Exploring Polonnaruwa: Unveiling the Ancient Marvels of Sri Lanka’s Historic City

Polonnaruwa, the charming historic city of Sri Lanka, proudly shows its ancient marvels as a part of the “Cultural Triangle” of the country.

In this comprehensive Polonnaruwa travel guide, we will explore the best Polonnaruwa attractions that make it a haven for history enthusiasts and travelers.

In addition, we will also look into some travel tips and tourist testimonials to make the Polonnaruwa trip to Sri Lanka a hassle-free experience.

A Brief Overview of the Historical and Cultural Significance of Polonnaruwa

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa operated as the capital city for nearly two centuries from 11th to 13th centuries AD.

The Chola dynasty ruled it under the name “Jananathapuram” after shifting the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. However, the Sinhalese King Vijayabahu I captured it in 1070 AD.

King Parakramabahu I started ruling Polonnaruwa after the death of King Vijayabahu I. During his reign, the city reached its pinnacle of power becoming one of Asia’s most prosperous cities!

King Parakramabahu I directed the construction of a huge irrigation tanks which resembled natural inland seas. This led to a thriving agricultural sector and earned Sri Lanka the title of “The Granary of the Orient.”

King Nissankamalla succeeded King Parakramabahu I, however, he was not a powerful king. And neither were the kings that followed him. As a result, Kalinga Magha invaded Polonnaruwa in 1215 AD.

Why Polonnaruwa is a Must-Visit Destination for History Enthusiasts and Travelers?

Are you wondering what to do in Polonnaruwa? Well, starting from exploring the historic ruins of King Parakramabahu I’s royal palace to visiting the many Buddhist temples and South Indian shrines there are many things to do here!

Polonnaruwa Museum

The Polonnaruwa Museum should be your first stop if you’re unsure of what to see in Polonnaruwa. It displays historical artifacts unearthed over time during excavations in Polonnaruwa and gives the visitors a quick overview of the ancient city’s layout. There are seven galleries, including the citadel (inner city), outer city, monastery complex, hinterland monasteries, and Hindu shrines in the Polonnaruwa Museum.

Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu I

The Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu I is an intriguing structure that you should not miss when you are in Polonnaruwa. King Parakramabahu I constructed it in the 10th century, but it the Chola invaders destroyed it. Earlier, the royal palace had seven levels and 1000 chambers! Today, there are only 55 brick chambers and three levels remaining, and it is believed that the upper floors were made of wood.

King Parakramabahu Statue

One of the most remarkable sculptures in Polonnaruwa is the statue of King Parakramabahu. Standing at a height of 12 feet, it beautifully overlooks the Parakrama Samudraya (Sea of Parakrama). There are different opinions about the origin of this statue. For instance, some believe King Parakramabahu I had it made as a statue of himself holding a scroll, but others believe it shows a sage known as Pulathi Rishi.

Parakrama Samudraya (Sea of Parakrama)

The Parakrama Samudraya (Sea of Parakrama) is a large reservoir containing five smaller reservoirs (Thopa, Dumbutulu, Erabadu, Bhu, and Kalahagala tanks). The oldest reservoir, Thopa wewa (tank) dates back to 386 AD. Additionally, it is a major tourist attraction in Polonnaruwa because visitors can arrange for boat rides in its calm waters.

Polonnaruwa Vatadage

The Polonnaruwa Vatadage is an ancient edifice built during the reign of Parakramabahu I. It originally housed the Buddha’s tooth relic. As one of Sri Lanka’s best-preserved vatadages, it contains elegant-looking stone pillars, stone platforms, and fine stone carvings. There is a small Buddha figure in the center. Therefore, it is one of the most Instagrammed Polonnaruwa travel places in Sri Lanka due to its serene-looking backdrop!

Nissanka Latha Mandapaya

King Nissankamalla used the Nissanka Latha Mandapaya to listen to Buddhist chantings (pirith). With raised stone platforms, uniquely curved stone pillars, and carvings of a blooming lotus on the top of the pillars, it is not wrong to say that Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is the most sophisticated architectural masterpiece in Sri Lanka.

Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara, also known as the “Rock Monastery” in Sinhala, was built during the time of King Parakramabahu I. It is a section of the Uttara Rama, or “Northern Temple” of Polonnaruwa. This is one of the best places to visit in Polonnaruwa to see an exquisite collection of granite rock Buddha statues. There are three Buddha statues: a seated Buddha statue (4.5 meters), a standing Buddha statue (7 meters), and a reclining Buddha statue (14 meters), which is the largest reclining Buddha statue in South Asia and depicts Buddha’s passing away.

Lankathilake Image House

Unquestionably, the Lankathilake Image House is a must-see location in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It is believed to have been built by King Parakramabahu I. What makes Lankathilake Image House unique is that it has a 14-meter-tall headless Buddha statue. The entire image house is made of clay bricks, with stunning decorations carved into the outer walls and pillars.

Sathmahal Prasadaya

The Sathmahal Prasadaya (Seven-Storied Tower) is the most enigmatic-looking structure in the Polonnaruwa ancient city. Its purpose is unknown. According to scholars, it shows the ties Sri Lanka had with other countries during the 12th century AD. This is because Sathmahal Prasadaya is comparable to the stupa at Wat Kukut in Lamphun, Thailand, and to the Buddhist architecture of Cambodia.

Pabalu Vehera

Queen Rupawathi, King Parakramabahu’s wife is credited with the construction of Pabalu Vehera (Marble Stupa). The name comes from the marbles discovered during an excavation in the neighborhood. Pabalu Vehera is different from the conventional stupas because it has nine image houses surrounding the stupa as opposed to the normal four.

Rankoth Vehera

King Nissankamalla constructed the Rankoth Vehera by following the tradition of the stupas in the Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya. Therefore, Rankoth Vehera closely resembles Ruwanwelisaya. With a height of 33 meters, it is the largest stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Shiva Devalaya

Shiva Devalaya is a Hindu temple in Polonnaruwa dating back to the 13th century AD. The Chola rulers constructed the Shiva Devalaya as a dedication to God Shiva. is entirely made of stone according to the Pandya design style. Therefore, it provides evidence that Sri Lanka had a multicultural population in the past as well.

Travel Tips for Visiting Polonnaruwa Ancient Capital

  • The Polonnaruwa entrance fee is quite expensive; It costs USD 25.00 per person for people who are not from SAARC countries and USD 12.5 per person for people from SAARC countries.
  • However, the fee is well worth it because it covers admission to the Polonnaruwa Museum as well as most of the attractions listed above.
  • Make sure to do some research on the Polonnaruwa weather before you plan your trip. The best times to visit Polonnaruwa are January-March and June-August, however, it can get very hot. The temperature can sometimes reach 35°C during the day!
  • Therefore, one of the best things to do in Polonnaruwa before visiting the attractions is to rent a bicycle. In this way, you can explore everything at a leisurely pace without being overly tired.
  • However, if you plan to go on a walking tour, bring lots of water and food with you.
  • Keep in mind that it is offensive to take photos with your back facing Buddha statues.
  • Also, try to dress in white clothes when visiting Buddhist temples. Both men and women should cover their shoulders and knees.
  • Make sure to wear socks because most of the attractions require you to remove your shoes and the ground can get very hot during the day.

Do you need recommendations for hotels in Polonnaruwa?

  • The Agbo Hotel Polonnaruwa is one of the best hotels in Polonnaruwa.
  • The Araliya Hotel Polonnaruwa is one of the most well-liked of the other Polonnaruwa hotels, especially for couples.

Tourist Testimonials on the Ancient City Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka (quoted from TripAdvisor)

“This is an incredible historic area with lots of sites to visit. We only spent a half day but you can easily spend the entire day wandering about seeing Hindu and Buddhist temples, beautiful structures, monastery sites, kingly courts, a museum with lots of information and at the very end there is a huge carved out Buddha which is a must see…….” – From ajaycmistry.

 “An amazing site! and I believe this is one of the must-see places in Sri Lanka, highly recommended for those who like to explore history or architecture……. – From Tiana L.

Final Thoughts

Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka was formally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. This was a protective measure to save all of its remaining architectural marvels.

Similar to the ancient Buddhist cities of Cambodia, exploring the royal palace ruins, temples, and monasteries is a fantastic way to learn about the history of Polonnaruwa. Moreover, you can imagine the city in all of its former splendor. So, plan a trip to Polonnaruwa on your next trip to Sri Lanka!