Polonnaruwa, the majestic capital of the island’s last independent unitary Kingdom is a swansong written in stone that for 142 years would act as a final rallying cry for the island-kingdom before it descended into a series of wandering capitals, fragmentary realms – and colonization. Its monumental structures, carved and crafted with an almost unrivalled delicacy is the last great achievement of the old Anuradhapuran Kingdom.
If the romance of ruined cities and lost kingdoms call loudly in your heart, this is no place to miss. Polonnaruwa is roughly 3 hours drive from The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel; and trips can be arranged at the Reception Office of The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel.
City of Kings
Polonnaruwa is an astonishing creation given how short its life span was – barely a quarter of the life span of Anuradhapura. Amidst its palaces, audience galls, temples, stupas, pools, and monasteries one artifact in particular stands out: the Gal Vihara.
The Gal Vihara is in fact four vast, quite separate but linked images of the Buddha that have been carved on a single, large granite rock face. The largest of them – at over forty-six feet long – depicts the death of Buddha. He lies on his side, one hand stretched right out across his side and hip; the other crooked beneath his face, resting on a soft bolster. The statue is astonishingly simple and realistic, the unremembered sculptor taking into account the very grain of the granite to give his statue a lifelike buoyancy that places it effortlessly as one of the greatest sculptures anywhere in the world.
Dead, dying or merely sleeping, the serene and heart-stilling face of Buddha is in some ways a most fitting symbol through which to account for the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa, for it is as if the Kingdom itself slept through most of its 142 years of life.
A rough rule of regal thumb has it that a dynasty or Kingdom can live through at least four successive bad reigns as long as it is refreshed by a fifth great or even merely competent reign.
This alas was not the fate of Polonnaruwa. Its sixteen rulers enjoyed reigns that averaged at best eight years a head and numbered amongst their list just two really great monarchs – not enough to ensure the lasting impact of the dynasty. And it would have gotten nowhere had not its first founding monarch not been one of its two great kings.
A Sure Start
Bringing to an end seventy-seven years of Chola-inflicted devastation, King Vijayabahu was to go down to future generations as “Mahalu Vijayabahu” (Vijayabahu the Old) and “Maha Vijayabahu” (Vijayabahu the Great). Both, fortunately for the island, were absolutely true.
Over a fifty-five year reign the king was able not simply to push the Chola empire back across the Palk Straits into Tamil Nadu; but also, to substantially repair some of the great damage their rule had caused. It gave his nascent dynasty a sure start.
That he chose to make Polonnaruwa his capital was expedient; situated as it is a hundred kilometres to the south east of Anuradhapura, and so less susceptible to invasion. Critically, its irrigation systems were intact, and it was better able to support both the growing city and its surrounding network of paddy and agricultural land. Even so, validating his links to the Anuradhapuran kings, Vijayabahu had himself crowned amidst the ruins of the old city.
No sooner had he captured Polonnaruwa from the garrisons abandoned there by the Chola emperors (preoccupied with putting down rebellions elsewhere in their empire), then he had his hands full stifling his own internal rebellions.
But if ever there was a king who could multi-task it was Vijayabahu. As the last barnacles of Chola rule were scraped away, rebels were silenced and the kingdom’s defences against external threats strengthened – measures which included taking two anti-Chola Indian princesses as brides. Roads were constructed, tanks, temples, slices, and canals repaired, royal administration reinstated - and Buddhism resorted.
Indeed so great an injury had the religion sustained that at the start of his reign it was impossible to find the right number of ordained monks necessary to ordain future monks. Burmese monks were enlisted to help. A new temple was built in Polonnaruwa to house the sacred Tooth relic itself. Bit by painful bit the Kingdom wound itself back to something approaching normality. The coinage was restored, and the economy opened up to benefit from the gradual freeing of the once-invincible Chola monopoly that had commercially emasculated the Bay of Bengal.
The tour includes a visit to the island’s most celebrated and sacred temple, The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy – but also takes you off on a monastic medieval pilgrimage to three of Sri Lanka’s little visited but most iconic and beautiful ancient temples: Lankatilaka Vihara, Gadaladenyia Vihara and Embekka Devalaya – all dating back to the fourteenth century, combining extraordinary architecture with an abiding atmosphere of Buddhist calm.
Approx Distance: Round trip = 50 miles.
Car costs (1-3 people) $90
Van costs (1- 6 people) $140.
Additional Costs: Embekka, Lankatilaka, Gadaladenyia & Temple of the Tooth Tickets.
Built by King Bhuvanekabahu IV (1341 - 1351 A. D.), Lankatilaka Vihara is considered one of the greatest medieval buildings on the island, its architect a Tamil named Sathapati Rayar, who, as is the way with all great architects, blew his budget, not least on the wages for the Tamil Pandya sculptors brought from Tamil Nadu to create its stunning sculptures.
Another of King Bhuvanekabahu IV’s creations (1341 - 1351 A. D.), Gadaladenyia Vihara, this largest of all island rock temples is the work of the Tamil architect, Ganesvarachari. It is a wonderous mixing of Dravidian and Sinhalese architecture - with a dash of Chinese architectural patterns, perhaps inspired by the intrepid voyages undertaken by the Ming Dynasty’s Admiral Zheng.
Created by King Vikramabahu III of Gampola (AD 1357 - 1374), the many woodcarvings of Embekke Devalaya had been recognized by UNESCO as the most outstanding carvings on wooden pillars to be found in anywhere in the world; and it is righly famous for its ornate wooden columns and panels, alive with the carvings of flowers, animals, and glimpses of ordinary life.
The Temple of the Tooth
Whoever hold the sacred tooth relic has the implicit right to rule the country. Or so it is said. Even today a victorious President or Prime Minister’s first call on winning an election, is to the Temple of the Tooth, though one or two have been known to squeeze in a private soothsayer first.
Some eight hundred years after Buddha’s death, the tooth relic arrived on the island, and throughout the era of the kings, the tooth relic was wisely placed next to the royal palace.
For the relic, this meant travel – and lots of it - from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Ratnapura Niyamgampaya Vihara, Hamsa, Gira, Selalihini, Kotte and numerous secret places in between before finally ending up at Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic beside Kandy’s Royal Palace. There it withstood two armed attacks in 1989 (JVP) and 1998 (LTTE).
Today it lies beneath a golden roof within a stunning temple built by Vira Narendra Sinha, the last Sinhalese King of Kandy, encased in seven golden caskets studded with precious jewels, taken out only for an annual festival, the Kandy Esala Perahera, where it is paraded around the city preceded by hundreds of priests, elephants, fire eaters, dancers, and musicians.
The Temple is part of a greater – once royal – complex, which includes:
This great terrace in front of the temple and adjacent to Kandy Lake has at one end a stone memorial beneath which is buried the skull of Keppetipola Disawe who led the failed rebellion against the British in 1818.
THE ROYAL AUDIENCE HALL
The Magul Maduwa, a wooden structure, was built by King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha in 1783 and it was here in 1815 that the Kandyan Convention was signed ending the Kingdom of Kandy.
THE KING’S PALACE
The Raja Wasala beside the Royal Audience Hall is now a Museum overseen by the Department Archaeology.
Once a spare resting and meeting place for the King, now renamed as the Rajah Tusker Hall to hold the stuffed remains of Rajah, the chief elephant in the Kandy Perahera, who died in 1988.
Once housed the quarters for the kings various wives and is now more prosaically the National Museum of Kandy. Amongst its 5,000 exhibits which range from the gorgeous to the prosaic, is a copy of the Kandyan Convention. Next to it, in Victorian-era buildings constructed by the British as administrative offices is the International Buddhist Museum.
THE QUEENS' CHAMBERS
The attractive Meda Wasala with its courtyard and veranda has been commandeered as offices of National Department of Archaeology; and wild horses are not likely to drive them out.
The Ran Ayuda Maduwa has been annexed as a place of judgement by the District Courts of Kandy.
Built in 1806 by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinha as a bathing pavilion for queens, it has now sadly become a police post.
TEMPLE OF THE TOOTH MUSEUM
Occupying the upper floors of the Temple, the Museum is full of artifacts relating to Tooth relic and especially its final resting place in Kandy. Also on display are sets of the last king’s shirt, trousers, and handkerchief.
An octagonal pavilion just within the main enclose of the temple from where the Tooth used to be displayed. Most of it has since become a Library but in the national consciousness it plays its part in key events in much the same way as the balcony of Buckingham Palace might in the UK.
Accessed through an entrance gate over a moat is the main Temple itself, a two story shrine over which sits a golden canopy. In front of the main shrine is a Drummers' Chamber. Ivory handles open the doors into the main shrine which gives way to the Handun Kunama - the small chamber in which the actual relic is kept. But, like Russian Dolls, that is only the beginning, for within the chamber are seven gold caskets inlaid with gems – and it inside the last of these that lies the Tooth.