Suitcase and World: Polonnaruwa.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


After the fall of Anuradhapura in 993 AD, Polonnaruwa was declared the capital city by King Vijayabahu I, who defeated the Chola invaders in 1070 AD to reunite the country once more under a local leader.

While Vijayabahu's victory and shifting of kingdoms to Polonnaruwa is considered significant in Sri Lankan history, the real ruler who exacted the most significance on the kingdom was actually his grandson, Parakramabahu I who ruled the country 1153 to 1186.

Besides the  the Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas, the most significant ruins in Polonnaruwa are of the fabulous garden city created by Parakramabahu I in the 12th century.

Parakrama Samudraya
It was under Parakramabhu's  reign that trade and agriculture flourished in Polonnuaruwa and it was under his patronage that an irrigation system, which still exists, was constructed.  Present day rice farmers rely on the ancient irrigation system to supply the water for their paddy fields during the scorching dry season. The greatest of these systems is the reservoir known as Parakrama Samudraya or the Sea of Parakrama.  The reservoir is so expansive that standing on one shore, you cannot see across the water to the other.

Parakrama Samudraya consists of three separate reservoirs.  The northernmost reservoir is the oldest and referred to as Topa wewa (wewa = lake or reservoir in Sinhalese) built around 386 AD. The middle section Eramudu wewa and the southernmost portion, at the highest elevation, is Dumbutula wewa.  Both Topa Wewa and Eramudu wewa added, expanding the size of the during the reign of Parakramabahu I.

Today, the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Within its boundaries lie several cultural landmarks that are not to be missed by any visitor.

Photo by Graham Racher

Statue of King Parakramabahu I
Although the statue has never been positively identified as that of Parakramabahu I,  it is the popular and widely accepted belief it is the statue of the King Parakramabahu I,

The statue was built presumably in the 12th century, during the reign of Parakramabahu I. Standing 3.4 meters high, the   statue is carved in  relief on a large boulder.  As described in wikipedia
The upper body is bare except for a single thread worn over the left shoulder. A long object is held in the hands. The statue's face carries a grave expression, with half-closed eyes, a high forehead, a long beard and a mustache. The shoulders of the statue are rounded, suggesting "extraordinary strength". The right leg is relaxed with the right knee bent forward slightly. The left leg carries the weight of the body, while the hip is also slightly inclined to the left. According to archaeologist Senarath Paranavitana, this statue is "the very embodiment of strength, majesty and dignity".

Photo by Bernard Gagnon
Lankatilaka Vihara
is one of the most emblematic structures of Polonnaruwa.  Two massive walls, each 4 meters thick and 17 meters all form a narrow aisle leading to a very impressive, though now sadly headless Buddha statue still standing, over 14 meters, high.

Polonnaruwa Royal Palace
was the once the grand residence of Parakramabahu I. What remains now are a pretty set of ruins with some walls still standing.

At its peak, the Polonnaruwa Royal Palace would have been a complex of buildings, some as high as seven stories though on parts of three floors remain as ruins today. The palace originally had abut 1000 rooms, the ruins of about 55 can be seen today.
From the ruins, you can see that the palace had thick brick walls. Still you can see the remaining two sets of holes, done on the wall to hold the structure of the wooden floor. Just south of the main palace, are the ruins of the king’s audience hall and his bathing pools.

Photo by Simon Frost
Polonnaruwa Vatadage

A vatadage is a type of Buddhist structure that is unique to ancient Sri Lankan architecture. Vatadages were built around small stupas for their protection, which often enshrined a relic or were built on hallowed ground. Circular in shape, they were commonly built of stone and brick and adorned with elaborate stone carvings. Vatadages may have also had a wooden roof, supported by a number of stone columns arranged in several concentric rows.  Only ten vatadages now remain in Sri Lanka and by all accounts, the best example of one is the one at at Polonnaruwa.  It is also one of the few that has remained more or less intact.

Gal Vihara is one of the highlights of Polonnarura. It is a rock temple, dedicated to Buddha, that was constructed by Parakramabahu I. The central feature of the temple are four images of Buddha, carved into the rock face of a huge granite boulder. The images consist of a large seated figure, a smaller seated figure inside a carved out cave, a standing figure and a reclining figure. These are considered to be some of the best examples of ancient Sinhalese sculpting and carving arts.

Photo by Bernard Gagnon
The larger of the two seated Buddhas is about 4..6 meters tall, and depicts the dhyana mudra which is when the the right hand is placed above the left, with the palms facing upwards, and the fingers extended.  This is the mudra of meditation and it is believed that this is the position that Buddha was sitting when he meditated.

The seat was carved in the shape of a lotus flower, its base decorated with carvings of flowers and lions. The statue sits on a carved throne, decorated with four small images of the Buddha (identical to the larger image) carved inside small chambers.

Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki

The smaller of the two seated Buddhas is only 1.4 meters in height but it's very similar in appearance to the larger seated Buddha.  The smaller Buddha is situated inside a carved out cave named the Vidyhadhara Guha.

The base of the lotus shaped seat of the Buddha image here is also decorated with designs of lions. A throne and a parasol are carved behind it, more elaborate in design than the larger Buddha.  A prabhamandala, or halo, is carved behind the head of the statue, which rests between two four-armed deities. According to archaeologists, the god on the right is Brahma, and the god on the left is Vishnu. The walls of the cave were once decorated with frescoes, traces of which remain in the two corners at the back of the cave.

Photo by Bernard Gagnon

The standing image is 6.93 meters tall and stands on a low pedestal shaped like a lotus.  General consensus among archaeologists and historians is that this is not a  statue of the Buddha. The standing image leans back in a relaxed manner, its arms folded across its chest and its face carries a sorrowful expression.  This has led experts to believe that the statue depicts Ananda, Buddha's faithful monk.

Located right next to the standing image is the reclining image. At 14.12 meters in length, the reclining Buddha is the largest statue in Gal Vihara.

Buddha is depicted lying on his right side with the right arm supporting the head on a bolster, while the left arm lies along the body and thigh. The palm of the right hand and the soles of the feet have a single lotus flower carved on them.
In this reclining position, the left foot is slightly withdrawn to indicate that  Buddha has attained parinirvana, and is not merely lying down.  Parinirvana is the final state of nirvana that occurs upon the death of someone who has attained enlightenment.

Parakramabahu I was succeeded by King Nissankamalla.  Nissamkamalla hastily constructed monuments that, although less refined than those of Parakramabahu I, were nonetheless splendid.

Rankot Vihara
Rankot Vihara is an enormous stupa 175 meters in diameter and 55 meters high, is one of the most impressive; its plan and its dimensions are reminiscent of the dagobas at Anuradhapura. 

King Nissankamalla's Palace is situated on a promontory jutting out into the Topa wewa. Only the foundation and few pillars remain today of this building which was probably about two stories high.

Nissankamalla's legacy can be seen in other ruins including the Nissanka Latha Mandapaya which, according to stone inscriptions located nearby, was used by the King to listen to Buddhist chant.

Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is an elevated stone platform with a number of stone columns and is surrounded by a low stone wall. These stone columns are the unique in that they are carved in a manner that is found nowhere else in Sri Lanka.

The eight granite columns are arranged in two rows, with four in each row. Presumably used to support a roof, each of them is approximately 2.54 meters tall. In each of these columns, the crown is carved in the shape of a blossoming lotus bud. The rest of the column is elaborately carved to resemble the stem of the flower. Unlike stone columns commonly seen in the architecture of this period, these are not straight, but are curved in three places.  In the center of the platform, flanked by the stone columns, is a small stupa. This is also made from stone, but the top part of it has been destroyed. Its base is decorated with a carved design. The platform is surrounded by a stone railing, and the structure is entered through a single stone doorway. In contrast to the elaborately carved stone pillars, these have an undecorated and plain finish.

After this golden age of Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla, Polonnaruwa underwent a century of difficulties, before its final decline before the end of the 13th century when it was captured in an assault by Bhuvanaikabuha II, who set up his government at Kurunegala.