Long before the Portugese arrived, the seat of Sinhalese kings stood in Anuradhapura. It was the capital of Sri Lanka for over thousand years, from around 300 BC until 1017 AD when Lanka was once again invaded by one of India’s numerous kingdoms and the city once again sacked in the process. When Sri Lankans overthrew their northern masters a generation later, the new capital was moved to the city of Polonnaruwa. From there they governed the island on and off for 300 years until the fragmentation of power and civil wars became the new norm. And then 700 years later we arrived. In a tuk-tuk.
The drive from Sigiriya was a fun one. It convinced me that tuk-tuks are one of the best ways to see the country. You can smell the scenery, learn more about the areas you drive through from your driver and, if you’re lucky to spot a wild elephant bathing, stop to enjoy the view. You also learn the importance of having a bottle of water with you – how else to deal with an overheated engine. Just have to make sure not to confuse it with gasoline carried in an identical water bottle.
Tuk-tuk can also come in handy sightseeing different parts of the ancient town of Polonnaruwa as the place is large. We opted for walking and spent the entire day there, exploring all its nooks and crannies. On foot we found ourselves wandering on roads and in ruins that most visitors never get to see. There was plenty of greenery to give shelter from the sun and strolling among ruins with nobody else around gave the whole place a peaceful serene, somewhat mystic aura. Even monkeys there seemed to keep more to themselves, as if they understood the holiness of the location. Halfway through the day we found a tortoise slowly and stoically going about its daily business – he seemed to fit right in.
Most of what can be seen in Polonnaruwa are Buddhist structures, though sections of the royal palace also still stand. In some cases only lines of the foundation remain, but in others entire structures stand tall with intricate carvings and statues of Buddha with his protectors. One such is the Polonnaruwa Vatadage, which is believed to have housed the Buddha Tooth Relic during Polonnaruwa’s golden age a thousand years ago, the same relic that is now kept in Kandy. The main attraction of Polonnaruwa, the place where visitors both foreign and local alike flock to, is the rock temple of Gal Vihara – a massive structure featuring three colossal representations of Buddha sitting, standing and lying. The entire temple and the statues are carved from a single huge rock and it attracts hundreds of worshipers. Finding ourselves in the middle of a crowd after having spent most of the day just by ourselves was a little jarring but the place truly is unique, even when half-covered by scaffolds for renovations.
By sunset we were halfway back to the hotel, having by then seen almost all of what Polonnaruwa had to show. We grabbed one of the last tuk-tuks heading to town and made it in time to enjoy the last rays of sunset by the lake. Fried rice, ice cream and a foot massage to the sound of Buddhists chanting next door was the perfect end to a lovely day in this historic place.