Anuradhapura, Mihintale and Polonnaruwa, ancient cities in North Central Sri Lanka

To catch up on the history of the country and appreciate the ancient cities that once flourished I next headed to the North Central and Central part of Sri Lanka. This blog is only on Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa as they fall under the North Central province, although the route I traversed was Anuradhapura ->Dambulla ->Sigiriya ->Polonnaruwa.

Anuradhapura : Except for the stupas most of the other areas are completely in ruins, so you really need the details of the ruin told to you/or read beforehand to imagine and appreciate it. I did not hire a guide, but my tuk-tuk driver did a pretty good job explaining most areas. The sights are spread across a vast area however if you have time and don’t mind a good walk you can still try this on foot. Bikes are also available for rent, usually the hotel/guesthouse can arrange for this.

As we entered the park there was a long line of people for visiting the Bodhi tree, so we started with the other sites. The tickets are to be purchased at the Archeology museum, 1875lkr for SAARC nationals and 25usd for others. The museum itself was closed for renovations. Here are the list of places I stopped by.

  1. Wessa Giriya, cave dwellings by commoners was the start point(though I am not able to locate it on the map now).
  2. The famous Moonstone was next. Guardstone, the Refectory and the Elephant pond, Eth Pokuna, the huge water storage pond are close by.
  3. Abhayagiri Stupa made of bricks is majestic with the serene Samadi statue next to it.
  4. The twin ponds, Kotum Pokuna, was used as bathing tanks and you can still see the simple engineering technique used to avoid silting of the tanks.
  5. The Jetavanaramaya Stupa, one of the tallest stupas of it’s time is also a brick structure and looks magnificent.
  6. Thuparamaya Stupa is still a sacred place of veneration. This is suppose to have the collarbone of Buddha and is considered to be the first Stupa built at the site. It is comparatively smaller in structure.
  7. Ruwanwelisaya stupa is the one which has the elephant statues on the outer walls. It’s again one of the most venerated Stupas and one of the tallest of recent times.
  8. Walking down the pathway from Ruwanwelisaya is the most famous site of the ancient city,Maha Bodhi Tree, supposedly from a branch from the bodhi tree at Gaya,India.
  9. Between the above two is the ruins of Lovamahapaya, Brazen palace
  10. And lastly Isurumuniya, a Buddhist temple. Now for this again a ticket of 200lkr is charged and really, I was not able to figure out why. Nothing great, has a reclining Buddha, a stupa on the rock and a small museum with some sculptures. It’s more like you are here, so as well do this place too… else can totally miss this one, that’s my opinion.
Moonstone of Anuradhapura

Statue of Samadhi Buddha
Supposedly the rice bowl and curry bowl at the Refectory
The reverberated Maha Bodhi Tree

How much time you will take to do all of them is totally up to you. Typically can be done in 3-4hrs. I had opted for the 6hr deal with the tuk-tuk, so did it at a very relaxed pace.


Mihintale :
This plateau on a hilltop is believed to be the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where Budhas son Mihinda met king Devanampiyatissa initiating the presence of Buddhism. The temple is around 16km from the new bus station of Anuradhapura and many buses ply to Mihintale from here.

As you walk up and climb the hill you can see the many caves that were used by the bikkus, an old stupa Kantaka Cetiya and ruins of the monastery with the refectory. Ambasthala Dagaba which is believed to enshrine the relics of Mahinda, rock having statue of Buddha, steps to Aradhana Gala which is a hill climbed by most locals and the steps to the Maha Stupa are at the plain after the climb. One can easily do this in 1-2hrs. Sunset views are great from the Maha Stupa.

Maha Stupa of Mihintale

Ambasthala Dagaba having the relic of Mahinda, son of Buddha
Sunset at Maha Stupa, Mihintale

Polonnaruwa : After Anuradhapura this is the next most ancient city in Sri Lanka. The ruins here are in a smaller area and can easily be covered on foot or by renting a bicycle at the entrance to the site. Although the ticket itself is issued at the archeological museum which is about 800mts away from the entrance on the other side of the main road. Ticket again is 1850lkr for SAARC nationals and 25usd for other foreigners.Note that you will enter from one side and exit out on the other end, so as you enter visit the  citadel on your right and any other on that side before you move to the left side of the entrance. I missed this and then didn’t want to walk  back all the way.

Parts of the ruins are still intact and it’s much easier to admire the splendor this place must have once been. The left side of the entrance has most of the know sights. The site is much more organised with good directions and explanations of the ruins at each place, so was very easy for me to chart my way and also understand the story of the ruins.

  1. The Sacred Quadrangle (Royal Palace) has most of the beautiful and intact structures. Satmahal Pasadaya, considered to be a rare Stupa built in a stepped pyramidal form. Hatadage, Atadage and Vatadage which are believed to have been the Temple of Tooth built by various rulers. Galpota (stone book),  Tuparama image house and the Nissamka Lata Mandapa being the other prominent structures here.
  2. As you walk down there’s a right pointing to Pabulu Vihara,a stupa, and Siva Devalaya 2. You can visit  this and get back to the main path.
  3. Ruins of the monastery Manik Vehera
  4. Rankoth Vihara
  5. Lankathilaka Vihara and the temple along with Kirthi Vehera
  6. And lastly the most famous Gal Vihara which has granite statues of Buddha in the sitting, unique standing pose and the reclining one. The walls around this seem to have been once well decorated the remains of which, a small part, can be seen in the enclosed section. The rock opposite the reclining Buddha is a nice place to sit, relax and admire the statues.

Further down the path there is direction to Devala Maha Seya but this is fully under renovation, so no point walking all the way there. Follow the directions to exit and you can easily walk down to the nearest bus stop.

Vatadage, believed to have held the Relic of the tooth of Buddha in 12th century
Galpota, huge stone book having inscriptions
Rankoth Vihara Stupa
Lankathilaka temple
Though majority eroded this statue at Lankathilaka is still so beautiful
Sitting statue of Buddha at Gal Vihara
This standing pose of Buddha is believed to be only seen here.
Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara

Even walking to all these places it took me only around 3hrs to reach Gal Vihara and that too at a relaxed pace. So Polonnaruwa can easily be planned as a half day trip if you are already staying at Dambulla or Habarana. Lots of buses plying this way and the road between Habarana and Polonnaruwa is very picturesque as you pass through the Minneriya National Park.

Most travellers do either Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa, one reason, the high entrance fee. Personally for me each site was unique by itself, although it’s much easier to admire the ruins at Polonnaruwa.

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