which ancient city is Sri Lanka's most interesting site?
What’s the better choice for travellers who have just enough time to visit only one of them? Both are former capitals, both contributed a lot to Theravada Buddhist history, both belong to the most important excavation sites in South Asia.
For historians the answer is clear: Anuradhapura is the earlier capital and dominating the island’s history for 1,500 years, whereas Polonnaruwa was the thriving Sinhalese capital for 150 years.
For Buddhists the answer is the same: Anuradhapura is the location of the Sacred Bo-tree, one of Sri Lanka’s two most imporant Buddhist pilgrimages sites, besides the Tooth Relic temple in Kandy. Aburadhapura was famous among Buddhist scholars from all over the world who came here to study Buddhist scriptures. Polonnaruwa is more important for Southeast Asian Buddhism in particular, because it was the capital when Theravada Buddhist kingdoms were thriving in Myanmar were founded in Thailand.
For those looking for superlatives, Anuradhapura is the much better choice. The excavation area is much larger than that of Polonnaruwa. The largest stupas and largest brick stone constructions at all are the Dagobas of Anuradhapura, Ruwanweliseya the oldest one, Abhyagiri the most beautiful one, Jetavanarama the biggest one.
For those who want to see Sri Lanka’s historic landmarks, it’s not as easy: The rock-cut Buddha statues of Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa are as famous as the gigantic Dagobas mentioned above. The best - and most photographed - example of a typical Sinhalese round temple called Vatadage is located in Polonnaruwa, whereas the largest and classic example of a moonstone is that in front of the “Queen’s Palace” in Anuradhapura, but there are many more of them in Polonnaruwa.
For those looking for a delightful place crowded with picturesque ruins, Polonnaruwa is the slightly better option. The edifices are better preserved, because they are not as ancient as those of Anuradhapura. Above all, Polonnaruwa may be smaller, but is much more densely covered with buildings than Anuradhapura. Polonnaruwa is the best place if you are looking for a romantic site to stroll around. Anuradhapura’s attractions are not within walking distance from one another.
For wildlife enthusiasts, Polonnaruwa is a more interesting due to its monkey population. Several studies and TV documentaries about the primates’ social behaviour chose the Polonnaruwa archaeological zone as their settings. Polonnaruwa’s surrounding is crowded with national parks, Minneriya and Wasgomuwa are famous for the world’s largest herds of Asian elephants, Wasgomuwa is located at the southern edge of Polonnaruwa’s historical reservoir.