After the island of Sri Lanka was attacked by the forces of the Tamil king, the great Rajaraja Chola, in the eleventh century, the capital of the new kingdom was set up in Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura was left to ruin. When the Cholas were overthrown there was a resurgence of Buddhism and some effort went into preserving the beauty of Anuradhapura, but the new city was the center of all creative attention. Polonnaruwa continued to be occupied from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries with additions and enlargements made by each successive generation. The greatest of all was the Sinhalese ruler Parakrama Bahu (AD 1164-97) who built the spectacular artificial lake called Parakrama Samudra (the sea of Parakrama) which feeds acres of paddy-fields in the area.
Some of the most beautiful monuments of Polonnaruwa are clustered is an enclosure called Dalada Maluwa, the Quadrangle on the east bank of the mighty inland sea. Entrance is through a gateway, possibly of two storeys when complete, equipped with a low basin for washing the feet before entry into the sacred complex. A large circular building to the left is the remains of an attractive Vatadage, possibly built before Polonnaruwa was made the capital. The circular sanctuary stands on a base, and above rises the inner platform of the second terrace, its podium carved with a frieze of lions and animated dwarfs. Above this rises the ornamental railing of the pradakshina path, punctuated by pillars that must have supported the roof of the vatadage. This area is reached by a short flight of stairs at the four cardinal points leading up to the now ruined brick wall of the low stupa shrine with images of the Buddha looking out towards the four directions. The Vatadage is a beautiful structure, representative of all that is lovely about Sinhalese-Buddhist architecture: the simplicity of its massive proportions, the active play of decorative elements with plain abstract surfaces, and the ingenuous grandeur of the overall concept.
Right opposite the circular Vatadage is the Hatadage, the House of the Eight Relics, which once enshrined on the top floor important relics of the Buddha. It is a unique structure entirely built of finely cut and well-fitted blocks of dressed stone. The podium on which it stands is guarded by a line of seated lions. The walls of the low building are plain except for a sunken relief pattern of hansas and an inscription of King Nissanka Malla. To the east of the structure is the 'stone book', the Gal Pota, an inscription by the same king regarding his victorious military expeditions in India.
North of the Hatadage is the Chapter House and beside it, in the corner, is the Sat Mahal Prasad, the seven-storeyed palace. It is like a classical, pyramidal, terraced from symbolic of Mount Meru, representing the successive hierarchic configurations of the divine mountain. The building is closely related to the temples of the Angkor of Cambodia and those of Thailand.
On the opposite side of the Hatadage are other equally intriguing buildings. The Atadage, the home of the Tooth Relic and, next to it in the corner, is a platform which once housed the figure of the reclining Buddha, and beside it is the Lata Mandapaya. This hall (mandap) served king Nissanka Malla as a congenial setting from which to listen to the chanting of prayers. Throughout the Buddhist world the lotus flower, growing on its long stem above the stagnant waters, is a symbol of purity and grace; a reminder that we too should remain pure like the flower though surrounded by slime and inertia. The lotus flower usually appears on the capital of pillars, as motifs for wall sculptures and paintings, and as the pedestal of purity that raises the divine Buddha above the realm of gross existence. Here, at the Lata Mandapaya, the long shafts of the pillars are fashioned like tapering curvaceous lotus stems rising of the floor to support a wooden roof that no longer exists. This gallery of carved granite pillars makes one feel as if one were a diminutive lilliputian walking the waters of a pond where giant, curling lotus stems hoist the flower buds above like a canopy to capture the sunlight of wisdom.
In the south-west corner of the Quadrangle is the Thuparama, an image house or shrine. The principal image is enclosed within a square chamber, but the outer walls of the building with little niches, pilasters, and stucco work are like a distant relative of the Chola temples of Tamil Nadu of the eleventh century. Many more such examples can be seen in the Hindu Temples north of the Quadrangle.
To the south are the remains of the Citadel, the inner capital. The Royal Palace of Parakrama Bahu was possibly a mighty seven-storeyed brick and timber structure with palatial rooms, audience halls, and chambers. Opposite the palace is the Council Chamber and what remains of this triple-terraced structure. A lively frieze runs around the building, and the parade of elephants is especially charming. There are two flights of stairs leading up to the main chamber and the entrance is marked by a decorative, auspicious moonstone of concentric circles, guarded by mythical creatures and grimacing (grinning?) lions. The long hall is pillared and the ministers would have sat in rows, their designated positions determined by status and position.
From the Council Chamber there is a path which leads to the Kumara Pokuna, a stepped pond believed to be the royal bath fed by underground conduits from the Parakrama Samudra.
Outside the royal citadel and administrative area, moving northward, are other religious structures of ancient Polonnaruwa. Menik Vihara has a ruined dagoba, an image house for Buddhist statues. Rankot Vihara has the largest dagoba (55 meters high) in Polonnaruwa, and beside it is a tank for the monks to bathe in. Further north is the amazing Lankatilaka, and enormous image house (52 meters long and 17 meters high). It is an important example of an architectural setting built for colossal images of worship. At the far end of the hall stands a brick image of the standing Buddha; a vaulted roof would once have covered the sanctum. The central hall in front of the image was plastered and still carries traces of brightly-colored murals on the wall. The large open hall offered enough space for communal worship and the performance of rituals. Perhaps this is what the original site of Gal Vihara would have looked like.
It is here, a few kilometers north of Polonnaruwa, that you can see the largest sculptural masterpieces of Sri Lanka. The statues are carved of a long granite wall which forms the backdrop. Along the rock face there are tell-tale marks where wooden beams upheld the brick and timber structure of the image house in which these enormous images were probably enshrined. There are four magnificent images carved out of the rock, each more special than the next. The southernmost depicts the Buddha seated in lotus pose with his palms resting on his lap, one over the other. The face of the Buddha reflects all the tranquility of a person deep in meditation, and around the head of curls is a halo of light sparkling with the radiance of inner wisdom. The next image is within a rock-cut cave where the seated Buddha is surrounded by various deities, including Brahma and Vishnu. In the rock-cut cave there are the remains of mural paintings that would have brightened the interiors of the rock shelter and glowed in the light of oil lamps. The third figure is the Standing Buddha with his arms folded across his chest. It is an unusual and rare pose.
Possibly the artists of Gal Vihara were creating in the drama of these gigantic rock images the moving tale of the Buddha who attained nirvana after years of meditation and was honoured by the gods for his superhuman achievement in conquering desire. Then how he walked and contemplated on what he should do with his heaven-born wisdom, his decision to preach and teach the world that Buddhahood is everyone's birthright. Finally, the last stage, when the Buddha attains complete release from the endless cycle of life (at the time of his death), the Parinirvana, the great enlightenment. The last statue is colossal, as if the size is indicative of the magnitude of concept and depicts the (14 meter) figure of the reclining Buddha. The Buddha lies on his side with his head resting on one palm on a bolster that sags slightly under the weight. The other arm follows the curve of his body and his feet are held together (to attention), capturing the great monument before physical death and eternal life.
What's in the neighbourhood
Further north from Gal Vihara are some interesting sites. There is the Demala Mahaseya where Parakrama Bahu attempted to build 'the largest dagoba in the world' but didn't. Nearby is the Jetavana Monastery complex with the lovely Lotus Bath, a tiered, stepped tank in the shape of a many-petalled flower. Also within this much ruined complex is the Tivanka Image House, sometimes called the Northern Temple, with a huge image of the Buddha in the very Indian triple-flexed pose, and some of the oldest mural paintings in the island of Sri Lanka adorn its walls.
How to get there
Polonnaruwa is 216 kilometers from Colombo via the lovely rock-cut caves of Dambulla. Habarane is 45 kilometers from Polonnaruwa and is convenient halfway place at which to stay. Anuradhapura is a 101 kilometer journey from Polonnaruwa via the halfway point of Habarana.