The ancient capital - Polonnaruwa

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The ancient capital - Polonnaruwa

Buoyed by our purchase, we set out for Pollonaruwa and stop for lunch at a restaurant by the roadside. It’s an unremarkable restaurant but the food is delicious. We are even tempted into trying pineapple curry which I am not sure I am going to like (not a great fan of sweet and savoury food) but to my surprise it’s not much different from eating potato curry. We do however notice that just as at the first restaurant, Chris disappears as we have lunch which causes speculation amongst the children as to whether he is eating properly!

Polonnaruwa is another ancient capital of Sri Lanka. Looking back on it now, we didn’t spend enough time here. All the guide books say you can just about do the whole Polonnaruwa in a day but we didn’t get there until about 3pm. So our tour was pretty whistle-stop.

Polonnaruwa Museum

Our first stop is at the Polonnaruwa Museum. The museum building is a modern single story building and while there are some fantastic reconstructed models of the major buildings as well as archaeological relics, it’s not really a place for children. However we move around the museum at as slow a pace as we can manage and still keep them interested!

As we’re staring at the very impressive model of the Vatadage, a completely circular building which was originally a relic house in which the famous Tooth Relic may have been kept, we become vaguely aware of an ancient man watching us as we move around the museum. He is tall for a Sri Lanka, fairly pale with a face that could be a 100 years old. He doesn’t say anything but as we move from place to place, he shuffles along, barely lifting his feet as he moves. He’s is probably a guide but the children are a bit freaked out so we accelerate our progress and quickly arrive at the other end of the museum where we’re met again by Chris, our driver.

King Parakramabahu I of Polonnaruwa

The statue of King Parakramabahu I of PolonnaruwaWe pull up at wooden gate where another, slightly less creepy old man is sitting, by a tree playing a tune on a wooden penny whistle. I use the word tune in the loosest possible sense. There is little structure or tunefulness to what he is playing to our ear but on the other hand this is an entirely different culture to ours so he may have been playing a masterpiece or a classic Sri Lankan folk tune. However his intentions are extremely clear. From a bucket at his feet he pulls another penny whistle and offers it with increasing insistence to the children. In all honesty, this is the last thing we need – bouncing along in the van with a three tuneless whistles going would certainly send Lisa and I over the edge. So we steer the children clear and follow Chris up the hill to a large statue, carved out of a single piece of rock.

The statue, which is almost 4 metres tall features a bearded man, standing casually wearing an impressive headdress, large earrings, and a sarong. He is carrying in both hands a large, apparently sacred manuscript. Chris explains that the subject of the statue is hotly disputed with some believing this is Agastaya, a Hindu sage. However Chris tells us that he has been brought up to believe that this is King Parakramabahu I of Polonnaruwa and that the manuscript he holds in his hands is the Book of Law, made out of palm leaves.

The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Moving rapidly past the old whistle seller, we’re soon on our way to the main event in Polonnaruwa – the Quadrangle. My first impressions of the Quadrangle are of the film/book, The Jungle Book. As we approach the impressive but partially ruined buildings there are monkeys all around – on the ground and on the walls. There is also several families of local cats and they all seem to own the place. I am reminded forcibly of the scene in The Jungle Book with the king of the monkeys making his home in the ruins in the jungle. This is a particularly potent view down by the ancient Royal Baths known as Kumara Pokuna (which is technically outside the main Quadrangle in the Royal Palace section). The monkeys are lazing around the pool and you can almost imagine the young monkeys are actually down by the pool are paddling, just as our own children would love to do.

It’s the closest we’ve come to so many monkeys and it’s difficult to believe that they are in any way dangerous. They look so relaxed, almost human like. However they are not and we carefully school the children not to go near – the risk of rabies, while low is probably all too real.

The Quadrangle holds many of the most impressive structures in Polonnaruwa and all could lay a claim to some of the best ruins in the whole of Sri Lanka. We wonder round with Chris explaining the different buildings and their history (this is one of the only places where he’s actually allowed to do this as normally there are official guides such as in Sygiria).

The Atadage in the Quadrangle at Polonnaruwa Sri LankaThere is the Atadage, a rectangular building, still clearly defined by the 54 columns that rise up on all sides with 5 or 6 steps leading up to it. This was the original Tooth Temple where the relic of the Buddha’s tooth was kept during ancient times. As you walk in there is a clear view of the Buddha, standing straight ahead of you.

Gal Pota, also known as the Book of Stone is a carved inscription, apparently praising Nissanka Malla who succeeded Parakramabahu and was responsible for the construction of at least some of the buildings in the Quadrangle. The stone is a massive 8m by 4m and was hauled here from Mihintale, many miles away.

The children sitting in front of The Buddha in the Vatadage PolonnaruwaThe Vatadage is precisely circular and while it has now lost its upper floors, it remains the most impressive building in the Quadrangle. As you walk to the steps to climb up to the building you step on the Moonstone. The Moonstone is a beautiful semi-circular stone, set into the floor before the first step. It has three “bands” going around the semi-circle, each with a parade of animals – geese, elephants and horses. As you look up from the Moonstone, you are confronted with a statue of the Buddha, seated in his normal position with both hands in his lap. We can’t help but have a group photo here but we have to be careful that the children facing the Buddha as have a picture with you back to the Buddha is not good manners.

The Hatadage is also a fantastically preserved building. It succeeded the Atadage as the resting place of the Tooth Relic and seems very similar to the Atadage in structure, albeit a larger version. It seems that all the buildings with the word “dage” in them are connected to the Tooth Relic in some way being the House of Eight Relics (Atadage), The House of 60 Relics (Hatadage) and the Hall of the Relic (Vatadage)

Sathmahal Pasada is a seven story four-sided pyramidal looking building with a strong feeling of a temple. However Chris explains that it is not fully understood so no one quite knows what it is or what it was for!

The light is beginning to fail as we approach the final building of note, the Thuparamaya. This building is an image house or temple for worshipping the Buddha. It’s an imposing, almost cube-like building which reminds me of some of a tomb more than anything else. There are square features all round, even some on the roof that resemble large chimneys. The only noticeable circular feature is the arch around the door. Unfortunately when we get there it’s too late and the building is shut. However luckily the monk who is responsible for the building is finishing a few chores and, seeing us admiring the building, opens it up for us to take a look.

Inside the Thuparamaya at the Quadrangle, PolonnaruwaInside the Thuparamaya is dark and quiet. We remove our boots and enter with a feeling of reverence. There is a small statue of the Buddha inside on one wall. In front of the picture there are a small number of candles on what looks like an altar along with some flower heads and petals beautifully arranged into circles and circular patterns. We stand for a short while in silence, even the children picking up on the spiritual feeling to the building (which is probably enhanced by the failing light). The monk encourages us to take a photo which we’re a bit reticent about; it seems slightly disrespectful but monk is untroubled and even a little insistent. This is something we’re noticing a lot in Sri Lankans – very polite, extremely friendly but also insistent!

Temple of the Rock, Polonnaruwa

It is almost 6pm and the light really is fading quickly now. However Chris explains that there is one more stop that we really can’t miss, even though it’s almost dark. We get back to the van and drive a short distance to Gal Vihara, also known as the Temple of the Rock. The darkness seems pretty complete and Chris produces a torch which we use to navigate a short distance seeming through some trees (not enough to call it a forest but it brings the darkness to almost pitch black). We emerge to an incredible sight.

A large cliff face on our left quickly materialises into several statues of the Buddha in different poses. The first is a quite normal statue of the Buddha, if impressively large. As we walk along, the next is a cave with the Buddha seated inside – this particular statue is more like a mini temple with columns and lions statues on either side. The next is a standing statue of the Buddha with his arms crossed. This statue is enormous, but would be dwarfed if the final statue, of the Buddha lying stretched out on his side were to be stood up. This final statue apparently shows the Buddha in the “Lion Position” (also called Sihasana) which is supposed to be just as he attained Nirvana.

However, the thing that makes this visit really special for us is that a Buddhist monk, dress in traditional orange robes is standing in front of the centre seated Buddha, chanting. This is a really mystical moment and we stand for a short while just watching. After a while, the monk finishes and returns to a sort of gazebo where he clearly keeps watch on the statues. Chris checks if it’s ok for us to approach the statues and the monk gives his assent happily.

Up close the size of the statues become evident. While the tallest, standing statue (which apparently some people claim is not of the Buddha at all) towers above us, it’s the one lying down which is most impressive. The head itself is probably 3 metres tall (10ft), lying on the pillow that is a similar height. As always the Buddha’s expression is calm and peaceful. His body stretches out around 14 metres (46ft) with a one enormous hand tucked neatly under his head and the other arm resting on his body. It is a wonderful site and the fact that we’re seeing it lit up, just after nightfall makes it all the more magical.