Sri Lanka’s stunning ancient cities

Choosing whether to go to Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa is a bit like being asked to pick your favourite child. While they are both ancient cities in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, they are quite distinctly different.

We chose to go to both and were very glad we did as they each offer a unique glimpse into a part of Sri Lanka’s past. It makes sense to start in Anuradhapura as it was first to be the country’s capital, as far back as 380 BC. It’s a huge archaeological site with some enormous and impressive structures.

On the day we went it was filled with pilgrims, mostly dressed in white and visiting because it was a poya (full-moon) weekend. The previous day had been the actual poya day, a public holiday when devout Buddhists visit a temple and no alcohol is sold. As a tourist you can probably get it brought to your hotel room, but as we were at a homestay we decided to respect the local custom.

Getting around the Anuradhapura ruins on foot is pretty much impossible. A bike is an option but it can be very hot, so we conserved energy by having a driver to take us between the main areas of interest. First stop was Mahavihara, the heart of the ancient city and home to Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred bodhi tree.

The fig tree was grown from a cutting brought from the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India where Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating underneath it. As a result Sri Maha Bodhi attracts a lot of devotees making offerings and has been well cared for by its guardians for over 2000 years.

Close by are the ruins of the Brazen Palace. They seemed to be largely ignored by the crowds, but I found the remains of the 1600 pillars that once held up a huge palace quite evocative. I could really imagine the original nine storey building topped with a bronze roof and populated by hundreds of monks.

Also in the Mahavihara area is the enormous white Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, smaller than it once was but still 55m high. Impossible to miss, the vast structure is surrounded by a stone frieze of hundreds of elephants and the bottom is wrapped with a colourful band of cloth.

Again it was a popular spot for pilgrims so we sat quietly in the shade watching them pay their respects. After a couple of minutes we spotted some monks standing on it and stayed to see them attach a smaller strip of fabric printed with the colours of the Buddhist flag around the middle of the existing cloth. We guessed it was being added because it was poya.

Thupurama Dagoba is also in this area and is the oldest dagoba in Sri Lanka. Being white it looks pretty similar to Ruvanveilisaya so in the interests of time we decided to admire it from a distance and move on to the Abhayagiri Monastery. Here, the ancient ruins are surrounded by tropical forest and the unpainted brick dagoba looks quite different.

This structure is even higher than Ruvanveilisaya at 75m and is an impressive and imposing sight – look how tiny the people look in my photo above. Not far away is a ruined school for monks that is said to have the best moonstone in Sri Lanka. The game is to see how many animals you can spot carved on it.

Also within the monastery site is the Samadhi Buddha seated statue, also widely regarded as one of the best in the country. High praise in a country where there are a lot of Buddha statues. And don’t miss the twin ponds Kuttam Pokuna that were probably used by the monks for bathing and aren’t really twins as they’re quite different sizes.

The other two areas at Anuradhapura are the Citadel which we didn’t visit and Jetavanarama where there’s another huge dagoba that looks very similar to the Abhayagiri, as well as a museum of treasures found on the site. We didn’t spend long there though as were keen to head off to Mihintale, a village and temple complex about eight miles away.

Mihintale is credited with being the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as it’s where Anuradhapura’s king was converted  in 247 BC. In celebration it hosts the Poson Poya, a full moon festival that usually takes place in June. To explore Mihintale involves a pretty hefty climb up over 1800 steps, hence we went late in the afternoon to avoid the midday heat.

Some of the climb is done without shoes and after a few hours of walking around ruins in bare feet, my soles were feeling sore (top tip is to take socks to pop on when the sandals come off). But despite that I thought it was well worth the effort, not least for the fantastic views from the top where a large seated Buddha looks down on the visitors.

Before that there are landings on the way up where you can take a break and explore the ruins of various buildings including a monk’s refectory, assembly hall and dagobas.  The final steep stairway is fringed with frangipani trees and leads to Ambasthale Dagoba, the place where the king was converted by Mahinda, son of Indian emperor Ashoka.

From here you can see across to Aradhana Gala, also known as Meditation Rock. A steep path with a railing leads to the top of the rock, but even in late afternoon it looked baking hot up there so we decided to quit while we were ahead. Instead we took the stairs back down to our driver and a well earned dinner at the Dewata Villa’s, a restaurant back in Habarana where we were staying.

For visiting the ancient cities there are a variety of places you can based yourselves. We went for Habarana because it was in the centre of the cultural triangle and we were keen to stay in a village homestay rather than a big hotel. Ours was the Amba Sewana, a really nice place with lovely people, fantastic food and an endless supply of tea. They just need to sort out the bathrooms in the older rooms inside the house! Pick one of the newer cabin rooms in the garden and its the perfect place to stay.

The following morning, after our usual Sri Lankan breakfast spread we headed off in the other direction to explore Polonnaruwa, another royal capital of Sri Lanka that is much more compact than Anuradhapura but absolutely packed with ancient ruins that are divided into five groups.

We started with the Royal Palace group which consists of the massive crumbling remains of what was once a huge palace, as well as the pillars of an audience hall and a bathing pool with crocodile mouths as spouts.

A short walk away is the Quadrangle, an area that you can easily spend a lot of time exploring as it has the most ruins in close proximity than anywhere else in the ancient cities. We found it fascinating and loved wandering through the buildings particularly the circular Vatadage relic house. There are some lovely guardstones at each entrance on the second terrace as well as four entrances to the central dagoba which has four Buddhas.

Opposite that is the Hatadage which used to house the Buddha tooth relic, while nearby is Gal Pota, a 9m high inscribed stone slab that represents an ola book. Meanwhile the unusual Satmahal Prasada looks like a small stepped pyramid and has small figures in niches in its walls.

Back on the other side of the Vatadage is Latha-Mandapaya, which I thought was really interesting and unusual. Its surrounded by a stone fence built to look like a wooden one and inside there’s a dagoba with a circle of stone pillars shaped liked lotus stalks. I’ve seen a fair few ancient ruins but nothing quite like that one.

The final area we visited in Polonnaruwa was the Northern Group where Kiri Vihara is a white dagoba similar to the ones we saw in Anuradhapura. Behind this is Lankatilaka termple, one of the areas most interesting structures with 17m high walls and a wide aisle leading to a headless Buddha. It’s also surprisingly hard to find if you don’t realise its behind Kiri Vihara. We spent quite a while driving around looking for it until we realised it had been within walking distance if we’d only gone round to the back of that white dagoba!

Last but not least in the Northern Group are the fabulous Buddha images that make up Gal Vihara. The four are each carved out of a single slab of granite rock – pretty huge slabs as the standing Buddha is 7m tall and the reclining Buddha is 14m long. There are two seated Buddhas too and we only just made it to see them all up close as rows of monks starting filling up seats in front of them for a ceremony that was clearly starting very soon.

We were very happy to have seen them as they topped off a fantastic and fascinating trip around Polonnaruwa that was very different but equally as good as the previous day in Anuradhapura.

All that was left to do was a late lunch visit to the fabulous Jaga Food restaurant on the road back to Habarana where we had one of the best rice and curry buffet meals of the holiday. It has a lovely kitchen garden and is right by a stream with lizards and turtles. You can also pick up a pen and leave a message on their walls and pillars – see if you can find mine when you go and enjoy the perfect end to a perfect couple of days visiting Sri Lanka’s ancient cities.

Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and visit the Sri Lanka section of my blog for other posts about this amazing country.

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