Sri Lanka ended up joining my ongoing list of all time favorite counties. I loved the history, food, the fact that there are 3 official languages (English being one) and 4 main religions (Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity – which has been cause of problems in the past), beautiful beaches and nature, welcoming people and diverse and easily accessible options of places and sights to see. I was also super happy to finally meet up with one of my really good college friends from here (lol while she was actually home) and explore her country on a less traditional route (but still quite touristy but only because Sri Lanka is just that great, many people already know about it and it´s small). I could share about what I did in Colombo, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Kandy, Sigiriya or Wilpattu National Park and maybe I will another time but I prefer to cover one of my biggest questions from when I was there about what to do.
Which ancient city should I visit? Polonnaruwa? or Anuradhapura?
I had this same question when I was planning my travels around Sri Lanka. Not having all the time to see everything but wanting to get some Sinhalese history and ruins in I had to choose one. Although in the end I managed to see a bit of both with a preference toward Polonnaruwa!
Originally I choose Polonnaruwa because it seemed like the lesser visited site and I enjoyed that it was an old, very well preserved capital. I later loved that I could easily bike around it since it is fairly compact and many places (including hotels) in town seemed to rent bikes.
Anuradhapura I didn´t really have time for but I ended up passing by on route to Wilpattu NP and had a few hours where I could stop before catching another bus so I explored some.
These two capital kingdom locations are predominately from the Sinhala civilization or Sinhalese people who moved to the island from Northern India in the 4th century. Anuradhapura existed from the 4th to 11th century while Polonnaruwa thrived between the 8th century to early 1300s when it was finally abandoned then covered by forest for many centuries until the British stumbled upon it. Capitals moved locations plenty due to invasions from the Chola dynasty (aka Tamils from Southern India) which happened continuously overtime. The Chola dynasty is one of the longest ruling in world history so it makes sense that they continuously threatened the nearby Sinhala civilization and Sri Lanka. The Sinhala civilization or ethnic group today makes up about 75% of the population in Sri Lanka while some have emigrated to Europe, Australia, USA and Canada (among other nations) in the past. The culture is still very strong in Sri Lanka as they retain one of the three official national languages (Sinhala, Tamil and English are official) and generally follow Buddhism (largest religion of 4 in Sri Lanka).
- ancient capital (second)
- built by King Parakramabahu I
- temples not active
- better preserved, more detail
- quieter prettier city
- less visited
- better for biking
- kind of out of the way
- access by bus or car
- don´t miss Quadrilateral or Gal Vihara
- first ancient capital
- active temples
- highest stupa (400 ft/122m)
- very spread out ruins
- might be best in taxi or tuk tuk (bike still possible)
- full day trip necessary
- access by train, bus or car
- don´t miss Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi
By the way the third capital is Kandy (also has a very impressive Temple of the Tooth just not really ruins) and the present day capital would be Colombo.
I found the main difference in Anuradhapura was that the temples, although ruins, remain active for worshipers so you were never alone. It is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists, it´s the oldest kingdom in Sri Lanka and therefore was the first capital. It can be quite amazing to walk through history while at the same time be a part of a history that is still being created. You never know, you may visit while a sacred celebration is taking place such as a harvest prayer or something.
At Anuradhapura I made sure to visit Ruvanvelisaya. It is the oldest ruin and where my friend told me to visit if I made it to Anuradhapura. I made sure to visit first. I was told to see the sacred (fig) tree, an ancient plant shoot that was supposedly brought from the original Bodhi tree of Siddharta’s (aka Buddha himself) enlightenment. The Jaya Siri Maha Bodhiya is believed to be around 2000 years old and was brought by a princess from India (of King Darmashoka). I was also able to visit Ruwanwelisaya, Isurumuniya Vihara and Vessagiriya within a few hours.
In Anuradhapura I also rented a bike and went to see the ruins. Renting a bike here was not as easy, they seemed only available through hotels. The reason being is that these ruins need more time to visit so most who rent bikes are staying longer. You can´t really do what I planned to do here because each ruin is very spread out. With limited time I had to choose only a few to see and go quickly from one to the other (I still had a bus to catch!). If you choose Anuradhapura and want to see it all, a full day is recommended, where as in Polonnaruwa you could see way more in less time…though I would also recommend an overnight there too (I enjoyed the town more).
For me in Polonnaruwa the most impressive ruin was the Quadrilateral…just magnificent. I biked the ruins backwards so this was one of the last ones I visited before night fall. Arriving at sunset I had limited time to take in all the magnificent detail this specific site offers. It was simply beautiful, jaw dropping beauty really…the details by the sculptors everywhere here left me gawking at each intricacy on the stones….true, the pink-ish sky did make it extra special. There was even a full stone slab with the beautiful Sinhala written language covering every inch of it.
My favorite element to see at the temples was the Moonstone (feature image for this blog) or Sandakada Pahana. It is a Sri Lankan architectural element originally added to Buddhist temple entrances. Each animal represent stages of life: elephants = birth, bulls = aging, lions = disease, and horses = death. On the other hand, swans are believed to represent forces of good and evil during life. The lotus flower (at center generally) represents Nirvana, the ultimate goal in Buddhism.
Overall Polonnaruwa felt more impressive specifically because it was compact and the details seen everywhere on the ruins are just so elaborate it´s hard not to love exploring this old capital. Just one amazing stop after another, so crazy! The overall feeling of solitude also really lets you take in it´s beauty and contemplate the thriving kingdom that existed many centuries ago. Whereas Anuradhapura just didn´t have the same effect, even though it was technically larger and with bigger buildings overall, the first capital meant more was destroyed over time and more reconstructed. The only thing you did feel going here seemed to be the understanding of what a massive civilization the Sinhalese had and of course the highly spiritual side that this capital holds in society even today. Throw in that it is currently a busy city with a connecting highway running through it the vibe of the area is very different to Polonnaruwa and appeared not as laidback.
Having chosen Polonnaruwa and stayed a night I was able to enjoy more as opposed to just a random ¨layover¨ like I had in Anuradhapura. Maybe I’m biased. Either way, I suggest including at least one of these ancient capitals on your itinerary for Sri Lanka.
I not only enjoyed the ruins in Polonnaruwa but was also able to run along the nice lake there. Interesting fact about the reason for the capital moving here was actually not just for protection from invasion but also irrigation. The king Parākramabāhu I made sure irrigation from rain water was a feature in the new kingdom in order to sustain his people. An irrigation system that still exists and is used today during drought for much of Eastern Sri Lanka. Also, that lake I ran along is actually a huge water tank…big enough to be labeled ¨sea¨ locally (due to it´s size) and doubled as a sweet defense for the ancient kingdom. The new location of the capital not only protected from quick sea invasion but also prospered 100s of years until well the threat of invasion returned. Polonnaruwa is one of many ancient capitals in the Indian subcontinent that were literally abandoned…something which helps it´s preservation for sure.
There is also a museum at the Polonnaruwa Visitor´s Center (where you get entry tickets for the ruins) which has plenty of information on the history of the area in addition to some artifacts. If you want more artifacts then I believe there is a museum at Anuradhapura that has tons. I unfortunately didn´t have much time to explore the museum but know it is very informational and would have paired well with what I learned at the National Museum in Colombo. (visit highly recommended).
Some Tips for your visit:
Both sites and their ruins were respected with shoes off and shoulders covered. It didn´t matter that in Polonnaruwa they were no longer active temples, they still needed respect. Keep in mind Sri Lanka is hot, aka sand is hot…bring socks for barefoot temple walks or seek shade and grass if available. Keep the heat in mind for biking too…plan to be sweaty instantly…otherwise tuk tuk in Anuradhapura is an option…I guess also in Polonnaruwa…just that biking would definitely be beyond recommended here.
Don´t ever take photos with your back to the Buddha in Sri Lanka….especially at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa as it is very disrespectful as I learned the hard way…I am sorry, I didn´t know this rule… Literally do not do it! Yes, that means no selfie or friends looking at you with Buddha behind them. From experience you will get yelled at and told to delete them right away.
When you encounter a stupa you should walk clockwise around it for Buddha´s blessing. Having just looked that up now, I wonder how many I´ve gone around in the wrong direction….oh and you do it 3 times it seems. Instructions below because in Asia you encounter many stupas.
Be aware of the monkeys, they are cute and you may encounter a lot of them. They travel in groups. Remember they are wild and can become aggressive, give them space and do not touch them. They can carry diseases and do steal stuff.
To arrive to Polonaruwa you can take a bus from Colombo (6 hours), Kandy (3 hours), Anuradhapura (3 hours), or Dambulla (1 hour). Anuradhapura from Colombo by bus is over 5 hours. There is also a train option to Anuradhapura (about same time. Or hire a car with a driver from wherever you are as some do (I mostly prefer public transit so can´t speak much about this). **All times are approximate.