Polonnaruwa – a returning visit

On 28th June 2018 we left Dambulla for Polonnaruwa where we’d be spending the next couple of nights. We managed to get a bus at around 3:30pm having finished seeing the sights of Sigiriya and Dambulla that day. Like all the journeys, the bus ride wasn’t bad at all and we even saw a wild elephant grazing on some plains that we passed which was so cool. It was around 6ish when we arrived and had to walk to our accommodation, Luxman Guesthouse. Luxman, who ran the guesthouse was a lovely man and made sure we were well looked after during our stay, giving us a good breakfast each morning and giving us free bikes for exploring the ancient city that brings people to Polonnaruwa.

Polonnaruwa was the home of the Kings who ruled the central plains of Sri Lanka 800 years ago. During this time, the area was a thriving commercial and religious centre and the ruins and stupas Polonnaruwa has gives you an indication of this if only from the sheer size of the place. We managed to see everything in half a day cycling around but we aren’t the type of people who spends hours looking at one thing so for some people it would probably take them a full day.

I have visited Sri Lanka once before when I was 10, fourteen years ago in the Easter of 2004. On that trip we went to Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Galle and Marissa and we’d be returning to all but Marissa on this trip! I remember Polonnaruwa because of the bike ride, particularly as I’d sprained my wrist a few days before and I remember being in a mood that I was being made to cycle around! My mum has since reminded me that it was also 40 degrees when we went so Niall and I were dealing with much more pleasant temperatures.

We left our guesthouse early and had hoped this would mean that we could get ahead of the crowds and any tour groups. What we hadn’t anticipated was that the Buddhist festival Poson, which seemed to have its biggest day of celebration the day we arrived in Polonnaruwa, would have taken over the complex. Although the cleaners were working fast, they hadn’t reached the entrance by the time we arrived and there was a lot of litter still on the ground which must have come from people celebrating the night before. This really baffled us as the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and so should be protected from such things. As well as this, large school buses were flooding into the area full of singing school children so we were unsure if we’d get our peaceful day walking around the ruins like we thought.

To combat dealing with the the rubbish and the crowds, we chose to leave the areas near to the entrance and cycled further into the complex to see if we could find a cleaner, quieter spot to explore first. Polonnaruwa has five areas to explore and we were going to try get to as much of it as we could during our half day here. It cost us 25 USD (£19) each to get into Polonnaruwa and that includes three tickets which were checked at different points during our day.

Northern Group

We started in the northern section of the complex past the main sights by the entrance that we would return to later. A lot of the sites here are part of the Alabama Pirivena Group which means ‘crematory college’ and was on the grounds of the royal crematorium.

Rankot Viharaya

This is the largest pagoda in Polonnaruwa at 54 metres high and it’s the fourth largest in all of Sri Lanka. This was built during the reign of King Nissanka Malla and is made of an earthy mound covered in bricks and plaster.

Lankatilaka Temple

This was one of our favourite sights of the day. It is a temple with 17 metre high walls with a collapsed roof, housing a headless Buddha. Even whilst we were here people were visiting to worship or leave offerings which shows the significance of the area.

Kiri Vihara

This was credited to be built by Queen Subhadra who was queen to King Parakramabahu the First. When found, the structure was completely covered in jungle which had preserved and protected the white plaster that covered it.

Gal Vihara

This is one of the most famous sights within Polonnaruwa and is also one of the sights I remember from my visit in 2004. As it was Poson whilst we were there, this sight was incredibly busy with people leaving flowers and saying prayers. Here, there are four images carved into a giant slab of granite. The standing Buddha is seven metres tall but there is some debate as to whether this is the Buddha or one of his disciples grieving his death instead. This is next to the reclining Buddha which is 14 metres long.

Around the Quandrangle

We reached these sights as we headed back towards the entrance to the complex.

Menik Vehara

This is also known as Shiva Devale No. 1 and is a 13th Century Hindu temple that used to have a domed roof which has since collapsed. Apparently a lot of bronze statues were excavated from here and now sit in the Archeological Museum. This is where I had a picture of me back in 2004 and so we recreated the picture on this trip, 14 years later!

Pabula Vihara

This is another temple from the reign of Parakramabahu the First and was a typical structure for his era. This is the third largest temple in Polonnaruwa and is set in a clearing surrounded by forest.

Shiva Devale No. 2

This is the oldest structure in Polonnaruwa and was built during a brief period when Indian’s ruled in the area. The building was made entirely of stone instead of stone and wood and so it has remained in a very similar condition to when it was built.


We then headed to the Quadrangle which is the most concentrated collection of buildings within the Polonnaruwa complex and also seemed to have a lot of fine detailing and well preserved ruins.


This is a circular relic house with a Buddha statue in the middle and four entrances. It has really nice moon stones at the foot of each stairway which is decorated with elephants and the one at the northern entrance is considered the nicest moonstone in Polonnaruwa.


This monument is said to have only taken 60 hours to build and is also rumoured to have once held the tooth relic that now lives in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Here you can see the pillar that would have once held up the roof of the building and there are three Buddha statues but they’re not in the best condition anymore with one missing a head.

Thuparama Gedige

A gedige is a hollow Buddhist temple with thick walls and the gedige inside the quadrangle is the only one with the roof still intact although the roof was under construction when we were there.

Satmahal Prasada

This is a square building in a similar shape to a pyramid with six storeys going from big to small.

Gal Pota

This is also known as the Stone Book and is nearly 9 metres long, 1.5 metres wide and 40-66cm thick. The inscription on the slab talks about the great virtues of the King but also included footnotes about how it was dragged from Mihintale which is 100km away. The stone slab weighs 25 tonnes!

Royal Palace Group

Finally we headed to the Royal Palace which is by the entrance to the ancient city complex. The buildings here date back to the 12th Century when King Parakramabahu the First reigned.

Audience Hall

This was a lovely, compact structure that had elephants lining the lower building and lions along the stairs and marking the entrance. Inside you could see the support beams that would have been used for the upper levels of the building.

Royal Palace

This structure measures 31 metres by 13 metres and is said to be what was potentially a seven storey structure. The holes in the walls are where floor beams for two of the stories would have been and there is some speculation about whether the building went any higher than this as it would have meant that the remaining five stories would have had to be made entirely of wood.

Southern Group

Our second half of the day had been on a jeep safari in Kaudulla National Park (see next post) which was really fantastic looking for wild elephants and this would definitely be something I’d recommend to anyone visiting the area. On our way to the national park we stopped off at the Southern group of Polonnaruwa’s ruins as it’s further away from the other sites. This site isn’t as big as many of the sites in Polonnaruwa so I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to see it had we not been brought here by our safari jeep.

Potgul Vihara

It isn’t known exactly when the site was built but it’s thought to be from sometime during the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great (1153 – 1186 AD). The complex is also known as the library temple and is potentially the oldest library structure in Sri Lanka.

Maha Parakramabahu Statue

This is a four metre high statue of the King who built a lot of Polonnaruwa and it’s unusual as the majority of the statues in the area aren’t of people but of the Buddha.

We really enjoyed our time in Polonnaruwa which was made better by having a very attentive guesthouse host looking after us. We had only given ourselves the day but this ended up being the perfect amount of time to keep our us busy but still see everything we wanted to see. It was nice to get a mix of culture and history as well as seeing some of the wildlife Sri Lanka enjoys meaning we didn’t get bored of one or the other by doing it for too long.

I’m really glad we went to Polonnaruwa so that I could see how much I remembered from visiting 14 years before (things seemed much bigger back then!) but it was also great to have some extra stuff thrown in that we hadn’t done back then. It didn’t disappoint.

Sending love x

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