Ancient City of Polonnaruwa | World Heritage Site

Polonnaruwa Vatadage
Polonnaruwa was the medieval capital of Sri Lanka that existed from the eleventh to the first quarter of the thirteenth century A.D. after the demise of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. Presently, UNESCO has declared the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa as one of the World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.

World Heritage Site: Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

Location: Polonnaruwa District, North-Central Province, Sri Lanka 
Coordinates: N7 54 57 E81 0 2
Date of Inscription: 1982
Criteria :    (i) Immense capital created by the sovereign, Parakramabahu I, in the 12th century, is one of history’s most astonishing urban creations, both because of its unusual dimensions and because of the very special relationship of its building with the natural setting.
             (iii) Polonnaruwa attests in an exceptional manner to several civilizations, notably that of the conquering Cholas, disciples of Brahmanism, and the Sinhalese sovereigns during the 12th -13th centuries.
              (vi) It is a shrine of Buddhism and Sinhalese history. It is sufficient to recall that the tooth of Buddha, a remarkable relic placed in Atadage under Vijayabahu I, was considered as the talisman of the Sinhalese monarchy. Its removal by Bhuvanekabahu II confirmed the decline of Polonnaruwa. 
Reference : 201: Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations.

Kingdom of Polonnaruwa
The Polonnaruwa Kingdom was the second kingdom of Sri Lanka that flourished on the island from the 11th to the end of the first quarter of the 13th century.

The invasions made by South Indian Cholas since the end of the 10th century caused the wane of the political stability of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, the first kingdom of Sri Lanka. The Chola conquest of Anuradhapura began in 993 A.D. (Nicholas, 1963) and by 1017 A.D., the Anuradhapura Kingdom was completely fallen under the rule of the Chola Empire. The Cholas established their rule in Polonnaruwa and they controlled the country for 53 years until King Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 A.D.) defeated them and re-established the Sinhalese lineage in 1070 A.D.

After King Vijayabahu I, the kingdom witnessed the golden era of its development during the reigns of King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.) and King Nissankamalla (1187-1196 A.D.). Of them, Parakramabahu I is considered the greatest and the most reputed ruler of Polonnaruwa who brought the country's economy, culture, and religion to the zenith of the period (Jayasuriya, 2016). However, the throne of the Polonnaruwa after Nissankamalla was transitioned to the hands of several rulers who were weak in reigning or who engaged in internecine struggles. Magha of Kalinga (India) who came with a large army from Malabar (Kerala) invaded Sri Lanka in 1216 A.D. and became the ruler of the country (Dias et al., 2016). He ruled the island for 21 years until 1236. Due to the invasions that mainly flooded from South India, Polonnaruwa was abandoned in the first quarter of the 13th century and the seat of government for the Sinhalese kings was moved to Dambadeniya (Jayasuriya, 2016).

Read the main article: Kingdom of Polonnaruwa

As an important city
Anuradhapura Period
Early human settlements in Polonnaruwa are confirmed by Gopalapabbata, a cave site located within the present Polonnaruwa ancient city where a lithic record (a cave inscription) of the 2nd century B.C. has been found.

During the period of the Anuradhapura Kingdom (377 B.C.-1017 A.D.), Polonnaruwa was known as Kandavuru-Nuwara (the camp city) as it was situated at a strategic position between the Northern capital of Anuradhapura and the Southern sub-capital Mahagama (Jayasuriya, 2016; Prematilaka & Hewage, 2018). Some believe that the Vijithapura Fort where a major battle between the forces of Prince Dutugemunu  (161-137 B.C.)  and King Elara (205-161 B.C.) took place in the 2nd century B.C. was situated in Polonnaruwa or a place very close to it (Nicholas, 1963). However, others think that this battle happened in Anuradhapura where the present Vijithapura Viharaya stands.

Chronicles mention Polonnaruwa in connection with the construction of the Topa Wewa tank during the reign of King Upatissa I [(365-406 A.D.) Nicholas, 1963]. According to the details given in Culavamsa, King Aggabodhi III (626-641 A.D.) built a Buddhist monastery named Mahapanadipa Viharaya in Polonnaruwa in the 7th century A.D. (Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004). In the same century, King Aggabodhi IV (658-674 A.D.) temporarily removed the seat of government from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa and resided there until his death (Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004). Several other rulers in the 8th to 10th centuries A.D. such as King Aggabodhi VII (772-777 A.D.), Sena I (833-853 A.D.), and Sena V (972-982 A.D.) also temporarily resided at Polonnaruwa (Nicholas, 1963). During this era, several Buddhist temples [Sanniratittha Viharaya by Mahinda II (777-797 A.D.)], reservoirs and other structures [a hospital was built by King Udaya I (797-801 A.D.)] were built in and around the Polonnaruwa by Anuradhapura kings (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004).

Polonnaruwa Period
Velaikkara Slab Inscription
After conquesting the Anuradhapura Kingdom, Cholas established their rule in Polonnaruwa and renamed the city Jananatha Mangalam (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004).

In 1077 A.D., Vijayabahu I expelled the Cholas and established the Sinhalese Kingdom again (Jayasuriya, 2016). He celebrated his coronation as king at Anuradhapura but shortly afterwards transferred the capital to Polonnaruwa (Nicholas, 1963). Therefore, Vijayabahu I is considered the first king to establish Polonnaruwa as the capital (Jayasuriya, 2016; Prematilaka & Hewage, 2018). He called it Vijayabapura and the Velaikkara inscription reveals that the city was also known as Pulastipura (Wikramagamage, 2004). Vijayabahu constructed the first wall around the city and it was surrounded by a deep moat (Wikramagamage, 2004). Within the walled city, he built a palace for him and a Temple of the Tooth (present Atadage) to place the Tooth Relic of the Buddha (Nicholas, 1963). His palace which had been within the citadel was later burnt down during the Velaiikara revolt (Wickremasinghe, 1928). 

During the reign of King Parakramabahu I, Polonnaruwa reached its peak of glory and in that period many buildings were added to the city (Nicholas, 1963). Parakramabhu I constructed a palace of 7-stories known as Vaijayantha Prasada within the citadel and a Temple of the Tooth (present Vatadage) in the Sacred Quadrangle premises (Seneviratna, 1998). He also caused to build a large number of structures within the city such as the Deepa UyanaAlahana PirivenaGal Viharaya, Jetavanaramaya, etc (Jayasuriya, 2016; Wikramagamage, 2004).
Nissankamalla continued the program of work established by Parakramabahu I. A majority of inscriptions found in Polonnaruwa belong to him. He is also credited with constructing many city structures and monasteries including Nissankalata Mandapaya, Hetadage, Rankoth Vehera, etc.

Note: The monuments listed here are arranged in the order of the location (from south to north direction) where they are situated in the city. 
The city of Polonnaruwa is extending into an area of about 122 hectares (Jayasuriya, 2016). It stretches about five km from south to north and about three km from east to west (Jayasuriya, 2016). The majority of monuments found in the city are built of brick.
The ruins of the monastery complex known as Pothgul Vehera or the Library Monastery are located at the southern end of the city. Also, the famous statue which is believed to be the Statue of Parakramabhu I is found here.

Council Chamber of Nissankamalla
This site has been identified as the Dipa Uyana (the Island Park) built by King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.). It is located to the west of the walls of the Palace of Parakramabahu I and extends up to the verge of the Parakrama Samudra reservoir (Wikramagamage, 2004). The ruins of many important monuments including the Council Chamber, the Audience Hall of NissankamallaDhavalagharaya and the Kalinga Park Inscription are located within this premises. 

The Citadel
The Citadel or the Royal Enclosure was the city centre of Polonnaruwa and it extends in an oblong area of about 8.6 hectares. Fortified by wide and high brick ramparts on all four sides, the citadel was reserved for the palaces of kings and its appurtenant buildings. Ruins of many buildings including the Vaijayantha Prasada (the Palace of Parakramabahu I), and Raja Vaishyabhujanga Mandapa (the Council Chamber of Parakramabahu I) could be seen here. Between the Vaijayantha Prasada and the Raja Vaishyabhujanga Mandapa is a foundation that is believed to be the basement of the palace built by Vijayabahu I. The royal bath pond named Kumara Pokuna is located beyond the city wall in the southeast quarter.

Several monuments including the Siva Devale No. 1 and the Slab Inscription at the North Entrance to the Citadel are found in the premises located between the Citadel and the Dalada Maluwa.

Dalada Maluwa
Nissanka Latha Mandapaya
The Dalada Maluwa or the Sacred Quadrangle is reserved for the shrines of the Tooth Relic and buildings connected with its worship. It is an elevated terrace because the Temple of the Tooth was built here. The first Temple of the Tooth was built here by Vijayabahu I and the building presently called Atadage has been identified as that shrine. The Velaikkara Slab Inscription erected near it reveals that the security of this shrine has been entrusted to Velaikkar soldiers. The magnificent circular structure known as the Vatadage which is in the Dalada Maluwa premises is thought to be the Temple of the Tooth built by Parakramabahu I. In front of this shrine is the Hetadage which is the Temple of the Tooth shrine built by Nissankamalla. The other monuments in the Dalada Maluwa premises include the Galpota Inscription, Satmahal Prasada, Thuparama Pilimage, Nissankalata Mandapa, Pohoya Geya (the Chapter House), Bosath Pilimage (the Bodhisatva image house), Sethapena Pilimage (the recumbent image house), Bodhighara (the Bodhi-tree Shrine), and the Gatehouse.

After the Dalada Maluwa premises, the path of the city runs towards the Northern Gate of the Outer City. A few monuments such as Pabalu Vehera and Siva Devale No. 2 are found located around that pathway.

Northern Gate & the Main Street
Rankoth Vehera
Enclosed by high ramparts, the Northern Gate of the Polonnaruwa city is found at a spot between the Dalada Maluwa and the Rankotha Vehera premises. On either side of the gate are chambers that are believed to be ancient guardrooms. The path that runs across the gate is Main Street and there is evidence that there had been a properly laid out intricate drainage system on either side of the street. Foundations of small Hindu shrines such as Siva Devale No. 7, Ganapati Devalaya, and Visnu Devale No. 2 and small rooms which are thought to be trade stalls are also found adjacent to the Northern Gate.

The ruins of several monasteries such as Menik Vehera and Rankoth Vehera are located between the Northern Gate and the Alahana Pirivena premises. 

Extending in an area of 35 hectares, Alahana Pirivena is considered the largest monastery complex in Polonnaruwa. It was built by Parakramabahu I on a site that had been a former cremation ground. The boundaries of Alahana Pirivena extend from Gopalapabbata up to Gal Viharaya and many monuments are found built within this premises. The monastery has a terraced layout. Monuments such as Kiri Vehera, Lankathilaka Pilimage, Baddhasima Prasada, and some small Stupas (crematory Stupas, double Stupa, etc.) are found erected on two upper terraces. Other monuments including the Monastic Hospital, ponds, and the cells of residents monks are located on the lower terrace. 

To the north of the Alahana Pirivena are several ruins of Buddhist monasteries including Gal Viharaya and Demelamaha Seya.

Built by Parakramabahu I, Jetavanarama Monastery is located in the northernmost part of the ancient city. Monuments such as Nelum Pokuna and Thivanka Pilimage are situated here.
Several Hindu shrines
There are some Hindu shrines on the Polonnaruwa-Hatamuna road and Polonnaruwa-Habarana road. They are believed to have been built during the period when Polonnaruwa was under the Chola rule. Naipena Viharaya (Siva Devale No. 5, Visnu Devale No. 4), Siva Devale No. 3, Siva Devale No. 4 and temples dedicated to deities such as Visnu (Visnu Devale No. 3) and Kali (Kali Devale) are among these shrines.
Scholars such as S.M. Burrows, H.C.P. Bell, E.R. Ayrton, A.M. Hocart, and S. Paranavitana have carried out extensive archaeological excavations and conservation in the Polonnaruwa ancient city since the second half of the 19th century (Jayasuriya, 2016). Since 1980, the city is conserved under the UNESCO-Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Project and this work continues even today under the Central Cultural Fund (Wikramagamage, 2004).
1) Dias, M.; Koralage, S.B.; Asanga, K., 2016. The archaeological heritage of Jaffna peninsula. Department of Archaeology. Colombo. pp.178-179.
2) Jayasuriya, E., 2016. A guide to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. Central Cultural Fund. ISBN: 978-955-613-312-7. pp.67-89.
3) Nicholas, C. W., 1963. Historical topography of ancient and medieval Ceylon. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series (Vol VI). Special Number: Colombo. Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch). pp.174-180.
4) Prematilaka, L., Hewage, R., 2018. A guide to the National Museum, Colombo: Department of National Museum. ISBN: 978-955-578-035-3. p.19.
5) Seneviratna, A, 1998. Polonnaruwa, medieval capital of Sri Lanka: An illustrated survey of ancient monuments: Archaeological Survey Dept, p. 116.
6) Wikramagamage, C., 2004. Heritage of Rajarata: Major natural, cultural, and historic sites. Colombo. Central Bank of Sri Lanka. pp.197-228.
7) Wickremasinghe, D. M. D. Z., 1928. Epigraphia Zeylanica: Being lithic and other inscriptions of Ceylon (Vol, II). Published for the government of Ceylon by Humphrey Milford. pp.242-255.

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This page was last updated on 18 August 2023

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