Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka: Introduction
Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka. Exquisitely carved stone structures, serene statues of Lord Buddha, dazzlingly decorated temples built in to rocky overhangs and feats of irrigation that amaze the world even today are just some of the treasures left by a proud civilization stretching back more than two thousand years.
Glorious Reminders of a resplendent past; the remains of Sri Lanka’s ancient palaces, monasteries, shrines, water gardens and temples bear witness to a thriving kingdoms and to the influence of Buddhism. These reminders of the past are so outstanding that five areas have the distinction of being designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Fortunately for the visitor, four of these are conveniently located in the same region, dubbed the Cultural Triangle.
Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura
The city of Anuradhapura is situated one hundred and twenty eight miles (205 km) north of Colombo in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka on the banks of the Malwatu Oya.
The largest and oldest of all Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, Anuradhapura is a fitting climax to any tour of the Cultural Triangle. Arguably, it takes a bit more effort to imagine it as it was more than 2000 years ago, with palaces and huge dagobas standing up to nine storeys high, a main processional avenue 24km (16 miles) long, and the richly decorated, ostentatious mansions of Sinhalese nobles and wealthy foreign merchants.
Founded by King Pandukhabaya in 437BC, by the mid-3rd century BC Anuradhapura’s fame had spread as far as the Roman-Hellenistic world of the Mediterranean and by the 1st century AD it had established trade and diplomatic links with China. The Jetavana treasures, unearthed over the past 20 years (some are now displayed in the partially completed Jetavanarama Museum, on site) show evidence of these links to east and west.
Anuradhapura was the royal seat of more than 250 Buddhist and Hindu kings recorded in the royal genealogies, and the preeminent city on the island for some 1400 years.
Anuradhapura’s proximity to southern India both enriched it and encouraged the kingdom’s conversion to Buddhism, but was also its eventual downfall, making it vulnerable to the invading Tamil forces of Rajaraja Chola, who sacked the city in the 11th century AD. The Sinhalese capital then moved to Polonnaruwa. Although attempts were made to preserve its monuments after the overthrow and expulsion of the Chola dynasty, it was never restored to its former glory.
The Mawathu Oya River forms the boundary between the sacred ancient city and the modern town of Anuradhapura, east of the river. To the west are several large tanks, some of them the work of King Mahasena (AD276-303), whose passion for large-scale construction also endowed the city with the enormous Jetavanarama Dagoba.
A World Heritage Site
Anuradhapura has been classed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Anuradhapura or ‘the kingdom of Anura’, is the earliest capital of Sri Lanka and was home to the royal court from 437 BC to 1017 AD. However it is not only a city, but one of the great centres of Buddhism in South Asia visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists each year. The site consists of a central ten metre high mound covered in jungle, marking the old urban core, surrounded by over thirty square kilometres of Buddhist monasteries and huge reservoirs. Amongst the most spectacular of the Buddhist monuments are four great stupas, solid domes of earth and brick, built over a Buddhist relic, which reach heights of over eighty metres and dominate the landscape of paddy fields and coconut trees.
Kings and History of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura, according to legend, was first settled by Anuradha, a follower of Prince Vijaya the founder of the Sinhala race. Later, it was made the Capital by King Pandukabhaya about 380 BCE.
- King Pandukabhaya, 380 BCE
- King Devanampiya Tissa
- King Duttha Gamini
- King Vattagamani Abhaya
- King Mahasena
According to the Mahavamsa, the epic of Sinhala History, King Pandukabhaya’s city was a model of planning. Precints were set aside for huntsmen, for scavengers and for heretics as well as for foreigners. There were hostels and hospitals, at least one Jain chapel, and cemeteries for high and low castes.
Water supply was assured by the construction of ‘tanks’, artificial reservoirs, of which the one called after himself, exists to this day under the altered name of Baswak Kulam.
It was in the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BCE) that the Arahat Mahinda. son of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka, led a group of missionaries from North India to Sri Lanka. With his followers he settled in a hermitage of caves on the hill of Mihintale, (literally, Mahinda’s Mountain).
The new religion swept over the land in a wave. The King himself gave for a great monastery in the very heart of the City his own Royal Park – the beautiful Mahamegha Gardens.
The Buddhist principality had but a century to flourish when it was temporarily overthrown by an invader from the Chola Kingdom of South India. The religion however, received no set-back.
At this time far away on the southeast coast, was growing up the prince who was to become the paladin of Sinhala nationalism: Gamini, soon to be surnamed Duttha, the Undutiful (161 – 137 BCE).
The Mirisavati Temple and the mighty Brazen Palace nine storeys high, he presented to them. But he did not live to see the actual completion of the Ruvanveliseya Dagaba (picture at top right), his most magnificent gift
Two more, at least, of the Anuradhapura Kings must be mentioned; if only because some of the greater monuments are indisputably attributable to them.
The earlier of these was Vattagamani Abhaya Valagam Bahu (103 & 89-77 BCE) in the first year of whose reign Chola invaders again appeared and drove him temporarily into hiding. For fourteen years, while five Tamil Kings occupied his throne, he wandered often sheltering in Jungle caves. It is recorded that as in his flight he passed an ancient Jain hermitage, an ascetic, Giri called and taunted him. ‘The great black lion is fleeing!’ Throughout his exile the gibe rankled.
Winning the Kingdom back at last, he razed the Giri’s hermitage to the ground, building there the Abhayagiri Monastery. The name is a wry cant on his own name and the tactless hermit’s as well as (meaning mountain of fearlessness) a disclaimer of his cowardice!
Next came the heretic king Mahasena (274 – 301 A.D.). He alienated to the Abhayagiri vast spoil from the Maha Monastery, Devanampiya Tissa’s original foundation. But he had more substantial claim to notability than his heresy; not only did he build (for the heretics) Sri Lanka’s vastest completed Dagaba the Jetavana Ramaya, – but he was also the greatest irrigationist of the Sinhala Kings, building 16 major tanks and a great canal.
Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa
135 miles from Colombo and southeast of Anuradhapura is Polonnaruwa which was the media eval capital of Sri Lanka, and the ancient city is today one of the most beautiful centres of this island?s cultural heritage. When early in the 11th century AD Anuradhapura suffered one of the worst of its many Indian invasions, Polonnaruwa became the next of rule
The second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, Polonnaruwa was first declared the capital city by King Vijayabahu I, who defeated the Chola invaders in 1070 CE to reunite the country once more under a local leader. While Vijayabahu’s victory and shifting of Kingdoms to the more strategic Polonnaruwa is considered significant, the real Polonnaruwa Hero of the history books is actually his grandson, Parakramabahu I.
It was his reign that is considered the Golden Age of Polonnaruwa, when trade and agriculture flourished under the patronage of the King, who was adamant that no drop of water falling from the heavens was to be wasted, and each be used toward the development of the land; hence, irrigation systems far superior to those of the Anuradhapura Age were constructed during Parakramabahu’s reign, systems which to this day supply the water necessary for paddy cultivation during the scorching dry season in the east of the country.
The greatest of these systems, of course is the Parakrama Samudraya or the Sea of Parakrama, a tank so vast that that it is often mistaken for the ocean. It is of such a width that it is impossible to stand upon one shore and view the other side, and it encircles the main city like a ribbon, being both a defensive border against intruders and the lifeline of the people in times of peace. The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa was completely self-sufficient during King Parakramabahu’s reign.
However, with the exception of his immediate successor, Nissankamalla I, all other monarchs of Polonnaruwa, were slightly weak-willed and rather prone to picking fights within their own court. They also went on to form more intimiate matrimonial alliances with stronger South Indian Kingdoms, until these matrimonial links superseded the local royal lineage and gave rise to the Kalinga invasion by King Magha in 1214 and the eventual passing of power into the hands of a Pandyan King following the Arya Chakrawarthi invasion of Sri Lanka in 1284. The capital was then shifted to Dambadeniya.
Today the ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned Archeological relic sites in the country, standing testimony to the discipline and greatness of the Kingdom’s first rulers
World Heritage Site
In 1982 Ancient city of Polonnaruwa be inscribed on the World Heritage list under cultural criteria of C (i) (iii) (vi). UNESCO is an organization of the United Nations which nominates cultural or natural sites as World Heritage.
Kings and History of Polonnaruwa
- King Aggabodhi IV
- King Vijayabahu I
- King Parakramabahu I
- King Nissankamalla
King Aggabodhi IV (667 – 685) AD was the first Sri Lankan King who lived in Polonnaruwa, and the town came gradually to become the ‘Country Residence’ of royalty. Anuradhapura, the formal and administrative capital, was already a thousand years old, and kings increasingly favored the new city of Polonnaruwa, and developed it.
However it was the Cholas of South India who made Polonnaruwa the capital after looting and burning Anuradhapura in 993 AD.
In 1070 AD the Sinhala King Vijayabahu I liberated the country by defeating the Cholas, and kept Polonnaruwa as his capital. Vijayabahu succeeded in repairing much of the irrigation system in the island, encouraged trade and brought some prosperity back to the country.
King Parakramabahu I (1153-86) raised Polonnaruwa to its heights. He erected huge buildings, drained swamps and planted vast areas with crops, planned beautiful parks, created wildlife sanctuaries, restored earlier monuments & even undertook military expeditions against Burma and India.
However his crowning achievements were the creation of the 2400 hectare tank (about 15 Km2), so large it was named the Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama); and the unification of the three orders of monks, the Mahavihara, Jetavana and Abhayagiri into one Sangha or ‘Supreme Order of Monks’. The greatness of his achievement was to ensure the survival of Buddhism in the dark centuries ahead.
Parakramabahu was the last great king of Sri Lanka.
King Nissankamalla (1187 – 96), although claimed himself to be a great builder, was not. And squandered most of the country’s wealth trying to match his predecessor’s deeds.
Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka: Sigiriya
Sri Lankan architectural tradition is well displayed at Sigiriya, the best preserved city centre in Asia from the first millennium, with its combination of buildings and gardens with their trees, pathways, water gardens, the fusion of symmetrical and asymmetrical elements, use of varying levels and of axial and radial planning.
The Complex consists of the central rock, rising 200 meters above the surrounding plain, and the two rectangular precincts on the east (90 hectares) and the west (40 hectares), surrounded by two moats and three ramparts.
The plan of the city is based on a precise square module. The layout extends outwards from co-ordinates at the centre of the palace complex at the summit, with the eastern and western axis directly aligned to it. The water garden, moats and ramparts are based on an ?echo plan’ duplicating the layout and design on either side. This city still displays its skeletal layout and its significant features. 3 km from east to west and 1 km from north to south it displays the grandeur and complexity of urban-planning in 5 th century Sri Lanka.
For an in depth view, read our article on the Sigiriya Rock Fortress in Sri Lanka
Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka: Dambulla
Dambulla is sited on a gigantic rock which towers more than 160m above the surrounding land. The Rock is more the 1.5km around its base and summit is at 550km. The caves were the refuge of King Walagamba (Vattagamini Abhaya)
When he was exile for 14 years. When he return to the throne at Anuradapura in the 1st century BC, he had magnificent rock temple built at Dabulla.
The site has being repaired and repainted several times in the 11th, 12th and 18th centuries.
For an in depth view, visit our article on the Dambulla Cave Temple in Sri Lanka
Dambulla was designated a World Heritage site in 1991. The caves have a mixture of religious and secular painting and sculpture. There are several reclining Buddha’s, including the 15m long sculpture of the dying Buddha in Cave 1. the frescoes on the walls and ceiling from the 15th-18th centuries; the ceiling frescoes show scenes from the Buddha’s life and Sinhalese history. Cave 2 is the largest and most impressive, containing over 150 statues, illustrating the Mahayana influences on Buddhism at the time through introducing Hindu deities such a s Vishnu and Ganesh.
A new large white Buddha (similar to the ones in Kandy and Mihintale) is planned for Dambulla. There is little evidence of monks who are housed in monasteries in the valley below where there is a monks’ school.
Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka: Kandy
Situated in 116 km from Colombo, Located in the foothills of the central highlands around the banks of a picturesque lake, steeped in history, and possessing a salubrious Climate, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s renowned second city. In many ways, however, Kandy is more important than the true capital, for although Colombo may be the hub of commerce and communication, it is Kandy that has always been the centre of Sri Lanka’s rich culture and the symbol of the nation’s complex identity.
History and Heritage
The city of Kandy lies at an altitude of 488.6 meters (1629 feet) above sea level in the center of the island and surrounded by the ranges of mountains. It is still very much a focal point of Sri Lankan culture. It was the capitol of last generation of Sri Lanka`s kings until it fell in to the hands of British in 1815.
Kandy was originally known as Senkadagalapura after a hermit named Senkada who lived there. Many of Sinhalese people call it ?Mahanuwara? meaning the “Great City?. But the name Kandy was derived from the Word “Kanda”, which means mountain. Due to it’s geographical location Kandy was not an easy target for the foreign invaders who could gain the control of coastal area of the island.
Thus Kandyan culture was abler to foster and maintain its own social structure, mode of living, Art & Architecture. The kings of Kandy ensured the safety and sovereignty of the hill capital until the British finally captured the city in 1815.
The royal palace in Senkadagala was built by King Vikramabahu the 3rd of Gampola on the advice of a Brahmin who selected the site as a lucky ground for a Capital city. The first king to ascended the throne of Senkadagala was Sena Sammata Wickramabahu.