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Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities and the Cultural Triangle

Sri Lanka has a long and remarkable history, most of which happened in the jungles. We went to see Sri Lanka’s ancient cities that once were the capitals of some of the world’s great kingdoms.

Sri Lanka’s ancient cities had dagobas almost as big as the Egyptian pyramids. One after one these cities disappeared and became parts of the jungle, until the Europeans came and found these lost cities  with their stupas and dagobas that were so well preserved.

Sri Lanka's ancient cities, Polonnaruwa

Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, a dagoba in the jungle

Excavations still go on in Sri Lanka’s jungles and more temples, palaces and private homes are found.

The area in question is the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, located in the central region of the country. Most tourists visiting Sri Lanka prefer staying on the country’s coastline but everey traveler should also visit the Cultural Triangle. It is a must see place if you are in the country, and a real treasure for history and nature lovers.

But what were these ancient cities and how did they all disappear?

Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities

The first city was Anuradhapura from where the kings ruled the country for more than a thousand years, from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD.

In that phase the kings moved to Polonnaruwa that became the new capital of the country.

Sri Lanka's ancient cities, Anuradhapura

An ancient pond in Anuradhapura, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities

However in the 13th century Sri Lanka was invaded from India. Polonnaruwa was abandoned and forgotten in the jungle. Years later Sri Lanka was ruled from Kandy further south, until when the British came and moved the capital to the coast.

The castle on Sigiriya Rock again was built in the 5th century, by a prince who lived on the rock top for a couple of decades until his suicide. After that groups of monks still lived on the rock, until they abandoned it in the 12th century. Sigiriya Rock was forgotten in the jungle.

So all these ancient cities and temples flourished and disappeared – and the jungle took over.

Our Tour of Sri Lanka

 

Our Sri Lanka travel itinerary on the map

This is our Sri Lanka two week itinerary that in itself covered a lot more than the ruined cities. You can read about our tour here.

Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities on the Map

Below you will see another map that shows the central part of the island where the ancient cities are. Of the ruined cities we first went to Anuradhapura marked in the north of the map. From Anuradhapura we first went to the East Coast which makes a different story, and on the way back we visited Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa.

What more did we see in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle? We took an elephant safari to Kaudulla National Park and went to see the Dambulla Cave Temples south of Sigiriya.

Here are Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle attractions on the map:

 

Map of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle and its sights

Arranging Our Trip

We were touring Sri Lanka for two weeks in all, with a car and a driver which we had for our whole stay. If you want to know how we did that and what travel agent was involved in our trip, check out my Sri Lanka main post What to See in Sri Lanka.

So we began the jungle part of our trip from Anuradhapura, the oldest of the lost capitals:

Anuradhapura

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba in Anuradhapura, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities

Anuradhapura was a wealthy jungle city and home to 2 million people. The whole island was ruled from here for a long time. and there were 113 successive kings that all added their monuments.

Anuradhapura contains three large dagobas, also called stupas: Jetavanarama Dagoba that you can see above, Abhayagiri Dagoba that looks about the same but has pillars, and the whitewashed Ruwanwelisiya Dagoba with elephant statues .

But that’s not all. There are smaller dagobas, temples and monuments, and a whole ruined city, much of which hides in the jungle.

Anuradhapura also has the original bodhi tree that should be the world’s oldest tree. It was brought to Sri Lanka as a cutting from the tree Buddha sat below.

Visiting one of Sri Lanka's ancient cities, Anuradhapura

School trip to Anuradhapura ruins

As Anuradhapura is a real treasure UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site. The place has strong connections to the country’s history and it is a pilgrimage site for all Sri Lankan Buddhists. They all want to visit Anuradhapura.

Sri Maha Bodhi Tree prayers

Sri Maha Bodhi Tree worshippers

Now I will show you the three great dagobas I already mentioned:

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba was in the photo above. This dagoba was the world’s third tallest structure after the pyramids. Some more photos of it:

 

Click on the small photos to open them up in a slideshow.

Buddhists always take offerings to their dagobas, mainly flowers. But what happened to all these lotus flowers?

Lotus flower offerings

Lotus flowers, Buhddhist offerings

This monkey and all his monkey friends will know it. They took and ate the flowers, all of them. Since people left, monkeys have been living in the lost cities – and there are a lot of them.

Jetavanarama Dagoba monkey, Sri Lanka's ancient cities

Monkey eating a lotus flower

Monkeys eating temple lotus flowers

Good and tasty!

Abhayagiri Dagoba

The second Anuradhapura stupa is the red brick Abhayagiri Dagoba. This on is huge in size as well. The top is not broken like in the other dagoba, and this one has a gate of stone pillars.

Abhayagiri Dagoba with pillars

Abhayagiri Dagoba

A negative surprise to us was that we were not allowed inside any dagobas, only monks are allowed in. I’d like to see what these huge domes have inside and what a construction is like that stands there for thousands of years without any damage.

 

Some more top things to see in Anuradhapura:

Isurumuniya Monastery

The Anuradhapurans also built a rock temple called Isurumuniya Monastery, with a huge reclining Buddha that is too big to fit in any photos.

Anuradhapura reclining Buddha

Anuradhapura: Isurumuniya Monastery reclining Buddha

Buddhist Flags

All Buddhist temples and stupas in Sri Lanka have a lot of flags around. They are Buddhist prayer flags.

Buddhist flags

Prayer flags around Sri Maha Bodhi Tree

Ruwanwilisiya Dagoba

And then the white stupa I mentioned in the beginning. Ruwanwilisiya Dagoba is so white that it shines like marble in the bright equator sunlight:

Sri Lanka's ancient cities: Ruwanwelisiya Dagoba, Anuradhapura

Ruwanwilisiya Dagoba, Anuradhapura

This is the most visited on of the three Anuradhapura stupas. Monks come in their orange clothing and other people like pilgrims, school classes come dressed in white. They all want to see this gorgeous stupa  surrounded by black stone elephants.

And this time, no monkeys at all around here when we were visiting. The offerings were saved for what they were meant for.

Some more photos of Ruwanwilisiya Dagoba:

 

The white surface needs more maintenance than the red brick ones. Volunteers are climbing bamboo ladders to wash and paint the dome. Would volunteering in temple washing be your thing…?

Repairing a stupa, Anuradhapura

Bamboo ladder for stupa painting

The Twin Ponds

One more thing I need to show about Anuradhapura ruins: two pools called the Twin ponds. They used to be the ritual baths and still have steps to the water on each side.

The Twin Ponds of Anuradhapura

Kuttam Pokuna, the twin ponds

Twin ponds visitor

Visiting the twin ponds

How to Visit Anuradhapura Ruins

Anuradhapura ruins are spread out on a large area in the jungle so you need a car or bike (that you can rent). The entrance fee for tourists is USD 25 (Feb 2018).

To plan your visit and examine the ruins in a satellite view: zoom in one of my maps in this post.

But this is not all this area has, there is more to see in Anuradhapura:

Anuradhapura Water Tanks

Lakeside view of Nuwarawewa

Lake Nuwarawewa, Anuradhapura

The Anuradhapura area has a lot of beautiful lakes. Yet they are not normal lakes as you would imagine, they are huge water tanks.

The kings were clever. Since they needed water to grow rice they built artificial tanks to store water from monsoon rains. Still today these water tanks are in use and rice fields dot the countryside. This area is known as the rice bowl of Sri Lanka.

The biggest tank is Lake Nuwarawewa built 20 BC and the other two are Tissa Wewa and Basawakkulama.

Lake Nuwarawewa

Lake Nuwarawewa, view to Mihintale

To make the lakes they had to wall them on all sides. On the walls they built roads that still exist. This is the Nuwarawewa Lakeside road:

Nuwarawewa lakeside walk

Nuwarawewa lakeside road

Where to Stay in Anuradhapura

Where did we stay in Anuradhapura? Right on the lakeside, just the lake wall and the road separating us from the lake. The hotel was Lakeside at Nuwarawewa that also had a shady swimming-pool that we used many times. The days in Anuradhapura were really hot and humid.

Hotel pool, Lakeside at Nuwarawewa

Our Anuradhapura pool

We half-slept in our sunbeds, watching monkeys return from the village towards the lake. Every day they returned exactly the same time, always through our hotel garden, jumping from tree to tree.

Relaxing at Nuwarawewa

Hotel Lakeside at Nuwarawewa

Hotel Lakeside at Nuwarawewa

The hotel was very good in surprising us. First there was a fruit basket, then a flower heart on the bed, next time flowers in the bathroom and they also used my IPhone cable as a bed decoration.

We so much liked it here and others did it too. Groups touring the island spent a night or two here and traveled on. The hotel’s website is: Lakeside at Nuwarawewa

Anuradhapura Town

And what about the town of Anuradhapura? It’s a typical busy, noisy Sri Lankan town. The town center was close to our hotel and small enough to stroll through, which we did both nights. What we liked was the busy bus station with painted Sri Lanka buses.

Anuradhapura has good bus connections in all directions but we were happy for not having to use buses. Buses are overcrowded and the drivers seem to think they own the road. It all looks so dangerous…

Anuradhapura bus station

Anuradhapura bus station

Some local life of Anuradhapura town:

Click on the small photos to open them up in a slideshow.

But we didn’t come here for the buses. We came for Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. The next city is Polonnaruwa:

Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities: Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is where the kings settled after they had to escape from Anuradhapura. That happened in the 11th century. Polonnaruwa at that time was a partly Indian, partly Buddhist local town and the kings changed it to the island’s capital.

They ruled the island from here, for the next 200 years. There were three kings in all and the 12th century was Polonnaruwa’s golden age.

Polonnaruwa ruins

Polonnaruwa ruins, Sri Lanka

Here, too, the kings built huge lakes to store water. These 1200 years old lakes still supply rice fields with water. Polonnaruwa’s ancient city was located on lake shore with massive stone walls were protecting it from the land side.

Yet the ancient city fell into chaos round 1300 and disappeared from the map, until being rediscovered in the 20th century, well preserved under all plants.

Polonnaruwa stone wall

Polonnaruwa stone wall

These photos help you see how deep in the jungle it all was. After you once clean the stones from vegetation the jungle will take over again at no time at all.

Polonnaruwa ruins, Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa stones and moss

Ancient walls attacked by jungle

Polonnaruwa is a another UNESCO Site and an amazing one. I will show you what its ruins look like.

Council Chamber and Royal Baths

This construction is Polonnaruwa kings’ Council Chamber:

Ruins at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

King’s Council Chamber ruins, Polonnaruwa

Council Chamber with elephant carvings

Council Chamber elephant carvings

Council chamber elephant carvings

Next to the Council Chamber are the Royal Baths, in so good condition that you could almost take a bath:

Polonnaruwa Royal Baths

Royal Baths of Polonnaruwa

The baths are close to Mahaveli River that is Sri Lanka’s biggest river. It flows from Adam’s Peak in the Hill Country to Trincomalee on the East Coast.

Royal Palace

This is the Royal Palace that was seven stores high and surrounded by thick stone walls.

You can still see the walls but there’s no need for them any more. No-one is attacking – except the monkeys that use the palace as their home. They will definitely attack you if you carry any food with you.

Polonnaruwa Royal Palace

The Royal Palace of ancient Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa monkeys

Monkeys around the Royal Palace

Quadrangle Complex

Then there is the Quadrangle with this temple, the Vatadage Temple. It has Buddha statues inside and stone stairs with a moonstone with elephant decorations below the steps. The Quadrangle stands on a terrace and has brick walls on all sides.

Central dagoba of the Vatadage

Vatadage Dagoba

More photos of the Quadrangle: a monument, feet of a statue and Vatadage moonstone elephants:

 

Shiva Devale Temple

What I really liked was this Indian style Shiva Devale temple. It has tamil writing on walls and a small shrine inside.

Polonnaruwa Shiva Devale temple

Shiva Devale temple

Polonnaruwa offerings

Shiva Devale offerings

Gal Vihara

And the huge size Gal Vihara complex again contains four large Buddha statues that are all carved out of a single stone. This reclining Buddha is the biggest statue:

Gal Vihara reclining Buddha

Polonnaruwa: Gal Vihara reclining Buddha

Rankot Vihara

Of course the ancient city also had a big red-brick stupa, Rankot Vihara that is the fourth largest stupa in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka's ancient cities, Polonnaruwa Rankot Vihara

Walking to Rankot Vihara

Rankot Vihara offering

Rankot Vihara, offering on the brick wall

Now we have seen Polonnaruwa, the second ancient city of Sri Lanka. Our next destination will be Sigiriya some 60 km west.

In fact the next ancient capital in order after Polonnaruwa was Kandy. I have written a separate post on it:  Historic Kandy: Temples, Lake and Rainforest Hills

Plan Your Visit to Polonnaruwa Ruins

To visit Polonnaruwa you need to pay an entrance fee, USD 25 (Feb 2018). The ruins are on a large area so to see them you will need a car or bike.

You can plan your visit and examine the area in a satellite view by zooming in one of my maps in this article.

Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities: Sigiriya Rock

Sri Lanka's ancient cities: Sigiriya Rock and water gardens

Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

This is the famous Sigiriya Rock, the third UNESCO World Heritage Site in Central Sri Lanka. The rock is really massive and rises 200 m above the plains. You can see Sigiriya Rock from almost everywhere in the region.

Sigiriya Rock has an unusual history. An Anuradhapura prince Kaspaya built his castle on the rock top after killing his father –  to get the throne. He was fighting with his brother and needed a safe place to stay at. So Kaspaya built a fortress on the top and water gardens below and ruled the country from the rock top until he died by killing himself.

As you can guess the jungle took over his palace too, and Sigiriya ruins were first discovered in the 20th century.

Sigiriya Rock Water Gardens

Here we are on the way to the rock, taking photos of the beautiful water gardens.

 

Sigiriya Rock water gardens

To get to the area you pay an entrance fee, USD 30 (Feb 2018). Unlike in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa the Sigiriya area is small enough to explore on foot.

Sigiriya Rock Climb

You can climb to the rock top. There are stairs for that but the climb is demanding in the heat so take good shoes, a water bottle and towels to dry your sweat.

It’s a long climb and very popular. Our driver said we will have to get there at 8 a.m. to avoid the crowds but many people had thought the same. So we climbed in a queue.

Way down from Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock climb from Lion Platform

These are the stairs on from a half-way stop, the Lion Platform. You can see the lion feet carved in stone in my photo. Here you can already see the top.

Climbing Sri Lanka's ancient cities: Sigiriya Rock

Climbing Sri Lanka’s ancient cities: Sigiriya Rock

 

Climbing the Sigiriya Rock

The first part of the climb was much steeper, longer and all the way in shade.

On the way up we passed the Mirror Wall. The name comes from the brilliant shine the wall is said to have but we could only see the graffiti of former visitors. The sun didn’t shine on the wall.

In addition there are the famous wall paintings Sigiriya Frescoes. They were gorgeous but as you are not allowed to take photos on them I have no way showing the frescoes to you.

Climbing to Sigiriya Rock, the Cultural Triangle

Sigiriya Rock Mirror Wall

On the top of Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

Sweaty but happy, on the top!

Finally, on the top of the Asian Ayers Rock! Sweaty but happy! We walked in clifftop castle rooms and halls for a long while before taking the same stairs down. Nothing wrong with these 360 degree views!

 

Clifftop castle on Sigiriya Rock

Where to Stay in Sigiriya

Sigiriya is very well located to all Sri Lanka’s ancient cities and for that reason a perfect base for touring the Cultural Triangle. If you choose to stay in Sigiriya you can visit all my attractions as day trips.

What is nice too about Sigiriya is that the village is almost in the jungle –  and that’s exactly what many travelers also come here for, the jungle.

Or what do you say about this jungle lake with a view of Sigiriya Rock? So it’s not a lake, it’s the Aliya Resort pool. The pool is dark grey on sides and turquoise elsewhere, just what you expect real jungle lakes to be like.

Aliya Resort & Spa

Aliya Resort pool in morning mist

Aliya Resort Pool, surrounded by jungle

This kind of scenery just makes me stop, sit down and stare, in silence. Such a peace, so amazing nature sounds and birds, so humid and so many different strong green colors.

We are almost on the equator and this is what the nature in that zone is like at its best. I need to take photos, and take more photos to get back to this amazing feeling afterwards.

And I don’t have to get up from the pool to look at the famous rock…

Aliya Resort & Spa pool

Photographing Sigiriya rice fields

Sigiriya Rock from Aliya Resort & Spa pool

Sigiriya Rock seen from the pool

What about the hotel itself? It looks like an elephant, reaching out to drink water from a jungle lake. I can’t help thinking that way and maybe I’m right, Aliya in the Sri Lankan language Sinhalese means elephant.

Aliya Resort and pool, Sri Lanka

Elephant drinking from a jungle lake

Relaxing at Aliya Resort, Sigiriya

Pool life in Sigiriya

We took it easy between attractions and used the sun chairs. And I have to say Sri Lankan Lion beer tasted extra good after climbing the Sigiriya Rock!

Lion beer

Lion Beer, made in Sri Lanka

Aliya Resort waiters

Resort waiters, Sigiriya

Aliya Resort rooms are in low side buildings, all surrounded by a park. Walkways look like ruins of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities and room exteriors are like coconut roofed village huts:

 

Aliya Resort rooms

Aliya Resort interior, Sri Lanka

Aliya Resort breakfast room

Views from breakfast room and hall

Aliya, an elephant

Aliya, an elephant

 

This elephant hotel was one more good choice from our travel agent. We couldn’t have found such a good hotel without thems. This is the Aliya Resort & Spa website.

What about real aliyas, elephants, then, did we see them?

More to See in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle: Kaudulla Elephant Safari

Kaudulla National Park elephants

Kaudulla National Park elephants

Yes, we did! And a lot!

Since we had hardly seen any elephants yet in Sri Lanka we took an elephant safari to Kaudulla National Park. Our travel agent had booked us a jeep at Habarana, a village where many operators offer safaris.

Kaudulla safari

Kaudulla National Park visitor

Jeep trip to Kaudulla

Since national parks are no zoos we were first worried about if we would see any elephants. But that day Kaudulla had a huge number of elephants and we saw more than 300.

Elephants need a lot of water and during the dry season they wander to waterholes. These elephants had just migrated to Kaudulla from Minneriya National Park and they were all on the Kaudulla lake shore.

 

Kaudulla National Park elephants

In fact it was mainly female elephants with their babies. The males prefer to stay outside the herd and we saw males mostly in the forest.

This elephant is eating grass. They need to eat at least 150 kg grass a day.

Kaudulla National Park elephant grazing

Sri Lankan elephant eating grass

Kaudulla National Park elephant

Asian elephants have smaller ears than the African

Sri Lanka originally had a huge elephant population but they have decreased in numbers.

Today just a few thousand elephants live in the wild, most in national parks that there are more than twenty of in the country.

Since elephants need to move a lot (they walk 40 km a day) they have built corridors between national parks so elephants can move around as they want.

More Sri Lankan Wildlife

What more did we see in Kaudulla National Park? Many kinds of birds, crocodiles, wild buffaloes and bumble bee hives:

Kaudulla National Park birdlife

Kaudulla bee-eaters

Kaudulla National Park birdlife

A blue and brown Indian roller

 

 An egret, bird nest, peacock, eagle, buffaloes and a kingfisher.

Kaudulla National Park visitors in jeeps

National Park visitors on elephant safari

But Central Sri Lanka has some more culture sights, in Dambulla on the way south:

Further South: Dambulla Cave Temples

Dambulla Cave Temples

Dambulla Cave Temples deep inside the rock

We have already seen three UNESCO Sites but there’s one more: the historic area of Dambulla Cave Temples is one more UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Dambulla Cave Temples were carved in the rock in the 1st century BC by the time King Valagambahu was forced to leave Anuradhapura for an attack. The king stayed 14 years hiding in the caves before he got back his throne, returned to Anuradhapura and continued ruling the island.

The king’s caves were rebuilt to five rock temples each of which contains an enormous number of Buddha statues: small, big, sitting, reclining and standing Buddhas, all painted in gold.

Dambulla Cave Temple Buddhas

A row of standing Buddhas

 

Reclining Buddha and some more statues

The biggest Buddha is 14 m long and there are dagobas and statues of former kings as well. All walls inside the caves have rich decoration but the outer walls are all white.

Dambulla Cave Temples

Dambulla Cave Temples 

Dambulla Cave Temple and lotus pool

Lotus pond of Dambulla Cave Temples

How to Visit Dambulla Caves

Cave Temples have an entrance fee that you pay at the car park. The temples are on a high hill so getting there is a bit like an effort. You have to climb steep stairs and I can say it’s hot. But once you are up you’ll get sensational views of the jungle country.

Walking to Dambulla Cave Temples

Climbing to Dambulla Rock Temples

View from Dambulla Cave Temples

View from the terrace

At Dambulla you will meet many monkeys. There are a lot of them so watch your camera and belongings. Even when the monkeys look tired and bored they might not be that.

Dambulla Cave Temple monkey

Monkey in temple tree, Dambulla Cave Temples

We saw a lot of gold inside the cave temples but there’s one more place that shines even more than the caves. It’s the Golden Temple.

Dambulla Golden Temple

Dambulla Golden Temple

Dambulla Golden Temple

The lesser known Golden Temple is in the town of Dambulla. It’s a very unusual construction.

The temple is topped by a giant 30 m golden Buddha, the balconies on its sides have white and pink decorations and the entrance is a dragon mouth. The mouth leads to a museum and the temple itself is upstairs.

Some photos of the Golden Temple:

Dambulla Golden Temple

Dambulla Golden Buddha

Dambulla Golden Temple mouth

Dragon’s mouth

Dambulla Golden Temple paw

Dragons’ paw

 

Photos of the Dambulla Golden Temple

So this was Central Sri Lanka and its main attractions: ruined capitals hidden in the jungle, temples and palaces both on rock tops and in caves, four world class UNESCO heritage sites- and 300 elephants.

We had great days in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle and I will return to the area to show you the last ancient capital, Kandy. But first we will head to the East Coast.

Our Sri Lanka road trip was made in cooperation with the Sri Lankan travel agent Connaissance de Ceylan and Theme Resorts & Spas hotel chain, but like always all opinions shared in my blog article are my own.

Next Post: East Coast

Our next destination was  the beautiful, remote Sri Lankan East Coast. See you on the East Coast!

Passekudah Bay, Sri Lanka's East Coast

Passekudah Bay, Sri Lanka’s East Coast

One More Ancient Capital: Kandy

When the kings escaped from Polonnaruwa they settled in Kandy. To learn about Kandy check our my post Historic Kandy: Temples, Lake and Rainforest Hills.

Historic Kandy, Sri Lanka

Historic Kandy, Sri Lanka

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