The Ancient Cities

I never made it to Dambulla to look at the golden temple, although I did get the bus past it about 3 times. Despite this, I am thrilled that I bothered to visit the other ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polannaruwa. I imagine these are often overlooked by the younger generation of travellers who would much rather spend two more days on the beach than get a long, sweaty bus north to look at ruins. Even going from Sigiriya and back to Kandy felt like a bit of an effort, and I was on no tight schedule or sun-seeking agenda! 

After our safari, Rita and I got a three hour bus to Anuradhapura. The city itself is underwhelming and not particularly pleasant, and I was so grateful to have her there with me. 

Exhausted from our 5am start, we managed to gather enough energy to get a tuk tuk to take us the 12km east to Mihintale. We climbed the however many steps, had a brief look at the ruins half way up and hiked up to the temple at the top for views of the region. We were faster walkers than anticipated, but we enjoyed waiting at the top for the sunset to come and we were pretty blown away when it did. The sun was as red as I’ve ever seen it and the whole place had an amazing energy. 

On Sunday morning we set off to see the sacred Bodhi tree. Sri Ama Boodhi is the first ever human planted tree in the world, grown from a cutting brought from the Indian tree at which Buddha found Enlightenment. 

Thousands of Buddhists dress in white and pray to the tree every day. It was wonderful to see such a powerful demonstration of faith, but it was slightly offset by the hoards of tourists taking photos of the whole thing. 

The tree itself was also slightly underwhelming. It is basically just a very old fig tree, supported by a golden structure and adorned with flags. After a friend’s review of her visit to Anuradhapura, I was expecting to be very moved by this spiritual place, but I wasn’t really. (My bad..) I’m glad we went to see it, though. 

We then traipsed around the rest of the sights in the scorching midday heat. Unlike Polannaruwa, whose sights are mainly ruins, the buildings in Anuradhapura are remarkably intact and generally still in use. 

After lunch, I said a sad farewell to Rita, who was heading back to Sigiriya for a second week of volunteering there, and boarded a bus to Polannaruwa. This only took about two hours and I was thrilled by my hostel, which served a delicious rice and curry buffet looking over the rice paddies. A great recommendation from my friend! 

On Monday morning I rented a bike from my hostel and cycled off to the Archaeological museum. 

Although I’d been somewhat underwhelmed by Anuradhapura, I was completely fascinated by the history and architecture of Polannaruwa. I took my time as I went through the museum, reading about the three Kings and their magnificent palaces, summer houses and ego-boosting buildings. 

I took rather a lot of notes for some reason, so here’s a brief lowdown of the history of Polannaruwa:

Anuradhapura was the cultural centre of Sri Lanka from 500BC until the 12th century and had its heyday in the 5th century. However, the city was weakened by South Indian intrusions and geographically vulnerable, while Polannaruwa was much safer. From the 9th century, this second town became the residence of the king. This lasted until 993AD when the South Indian Colas came and imposed their Hinduism, although the town was recaptured by Vijayahabu in the 12th century. 

There were three main kings of Polannaruwa: Parakramabu I (1153-1186AD) who built many monasteries and hospitals and waged war against India, Nissankamalla (1187-1996AD), who also built monasteries and a particularly impressive summer palace, and Vijayabahu. The rule of Polannaruwa ended in 1296 with civil strife and wars. 

Unlike Anuradhapura, the ruins of Polannaruwa are spread over about 15km and are pretty much destroyed. There are a couple of ruins in the New Town, south of where I was staying, and a few around the museum area but the majority lie in the ‘Quadrangle’ a few kilometres north of the museum. 

I started with the Royal Palace Group, which dates from the reign of Parakramabahu I. It consists of his Royal Palace, which is said to have had 7 stories although it’s pretty nonexistent now, the Audience Hall and a bathing pool. 

I then went to the quadrangle to see the Vatadage (relic house), hatadage (a monument with pillars), atadage (shrine for the tooth relic) and other impressive ruins. For example, the Gal Pota is a colossal stone ‘book’ that is 9m long and 1.5m wide and inscribed with the virtues of king Nissanka Malla. 

Here, unfortunately, my bike got nicked so I guiltily took someone else’s and continued on my way. It may not have been the smartest thing to do but I still had 10km of ruins to cover and it was about midday by now and seriously scorching!

So I continued cycling further north, passing by two famous Hindu temples and a large dagoba. 

My favourite was probably the Lankatilaka temple, a huge construction with 17m high walls and a large aisle which leads to a huge standing Buddha.


I also liked the Kirk Vihara, an unrestored dagoba whose name means ‘milk white’. 

I made it all the way to the Gal Vihara, said to be the most impressive collection of Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. It consists of four separate images, all cut from one long slab of granite, and marks the high point of Sinhalese rock carving. 

The final stop, by which time I was properly exhausted and famished, was the Image Shrine, an old building whose interior walls are covered with extraordinarily detailed paintings. 

Returning to my hostel for a nap and some much-needed food, I explained the bike situation to my extremely understanding hosts. 

I then went for another short cycle around the town to explore the New Town and visit the remaining ruins in the south. Polannaruwa is actually a stunning little town and actually has much more to offer than just the ruins. Situated along the edge of massive water tanks, the town has a very calm, peaceful atmosphere to it. The little roads are lush and relatively quiet (compared to Kandy, at least!) and the views of the rice paddies are really pretty. 

I think my experience was definitely enhanced by my wonderful hostel, and I’m so pleased I stayed there. I don’t think the town has much to offer in way of good food, so I was thrilled my hostel offered such delicious dinners at a reasonable price. Give me buffet rice and curry and I’m one happy lady! 

Overall, I loved my time in Polannaruwa and I’m really glad I bothered to visit the ancient cities. 


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