In October, we will describe the four World Heritage Sites belonging to the historical heartland of Sri Lanka called “Cultural Triangle”. Blog posts will be published about Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla.
In November, we will continue our World Heritage series, presenting articles about the cultural and natural heritage sites in the highlands and in the south of the island. Blog posts will be published about Kandy, Galle, Sinharaja, and Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.
Here we present a first overview. The following list with summary articles presents Sri Lanka's World Heritage Sites in chronological order: The first three sites were inscribed by UNESCO in 1982, all of them belonged to the Cultural Triangle. Currently Sri Lanka's youngest World Heritage Site are the protected montane forest areas of the Central Highlands, inscribed in 2010.
World Heritage Site #200: Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura was the first ancient capital of Sri Lanka which lasted for almost one and a half millennia as the island’s capital in the country. For about one millennium it was the largest urban settlement in tropical Asia south of the river Ganges. During this period Anuradhapura remained one of the most stable and durable capitals and metropolises in South Asia, correspondingly, today it is one of the largest excavation areas in tropical Asia, covering 40 square kilometres. Anuradhapura was the prosperous centre of the ancient Sinhalese civilization and of utmost significance for the development of Buddhism. This pride of Sinhalese culture came into the focus of attention during the late British colonial period, when many settings of the island’s Buddhist historical chronicles could be identified and verified by excavations and when Sinhalese started to rediscover their own rich heritage. Sri Lanka’s second most important Buddhist pilgrimage site is located in Anuradhapura, the sacred Bo Tree was grown from a sapling from the Tree of Enlightment in India’s Bodhgaya. Since the original Bodhi-tree was destroyed by Muslim invaders, the newly grown Bodhi-tree venerated at the place of Buddha’s enlightment in Bodhgaya today, is a sapling of Anuradhapura’s Bo-tree. Almost all Bodhi-trees in South and Southeast Asia are descendants of the Anuradhapura Bo-tree, which is by the way the oldest tree of the entire world whose planting is recorded. It is important to locals for religion,history,and the culture and world famous for its well preserved ruins of the Great Sri Lankan Civilization. The Civilization which was built upon this city was one of the greatest civilizations of Asia and in the world. The city now a UNESCO heritage site, lies 205 km (127 mi) north of the current capital Colombo in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, on the banks of the historic Malvathu Oya. Founded in the 4th century BC it was the capital of the Anuradhapura Kingdom till the beginning of the 11th century AC. It was also a wealthy city which created a unique culture and a great civilization. Today this ancient city of Sri Lanka, which is sacred to the Buddhist world, which its surrounding monasteries covers an area of over sixteen square miles ( 40 km²) and is one of the world's major archaeological sites.
World Heritage Site #201: Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa is world-famous for the celebrated ensemble of rock sculptures at Gal Vihara. These are not the largest but probably the most beautiful rock-cut Buddha statues of the entire world and the only group with a Sitting, a Standing and a Sleeping Buddha side by side. But Polonnaruwa is much more than Gal Vihara, it is a whole temple town and was the island’s capital in the 11th and 12th century. It is one of the most exciting “ruins in the jungle” excavation areas you will ever find in a tropical country. Most of the Buddhist structures and the whole layout of a garden city was created by Parakramabahu I in the second half of the 12th century. He is sometimes called Parakramabahu the Great. His cultural achievements include the unification of the island’s Buddhist orders making Theravada the predominant form that shaped Buddhism till the present day, not only in Sri Lanka but also in Southeast-Asia. During the Polonnaruwa era the tight monastic relations with Myanmar and Thailand started that also influenced Cambodia. But Polonnaruwa is not only a monument of Buddhist splendour but of religious tolerance, too. It had become the capital already under foreign South-Indian rule during the Chola occupation. Nevertheless, after regaining independence, the Sinhalese Buddhist kings continued to reside in Polonnaruwa and to foster Tamil Hinduism. Earlier Chola temples such as Shiva Devale No.2 were not destroyed, the guardians of the Buddhist Sacred Tooth Relic were Tamil Hindu mercenaries, and the moonstone in front of temples depicted no bulls any more, in order from preventing Hindu symbols to be disrepected by touching them with feet. Today, Polonnaruwa is one of the best planned and protected archeological sites in a developing country.
World Heritage Site #202: Sigiriya Lion Rock
Doubtlessly, Sigiriya is Sri Lanka’s most spectacular heritage site, due to its location on (and around) the most eye-catching of the island’s many prominent monad rocks. Sigiriya’s “Lion Rock” is a 180 m steep vertical cliff. Sigiriya is sometimes even called “Sri Lanka’s Machu Picchu”. There are ruins of ancient edifices on top of the steep table mountain as well as at its foot. For a short period in the 5th century, namely during the reign of King Kassapa, Sigiriya was the capital of the island or at least the royal residence (the island’s former capitals sheltered the Sacred Tooth Relic, Sigiriya never did). The island’s Mahavamsa Chronicle gives a report of the dramatic events that led to the rise and fall of Sigiriya, truely Shakespearean stuff. Sigiriya was both a fortress and a palace. The upper part on the top of the rock includes cisterns cut into the rock, partially still retaining water. It is considered to be the royal palace area. But there are well-founded alternative theories, the stone and brick monuments may have served for a Buddhist sect, palaces were usually built of perishable materials and not of stone and brick. There are a lot of wonders to be seen in Sigiriya, the incredibly beautiful frescoes called “cloud maidens” being only one of them. Poem graffities in the so-called mirror walls are the oldest remaining poems in Sinhalese language. The feet of a lion sculptures are the remains of what was onse Sri Lanka’s biggest statue at all.The rock and water gardens are South Asia’s most ancient garden architecture, contemporary to early Chinese water gardens. The moats and walls that surround the garden area are Sri Lanka’s best-preserved fortification. Sigiriya is a very clean and well-kept compound. Every visitor is deeply impressed by its beauty. Not surprisingly, it is the most visited ancient monument in Sri Lanka. It will take at least three hours to see all major attractions.
World Heritage Site #405: Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Sinharaja is a separate mountain range situated between the south-western coastline and the central highlands. It’s the area with highest rainfall in Sri Lanka. The western half of the range is Sri Lanka’s largest remaining tropical rain forest, most of it virgin forest. It was originally declared a forest reserve in 1875 under British rule. It was declared a biosphere reserve in 1978 and in the wake of the UNESCO inscribing process it was notified a national heritage wilderness area of Sri Lanka in 1988. Endemism is high, particularly for trees and woody climbers, birds, butterflies, amphibians and even mammels. Endangered or rare bird species occuring in the Sinharaja Rain Forest are Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka White-headed Starling, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, and Ashy-headed Babbler. Due to the dense vegetation, wildlife observation is not as easy as in dry-zone national parks such as Yala. There are only 4 wild elephants in the Sinharaja area currently, and leopards are rarely seen. Wildlife observation is almost impossible during the south-west monsoon rainy season.
World Heritage Site #450: Kandy Sacred City
The “Tooth Temple”, called Sri Dalada Maligawa by Sri Lankans, is a the most important place of worship for Sinhalese Buddhists and even attracts Buddhist pilgrims from all parts of Asia. Like former Sacred Tooth Relic Temples in previous capitals, it was built in close proximity to the Royal Palace, the residence of the Kandyan Kings, which controlled the central highlands when Potuguese and later on Dutch colonial armies occupied Sri Lanka’s coastal lowlands. Due to the believe that whoever holds the Tooth Relic will also hold the governance of the island, the colonial powers attacked Kandy frequently to come into possession of the Sinhalese national palladium. But many attempts had been in vain, since the Sinhalese recued the Tooth Relic again and again and kept them in hiding places during those short periods of foreign occupation of Kandy, until finally the British got the upper hand in Kandy, too, with the help of highland aristocrats who suffered persecution by the tyrannic last Kandy king. The wooden hall with its golden roof in the very centre of the Tooth Temple is classial Kandyan architecture, but the surrounding buildings are from about 1800 and later. The Tooth temple is only part of what is called the “Sacred City of Kandy”. The Buddhist shrine is surrounded by temples for Hindu gods also venerated by Sinhalese Buddhists. Each of the four guardians deities of the island has an separate shrine in Kandy. The sanctuary of the local god Natha is the most ancient stone monument of this ensemble, earlier than the Tooth Temple. The latter Buddhist shrine and all four shrines for local and Hindu deities together organize the annual procession called Kandy Perahera, which is the greatest Buddhist festival at all.
World Heritage Site #451: Galle Fortress
Galle is the best natural harbour in along the southern and western coastlines of Sri Lanka. This is the reason why it had been an important seaport for the export of local goods such as gems and cinnamon since biblical times and an entrepot, known as Gimhathiththa but called Qali by Ibn Batuta, for trade in the Indian Ocean during the Middle Ages, when Muslim seafarers had dominated the international routes, before the Europeans arrived in South Asia and occupied important harbours militarily. Though Colombo was the most important colonial power centre, the Galle fort was founded by the Portuguese in in the 16th century, too. The fortress protecting the harbour reached the height of its development in the 18th century, when the Dutch built the fortifications and most colonial edifices that can be seen today. Finally, Colombo became the most important seaport, when the British constructed its wet docks. Galle is considered to be the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in Asia. The structures merge layouts and defense techniques of European fortress cities with local construction techniques and therefore symbolize a symbioses of Western and tropical Asian traditions. Galle fortress was flooded by the Indian Ocean Tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004. Thousands were killed in the old and new city alike, particularly at the bus station, which is situated on the spit of land connecting the fortress peninsula with the modern town centre.
World Heritage Site #561: Dambulla Cave Temple
Sri Lanka is the country of Buddhist cave temples. In contrast to Indian cave temples, they are not artificially cut out of the rock but natural rock shelters sometimes separated by walls from the surrounding nature. Originally they served as abodes for reclusive small groups of monks. When they became pilgrimage places because of visitors asking for these holy men’s advice, the monks started to decorate them with statues and, in the Kandyan era, embellished them with paintings with the help of laymen. There are many painted Buddhist cave temples in Sri Lanka, many more than tourist might guess who visit only one. This one is Dambulla, admittedly the largest and most interesting of them all. The ancient Dambulla Rock Temple is now part of the Rangiri Dambulla Rajamaha Viharaya, which likes to be called “The Golden Temple”. The history of this most Rock Temple goes back to the first century B.C., when, after a Southindian invasion, King Vattagamini had to flee from Anuradhapura and found, so the legend goes, a first refuge in these huge caves. After regaining power in Anuradhapura decades later on this Budhhis decided to establish a monestary at this place where he had found shelter. The 157 Buddha statues inside the four cave temples are from very different periods of Sri Lanka’s history, some are even already from the late Anuradhapura time. But most decorations and particularly the extraordinarily beautiful paintings are from the Kandyan era. Conservation of the images and paintings is supported by the Sri Lankan Department of Archweology.
World Heritage Site #1203: Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
This heritage site does not consist of a single property, most of the Central Highlands, particularly the tea estates, do not belong to the zone inscribed by the UNESCO. Rather it is the areas of virgin montane forests that should be protected according to UNESO rules. The World Heritage Site consists of three montane forest reserves in the very north-east and the very south of Sri Lanka’s highlands, namely Peak Wilderness Protected Area, which is rarely visited by anyone, the Horton Plains National Park, quite famous among travellers, and the Knuckles Conservation Forest, Sri Lanka’s best trekking area. Sri Lanka’s montane forests were inscribed by UNESCO, because they are home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna: “Its forests are globally important and provide habitat for an exceptional number of endemic species of flora and fauna. The property includes the largest and least disturbed remaining areas of the submontane and montane rain forests of Sri Lanka, which are a global conservation priority on many accounts. They include areas of Sri Lankan montane rain forests considered as a super-hotspot within the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. More than half of Sri Lanka’s endemic vertebrates, half of the country’s endemic flowering plants and more than 34% of its endemic trees, shrubs, and herbs are restricted to these diverse montane rain forests and adjoining grassland areas.” (cited from: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1203)