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Notes on the Geography of Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa

Compared to its northern cousin Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa was a historical blip--moreover, it was a blip created by outsiders, namely the Colas of South India. In 993 they conquered the Sinhalese kingdom at Anuradhapura and in 1017 created their own capital farther south, at Polonnaruwa.

The city was seized by the Sinhalese in 1070 under Prince Vijayabahu, however, and in the next century it had a great run under Parakrama Bahu and his successor Nissankamalla, who together built most of what is left today.

The city was abandoned in the mid-13th century and sat decaying in the dense forest until it was rediscovered in 1820 by a Lt. Fagan, who apart from presumably having his hair stand on end wrote to his superiors about "this great monument of superstition...." The monuments were not only ruinous but overgrown when he cut his way into them. Since then, they have been heavily but not too heavy-handedly cleared and restored.

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Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa picture 1

The ruins are spread over a long but thin area, oriented north-south; the densest cluster is on what is sometimes called the Tooth-relic Terrace--a reference to the presumed housing here of the famed tooth of the Buddha, now claimed by a temple in Kandy. Here, on the terrace, the Nissanka Latamandapa, or "Flower-Scroll Hall," stood with the tiny dagoba seen here surrounded by simulated lotus-stalk columns. The dagoba (the Sinhalese equivalent to Sanskrit stupa) is a common form, though often much larger than this; the lotus-stalk columns are unusual. The English word "pagoda," by the way, is a corruption of dagoba.

Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa picture 2


Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa picture 3

Another angle. Monks at Nissamkamalla listened to chanting in what would then have been a wood-roofed hall.

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Fifty yards to the southeast is the Vatadage, the once-roofed "circular relic house."

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Here's its entrance, with a moonstone and guardstones.

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Looking southwest from that entrance: in the distance is one of Polonnaruwa's three pilimages, "image houses" enclosing giant statues of the Buddha. This one is called Thuparama. The massive walls are of plastered brick.

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Brick construction would have seemed vulgar to the Cola, who built this stone temple to Shiva. It's one of several that survive at Polonnaruwa. The form is classic: a dome atop a 3-storied pyramid on a corniced base. Inside, a lingam.

Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa picture 8

The Sinhalese rulers of Polonnaruwa could do wonderful things with brick, however. Large things, too. Here, the Rankot Vihara, or "Golden Pinnacle Shrine." The dagoba form is enlarged here to fill a cube roughly 200 feet on a side. The square base under the ti, or pinnacle, is standard.

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From a different angle. The site is crowded with the extensive but modest remains of monasteries.

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Continuing farther north: in the distance the pinnacle of another dagoba and, in front of it, the massive wall of a second image house.

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Nearby, this pond once supplied water to the Baddahasimapasada ("House of the Elder") monastery.

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Approaching the Lankatilaka image house and the milky Kirivihara dagoba. If one has no idea what to expect from the image house, the next few seconds are seriously arresting.

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A decapitated statue of the Buddha. The building's name, Lankatilaka, means "beauty spot of Lanka." It was completed in 1270.

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The structure originally was roofed and had five stories, of which these three and a bit remain; the upper ones were of wood, with the entire structure open on this side.

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Still farther north, there's a granite outcrop from which has been carved the Gal Vihara, or "rock shrine."

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There are four figures here, one standing, two sitting, and one--the largest, at about 45 feet--appearing to sleep.

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The standing figure was formerly interpreted as the Buddha's disciple Ananda.

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Beatifically restful.

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Everything about the figure is composed, stylized, yet relaxed.

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Rotated 90 degrees.

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The preceding pictures of the Gal Vihara were all taken in 1985, before the tourist authorities went to work. It's one of the few places at Polonnaruwa where their efforts have made the place poorer, as with this idiotic sign.

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The ensemble.

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The iron truss is barbaric.

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Still farther north and easy to overlook. What could it be?

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Behold the Nelum Pokuna, or "Lotus Pond."

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Using prisoners of war, the Sinhalese attempted to build a dagoba three times higher than anything else in Polonnaruwa. They got the mass built up--it's from atop the mound that this picture was taken, looking back toward the Rankot and Kiri dagobas--but they never finished the project, which now appears to be no more than a steep and forested hill. Add in the blurred focus, and you get some sense of how this place might have seemed to the British who rediscovered it in the 19th century.

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