to raise enough money and almost bankrupt the kingdom. It was the beginning of the end and over the next 100 years power and wealth fled from Polonnaruwa and in 1310 it was abandoned.
All that is left today are the ancient ruins of temples, palaces and pools. A monument to a remarkable kingdom and a bygone age.
Here are the historical places in Polonnaruwa you should visit.
1 – PALACE COMPLEX OF KING NISSANKA
Just behind the museum and ticket office lies the Palace complex of Nissanka Malla. The palace had 8 granite pillars shaped like lotus stems which supported a large two-story building. Next door is a royal bathing pool and the King’s Council chambers where the names of the king’s ministers can be seen carved in the rock.
The museum itself is worth a quick stroll around. Check out the model of the area to get your bearings, but don’t spend too long as all the historical places in Polonnaruwa are well labelled anyway.
While only some of the walls of the palace remain standing today, it’s easy to get a feel for how imposing this building must have been in its day.
2 – POTHGUL VIHARAYA
To the south of the museum lies Pothgul Viharaya. Pothgul means a place to store books, and this viharaya (temple or monastery) is the oldest library complex in Sri Lanka.
Built by King Parakramabahu, it has an interesting design with a series of square walls that get progressively smaller towards the centre; the smallest of which houses a small circular building. This is believed to be the main area for storing books. Four small stupas adorn the corners of the smallest square.
Not much of the library remains intact today, but the ruins left behind are overrun by monkeys; adding atmosphere to one of the most intriguing complexes within the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It’s a beautiful spot to capture some photos. We also recommend the guy selling Panama hats at the entrance if it is starting to get a bit hot.
3 / PALACE COMPLEX OF PARAKRAMABAHU
Heading north and after 20 minutes cycling, you will come to one of the most historical places in Polonnaruwa. The Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu was thought to have thousands of rooms and be seven stories high. But the South Indian Invader ‘magha’ set fire to the building and, the upper wooden floors were destroyed.
Although only 30 columns, 55 rooms and 3 stories remain today, the ruins are in very good condition and it’s easy to imagine the colossal structure it once was.
Next door is the King’s Audience Hall, with a magnificent stone-carved stairway topped with a pair of lions. Around the corner is the king’s swimming pool, where a snake charmer and his family were trying to earn a few rupees by tormenting an animal.
4 – SACRED QUADRANGLE
The next stop is the Sacred Quadrangle, which has the most concentrated collection of ruins in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
The Vadatage is an 18m wide, circular relic house. It was thought to be built by King Parakramabahu to house the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Later King Nissanka Malla replaced the tooth relic (moving it to the purpose-built Hadatage next door) with the alms bowl used by Buddha. The Vadatage is the finest example of its kind in the country and both items would have given this place great significance, making it one of the most important historical places in Polonnaruwa.
The tooth would eventually end up in Kandy and feature in the remarkable temple of the sacred tooth.
There are a number of food and drink spots opposite the quadrangle so it’s a good place to stock up on supplies.
5 – PABALU VEHERA & RANKOTH VEHERA
Pabalu Vehera and Rankoth Vehera are two stupas in excellent condition.
Pabalu Vehera was built by one of King Parakramabahu’s wives, Queen Rupawathi. It’s an unusual shape which has been destroyed by invaders and treasure hunters over the years. Instead of the usual 4 image houses that surround a stupa, Pabalu Vehera has 9. One of the 9 includes an imprint which is said to be the footprint of Buddha himself.
Rankoth Vehera is the largest and most important stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It’s made entirely of brick and very well preserved. The gold pinnacle reaching 33 metres into the air was added at the request of Nissankamalla, a foreigner from East India with a claim to the Sri Lankan throne.
6 – LANKATILAKA & KIRI VEHERA
Lankatilaka Viharaya is the most impressive and evocative building in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It’s a Buddha image house built by King Parakramabahu. The entrance to the building contains two massive pillars framing 17-metre intricately carved bas-relief walls. A towering 13-metre-high headless Buddha statue oversees the ruin.
To one side of Lankatilaka is the huge white stupa of Kiri Vihara. With its original lime plaster, it is the best preserved unrestored stupa in Polonnaruwa.
On the other side lies a stepped pool and gardens that are slowly being overtaken by the encroaching jungle. The surrounding trees, the bent and twisted roots, and the branches billowing in the wind make this a beautiful spot to rest and contemplate the scene.
7 – GAL VIHARA
Gal Vihara is an incredibly impressive collection of 4 massive Buddhas, each carved from one long granite slab. They are still in perfect condition and are said to be the best examples of ancient Sinhalese sculpting.
The 14-metre reclining Buddha is the star attraction at Gal Vihara. The pillow under Buddha’s head is a work of art, with the natural marbling of the granite incorporated into the design. Local clergymen – beaming with proud smiles – were on hand to answer any questions about the carvings, clearly eager to discuss their favourite details.
In order to get close enough to see all the intricate work and really appreciate the carvings, shoes must be removed. This involves a mad dash across scorched gravel.
CYCLING ANCIENT CITY OF POLONNARUWA
Hiring a bike is by far the easiest and most fun way to see the ancient and historical places in Polonnaruwa.
Pick up your bike near the bus stop in town and cycle to the museum to buy your ticket for the ancient city. Explore the museum before walking to the nearby palace of King Nissanka. Next cycle south to checkout Pothgul Vehara, before heading back north to the Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu. Then head to the Sacred Quadrangle, Pabalu Vehera and Rankoth Vehera, before collecting the sights of Lankatilaka & Gal Vihara.
The bike rental shop, cycling route, stops and lunch spot are all marked on the map below. The entire tour takes about 4 to 5 hours at a very leisurely pace.
Wear shoes that are easy to take on and off. Socks are useful for walking over hot stone in areas where you’re not allowed to wear shoes.
There is plenty of thirst-quenching drink and fresh fruit along the route.
WHERE TO STAY AT POLONNARUWA
Polonnaruwa is a delightfully local Sri Lankan town, so there are not many hotels to choose from.
The best option is to stay in Habarana and travel to Polonnaruwa by bus on a day trip. The 1-hour bus ride itself is all part of the experience. You get to meet the locals on their daily commute as the driver flies around windy roads and jingles play over the radio.
Habarana makes an excellent base for exploring not only Polonnaruwa (1-hour bus) but also Sigiriya Rock Fortress (25-minute taxi) and Dambulla Cave Temple (30-minute taxi or bus).
EKHO LAKE HOUSE – POLONNARUWA
Situated in a perfect position just next to King Nissanka Malla Palace, EKHO Lake House is the swanky option in Polonnaruwa. The old renovated house, great facilities and helpful staff make it a great choice for a stay. Ask for a lake view room and you might even be lucky enough to see an elephant strolling past your balcony.
CINNAMON LODGE – HABARANA
Cinnamon Lodge is a beautiful and relaxing hotel also set right beside a lake, with large grounds to explore and all the comforts you could ask for such as a full-service spa, pool and tennis court. The buffet restaurant is pretty good, but it’s also just a 10 minute walk into the town where you can dine out on much more local (and cheaper) food.
WHERE TO EAT IN HABARANA
There’s nothing more fun for us than trying the local food when we travel. Hot Dish in Habarana is probably not somewhere you would be naturally drawn to with florescent lights, dorm-like tables and stark surroundings. But the food was great and the service friendly. It’s best if you let them recommend something for you.
MORE SRI LANKA READING
Firstly, if we have inspired you to visit Sri Lanka, we might inspire you to visit other places. All our best photos and the stories of our travels are on our Instagram. Follow us here.
Secondly, if these top experiences have inspired you to see the country for yourself, our complete itinerary has all the information needed to collect all our favourite things to do in Sri Lanka in 10 days. If you need more convincing, here’s some more reading
Things to do in Sri Lanka
Experiencing the Kandy Cultural Show
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