Polonnaruwa is a picture-book temple town in the jungle. It is from the same time as the Buddhist temples in Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor in Cambodia. Polonnaruwa was the capital of the island, sheltering the sacred Tooth Relic, in the 11th and 12th century. It was regarded as capital also in the 13th century when the Sinhalese kings already resided further south, for example in Dambadeniya. Landmark of Polonnaruwa is the world-famous group of rock-cut Buddha statues called Gal Vihara.
History of Polonnaruwa
There are at least three interesting items every heritage traveller should know about Polonnaruwa:
1. Though Polonnaruwa had already been the second or even preferred residence od some Sinhalese Buddhist kings during the late Anuradhapar era, it became the official governmental capital under foreign rule. The South Indian kingdom of the Chola dynasty - by the way the only Hindu empire ever that conquered territory outside India - controlled the northern half of Sri Lanka in the first half of the 11th century. In fact, the former Sinhalese Anuradhapura kingdom became a part of the Tamil Chola empire. It was the Tamil foreign rule that made Polonnaruwa the capital. Reason was, that the Cholas did not manage to control the southern part of the island completely. The traditional border between the Anuradhapura heartland, today called “Cultural Triangle” and the southern Rohana (Ruhunu) was the Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka’s largest river. Polonnaruwa was situated near the most important ford, connecting the Anuradhapura and the Rohana areas. So it was the natural border control area. This is why the Cholas chose it for their regiments.
2. After a Sinhalese “freedom fighter” from Rohana, known as King Vijayabahu I, managed to repulse the Tamil invaders from Polonnaruwa and the whole cultural triangle area, he was crowned in Anuradhapura, which remained to be the official “old capital”, but chose the former Chola garrison Polonnaruwa as his residence, due to its strategic significance. Remarkably, the Sinhalese fight for independence those days had no anti-Tamil or anti-Hindu connotation. On the contrary, Tamil settlers continued to be welcome in the Polonnaruwa area, Tamil Hindu merceneries, traditionally the only standing army of Sinhalese kings, became the guardians of the national Buddhist palladium, the Holy Tooth. Hindu temples, such as Shiva Devale No.2, built in the early 11th century in the typical Chola style, were not at all destroyed or transformed into Buddhist sanctuaries. They remained to be places of worship for the increasing Tamil minority, and even new Hindu sancturies were built after the Sinhalese Buddhists had regained power. In order to express respect for Hindus, Buddhist temples were adorned with a new kind of moonstones, of the traditional four Buddhist animals only three are depicted on Polonnaruwa moonstones but not the bull, in order to prevent visitors to touch this animal sacred to Hindus with their feet when entering the Buddhist temple. Sinhalese Kings chose Sanskrit (Hindu) names, Parakramabahu, instead of Pali (Buddhist) names, Parakkamabahu. All in all the new Sinhalese capital Polonnaruwa is much more shaped by Hindu elements than the old capital Anuradhapura previously.
3. Nevertheless, Polonnaruwa played a major role in the development of Theravada Buddhism that cannot be underestimated. The most important Polonnaruwa king, Parakramabahu I., also called Parkramabahu the Great, united the former three Buddhist orders of Anuradhapura. There is only one state monastery in Polonnaruwa, today it is called Alahena Parivena. Two of the three Buddhist orders of Anuradhapura were Theravada and Mahyana Buddhist alike. But Parakramabahu chose only Theravada Buddhism of the Mahavihara order as the new Sinhalese. Though the unity of the order disappeared again after the Polonnaruwa period, the predominance of the Theravada tradition prevailed till the present day. And this is all the more significant as it was this Theravada tradition that was introduced, during the Polonnaruwa and following periods, in Southeast Asia. The form of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailans, Laos, and Cambodia today, is a result of the monastic reform in Polonnaruwa. Monks travelled between Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka from the very beginning of the Sinhalese reign in Polonnaruwa onwards.
Sightseeing in Polonnaruwa
There are three focal areas a visitor should see in Polonnaruwa.
1. In the southern part of the archaeological zone is the so-called citadel, the fortified part of the city including the former royal palace of Parakramabahu I., which was a multi-storeyed building, and his royal audience hall, which is decorated with carvings at its foundations, doorway and pillars.
2. In the northern part is the main monastery mentioned above, the Alahena Parivena. The largest stupa of Polonnaruwa and the famous Gal Vihara group of Buddhist rock statues are situated in the vicinity of the former monastery, which is one of the most picturesque ruins in Asia. Part of it is the large, tall image house, Lankatilaka.
3. Halfway between secular and religious centre of Polonnaruwa is the most important temple complex, which is called the “quadrangle”. The famous round-temple, a typical feature of Sinhalese architecture, is part of this temple ensemble. It was the area where the Sacred Tooth Relic was sheltered, guarded by Tamil merceneries. It was a Buddhist power symbol of the Sinhalese reign and therefore in the middle an in between royal and monastic centre of the city.
There are further temples and palaces outside the core area. Tivanka in the very north has the best examples of murals in the Polonnaruwa style. There are many ruins of Hindu temples in various parts of Polonnaruwa. The palace of King Nissanka Malla is situated romantically at the shores of Polonnaruwa’s great historic reservoir, Parakrama Samudra, also called Topa Wewa. Further south is the rock-cut statue of a Hindu saint, sometimes considered to be a portrait of Parakramabahu, close to it is the Potgul Vihara, which seems to indicate Souteastasian influence.
Each of the structures in Polonnaruwa is worth to be described in much more detail.
We will do so in some blog articles next year.
quotation from the World Heritage list website:
"Polonnaruwa bears witness to several civilizations, notably that of the conquering Cholas, disciples of Brahminism, and that of the Sinhalese sovereigns during the 12th and 13th centuries. This immense capital created by the megalomaniac sovereign, Parakramabahu I, in the 12th century, is one of history's most astonishing urban creations, both because of its unusual dimensions and because of the very special relationship of its buildings with the natural setting. It is also a shrine of Buddhism and of Sinhalese history. The tooth of the Lord Buddha, a remarkable relic placed in the Atadage under Vijabayahu, was considered as the talisman of the Sinhalese monarchy: its removal by Bhuvanaikabahu II confirmed the decline of Polonnaruwa.
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