Exploring Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle

Story posted: Saturday, 28. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / CULTURAL TRIANGLE






Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle

In recent years north-central Sri Lanka has been much promoted by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board as "the Cultural Triangle" - and with good reason. While the south coast offers some of the most beautiful beaches on earth, the roughly triangular area encompassing Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa is home to some of the richest and most impressive archaeological monuments in Asia.



The single most impressive ancient monument in Sri Lanka is surely the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. This outcrop rises abruptly from the surrounding plains of north-central Sri Lanka, dominating the country for miles around. A massive monolith of red stone, so sheer that the top overhangs the vertical walls on all four sides, it looms 349m above sea level and 180m above the surrounding scrub and jungle.

All but impregnable to surprise attack and even sustained siege, there are indications that the great rock was first inhabited by aboriginal hunters more than two millennia ago. It was not until the 5th century AD, however, that Sigiriya entered briefly into a golden age as the seat of Sinhalese power in mediaeval Sri Lanka. The story surrounding this blossoming has been described by the historian Zeylanicus as "a barbaric tale of vindictive passion, romantic beauty and superhuman endeavour without parallel in the bloodstained annals of Lanka". Certainly as the lovely, tear-shaped island enters the 21st century still threatened by a bloody civil war, it bears relating again.

In AD 459 Dhatusena, a Sinhalese of noble birth, defeated his Tamil rivals and established a new capital at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka's northwest. His eldest son, Kasyapa, was born soon after to a minor queen. Subsequently the chief queen bore him another son, Mogallana, who was held to be the legitimate heir by virtue of his mother's superior rank. Needless to say this sat badly with Kasyapa who, in 477, seized the throne by force and walled up his father alive. Meanwhile Mogallana, fearing for his life, fled into exile in the Tamil realm of south India.

Thereafter Kasyapa is said to have felt remorse for his ruthless deed, though it is equally probable his actions were driven by fear of his brother's return. Whatever the case, almost as soon as he had seized the throne the parricide began fortifying the massive outcrop at Sigiriya, building a splendid palace atop the great megalith. Here he ruled for eleven years. Even today it is easy to imagine him, sitting on the smooth stone known as the king's throne, admiring the elaborate gardens constructed on the plain below whilst simultaneously scanning the horizon uneasily for his brother.

His fears proved far from groundless. In 495 Mogallana, backed by Tamil forces, returned in search of revenge. Unwisely, Kasyapa descended from his lofty perch to meet the invaders, directing the advance of his soldiers from elephant back. Soon the great beast became separated from the bulk of the army and Kasyapa, isolated and in despair, committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat. Flushed with victory, Mogallana proclaimed himself king and transferred the capital back to Anuradhapura, leaving the rock fortress of Sigiriya to the wild beasts, the jungle, and an obscure order of cave-dwelling monks.

Climbing Sigiriya offers wonderful views across the countryside, and the visitor can relax on the summit amid the shattered remnants of Kasyapa's palace. The climb isn't easy, however, and even if you are fit you should allow 2-3 hours to make the ascent.


Sri Lanka: Nymphs at Sigiriya.
David Henley / CPA
Sri Lanka: Nymphs at Sigiriya.


About 35km east of Sigiriya, just off Route 11 linking Anuradhapura and Batticaloa, lies the sleepy provincial capital of Polonnaruwa, 215km distant from bustling Colombo. It's difficult to imagine now, but for about three hundred years between the 10th and 13th centuries AD Polonnaruwa was the splendid capital of Sri Lanka.

The Parakrama Samudra

Unlike Anuradhapura, where the remnants of past glory are spread over an extensive area, in Polonnaruwa they are relatively easily accessible and can be explored on foot or by bicycle. The most obvious legacy of the old kingdom is the Parakrama Samudra at the western rim of town. King Parakramabahu I (1153-86) ordered the building of the colossal tank both for water storage and as a defensive barrier. A 3.5m-high statue near the southern end of the tank, supposedly portrays Parakramabahu and conveys a deep notion of dignity and nobility; the figure is rendered with great artistic economy and restraint. About 200m south of the statue, Parakramabahu built the Potgul Vihara or "Library-Monastery". Besides a library, the building encompassed a mysterious, round and domed building fortified with walls 3m wide.

The Citadel

The core of Polonnaruwa's old city is the citadel near the Parakrama Wewa, which was originally surrounded by a wall. The citadel encompasses the remnants of what is usually regarded as Parakramabahu's palace. Though almost completely in ruins, the remains give a good idea of the labyrinth of rooms the palace must have contained. Holes in a remaining wall indicate where wooden beams were affixed, possibly to support a wooden balustrade. The palace included a "Great Hall" which in all likelihood included a throne for the monarch and seating arrangements for the audience. Here, the king took his decisions, reputedly with the help of a multi-racial council consisting of four Sinhalese, four Muslims, four Christians and four Jews. If true, King Parakramabahu must have been one of the most tolerant and enlightened rulers of his time.

Off the northeast side of the palace, the remains of an Audience Hall can be seen, as well as the well-preserved former Council Chamber. The Council Chamber is a slightly raised stone pavilion, with an elaborate staircase of fourteen steps leading up to it. An inscription indicates that the Council Chamber was erected in 1198 by King Nissanka Malla. Its base is covered with reliefs depicting dwarfs, elephants and lions.

The Kumara Pokuna

Southwest of the Council Chamber lies the Kumara Pokuna or "Princely Pond", a royal bath-tank, which once was flanked by two lion figures. The water flowed through taps shaped like crocodile heads.

The Northern Relics

North of the citadel, the most important remains of the old city are spread out. As in Anuradhapura, hardly any of the secular buildings have survived. The most interesting collection of ruins is found in a relatively small area north of the citadel, often referred to as the Great Quadrangle. Its most attractive edifice is the Vatadage or "Round Relic-House". This is based of two overlying round platforms, the upper slightly smaller than the lower, which were surrounded by a wall. At the cardinal points, gates and staircases interrupt the wall. Each staircase leads up to the figure of a seated Buddha, and the four Buddhas gaze serenely in the four cardinal directions. The staircases are ornamented in great detail, with moonstones laid out at their bases, arches depicting makaras, mythical sea-crocodiles, as well as flower ornaments, guardian-stones, lions, dwarfs and other decorative motifs.

A Link with Southeast Asia

The Satmahal Prasada, built by Nissanka Malla, is an interesting reminder of the communications that Sri Lankan monks maintained with Southeast Asia. The pyramid-like structure had seven levels (now reduced by time to six), becoming consecutively smaller towards the top. Quite unlike any other structure in Sri Lanka, it bears a striking resemblance to two 13th-century Mon chedis at Lamphun in northern Thailand, then the Kingdom of Haripunchai, with which Sri Lanka maintained close religious ties.

The Ruvaneli Dagoba

This huge dagoba, also known as the Rankot Dagoba, stands further north, and with a height of 55m is the highest dagoba in Polonnaruwa and the fourth highest in Sri Lanka. Its circumference is 165m.

The Alahana Parivena Group

Still further north, an assortment of buildings was erected within the precinct of the cremation grounds for the members of the royal family and senior members of the Sangha or council; the buildings are collectively known as the Alahana Parivena Group. The small stupas scattered over the area are thought to be tombs. The most striking edifice in the group is the Lankatilaka Image House (also called Jetavanarama), a large temple lined by 18m high walls. Its outside is decorated with numerous bas-reliefs. At the western end inside the Lankatilaka, at the far side of the entrance, there is a 13m high figure of a standing Buddha, made of brickwork and originally coated with stucco.

The Rock Monastery

From the Kiri Vihara, a path leads north, first through some minor ruins, then in between two tanks to Polonnaruwa's most striking architectural monument: the Gal Vihara or "Rock Monastery". The Gal Vihara was part of an extensive sacral complex credited to Parakramabahu 1, called Uttararama or "Northern Monastery", comprising four massive figures hewn out of a horizontal escarpment of streaked granite rock. The figures depict the Buddha in his three main poses of sitting, standing and lying; each figure was originally covered by its own image-house. A male figure, 7m high, stands left of the recumbent Buddha's head. His arms are crossed and he wears a somewhat less beatific, even slightly morose expression on his face. It is sometimes assumed that this figure represents Buddha's devoted disciple and cousin Ananda, as he mourns the death of his beloved teacher. The crossed arms, however, might indicate that the figure portrays the Buddha himself, since he was occasionally depicted in this manner, for example in a painting in the Dambulla Caves (see pxx). The theory that the figure does indeed represent the Buddha is further corroborated by marks in the rock, which indicate that there must have once been a shrine in front of the statue; no shrines are ever known to have been devoted to Ananda.


Located in arid country about 30km north of Polonnaruwa, Medirigiriya is famous for the Mandalagiri Vihara, a vatadage or relic-house similar to the better-known one at Polonnaruwa, but far more isolated and therefore quieter. Thought to date from the 2nd century AD, it stands on a low hill. Four Buddha images face in the cardinal directions around the central dagoba.


Situated in the Ritigala Nature Reserve close to Route 11 between Anuradhapura and Habarana, Ritigala is the site of an ancient forest monastery thought to date from the 4th century BC but abandoned seven centuries later following Chola invasions from neighbouring India. Today extensive but deserted ruins remain scattered across an arid hill. There is also a complex of caves once inhabited by forest monks.



Giant Buddha at Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale
Rainer Krack / CPA
Giant Buddha at Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale


The north-central city of Anuradhapura first became Sri Lanka's capital in 380 BC, and it remained the capital for around 1,000 years. Today it's effectively two towns, the modern city - which is a well laid-out, shaded and pleasant town - and the ancient city which lies a little distance to the northwest. It's a much more spread out place than Polonnaruwa, and you'll need to use taxis or perhaps hire a bike if you're feeling energetic.

Modern Anuradhapura is surrounded by three of its oldest and most vital structures, the reservoirs or "tanks". Tissa Wewa and Bassakkulama Wewa flank the city on the western side, and Nuwara Wewa stretches along its eastern side. The reservoirs are probably the edifices least affected by the ravages of time. Right in the centre of the old town stands the Sri Maha Bodhi or Sacred Bo Tree (see pxx), which, after the Buddha's tooth in Kandy, is the most revered Buddhist symbol in the country. After his conversion to Buddhism, King Devanampiya Tissa asked Emperor Ashoka of India for a branch from the Bo tree in India under which Siddhartha Gautama had attained enlightenment. Ashoka complied and sent a sapling from the Bo tree, which was duly planted in Anuradhapura. Today, the Bo tree in Anuradhapura is the oldest documented tree in the world. With more than 22 centuries to its credit, it still looks as if in the prime of health. A platform has been built around it, accessible by a stone stairway. At the bottom of the stairs, there is a golden figure depicting the delivery of the hallowed branch. Pilgrims pay their respects to this figure, then they climb up the stairs to pray at the Bo tree itself.

Located in the vicinity of the Sacred Bo Tree, the remains of Brazen Palace or Lohaprasada are one of the most enigmatic sites in Anuradhapura. Once an exalted and magnificent building, all that is left today are 1,600 grey, monolithic pillars, set up in 40 parallel lines with 40 pillars in each line. Some of the pillars were haphazardly turned upside down or removed from their original site during restoration work in the early 20th century. The Brazen Palace was originally built by King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BC) to accommodate the Indian entourage bringing the Bo tree sapling.

Anuradhapura's dagobas, spread wide and far over the old city, are the most conspicuous remainders of the glorious past. The construction of dagobas reached an early zenith in the Anuradhapura period, and the dagobas of Anuradhapura are among the most notable in the country, or for that matter, anywhere in the Buddhist world. The 100m high Abhayagiri Dagoba, or "Dagoba of the Mountain of Fearlessness", was built by King Valagamabahu in 89 BC, just after he had regained his capital from Indian invaders. The massive, whitewashed Ruvanveliseya Dagoba also measures 100m in height but is even older than the Abhayagiri Dagoba. The construction was initiated by King Dutthagamani (161-137 BC), but it was still unfinished on his death. His brother and successor Saddhatissa (137-119 BC) completed the work.

The oldest dagoba in Anuradhapura, indeed in the whole island, is thought to be the Thuparama Dagoba, located a little north of the Ruvanveliseya Dagoba. With a height of only nineteen meters it may be one of the smaller religious edifices in Anuradhapura, yet its small size belies its importance. The Thuparama Dagoba was erected by Devanampiya Tissa to mark his conversion to Buddhism in 249 BC. The right collar-bone of the Buddha and the plate from which he used to take his meals are said to be enshrined in its interior, both objects being invaluable gifts from the Indian Emperor Ashoka. These Buddha relics endowed the Thuparama Dagoba with extraordinary sanctity, and it duly remains a major place of pilgrimage. The Thuparama Dagoba is bell-shaped and surrounded by four concentric circles of stone-pillars. Flights of stairs at the cardinal points lead up to the circumambulatory walk, the stairs being flanked by well-executed guard-stones.



Sri Lanka: reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Temple, Anaradhapura.
David Henley / CPA
Sri Lanka: reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Temple, Anaradhapura.

Though not endowed with the latter's sanctity, the Jetavanarama Dagoba at the northern rim of the old city is Sri Lanka's largest dagoba. Its diameter is 112m and its height around 120m. It was built by King Mahasena (AD 274-301).

South of the Sacred Bo Tree and immediately east of the Tissa Wewa, the Issaramuniya Vihara is a spectacular rock monastery with several buildings located outside the caves. In a small museum by the cave entrance, some finely executed bas-reliefs are exhibited, which are considered the best in Anuradhapura. Some reliefs portray the royal families of various periods. The most celebrated is "The Lovers" (ca. 4/5th century), which according to different interpretations depicts either a warrior and his beloved or a divine couple. The relief is executed in the Indian Gupta style. Though the dagobas which the kings erected have survived in some form or the other till today, the same cannot be said of the royal residences. There are some remains of the palaces of King Mahasena (301-328) and King Vijayabahu 1 (1055-1110). A beautiful moonstone, formerly placed in front of Mahasena's palace, attracts busloads of tourists today, but otherwise there are no remains whatsoever of any royal splendour or grandeur.




 Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

Category:  Sri Lanka

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