The site can also be reached by rail (Colombo Batticaloa line).

The date of foundation of the city is not known. In the reign of Maha Sena (4th c.) this was an area of settlement (many artificial lakes). The chronicles refer to it as Pulatthi or Pulastipura. Protected by dense forest, it became a royal capital and a safe place of refuge during the Tamil invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries. In 993 Polonnaruwa was captured by the Chola ruler Rajahrajah, who set up a viceroy here. The reconquest of the city by Vijaya Bahu (1055-1110) opened the golden age of the new capital, dated by inscriptions on buildings to the period from 1000 to 1293. When the Sinhalese kings were finally compelled to withdraw to Dambadeniya, Polonnaruwa was abandoned, situated as it was in a region threatened by the Tamils. Nature returned to its own; the dams were not maintained and began to leak; the large artificial lake was reduced in size and split into three: the Dumbutulu Wewa, the Erabadu Wewa and the Thopa Wewa. The site became overgrown with vegetation, and this jungle Pompeii disappeared under an accumulation of soil. At the end of the 19th century archaeologists and engineers began to work on the site, the dams and water channels were restored and the area was resettled. The new village was established 4 km away from the ancient site.

The remains are scattered over a narrow strip of land extending for some 8 km from north to south along the east side of the lake known as Parakrama Samudra, Parakrama’s Ocean, which has an area of 18 sq. km. The name of this great king, Parakrama Bahu I (1153-1186), a legendary figure in the chronicles, constantly recurs at Polonnaruwa.

Near the lake is a rectangular enclosure dating from the 12th century, with the remains of walls, bastions protecting the entrances, and defensive ditches, now largely filled in. This was the heart of the ancient capital, but the remains cover a much larger area, extending particularly towards the north. More than fifty buildings have been identified by the archaeologists, but part of the site still remains to be cleared. Even if you are accompanied by a guide constant reference to the plan of the site is necessary to keep your bearings, since the lush growth of vegetation makes it difficult to get any general impression of the layout though it does offer a good sample of the rich flora and fauna of Sri Lanka.

Tour of the Site
There are so many places to see in this breath-taking archeological site. Starting from (1) the rest-house, a comfortable hotel on a promontory, overlooking the lake, the road which runs south along the lake is 2 km to the (2) Potgul Vihara, or Library Dagaba, a centre of monastic studies now represented by the remains of a circular structure on a platform base surrounded by other ruins. It probably dates from the 10th century, in spite of a legend which attributes it to Queen Sandravati, wife of Parakrama Bahu I. The mounds covered with vegetation appear to be the remains of smaller dagabas.

(3) The statue of Parakrama Bahu, a rock-cut figure in high relief (height 4 m) which is a masterpiece of ancient Sinhalese sculpture, probably dating from the 9th century. It represents a man with a venerable beard reading a palm-leaf manuscript, and with its mingling of idealism and realism, its combination of nobility of feature with a considerable paunch, it has all the appearance of being a portrait as well as an idealization of the Sage. The figure has become one of the emblems of Sri Lanka, represented on the country’s stamps and banknotes.

In the rest-house one can see the Citadel and its palaces.

Above the lake (4) are various pavilions which served the purposes of aquatic sports; (5) the traditional site of the funeral pyre of Nissanka Malla (1186-1196); (6) Palace of Nissanka Malla, brick-built, with two upper storeys of wood; (7) Council Chamber of Nissanka Malla, with a stone lion bearing an inscription which formed the base of the throne; (8) Pleasure Pavilion, on a little islet, brick-built, with traces of paintings on the wall plaster; (9) Palace of Parakrama Bahu I, to the south of a small citadel with an entrance on the north side; brick-built, with a large hall (50 m by 13 m) and an inner courtyard. There were two upper storeys of wood; (10) Council Chamber of Parakrama Bahu I, which has a stone basement storey with a fine elephant frieze; (11) to the south-east: the Kumara Pokuna or Royal Bath, a bathing pool with steps along the sides.

From here turning to the north passing a bastion with an inscription in the name of (12) Nissanka Malla is an early 13th century Hindu temple of Shiva, a relic of the Pandya occupation. It has a stone base in the style characteristic of South India.

To the north of the Citadel is an area of higher ground on which there is a group of religious buildings.

(13) The Thuparama is a massive structure with thick brick-built walls, bas-reliefs, friezes of animals and the original vaulting still in position: a building of predominantly horizontal lines, barely relieved by false pillars and empty niches. There is no dagaba, a feature normally implied by the element thupa in the name: probably in this case thupa is to be taken in the sense of relic-house.

(14) The Vatadage, a circular shrine built in the 7th century notable for the elegance and beauty of its architecture and carving. It is one of the best preserved buildings on the site. It has a stone basement storey with a double terrace and openwork balustrade, surrounded by a double ring of pillars and a circular wall which formerly enclosed a dagaba, now destroyed. At the cardinal points are four vahalkadas. At the foot of the staircases are the traditional moonstones and guardian spirits. Note also the dancing dwarfs on the risers of the steps.

Opposite the main staircase of the Vatadage is the (15) Hatadage or Shrine of the Sixty Relics, built by King Nissanka Malla to protect the sacred Tooth Relic. To the east of this is the Gal-pota or Stone Book, a slab 8 m long by 1.80 m wide bearing the longest inscription in Ceylon: 24 lines of writing recording an edict of Nissanka Malla.

(16) The Satmahal Prasada or Little Palace of Seven Storeys, a pyramidal relic-house of a type unusual in Ceylon, perhaps reflecting Far Eastern influence. The side of each storey is adorned by a figure of a deity in an arched niche.

(17) The Atadage, or the House of the Eight Relics is Vijaya Bahu’s Temple of the Tooth (1055-1110), originally of several storeys. The temple is has 54 pillars within is a standing figure of the Buddha.

(18) The Nissanka Lata Mandapa noted for its pillars, which have become the emblem of Polonnaruwa. They are in the form of lotus stems, with capitals in the form of lotus buds.

(19) On the east lies the Pabulu Vihara or Coral Shrine, a truncated dagaba with 12th century statues of the Buddha built by one of the queens of Parakrabahu.

(20) Temple of Shiva, the oldest building on the site which can be exactly dated, in the style of South India, with 11th century Tamil inscriptions.

(21) Temple of Vishnu, with a statue of the god (12th c).

(22) Remains of the other temples of Shiva, with a yoni and the base of a lingam.

(23) The Manik Vihara is a dagaba with a stone basement storey and a frieze of lions.

Nearby are four pillars belonging to a small building with an inscription in the name of Nissanka Malla; (24) The Rankot Vihara, a large dagaba 55 m high with a diameter of 175 m at the base, surrounded by chapels with statues of the Buddha. There is an inscription recording that it was built by Nissanka Malla; and (25) The Gopala Pabbata, a flat rock containing four caves. In one of them is an inscription in Brahmi script bearing witness to the presence of monks here in the 5th century AD.

There are also group of ruined buildings belonging to the Alahana Parivana or the Monastery of the Burning Place, near the site of the royal funeral pyres. In which the foundations of monks’ cells can be seen.

(27) The Baddha Sima Prasada, a Buddhist temple with the residence of the abbot of the monastery.

(28) The Lanka Tilaka or Glory of Ceylon, also known as the Jethavanarama, from the name of the Buddha’s first monastery. This is a massive brick structure 52 m long by 20 m across. The roof has disappeared but the walls still stand 17 m high. In the interior is a gigantic standing figure of the Buddha, the head of which is broken.

(29) The Kiri Vihara or White Shrine, so called because of the facing of lime mortar on the dome of the dagaba.

(30) The Gal Vihara (Stone Shrine) or Kalugal Vihara (Black Stone Shrine), with three colossal statues, all hewn from a huge gneiss block. At one end is a figure of the Buddha seated on a throne in the attitude of meditation (5 m high), and next to this, facing east, is the entrance, flanked by two rock-cut pillars, of a central chapel hewn from the rock. To the rear of the chapel is another seated Buddha, of smaller size. Beyond this are two huge statues, also hewn from the solid rock: a tall figure of a monk standing in a pensive pose with his arms crossed, holding a pilgrim’s staff, and an even larger figure of the sleeping Buddha, lying with his face towards the rising sun. This is the most impressive of the three huge figures, representing the Maha-pari-nirvana, the Great One who has attained Nirvana.

There are various interpretations of this group of figures. One suggestion was that it represents the death of the Buddha, attended by his faithful disciple Ananda, but it is now thought that the two main figures are both representations of the Buddha. The standing figure, probably the first to be carved, is believed to depict the Buddha as the apostle of Enlightenment, while the recumbent figure shows him at the end of his mission. The whole group is an impressive expression of the certitudes and the serenity of the Buddhist faith.

These three groups of buildings are sometimes called the Uttararama, the last or outermost pleasure garden, since they were the last structures of any size to be built at the north end of city.

A few hundred metres farther north, hidden amid vegetation, is the (31) Demala Maha Seya, the Great Dagaba of the Tamils, which was built by the forced labour of Tamil (Damala) prisoners after the army of a Pandya king of Madurai was defeated by Parakrama Bahu I.

On top of this artificial mound is a small dagaba, now truncated, built at a later period but not exactly dated. From the top, which is difficult to reach because of the thorns obstructing the paths, there is a fine view of the forest.

Still farther north, in the jungle, is the (32) Lotus Bath, 7.60 m in diameter, which is built in tile form of a stylised lotus flower with five steps representing five rows of eight petals. Its discovery in the early years of this century not only indicate the extent and magnificence of Polonnaruwa in its heyday but was a reminder of the number of buildings which must still lie concealed under the ground.

Much farther north still, outside the usual tourist circuit, is the (33) Tivanka Pilimage, the last temple to be discovered in the heart of the forest, with a colossal statue of the Buddha. On the stucco coating of the walls a few scenes from the Jatakas, painted in the 11th century, can be distinguished with difficulty. Fortunately they were copied at a time when they were in better condition, and the copies can be seen in the Colombo Museum.

On the way back to the rest-house a number of other buildings can be seen:

(34) The Nayipena Vihara, which is not in fact a vihara but a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. The statue has disappeared, but there is still a cobra’s head (the hood of which served as a canopy).

(35) The Siva Devala, a Hindu temple, with a porch and six chambers opening out of one another in a line from east to west. In the shrine is a lingam which is still venerated.

(36) The Priti Danaka Mandapa (the reception chamber which offers joy), a temple built on a granite hillock which possessed the right of asylum.

(37) The Minneri Dewala, which in spite of its Hindu name is a Buddhist temple.

(38)The Museum, displays numerous remains recovered during the excavations.

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