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The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa is an incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. This is one city where modernisation has mingled peacefully with ancient ruins. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Ancient Sri Lanka from around the 9th Century to the 13th Century, after Anuradhapura. It has some beautifully preserved ruins that have earned it a special place on Sri Lanka’s cultural map.

My family trip to Polonnaruwa was tiring, and yet full of awe and beauty. Polonnaruwa is a beautiful city even now, with neat shops and houses. The residents of this old city respect the ruins, and tourists are expected to respect them too. The city is green and lush with natural beauty. The Polonnaruwa Lake has some amazing sights, and an ancient canal still runs through, providing clean, usable water to the residents of Polonnaruwa.

Here are some of the sights we saw during our trip to Polonnaruwa. Note that these are just SOME of the sights. In reality the whole site of Polonnaruwa is enormous, and the hefty ticket price which is valid for one day is actually very expensive, because one day is not enough to see all the sights. Also note that I have post-processed these photos (changing the saturation and contrast). I wanted to make these photos black and white just to give a different feel of the place.

The Royal Palace

Built in the 11th Century by King Parakramabahu I, the Royal Palace once was a seven storied building (apparently). However, all that remains now is some ruins that can vaguely be recognised as rooms and bathrooms. The Royal Palace was apparently burned down at some period in history and that is the reason for its run-down condition. This does not mean however that the site is an eyesore. The Royal Palace is indeed in ruins now, but it is quite a landmark and one can be awestruck by its impressive size and building plan. It exudes a strange beauty of its own.

The Polonnaruwa Quadrangle

This site is one of the most famous and interesting areas of Polonnaruwa. It contains the beautiful buildings of the Atadage, Hatadage and Vatadage, as well as Thuparama. The most iconic structure here is the circular Vatadage, which is believed to have been created by King Parakramabahu I in the 12th Century. However, some historians disagree, saying it was made by King Nissankamalla. Nevertheless, this is one of the most impressive structures in Polonnaruwa, with four intricate entrances. The monument itself is circular, and stairs lead one up to the heart of the Vatadage. Upstairs, there are four seated Buddha statues surrounding a small stupa. It is believed that the Vatadage was constructed to contain the Buddha Tooth Relic. The Vatadage is ornate with beautiful moonstone carvings as well as guard stones.

The Hatadage was built by Nissankamalla in the 12th Century. It has three Buddha statues in standing forms. It is considered to be the original shrine to house the Buddha Tooth Relic.

The Atadage is yet another monument from the 12th Century which was built to contain the Tooth Relic. It has a prominent Buddha statue.

The Thuparama was apparently made by either a minister of Parakramabahu, or even by King Vijaybahu I himself (around the 11th or 12th Century). It previously contained a particular statue of Buddha, which does not exist now. There are a few more statues of the Buddha inside however.

One taxing exercise is taking off your shoes and hats before entering any of these monuments. Sri Lankans are quite religious and any traveller must make sure not to offend the religious sentiments in the country. Though taking off shoes and hats and walking in the heat to enter these temples was definitely quite challenging and annoying at times, I guess there is no other way. It is common in Sri Lanka to take off your shoes and hats when entering monuments that have images of the Buddha.


This was one really amazing monument. It houses a HUGE Buddha image (the head is now gone unfortunately), but the rest of the body is visible. It was quite magical to walk inside. I felt as if I had just discovered something. This monument almost looks untouched and though it is in ruins, that only adds to its beauty.

Gal Viharaya

This is unmistakably the most famous site in Polonnaruwa. Before visiting Sri Lanka, I had seen the huge reclining Buddha statue in books and to see it in reality was even more majestic. I was so excited when I saw the Gal Viharaya statues from a distance.

This site is particularly incredible because it has four extremely well-preserved Buddha statues carved out of a granite rock. All these statues are HUGE, especially the one of the reclining Buddha. One of these three statues is not considered to be of the Buddha, because of its unusual posture. However, these statues are absolutely breathtaking and provide ample photo opportunities. However, you have to make sure that your back is not facing any Buddha image. It is considered extremely disrespectful. So no posing in front of the statues!

After all this walking around, we went to the Polonnaruwa Museum, which was highly interesting and really threw more light on the history of the city. After seeing some photos of the ruins at Island Park, we were slightly dismayed, because we still hadn’t found Island Park. And it was not only our last day there, but the sun was almost about to set. There are no photos of the museum as photography is forbidden there.

However, once we left the museum, there was some sort of miracle and our eyes fell on a signpost that read ‘To Island Park’. Though we were quite tired, we could not hold back our excitement at seeing more ruins.

The Island Park is indeed beautiful – more so because it is so secluded. Though it is right in the middle of the city, there is practically no one there. Here the ruins face Polonnaruwa Lake and the Royal Audience Chamber and the King’s grand Lion Throne must have been quite something back in the day. I didn’t try sitting on the throne, but maybe I should have.

After visiting the Island Park and taking a lot of photos, we headed to the one place that was the perfect end to it all.

I haven’t mentioned ALL the sites in Polonnaruwa because that would make this post endless. However, after a long day of walking around these famous ruins, it’s great to go to the Parakrama Samudraya (Polonnaruwa Lake) to watch the sunset. Immediately all your body pain (from walking around forever), will disappear. This was the last stop we made in Polonnaruwa after a day of exploring ruins.

You can see some of the photos at Parakrama Samudraya here.