Wildlife & Culture - Central & South Sri Lanka
Following the decline of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka's first great capital, power shifted to the more southerly and easily defensible city of Polonnaruwa. For a period of around 200 years, this became the island's de-facto capital and cultural heart, providing a renaissance of Sri Lankan power that spurred unrivalled building and artistic works, before being once again abandoned in the face of invasions from Southern India at the end of the 13th Century.
Unlike Anuradhapura, which retained its significance as a centre of pilgrimage, Polonnaruwa was essentially forgotten; its palaces and temples swallowed by the Sri Lankan jungle until, in the mid-twentieth century, serious restoration and study of the site began.
Polonnaruwa today is a magnificent site to explore - smaller and more compact than Anuradhapura, but with its ancient monuments in a far better state of preservation. It's a place that transports you back to one of the high points of medieval South Asian civilization.
Polonnaruwa's appeal is enhanced by its location, on the edge of a huge artificial lake: the 26 km² Parakrama Samudra, created to irrigate the city's surrounding farms and provide an additional line of defence. At the centre of the site lies the city's great citadel and royal palace, decorated with carvings of sacred lions, dwarfs and elephants - works of art ubiquitous of the period. Just to the north of the Citadel lies the magnificent Quadrangle: a walled terrace containing some of the finest structures on the island. The structures here were the religious Buddhist centre of the city. These walls once housed the famous 'tooth' of the Buddha himself; an artefact which now resides in the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy.
The Quadrangle is where you will also find some of the islands most elegantly carved 'moonstones'. These semi-circular granite stones are placed at the entrance to temples. Concentric bands represent cycles of death and rebirth and the Buddhist journey to Nirvana, illustrated in images of symbolic animals, flames and the lotus, symbolizing the Buddha's escape from the endless cycle of reincarnation.
Polonnaruwa also boasts the finest rock carvings in Sri Lanka: the Gal Vihara - carvings of the Buddha created 'in-situ', chiselled from a huge outcrop of pure granite. The 14m long 'reclining' Buddha here is considered the island's most famous and elegant image of one of Asia's most influential and enlightened spiritual and philosophical pioneers.
In addition to Buddhist influenced art, there are also many buildings that reflect Hindu influence, from the empires of Southern India - a mix of Southern Asia's cultural heritage in one location.
These are just a few highlights of the site, interspersed in light woodlands that you could easily spend a day or two exploring and appreciating.
Another plus of Polonnaruwa is the close proximity of the excellent Minneriya and Kandulla National Parks, well-known for their wild elephant populations, but also hosting sloth bears, leopards (in small numbers) and a vast range of bird life.