Discover the Secrets of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s Ancient City

Discover the Secrets of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka's Ancient City

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a remarkable monument to a kingdom whose temples and palaces are now a playground for monkeys and a great place to go cycling in Sri Lanka.

Deep in the central plains of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa was once the playground of kings and the capital of the country. However, time has taken its toll, and what was once the center of an empire is now a mix of ancient ruins, crumbling temples, and mischievous monkeys.

Many travelers to Sri Lanka want to visit one of the ancient capitals. Anuradhapura, the capital for over 1400 years, is older and more historically important. However, its ruins are a faded version of their former selves, spread out over a large area.

Polonnaruwa, on the other hand, has well-maintained ruins in a well-organized park. It is a relatively compact area, making it ideal for exploring on two wheels. There are many temples, monuments, and stupas within easy reach of each other, all connected by tree-lined boulevards. Cycling between them is a breeze.

With plenty of shady spots, good roads, and refreshing local drinks available at every entrance, cycling through the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a great way to experience one of Sri Lanka’s historic treasures.

A Look Back at the History of Polonnaruwa Ancient City

A Look Back at the History of Polonnaruwa Ancient City
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The Sinhalese Kingdom of Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka for 1400 years. However, it was plundered and destroyed by the Chola dynasty of South India in 1017. The Cholas chose Polonnaruwa, a strategic location overlooking a key river crossing, as their new capital.

The Chola dynasty did not last long in Polonnaruwa. Sinhalese King Vijayabahu I defeated the Cholas in 1070 and restored the Sinhalese lineage to the throne. This marked the beginning of 150 glorious years for Polonnaruwa.

The city reached its peak during the reign of King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186). He unified Sri Lanka and oversaw the expansion of Polonnaruwa. He built magnificent temples, palaces, and pools, as well as a comprehensive irrigation system that is still in use today.

King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196) continued the expansive building but failed to raise enough money and almost bankrupted the kingdom. This was the beginning of the end for Polonnaruwa. Over the next 100 years, power and wealth fled from the city, and it was abandoned in 1310.

Today, all that remains are the ancient ruins of temples, palaces, and pools. These ruins are a monument to a remarkable kingdom and a bygone age.

Here are some of the historical places in Polonnaruwa that you should visit:

Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

The Gal Vihara is an impressive collection of four massive Buddha statues, each carved from a single granite slab. They are still in perfect condition and are considered to be some of the finest examples of ancient Sinhalese sculpture.

The highlight of the Gal Vihara is the 14-meter reclining Buddha. The pillow under his head is a masterpiece, incorporating the natural marbling of the granite into its design. Local clergymen were on hand to answer questions about the carvings, clearly eager to discuss their favorite details.

To get a close look at the intricate work and truly appreciate the statues, visitors must remove their shoes. This involves a quick dash across the hot gravel.

The Palace Complex of Nissanka Malla

The Palace Complex of Nissanka Malla

The Palace complex of Nissanka Malla is located just behind the museum and ticket office. The palace had eight granite pillars shaped like lotus stems, which supported a large two-story building. Next door is a royal bathing pool and the King’s Council chambers, where the names of the king’s ministers can be seen carved into the rock.

The museum is worth a quick visit to see the model of the area and get your bearings. However, you don’t need to spend too long there, as all the historical places in Polonnaruwa are well-labeled.

Although only a few walls of the palace remain standing today, it is easy to imagine how imposing this building must have been in its day.

Pothgul Viharaya

Pothgul Viharaya, Polonnaruwa

To the south of the museum lies the Pothgul Viharaya, the oldest library complex in Sri Lanka. The name “Pothgul” means “place to store books”. It was built by King Parakramabahu and has an interesting design with a series of square walls that get progressively smaller towards the center. The smallest of these walls houses a small circular building, which is believed to be the main area for storing books. Four small stupas adorn the corners of the smallest square.

Not much of the library remains intact today, but the ruins left behind are overrun by monkeys, adding atmosphere to one of the most intriguing complexes within the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It’s a beautiful spot to capture some photos. We also recommend the guy selling Panama hats at the entrance if it is starting to get a bit hot.

Royal Palace Complex of King Parakramabahu

Royal Palace Complex of King Parakramabahu

After a 20-minute journey north, you will come to the Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu, one of the most historically significant sites in Polonnaruwa. The palace was thought to have had thousands of rooms and been seven stories tall, but it was set on fire by the South Indian invader Magha, destroying the upper wooden floors.

Today, only 30 columns, 55 rooms, and 3 stories remain, but the ruins are in remarkably good condition. It is easy to imagine the colossal structure that once stood here.

Next door is the King’s Audience Hall, with a magnificent stone-carved stairway topped by a pair of lions. Around the corner is the king’s swimming pool, where a snake charmer and his family were trying to make a few rupees by tormenting an animal.

Sacred Quadrangle (Vatadage)

Sacred Quadrangle (Vatadage)
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The next stop is the Sacred Quadrangle, which is locally known as “Vatadage” and has the most concentrated collection of ruins in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

The Vatadage is a 18-meter-wide, circular relic house. It is believed to have been built by King Parakramabahu to house the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Later, King Nissanka Malla replaced the tooth relic (moving it to the purpose-built Hatadage next door) with the alms bowl used by the Buddha.

The Vadatage is the finest example of its kind in the country, and both items would have given this place great significance, making it one of the most important historical places in Polonnaruwa.

The tooth relic would eventually end up in Kandy and be enshrined in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

Sandakada Pahana (Moonstone)

Sandakada Pahana (Moonstone)
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Sandakada Pahana, also known as the Moonstone, is a unique element of ancient Sri Lankan architecture. It is a magnificently carved semi-circular stone slab, usually placed at the bottom of staircases and entrances to important buildings. The Sandakada Pahana is believed to symbolize the cycle of samsara, or rebirth, in Buddhism.

The Sandakada Pahana is typically decorated with images of animals, such as elephants, lions, and bulls, which represent the different realms of samsara. The lotus flower is also a common motif, as it symbolizes purity and enlightenment.

Archaeologists believe that the Sandakada Pahana was first introduced to Sri Lanka during the Anuradhapura period (3rd century BCE to 10th century CE). It continued to be used in later periods, and can be found at many important Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka, such as Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Dambulla.

If you are visiting Sri Lanka, I recommend taking the time to see a Sandakada Pahana. It is a fascinating and important symbol of Sri Lankan Buddhist culture.

Lotus Pond (Nelum Pokuna)

Lotus Pond (Nelum Pokuna)

The Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) is a unique ancient construction in the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa. It is a small, stone-built pond with a distinctive design that resembles a fully blossomed lotus flower.

The name Nelum Pokuna comes from the Sinhala word “nelum”, which means “lotus”. The pond is believed to have been built by King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 CE) as a place for meditation and relaxation.

The structural design of the Nelum Pokuna Theatre in Colombo was also inspired by this Lotus Pond. The Nelum Pokuna Theatre is a beautiful example of modern architecture that pays homage to Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage.

Pabalu Vehera & Rankoth Vehera (Stupa)

Pabalu Vehera, Polonnaruwa

Pabalu Vehera and Rankoth Vehera are two stupas in excellent condition. Pabalu Vehera was built by Queen Rupawathi, one of King Parakramabahu’s wives. It has an unusual shape that has been damaged by invaders and treasure hunters over the years. Instead of the usual four image houses that surround a stupa, Pabalu Vehera has nine. One of the nine houses contains an imprint that is said to be the footprint of the Buddha himself.

Rankoth Vehera, Polonnaruwa

Rankoth Vehera is the largest and most important stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It is made entirely of brick and is very well-preserved. The gold pinnacle reaching 33 meters into the air was added at the request of Nissankamalla, a foreigner from East India who claimed the Sri Lankan throne.

Lankathilaka Image House & Kiri Vehera (Stupa)

Lankathilaka Image House, Polonnaruwa

Lankatilaka Viharaya is the most impressive and evocative building in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It is a Buddha image house built by King Parakramabahu. The entrance to the building is flanked by two massive pillars that frame 17-meter-tall intricately carved bas-relief walls. A towering 13-meter-high headless Buddha statue overlooks the ruins.

To one side of Lankatilaka is the huge white stupa of Kiri Vihara. With its original lime plaster, it is the best-preserved unrestored stupa in Polonnaruwa.

On the other side is a stepped pool and gardens that are slowly being reclaimed by the encroaching jungle. The surrounding trees, the bent and twisted roots, and the branches billowing in the wind make this a beautiful spot to rest and contemplate the scene.

Parakrama Samudraya (Freshwater Lake)

Parakrama Samudraya

Parakrama Samudraya is a freshwater lake built in the 11th century by King Parakramabahu the Great. It is also known as the “Sea of Parakrama” and was developed as an irrigation solution to provide water to the kingdom’s vast paddy fields. The Parakrama Samudra continues to provide water to about 18,000 acres of nearby agricultural fields.

A boat ride on the Parakrama Samudraya is a great way to see the lake and its surroundings. You can also go for a walk or cycle ride along the 14-kilometer-long lake bund, which offers stunning views of the lake, archaeological sites, and paddy fields.

The Parakrama Samudraya Lake Bund is the longest man-made lake bund in Sri Lanka. It is a popular spot for cycling and hiking, and offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

A Technical Tour of Ancient Irrigation in Polonnaruwa

BISO KOTUWA – A Sri Lankan Engineering Marvel

The Study of Ancient Irrigation Management is an educational technical tour that focuses on the ancient irrigation systems of Sri Lanka, with a particular focus on Polonnaruwa.

In Polonnaruwa, you can see the remains of a huge stone anicut, or dam, that was built across the Ambangaga River. This dam was built by King Mahasen in the 3rd century AD to divert water from the river to the Minneriya Lake. The water from the Minneriya Lake was then further diverted to two other reservoirs, Kanthale and Kaudulla.

This study is a great way to learn about the ancient irrigation systems of Sri Lanka and how they were used to manage water resources. It is also a great way to see some of the most impressive archaeological sites in Sri Lanka.

The study is conducted by the Institute of Dry Zone Ecology & Environmental Studies, which is a leading organization in the field of water resources management.

The Best Time to Visit Polonnaruwa

The Best Time to Visit Polonnaruwa

The best time to visit Polonnaruwa is during the dry season, which is from May to September. During this time, the weather is warm and sunny, with little rainfall. The crowds are also smaller during this time, so you can enjoy the ruins without having to jostle with other tourists.

If you are visiting during the wet season, which is from October to April, be prepared for hot and humid weather, with occasional rain showers. The crowds are also larger during this time, so it is advisable to book your accommodation and activities in advance.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the weather in Polonnaruwa:

  • May to September: This is the driest time of year, with an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The days are sunny and clear, and the nights are cool.
  • October to April: This is the wet season, with an average temperature of 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). There is an average of 10 days of rain per month. The humidity is high, and the weather can be oppressive.

No matter when you choose to visit Polonnaruwa, be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. You may also want to bring a raincoat if you are visiting during the wet season.

Related reading: Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka: A Guide to Planning Your Trip

How to Reach Polonnaruwa

How to reach polonnaruwa Ancient City, Sri Lanka

From Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa

  • The easiest way is to join a private tour that includes transportation and entrance fees.
  • Alternatively, you can take a bus from Sigiriya to Inamaluwa, and then transfer to a bus to Kaduruwela. The total travel time is 1.5 hours.

From Dambulla to Polonnaruwa

  • Take a direct bus from the Dambulla Main bus stop to Kaduruwela. The bus leaves every 20-30 minutes starting from 7 am. The travel time is 1.5 to 2 hours.

From Trincomalee to Polonnaruwa

  • From Trincomalee, take a bus heading for Dambulla or Colombo. Ask the bus driver if they stop in Habarana and if there is a connection to Polonnaruwa. The total travel time is 4 hours.

From Colombo to Polonnaruwa

  • Take a train from Colombo Fort to Polonnaruwa. The train is crowded and the journey is rough, but it is a scenic option. The travel time is 6.5 hours.

Note: Kaduruwela is the new town of Polonnaruwa. Depending on the location of your hotel, you can ask the bus driver to stop in Polonnaruwa.

What are the entrance fees to Polonnaruwa Ancient City?

Polonnaruwa Entrance Ticket Fees

The entrance fee to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa varies for non-SAARC foreign adults and SAARC foreign adults. Local adults can enter for free.

Here is a breakdown of the ticket prices:

Polonnaruwa Entrance Ticket Fees

Non-SAARC foreign adultsUS$25
SAARC foreign adultsUS$12.5
Local adultsFree
Local childrenFree

SAARC stands for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It is a regional intergovernmental organization of eight countries in South Asia.

Places to Stay in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa is a charming Sri Lankan town with a limited number of hotels. The best option is to stay in Habarana and take a day trip to Polonnaruwa by bus. The 1-hour bus ride is an experience in itself, as you get to meet locals on their daily commute.

Places to Stay in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Habarana is an excellent base for exploring not only Polonnaruwa, but also Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla Cave Temple.

Here are some of the reasons why staying in Habarana is a good idea:

  • There are more hotels and restaurants to choose from in Habarana.
  • It is a more convenient location for exploring Sigiriya and Dambulla.
  • The bus ride from Habarana to Polonnaruwa is more scenic than the bus ride from Colombo.

Ultimately, the best place to stay in Polonnaruwa depends on your individual preferences and budget. If you are looking for a more relaxed and authentic experience, then staying in Habarana is a great option.

Here are some of the best places to stay in Polonnaruwa:

EKHO Lake House is a great option for those looking for a relaxing stay with beautiful views. It offers traditional rooms with terraces and lake views, as well as a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Sudu Araliya is a more affordable option with a swimming pool and a restaurant. It is located close to the main attractions in Polonnaruwa.

The Heritage Polonnaruwa is a luxury hotel with a spa, a swimming pool, and a restaurant. It is located in a quiet area, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Giritale Hotel is a budget-friendly option located in the Giritale area, which is about 15 minutes from Polonnaruwa. It has a swimming pool and a restaurant.

Popular Attractions Near Polonnaruwa

Minneriya Safari

Here are some of the popular attractions near Polonnaruwa ancient city:

  • Sigiriya Rock Fortress: This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. The fortress is located on a massive rock that rises 200 meters (656 feet) above the surrounding plain. It was built by King Kashyapa in the 5th century AD and is famous for its Sigiriya frescoes, which are painted murals depicting women and animals.
  • Dambulla Cave Temples: This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and is located just 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Polonnaruwa. The temple complex is carved into a massive rock and contains over 500 statues of Buddha, as well as Hindu and Jain deities.
  • Minneriya National Park: This national park is home to a large population of elephants, as well as other wildlife such as water buffalo, deer, and crocodiles. The best time to visit the park is during the dry season (July to September) when the elephants gather at the waterholes.
  • Anuradhapura: This ancient city was the first capital of Sri Lanka and is located about 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Polonnaruwa. Anuradhapura is home to many ruins of ancient temples and monasteries, including the Jetavana Dagoba, which is one of the largest stupas in the world.

These are just a few of the many things to see and do near Polonnaruwa. With its rich history and stunning natural beauty, the area is a must-visit for any visitor to Sri Lanka.


When was Polonnaruwa Ancient City built?

Polonnaruwa Ancient City was built in the 11th century by King Vijayabahu I. It was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the decline of Anuradhapura.

What are the main attractions of Polonnaruwa Ancient City?

The main attractions of Polonnaruwa Ancient City include the Royal Palace, the Quadrangle, the Vatadage, the Gal Vihara, and the Lankatilaka Temple.

What is the best time to visit Polonnaruwa Ancient City?

The best time to visit Polonnaruwa Ancient City is during the dry season, which is from May to September. The weather is warm and sunny during this time, and there is less rain.

How long does it take to explore Polonnaruwa Ancient City?

You can explore Polonnaruwa Ancient City in a day, but it is recommended to spend at least two days to see all the main attractions.

What are the must-try food in Polonnaruwa Ancient City?

The must-try food in Polonnaruwa Ancient City include kottu roti, string hoppers, and lamprais. These are all Sri Lankan dishes that are made with rice, vegetables, and meat.

What are the dos and don’ts in Polonnaruwa Ancient City?

Do dress appropriately. It is recommended to wear long pants and covered shoes.
Do be respectful of the ruins. Do not climb on the ruins or touch the artifacts.
Do not litter. Please dispose of your trash properly.
Do not take photos of the military installations.

What are the safety precautions to take in Polonnaruwa Ancient City?

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, especially if you are visiting during the hot season.
Wear sunscreen. The sun can be strong in Sri Lanka, so it is important to wear sunscreen to protect your skin.
Bring a hat. A hat will help to protect your head from the sun.
Use insect repellent. There are mosquitoes in Sri Lanka, so it is important to use insect repellent to prevent bites.

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