The Kingdom of the Sleeping Buddha
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 Bible of Sri Lankan Buddhism
Aluvihare Rock Temple- where the spoken word was first written down
 

It is impossible to overestimate the historical importance of the Aluvihare Rock Temple an astonishingly absorbing temple that lies within an easy drive of The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel.

Its network of rock caves and temples was carefully selected by five hundred monks in the first century BC as the place to gather within to write down the precepts of Buddhism. Until then Buddha’s teachings had been passed on orally but repeated Chola invasions from India left the monks fearful that his teachings would be lost. 

The challenge they had set themselves was immense.

 

Firstly, they had to recite the doctrines. That would have taken several years.

 

Then they had to agree on an acceptable version of the teachings before transcription. That must have taken even longer.

 

Finally came the lengthy work of transcribing them, using ola leaves from talipot palms. Running to some eighty thousand pages, the resulting Pali Canon is roughly the size of a dozen Bibles. 

The cave temple still exists, with numerous caves filled with ancient inscriptions, relics, paintings and statues to view.

The outing can be arranged at the Reception Office of The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel.