Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – Sri Lanka’s Ancient Capitals

When I was planning my travel to Sri Lanka many friends told me this journey would surprise me. On my third day travelling I already knew they were right after visiting Dambulla and Sigiriya, but I fully realized it only while exploring the two ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.

Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura has been Sir Lanka’s capital for about one thousand years, starting from 380 BC, when Buddhism was making its appearance into the country. Anuradhapura’s ruins are among the most ancient and fascinating of all Southern Asia.

The Anuradhapura Heritage Site (entry fee: $ 25) stretches over three square kilometres and hiring a professional guide is a good idea if you don’t want to get lost or miss anything. We had a driver to move from a spot to another, but you can also rent some bikes.

The main areas are four: Mahavihara, the spiritual centre; Abhayagiri Monastery, where the most ancient ruins lies, the ones dating back to 2000 years ago; the Citadel, where the 1000 year old ruins are; and Jetavanarama, which hosts a huge stupa (a Buddhist monument also known in Sri Lanka as dagoba) and a museum.

We started with the Jevatanarama Dagoba, which is not as beautiful as many other stupas but is still impressive because of its size. Then we moved to Mahavihara, which hosts some wonderful stupas, as Thuparama – Sri Lanka’s most ancient sanctuary – and Ruvanvelisaya – with its characteristic defensive adorned by the paintings of hundreds of elephants.

Thuparama - Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

In Ruvanvelisaya you can find the heart and symbol of the whole town: Sri Maha Body, the sacred tree. Countless worshippers gather here every day to pray and to make offerings under the oldest sacred tree in the world – over 2000 years!

The Sri Maha Body also conceives a fascinating legend, according to which it was princess Sangamitta to recover the scion from the original Bodhi tree – the one involved in Siddharta’s enlightenment – and bring it to Sri Lanka. There is actually more than just one plant, but the holy one is the one in the middle on the highest platform.

Bodhi Tree - Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Our trip ended in the Abhayagiri Monastery. Here you can find the most beautiful moon stone in all Sri Lanka, placed at the entrance of the Mahasena’s Palace.

Moon Stone - Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Just two hours from Anuradhapura there is Polonnaruwa (entry fee: $ 25), the city that has been Sri Lanka’s second capital for three centuries. Being far less ancient, here the ruins are better preserved and the smaller size of this site allow for a satisfying tour in a shorter time.

Gal Vihara - Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

I’m going to say it here and now: this place literally bewitched me, especially in the very moment I found myself in front of the Gal Vihara. But let’s start from the beginning.

Here too I suggest you to hire some bikes and a guide, because having someone explaining you what strolls in front of your eyes is a great plus.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

The ruins can be divided into five clusters, but I only visited three of them. The first one is called Royal Palace Cluster and includes a large building – Parakramabahu – whose ruins allow the visitors to figure out its ancient magnificence. Then we moved to the Quadrilateral, a set of ruins located on a hoisted platform and surrounded by a wall which included a Bodhi tree and some very well preserved temples, as Vatadage and Thuparama.

Finaly we arrived to the Northern Cluster, so popular among the visitors because of the Gal Vihara, a set of four wonderful Buddha statues, each one carved in a long granite plate. These masterworks are probably the highest peak in Singhalese cave art. I was just speechless in front of such magnificence.

Sri Lanka travel and landmarks – ancient city of Polonnaruwa, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Buddha statue in Vatadage temple

These two sites, combined with Sigiriya, form the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. I have no doubt in describing them as archeological jewels, and the natural scenery surrounding them allowed me to enter a magic and surreal atmosphere.

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