For those who have watched Disney’s Monkey Kingdom, standing amidst the splendour of the medieval ruins in Polonnaruwa brings a feeling of déjà vu. Maya and her son Kip (from the movie) popularised this ancient capital, which was established in the 11th century. Their story was woven into the clusters of regal palaces, baths, tanks, dagobas, libraries and gardens that are now in ruins but each with its own story to tell.

Polonnaruwa replaced Anuradhapura as ancient Lanka’s capital, which fell to invading armies from South India.

The kings who reigned in Polonnaruwa for many decades include Parakramabahu I, Nissanka Malla, Vijayabahu I and Gajabahu II. Of these monarchs, it was Parakramabahu I who had the most influence during his lengthy 33 year reign – he turned Polonnaruwa into the most prosperous city in South Asia at the time.

Armed with passion, this erudite king was also a man with a vision. He expanded his domain, beautified his surroundings and built extensive irrigation systems that astound today’s engineers. The Parakrama Samudra, the largest ancient man-made rainwater re­servoir in the country, has a surface area of 22.5 sq km and a catchment area of 75 sq km.

King Nissanka Malla’s palace ruins are in close proximity to this reservoir, housing the stone pillars upon which the titles of various officials of the kingdom are inscribed. The Nissanka Latha Mandapaya belonging to this period is a symphony of classical architecture, housing a stone carved stupa used by the king to listen to the chanting of pirith. He also ensured that his legacy was literally etched in stone, judging by the massive slab beside the beautifully inscribed Hatadage containing the king’s genealogy.

The vestiges of the imposing edifice of King Parakramabahu’s palace, which stood tall at seven storeys, are rich in ornamentation. Enclosed by ramparts, the structure contains walls that are extraordinarily thick as well as an intriguing drainage system. The Kumara Pokuna or royal bath, embellished royal audience hall with its lion portals, delicately carved moonstones and artistic pillars all hark back to an era of grandeur – and indeed, unprecedented luxury.

Moreover, the king’s love for literature and the creative arts as well as his determination to reinstate religious teachings in his kingdom saw him construct the Potgul Vehera or the library monastery in which sacred books were deposited.

Polonnaruwa too has its fair share of dagobas thanks to the bequests of various kings. The Thuparamaya houses the oldest image house chronicled in the reign of King Vijayabahu I while one of the most splendid Buddhist shrines in Asia is the gigantic Lanka­tilaka Vihara, which houses a 12 metre col­os­sal Buddha statue, stucco figures and an exquisite carving of Nagini on the right balustrade.

The milky white perfectly proportioned Kiri Vehera – the best preserved dagoba – is located in front of the Lankatilaka with its three chambered relic bloc, ruins of minor stupas and a chapter house.

There’s also the massive 165 metre Rankoth Vehera and Pabalu Vehera with their limes­tone Buddha statues sculpted in different postures including the Samadhi Buddha statue – one of the finest works of ancient art in the land. Unparalleled among ancient monastic edifices is the Gal Vihara, which is a collective of colossal Buddha statues – standing, reclin­ing and seated – carved into a single rockface.

The Atadage, Hatadage and Vatadage, which once contained sacred tooth relics, are mind-boggling in their architectural beauty. The stone pillars surrounding the Vatadage make way for beautifully carved access stairs leading to the peaceful sights of stone Buddha statues.

For the unusual, walk into the Thivanka Image House not far from the Lotus Pond to marvel at a giant Buddha statue that’s thrice bent and yet towers, housed within its exquisitely decorated interiors.

Compiled by Savithri Rodrigo

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