top of page
< Back

Polonnaruwa: The Last City

Polonnaruwa: The Last City
City of Beautiful Ruins

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.

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 Own-Goal Kings

When the old king finally died in 1110, his death saw in a remarkable unhelpful period of royal instability characterized by successive own goals. He was initially succeeded by his brother, King Jayabahu I. Jayabahu was defeated in war by Vikramabâhu I, who managed to get himself killed after barely a year by his nephew, Vikramabahu I, the avenging son of King Vijayabahu. Although the new king would rule for twenty one years, much of it was spent shoring up his precipitous position within the murderous and serpentine world of palace politics. Vikramabahu’s energies were largely consumed by seeing off internal threats, most notably delivered by his own aunt on behalf of her son. He was eventually ousted by his own brother, Gajabahu II in 1131 but this was not enough to break the deadly cycle of naval gazing palace politics. Soon enough Gajabahu was himself ousted by Vikramabahu’s grandson, Parakramabahu I in 1153. And so, just in time, began the reign of one of the country’s greatest rulers


The Great King

Parakramabahu I was one of a handful of truly great rulers of the island.  His thirty three year reign, from 1153–1186 throws up one of the great “what-ifs” of Sri Lankan history. What if, for example, there had been more like him – at least one every six or seven kings. Would Sri Lanka have sailed through the treacherous colonial age more like Thailand, a strong and independent Kingdom able to resist the spice hungry Europeans that set up shop as its foreign rulers, still less the fractious local mini kings whose modest kingdoms were later staked out on land once ruled by Parakramabahu? It is a pleasing game to play, but sadly just a game for Parakramabahu stands out simply by being so wholly different from most other monarchs that attempted to rule the island from north to south. 

As befits all great kings his birth was attended by a complicated narrative of myths and auguries, all of course, favourable. Adept at ducking and diving the inevitable web of palace politics, he made his first mark ruling Dakkhinadesa, one of sub kingdoms attached to Polonnaruwa. Little time was wasted in getting the Kingdom busy with constructive activity; shrines, temples and public buildings were restored, new dams and canals created, forests cleared for farming; and the famous Parakrama Samudra constructed – now better known as the Sea of Parakramabahu, a massive reservoir with a storage area of more than five thousand acres  capable of irrigating eighteen thousand acres. Even trade was encouraged, especially gems, cinnamon, and war elephants. Most critically he reorganized his army and soon enough took the fight to Gajabahu in Polonnaruwa. 

After five years of unceasing warfare Parakramabahu won both the crown and all-island rule in 1153. For the next thirty-three years, war, reform, religious revival, and construction was to be the mantra with which he built back his kingdom. What remaining monks there were had become corrupt and divided so in 1165, the king assembled a Theravada council in Polonnaruwa, pushing through a set of demanding reforms that sent many monks scurrying overseas for cover. Thereafter, the remaining orders were called back annually to report on progress. Internal rebellions were put down with brutal efficiency. Towns and cities were rebuilt – including most importantly Polonnaruwa itself. Alms houses, hospitals, defensive walls, barracks, temples, pools, palaces, and audience halls were all erected with stunning style and speed. Irrigation was restored – the Culawamsa, states that he restored or constructed over one hundred and sixty five large tanks, two thousand three hundred and seventy six minor ones, three thousand nine hundred and ten canals and 1one hundred and sixty three dams. Tamil prisoners of war were co-opted as forced labour. He even waged war – albeit to little lasting benefit - on India and Myanmar though this did have the advantage of putting the defensive Cholas still more on the retreat. 

And in the ever more open market that was the Bay of Bengal, his policies enabled greater freedom for Sri Lankan trade, especially with south India. Many historians have since claimed that this was all too much, too soon. When he died in 1186 his treasury was exhausted, and his country, like a marathon runner who has been sent back round the track several times to many, was badly in need of a break. But perhaps his greatest failure was to allow the hopelessly fluid expectations around succession that had dogged the monarchy for millennia to go unchanged.  This, ultimately – in in record time – would lead to the destruction of the short-lived Kingdom itself


A Descent Into Hell

The great king was succeeded by his nephew, the 'poet king', Vijayabahu II – for barely a year before this hapless monarch was sent early on his way to a better world by another relative, Mahinda VI in 1187. Mahinda managed one of the shortest innings of any king – five days, before also getting himself killed – by his successor, Nissanka Malla, another relative of Parakramabahu. The new king managed to last a little longer – nine years in fact - but alas little of any lasting good was achieved in his reign. Polonnaruwa gained a few beautiful extra structures – a stupa, a new temple for the tooth relic, the gorgeous Nissanka Latha Mandapaya – and, in a modest nod to immortality, a super life-sized statue of the king himself. 

Tanks and temples were repaired elsewhere, Chola India was further harried by his armies, the Dambulla cave temple was restored, and the crippling tax regime of the great king relaxed – though this simply added to the echoing emptiness of the treasury. And in one of the less than helpful contributions to nationhood, the caste system was significantly tightened. Occupational caste became hereditary, so severely limiting the ambitions of otherwise able subjects. It was less a new beginning as business as usual - albeit at a trot rather than a gallop. Nissanka Malla’s death in 1196 brought in the one-day rule of his son, Vira Bahu I who was crowned at night and murdered by dawn by his army chief who complained that the son was a poor substitute for the father. 

The next king, his nephew, managed to hang on for a little longer – three months in fact, before being assassinated in his turn by another nephew, Chodaganga. The new king’s own inevitable deposition nine months later, in 1197, brought in a more refined version of regicide. His eyes were put out by a new army commander, who installed Lilavati, Parakramabahu’s wife to the throne.


The Game Of Thrones

The last real ruler of Polonnaruwa was that rarest of things: a Sri Lankan queen. The few previous queens that the island had experienced left Lilavati with ample space for reputational improvement. Royal herself, widow of the great king, there is little doubt that she had as fine an understanding of power and palace politics as she had of being grand. To these qualities she added resilience, her reign yo-yoing in and out of depositions and chaos like a boomerang on remote control. 

Nothing is known of how she survived the anarchy that engulfed the country following her husband’s death. But as regicide followed regicide, it is perhaps unsurprising that the army turned finally to her as a legitimate ruler.  Her first three years on the throne were “without mishap,” remarked the Culavamsa with measured and censorious approval. But her luck was not to hold. Soon enough Sahassamalla, a prince of obscure origins deposed her in 1200. By 1202 Sahassamalla himself had been deposed – again by the over mighty army who turned to another queen to replace him. 

This time it was the turn of Kalyanavati, the widow of King Nissanka Malla. Although almost nothing is known of her reign, the Chronicle of the time depicts it briefly as peaceful and prosperous, and the queen herself as suitably religious and pious. But the country needed a great deal more from its rulers than piety. On the other side of Palk Straits, the topsy-turvy world of South Indian musical thrones had reignited with the Pandians, Cholas and even the Cheras of south west India struggling for a supremacy that all too often spilt over into Sri Lanka. At the very time when vigilance and strengthening the defences against Indian invaders was paramount, the Polonnaruwa establishment busied themselves with internal power politics. Never more had the proverbial deckchairs been better rearranged on this tropical Titanic. To make matters worse the feuding groups all too often turned to Tamil mercenaries to help them get their way, giving south India a deadly inside track within the Polonnaruwa court. 

At some point in 1208 Queen Kalyanavati disappeared from the historical record and the army installed Dharmasoka, a three-month-old infant, as the country’s new king. Quite what happened to the wretched child remains a mystery, though it is possible that Chola armies, by now happily reinvading the country, put him to death themselves. The baby was succeeded in 1209 by his father,  Anikanga – but not for long. Seventeen days into his reign the army culled him too and put Lilavati back on to the throne. 


A Blood-Spattered Anarchy

At this point it is helpful to think of Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s Syria; Libya after Ghaddafi; the Paris Commune of 1871; the French Revolution around 1793; or perhaps Russia in the years just before Lenin seized control.  Anarchy was the only game in town. Indian invaders came and went without check; the Polonnaruwa court was a snake pit of waring cabals, the army as overmighty and ultimately incompetent as a latter-day Roman Pretorian Guard; the kings themselves, a travesty of expendable puppets. Queen Lilavati’s second coronation had barely finished when Lokissara, an opportunistic soldier (possibly Singhala turned Dravidian) crossed the Palk Straits with a new Tamil army and according to the unreliable chronicles “'brought the whole of Lanka under his sway.”  

Not quite all, it would seem for a Polonnaruwa general had him despatched to his maker within nine months, clearing the way for Lilavati's third coronation in 1211.  At this point the chronicles fall over themselves with praise describing her as “of the dynasty of the Sun and Moon...she who afterward shone in royal splendour.”  Celestial though she may have been, but it had little impact on her staying power. Within seven months the last queen was deposed in 1212 by Parakrama Pandyan II, a Pandyan king.

The Curtains Fall

Parakrama Pandyan II lasted three years until being dethroned by yet another Indian invader, Kalinga Magha in 1215. Of him the Culavamsa pulls no punches, describing him as 'an unjust king sprung from the Kalinga line'. Under this new tyrant the island descended ever deeper into bloodshed and total chaos. Those who could, fled south to Ruhuna; the rest lay subject to the new king’s scorched earth policy as he raided the land - pausing especially to ransack the stupas and temples of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The Polonnaruwa Kingdom had come to a pitiful end and the island itself begged the harshest words of doom and gloom to depict its agonising plight. It was the end of any credible attempt to rule the island as a single country. Not until the signing of the Kandyan Convention over six hundred years later in 1815 would Sri Lanka become once again a sustainable single state within a single island. And it would take seven hundred and thirty six years before the island itself could remerge as a unitary and independent nation.

To arrange a visit, plesae contact the Hotel Office.

bottom of page