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How to Travel in the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

Guide to Exploring Polonnaruwa's Key Landmarks and Highlights

By Anastasia JasonPublished 3 months ago 3 min read
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The Quadrangle Atadage, Ancient City of Polonnaruwa | Image via Wikimedia Commons

Occupying pride of place in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa is a culture buff's dream come true. Believed to have been the ruling seat of the island nation from the 10th to the 12th centuries, Polonnaruwa is home to some of Sri Lanka's most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Buddhist temples. Regardless of the duration of the visit, here are some practical guidelines on how to explore this ancient city and its iconic ruins.

1. Time the Visit

To fully appreciate Polonnaruwa, the former Sri Lankan capital, timing is crucial, unlike the island's beach hubs. Navigating this destination during the wrong time of year can be challenging. First-time visitors must plan their trip to coincide with the dry season, which spans from December to March. These months offer an ideal climate for exploring the heritage hub. Conversely, the monsoon season, which occurs from May to October, brings heavy rainfall that can obscure the ruins and flood the royal ponds, hindering the full experience.

Careful timing is also necessary for cultural tours and excursions in Polonnaruwa, which can be arid and humid even on the best days. It's advisable to set out by 8 am since most heritage sites open by 9 am. The sun's intensity increases rapidly, with harsh conditions setting in as early as 11 am. Thus, starting early is essential to avoid the heat and fully enjoy the experience.

2. Secure a Central Base

While it may not be imperative, those who secure accommodation at conveniently located luxury hotels in Polonnaruwa are also likely to get more out of a tour of the ancient city. So whether one chooses a base such as Hotel Sudu Araliya or a boutique hotel near the city centre, it's crucial to gauge the distance from the resort to the main landmarks scattered around Polonnaruwa.

3. Getting Around

Unlike Anuradhapura, the highlights in Polonnaruwa are more spread out and occupy a vast expanse. This is why tourists with time to spare should rent a bicycle to get around these attractions. Bike rental fees are affordable and pedaling from one temple to another can allow travellers the chance to see the pastoral countryside while admiring the architectural marvels of the former capital. Those who love to walk will find that it is possible to navigate most heritage areas on foot although travelling between these sites will require a bus ride or a three-wheel ride. Tourists can also rent the services of a local tuk-tuk for the day or half a day, as it's a convenient way to travel around the town without breaking a sweat.

4. Start with the Sacred Quadrangle

Known as the Dalada Maluwa in the local language, the Sacred Quadrangle stands as one of Polonnaruwa's most impressive structures. Housing not just one, but ten awe-inspiring buildings, it is a focal point for Buddhist devotees who come to pay homage to Thuparama and the Vatadage. Other remarkable points of interest in this area include the Sathmahal Prasadaya, the Atadage, and the Hetadage.

5. Stop by King Parakramabahu's Royal Palace

After a tour of the Polonnaruwa Museum, visitors must head over to the nearby castle of King Parakramabahu I. Believed to have housed a thousand rooms in its heyday; the complex was seven storeys high. Although the palace was torched by enemy forces on multiple occasions, what remains gives an indication of its former grandeur.

6. The Gal Vihara

Having been featured in a Duran Duran music video, the Gal Vihara is one of the most photographed sites in Sri Lanka. Hewn from rock, the three larger-than-life stone sculptures of Lord Buddha represented in seated, standing and reclining postures have captivated visitors for centuries.

7. Don't Forget the Lankatilaka Viharaya

The towering 55-foot tall sculpture of Buddha that occupies the Lankatilaka Viharaya is the main reason why most architecture buffs head to Polonnaruwa in the first place. Although the head of the statue has long been destroyed due to nature's ferocity, the imposing sculpture remains a majestic work of art.

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