Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka. Today, it is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a huge archaeological site (122 hectares) with perhaps Sri Lanka’s most impressive artifacts and ruins.

The site houses the ruins of Sri Lanka’s largest Buddhist University called “Alahana Pirivena”.  The city is an important stop for Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims because of many Buddhist monuments and ruins attested to various historical incidents. In the past, the city gained influence under South Indian rulers who were ousted by the Sinhalese rebels during the eleventh century CE. The ruins of Polonnaruwa is popular for its blend of Anuradhapuran and South Indian architecture. This is because the ancient inhabitants of Polonnaruwa were a mix of Buddhist and Hindu elite. In the face of growing South Indian power, the kingdom of Polonnaruwa was short-lived and abandoned around 1300 CE. The ruins of Polonnaruwa were mostly unknown until colonial explorations started in the Northern wildernesses of the island. The city has inspired many people through its liberal approach to Buddhist art and Hindu sensuality. It is a place where Buddhist monuments and Hindu shrines stand side by side. The kings of Polonnaruwa extended the Anuradhapuran irrigation system to this kingdom as well. The main site lies on the bank of a large ancient reservoir. Kingdom of Polonnaruwa is the earliest form of contemporary Sinhalese culture.


Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, Polonnaruwa,

North Central Province, Sri Lanka.

Open Time

7.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.

Weekdays & Weekends

The Citadel of Polonnaruwa

The citadel of Polonnaruwa or the inner city area housed the royal palace complex of Vijayabahu the Elder and Parakramabahu the Great. The citadel was enclosed inside a thick brick rampart. This rampart foundation is seen today in a restored state. Three notable structures left in the citadel are described below.

Palace of King Parakramabahu (Vijayantha Prasada)

Palace of King Parakramabahu is one of the most impressive ruins at Polonnaruwa. King Parakramabahu was the most powerful king of Polonnaruwa. He managed to win a civil war, reorganize Buddhist education, construct a huge reservoir, build a navy and sack coastal cities around the Bay of Bengal. He was a great patron of art. Most ruins at the archaeological complex were constructed with his funding in the twelfth century CE. Later kings of Polonnaruwa idolized him. His palace was originally seven storied. The lower three floors were built with brick and the upper four floors were a wooden superstructure. Today, the brick walls and vertical recesses for vertical wooden beams that supported upper floors are visible. The stone staircase leading to the upper floors remain intact. Patches of the original plaster remain along the walls in some places.

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Council Chamber of King Parakramabahu

The council chamber used by the king lies east of the palace. This is the place where Polonnaruwa was designed at. It is believed that the chamber was built upon the former king’s palace. The intricate stone carvings around the chamber show friezes of elephants, lions, horses, and mythical creatures. The entrance to the chamber is a perfect specimen of a traditional Sinhalese entrance. A flight of steps flanked by intricately carved balustrades and two lion statues greet the admitted, An elaborate set of pillars inside the chamber bear evidence of a slanting wooden roof.

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Royal Bath (Kumara Pokuna)

The royal bath is a good example of ancient Polonnaruwa’s water management. Underground pipes from the nearby canal worked as an inflow through a carved stone shower while a conduit regulated by a stone slab drained out used water. A resting seat at the middle of the bath and royal changing rooms are seen not far away from the pond.

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Parakrama Samudra (The Sea of Parakrama)

The Parakrama Samudra is a twelfth-century man-made reservoir. It is named after the king who funded its construction. The reservoir covers about 26 square kilometers. It was designed by combining three reservoirs made around the third century CE. At the time of completion, this construction was the largest reservoir in the island. Hence, the literal name “The Sea of Parakrama”. Listed below are some interesting places dotting the banks of the reservoir.

Statue of Parakramabahu or Pulasthi?

The statue is a high relief sculpture on a boulder facing the reservoir. There are many speculations regarding the identity of the statue. Traditionally, it is identified as the statue of King Parakramabahu. However, the minimalistic features of the statue does not represent a king. Hence, the alternative suggestion of a Sage named Pulasthi. After all, the name Polonnaruwa derives from Pulasthipura (The city of Pulasthi). It is a place in Sri Lanka where many questions come up on the history of Polonnaruwa.

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Pothgul Vehera Complex

Pothgul Vehera is traditionally identified as a monastic library. Yet the unique circular chamber in the middle of the complex looks more like a shrine. Around this chamber are foundations of small rooms and stupa monuments. The plan of the complex is certainly unique.

Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum

Polonnaruwa archaeological museum is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. Professor Leelanada Prematileke who was the former archaeological director of Polonnaruwa designed it. If you are interested in ancient Sri Lankan art, this is a must-visit place in Polonnaruwa. It is also where all site tickets are issued as well.

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King Nissankamalla Palace Complex (Deepa Uyana)

King Nissankamalla was an extravagant king who bankrupted the late kingdom of Polonnaruwa. An exquisite council chamber and a three-level bath remain of his original palace complex. The council chamber of Nissankamalla shows beautifully carved lion-headed pillars and his lion-shaped stone throne.

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The Sacred Quadrangle

The sacred quadrangle is the main highlight inside the Polonnaruwa archaeological site. It is a square-shaped terrace where most of the ancient Buddhist ruins survive. The terrace is originally known as the terrace if the tooth relic (Dalada Maluwa). The entrance is through a flight of stone steps and the remains of a gatehouse. Listed below are the ruins on the terrace.

Nissanka Latha Mandapaya (Nissanka’s Lotus Pavillion)

Nissanka Latha Madapaya is a masterpiece of Sri Lankan architecture and stone carvings. Elegantly decorated stone pillars take the shape of lotus stalks rising upwards. These pillars supported a roof of unknown shape. A latticed stone fence surrounds the pillared pavilion. An inscription nearby states that King Nissankamalla used this pavilion for royal pirith (Buddhist stanza) chanting ceremonies.

Vatadage (Circular Relic House)

The Vatadage is one of the most beautiful buildings in Sri Lanka. It is certainly the most beautiful example of a traditional entrance in Sri Lanka. Exquisite guard stones, moonstones, balustrades, and carved stone steps adorn the two terraces leading up to the main shrine in the middle of the circular chamber. In the sacred chamber, four Buddha statues face the four cardinal directions. Behind the Buddhas is a small stupa monument where the Sacred Tooth Relic was enshrined. Remnants of the pillars that supported a wooden roof to the chamber are left around the circular inner chamber.


Thuparama is the oldest image house in Polonnaruwa It is dated to eleventh century CE. This brick-built vaulted shrine is decorated with elaborate carvings. Crystalline limestone Buddhas sit in the deepest part of the image house. The limestone makes the statues sparkle when exposed to natural light. A thick wall cools down the inner chamber. There is a staircase leading up through this wall to get a birds-eye view of the shrine.

Shiva Devala No. 1 and No. 2

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa gained prominence under the South Indian “Chola” invaders. There is a high influence of the Hindu culture and religion within Polonnaruwa. About 14 Hindu shrines were excavated within the site. They stand side-by-side Buddhist shrines. The most well preserved of the Hindu buildings are named Shiva Devala No. 1 and No. 2. They were built similarly to the South Indian temples by using a rock interlocking system. Shiva Devala No 1 is the oldest building in the Polonnaruwa archaeological site.

Gal Viharaya (The Rock Temple)

Gal viharaya in Sri Lanka is definitely in the ultimate Asian bucket list. The four Buddha statues of Gal Viharaya are the most beautiful stone statues in Sri Lanka. The place was originally called “Uttararama” (Northern Monastery). All Galviharaya statues are fine carved onto a single rock face, which create a breathtaking effect. The attention to detail by the stonemason show unsurpassed skill. The human form carved out is made realistic by robe that flows naturally, head pressing down on a pillow, under robe following the outer robe seam and universal emotion.

The four statues of Gal Viharaya

  1. The Samadhi Statue (Meditating Buddha Statue
  2. The Vijjudhara Guha Cave Statue (Meditating Buddha Statue)
  3. The Maha Karuna Statue (The Standing Statue)
  4. The Parinirvana Statue (Passing Away Statue)

Things to do in Polonnaruwa

Cycling in Polonnaruwa

Cycling in Polonnaruwa is the perfect way to explore the ruins. It takes the pace out of traveling and gives you enough time to discover your favorite places. Cycling can really benefit you as rushing through Polonnaruwa can really make your Polonnaruwa experience less charming. The site is more than 122 hectares and hundreds of ruins are scattered everywhere. Besides, cyclists are more than welcome to the archaeological park with shaded trees, green grass and paved roads between the ruins.

Advantages of cycling in Polonnaruwa
  • Takes the pace out of traveling
  • Gives your visit a free vibe
  • Ensure a good experience
  • Enjoy the scenery and let the wind run through your hair
  • Snap superb photos
  • Explore all the ruins which everybody miss out on
  • Cyclist guides are available.
Things to know when you go cycling at Polonnaruwa
  • Motor vehicles are also permitted into the park and there are no bicycle lanes. Thankfully, drivers are more disciplined inside the park.
  • It will be hot. Do not forget your biggest water bottle.
  • A ticket is only valid for a day (Which means you still will have to manage time)
  • Make sure your legs and shoulders are covered. (or you won’t be allowed to enter many places.)
  • Ancient granite pavements and traditional sand yards are hot in the bright sun and you will be asked to take your shoes off when entering. (Bring a pair of socks!)
  • Street hawkers will love you.
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