11 June 2014
We goofed off with the locals again on the long bus journey to Polonnaruwa. I went all ga-ga when I saw a baby (my soft spot) and as much as I want to hold her, I was too shy to ask since who would give their precious darling to a complete stranger? Sensing my love for kids, the parents handed me their baby daughter and I melted with her in my arms.
As the second ancient Sri Lankan kingdom, Polonnaruwa was first declared the capital city in 1070. It’s nearly 1000 years old. Polonnaruwa’s Old Town (UNESCO WHS) is where the ancient city and Royal Palaces once stood. No palace is small so there are plenty of sites, structures and palace within a palace to visit. We skipped the New Town which, under the concept of the current President and with great support from the government, will see holistic transformations where different sectors such as agriculture,education, health and environment will be further modernized and developed. We hacked the newer parts of Polonnaruwa off our list and soaked up the historical atmosphere in her ancient city. Our lovely guesthouse rented us bikes and we peddled our way throughout the entire area. It felt like Angkor Wat and Bagan!
We quickly biked past the ancient reservoir. It was great to see the blue sky and to feel the gentle breeze.
We’ve decided to come back around sunset since laying eyes on the ancient city is the main reason why we are here.
We started our journey to see as many ancient structures as possible.
As one of the best planned archaeological sites in this country, the site is well-preserved and split into five main areas. Compact and linked with flat roads, we made our first stop at the Royal Palace Ruins. Built around 1153-1186, the construction reflected the concept back then that the King and God were equal. Destroyed by fire, some ancient texts mentioned that there are over 1000 rooms in this complex which explains why there are numerous other chambers around this structure.
The functions of these surrounding structures ranged from prayer rooms to storage to entertainment. There’s also a Council Chamber.
At the “quadrangles”, many of the structures are associated to the tooth relic. As the name implies these temples/structures are an extension or additional component to the Temple of the Tooth ( Buddha).
We found many stupas in the Norther Group. Although it doesn’t look ‘pretty’, we still love it since the more worn-out it is, the more historical it feels. The information panel indicated that we are now close to the East Gate. This stupa, with a narrow staircase, is believed to be built by the King to his Queen.
Then, we saw something great.
We took off our shoes since respect must be shown as we entered into the…….
Vatadage… considered to be an architectural marvel in Polonnaruwa, it is by far our favorite spot in the complex. Believed to be originally used as the Temple of the Tooth due to the round relic house, this was later roved to be false after a stone inscription indicated that this one was built by another King within the quadrangle. With many Vatadages around the ancient city, they all followed a similar structure- round building, stupa in the center surrounded by Buddha Statues, long pillars and beautiful carved staircase. We stared at the Vatadage and imagined the pillars to be holding a neat roof. It was peaceful to walk around the structure and be wowed by the guard stones and Sandakada pahana (only located to the North and East of the upper terrace).
So what is this Sandakada pahana? It’s a moonstone or patika.
An elaborately carved semi-circular slab, the moonstone is placed at the entrance and bottom of the staircase in Sinhalese architecture. First seen in the Anuradhapura period, historians believe that it symbolizes Samsara in Buddhism. With foliage designs, it also contains the swan, elephants, lions, horses, and bulls. These animals symbolizes good and evil, birth, disease, death and decay or growth, energy, power and forbearance. The moonstone at Polonnaruwa does not have the bull and lion since different Kingdom preferred different symbols. No matter what, the moonstones that we saw looked brand new. It was hard to believe that our feet was being fried by 1000 year-old beautifully carved stone slabs (I think I’ll put one in my future backyard).
June is not considered to be Summer and thus not THAT hot. Our batteries started to run low. Our feet tingled from landing on the smooth surface of the moonstone and we mentally kicked ourselves for not bringing with us thick socks. Bare feet and stockings = dumb move!
After seeing the white stupa, we walked for a very short distance to take a look at Siva Devale- the oldest Hindu shrine in Polonnaruwa. Built during 985-1014 AD, the Tamil inscriptions showed that it was dedicated to the King’s consort. We sat under the tree before biking our way slowly towards Lankatilaka (the 17 m wall with the headless Buddha statue).We saw 5 black cars with red car plate numbers moving slowly towards the direction of Gal Vihara.
“Must be someone important,” Fishe said.
Normally, we would race along with it but we were completely puffed out. Fishe bought some coconut juice and we sat with our faces towards the headless Buddha statue – drinking, resting and chatting with the shopkeeper. We were told that the PM is on tour (ahead of the Moon Festival) so after mustering some energy, we headed off to Gal Vihara.
Gal Vihara – solid granite, perfectly preserved and neatly carved, has wowed many explorers in the past. One Lieutenant Mitchell Henry Fagan of the 2nd Ceylon Regiment wrote: ” I cannot describe how I felt at that moment….It was like a dream …… the Big Buddha most definitely smiled at me.”
The various Buddha statues and postures adds much serenity to an already quiet place. All impressive, perhaps the most photographed one is of the reclining Buddha statue, in a Simhaseyya (lion) posture which shows parinirvana (final extinction, following the life in supreme enlightenment). We watched on as the locals paid their respects and went up a hill to get a panoramic view of the place.
Before the day ended, we visited a museum then became sidetracked as we (perhaps inappropriately) watched in intrigue as the locals took a bath in the local water tank. What seemed like a normal mundane activity became quite a fun observation for us. The locals were extremely nice and laughed at our fascination.
We ended the day at the ancient reservoir and watched the sunset.
What a jam-packed day!
Some facts about the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa
- King Vijayabahu 1 started the Polonnaruwa Kingdom and ordained monks to be sent from Myanmar so that Buddhism can be re-established.
- King Parakrmabahu the Great, who ruled from 1153 to 1186, expanded the irrigation system. He built 1470 reservoirs, repaired 165 dams, 3910 canals and ended up being the only ruler to have contributed so much to the country’s engineering and irrigation sector.This period is considered to be the Golden Age.
- Most of what we saw in Polonnaruwa dates from after the 1150s
- The Kingdom was abandoned in the 14th century. The leading cause? Invasions from South India. The invader captured the Kingdom and looted, ransacked and destroyed everything in his path. Many treasures from ancient Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Kingdoms were beyond recovery.
- Foreign trade occurred during this time. Many exports went to SE Asia and India
- One of the few things that people had to import was salt
- Buddhism continued to the the main religion with Hinduism maintaining a strong influence
- Education was seen as important- reflected in buddhist schools being constructed under the orders of the Kings.