Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka is one of the country’s most ancient capital cities. The city dates back over a thousand years to the time of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom, which ruled Sri Lanka for several hundred years from the 10th century onwards.
They constructed an elaborate capital, with many monuments to their Buddhist beliefs, and although the city was eventually abandoned, much of its remains can be still be found outside of the modern city.
It’s one of the most important historical sites in Sri Lanka, and it’s a popular destination for both foreign and local tourists looking to immerse themselves in the country’s intriguing past.
Today, the old city is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it offers visitors an insight into this ancient kingdom that has been lost to time. You can explore impressive ruins, huge temples and find many inscriptions carved into rock long ago.
It’s one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, and to help you to plan your trip, here’s our visitor’s guide to Polonnaruwa.
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Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka: Travel Tips
Where is Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka?
Polonnaruwa is located in the country’s North Central Province. It’s roughly 140 miles away from Colombo, the nation’s capital, and there are regular buses that run the route daily.
Travel time by public bus is at least 6 hours, while a private car may be quicker depending on the traffic. The ancient capital city of Polonnaruwa is located just outside of the new city itself, and the easiest way to reach the ruins is to take a local tuk-tuk.
Alternatively, riding a bicycle to the old city and around the major sights has become a popular way to experience Polonnaruwa too. The ruins are quite spread out, so walking may not be appropriate in the Sri Lankan heat.
Best Time to Visit Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa can really be visited all year round, however, be mindful of the monsoon season which can affect your travel plans.
The busiest period of the year is, of course, the dry season which runs from April to September, but this is also when it’s hottest.
Outside of this, you can visit during the rains but just be wary that travel can be disrupted during particularly fierce monsoon periods. In the rainy season though, you will avoid the worst of the crowds.
This can, in fact, be a great time to visit if you are looking to explore the ruins without much hassle and on your own.
A Brief History of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is one of Sri Lanka’s ancient capital cities. The first major Sri Lankan kingdom, with its capital at Anuradhapura, fell in the early 10th century after ruling for well over a thousand years.
In the power vacuum, the Cholas, a kingdom from southern India, invaded and decided to create their capital at Polonnaruwa. Local Sri Lankan leaders eventually evicted the Cholas a few decades later and in their wake decided to rule from the established capital at Polonnaruwa.
The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa went on to rule for several hundred years until the city was abandoned in the 14th century.
The rulers ensured that the area was well developed, and even today much of the irrigation system used by locals can be traced back to this era.
Although the city was eventually abandoned, many of the customs and traditions became embedded in Sri Lankan society while the ruins are well preserved for such ancient structures.
The Best Sights to Visit at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka
The ruins of Polonnaruwa are spread out over a large area so it’s best to have some form of transport to get between everything.
This was a huge, ancient city, and the scale of it is hard to appreciate until you are on the ground. Yo help you decide which sites you might actually want to visit, here are the best sights to see at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka.
The Archeological Museum is the best place to start when visiting Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka, not only because it will give you a great insight into the city’s history but because this is also where you need to buy a ticket to gain entrance to the main complex, which is located a little further along the road.
At the museum, you can learn about the founding of the city and its extravagant development by successive Sri Lankan rulers who continually attempted to outdo each other during their individual reigns.
You will learn about the city’s demise and eventual abandonment before then learning about the important archeological excavations and preservation in the modern-day.
The Royal Palace
By the main entrance to Polonnaruwa, you will find the impressive remnants of the Royal Palace. This was a lavish palace built by King Parakramabahu the Ist in the 12th century, and he spared no expense on its construction.
The palace was absolutely enormous after being built, and today, although the ruins aren’t quite as extensive they are still impressive.
There are the remains of the many rooms and courts to be seen here, and the building was built seven floors high. Many monuments and inscriptions have survived through the centuries and you can stand in the shadows of the crumbling walls and envisage a lost empire.
The King’s Audience Hall is particularly well preserved as is the swimming pool and irrigation system that’s still found here.
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Perhaps more impressive than even the Royal Palace is the Quadrangle. Known locally as the Potgul Vehera, this is a huge structure that encloses many beautifully preserved monuments within its high walls.
This was once thought to have been a library, where sacred texts were stored and guarded. The building is still in a great state of preservation, and many tall pillars surround the brick facade that forms a four-walled square around the centerpiece.
Inside you will find Buddhas and statues hidden amongst the ruins, making it a fantastic place to explore.
Although the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa was predominantly Buddhist, within the ancient city you can still find many monuments to Hindu deities.
One of the best-preserved and most ornate is the Shiva Devale, a temple dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva. This is, in fact, one of Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka’s most ancient constructions, as it was built by the Chola rulers that first established the city as their capital.
Being invaders from southern India they practiced Hinduism, and even after they were defeated by the local Sri Lankan’s the temples remained here, and have survived to this day.
The Thuparama is a brick building built in the days of the first Sri Lankan ruler of Polonnaruwa, and as such, a building that can claim to be one of the oldest in the ancient city.
This tall structure was once home to a huge Buddha image, which has since fallen and crumbled beyond recognition. Somehow though, the rest of the building has survived and it’s now a great place to explore.
The Sathmahal Prasada is one of the tallest buildings still standing within the old city of Polonnaruwa. This is a building that’s seven floors tall, but also one of the most mysterious within the city.
It could be a stupa, built to Buddhist designs, or it could be something completely different, archeologists still aren’t sure after years of hypothesizing.
For visitors, regardless of its true purpose, the Sathmahal Prasad is an impressively tall building that’s surrounded by overgrown jungle and that looks exactly how something from a lost kingdom should look.
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There are many large and distinct Buddhas dagobas to be found within the city of Polonnaruwa, but one of the most visible and indeed, largest is Rankoth Vehara.
This monumental piece of architecture was constructed in the late 12th century and provided a place of worship for the king and his people.
It’s one of the largest dagobas in the entire country and it’s definitely a must-see part of the city. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that’s remarkably well preserved and when visiting Polonnaruwa, you really can’t miss this exceptional piece of history.
Since the demise of the city many centuries ago, humans may have abandoned the city, but in their wake, a huge population of Macaques has made Polonnaruwa home.
They live all across the ancient city and can be found almost anywhere. They are so prominent that a documentary was even made recently by Disney that features their unique habitat and lifestyle amongst these old ruins.
Be careful when exploring, as these monkeys can, of course, be unpredictable, but generally, with so many tourists, they are very much used to humans these days.
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