Last Friday, we completed our series of blog articles about Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The tropical rain forest of Sinharaja and the montane cloud forests of the Central Highlands are Sri Lanka’s two natural World Heritage Sites. The five Cultural Triangle World Heritage Sites are the most important historical remains of the Sinhalese civilisation, namely Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy. Galle in the south-west of the island has the most significant colonial fortress.
So in a sense, you can study Sri Lankan the episodes of history by visiting its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The classical round tour visits the Cultural Triangle first and begins in Anuradhapura. Kandy in the northern part of the hillcountry is in the centre of the island and also midterm destination of a classical round tour. In the Knuckles Range near Kandy or on Horton Plains near Nuwara Eliya you can study both Sri Lanka’s natural montane vegetation in the Central Highlands and the most important legacy of British colonial history: tea. Before arriving at your final destination at the southern or western coast for enjoying your beach relaxation, you should not miss to see the Dutch colonial fort of Galle, Sri Lanka’s southernmost World Heritage Site. The Sinharaja Rain Forest, to complete a World Heritage Sites tour, is not far from Galle.
So let’s study Sri Lanka’s history by visiting the World Heritage Sites en route:
The Anuradhapura period lasted 1400 years. Anuradhapura became the capital in the 4th century BC, already before Buddhism was officially introduced into the Sinhalese kingdom, which was the most significant event in Sinhalese history, of course. One place in Anuradhapura marks this historic turning point in Sri Lanka`s history, namely the island’s first Buddhist monastery. It is called Mahavihara. Not all tourists visiting Anuradhapura know this name, but all of them know the two landmarks of Anuradhapura, both belonging to the Mahavihara complex, namely the Botree, also called Bodhi-Tree, and the huge white dome of the Ruwanweliseya Dagoba. The planting of the sappling of the original Bo tree from India marks the final step of establishing the Buddhist order on the island in so far it was brought by the nun Sanghamitta, who came to introduce a nuns’ ordination lineage after her brother Mahinda, founder of the Mahavihara, already had introduced the male monastic lineage. Anuradhapura’s landmark building called Ruwanweliseya Stupa is a century younger. It is the legacy of Sri Lanka’s best-known king, namely Dutthagamani. This is his Pali name, the islands historical chronicles are written in the Theravada Buddhist language, Pali. The Sinhalese name of this most venerated heroic king is Duttugemunu. His achievement is the re-unification of the entire island in order to reestablish Buddhism in Anuradhapura after a period of foreign occupation.
Anuradhapura has two even larger dagobas (stupas) than the Ruwanweliseya, both of both of them are restored more accurately. The Abhayagiria Dagoba belongs to a second large-scale monastery, which was founded by King Vatthagamani Abhaya in the first century BC. His Sinhalese name is Walagambhu. Valagambu had to flee Anuradhapura because of another foreign invasion, but afterwards regained the throne in the capital. It was under his reign that the entire canon of Buddhist Holy Scriptures, traditionally handed down orally, was textualized for the first time in history. The new Abhayagiri monastery became a centre of Buddhist scholarship, too, not only for Sri Lanka’s Theravada tradition but for the pan-Asian Mahayana tradition, too. Anuradhapura’s third huge monastic complex is from the end of the third century AD and marks a shism in Sri Lankan Buddhism. This Mahayanistic monastery was estblished in opposition to the Theravadic tradition of the Mahavihara. The dagoba of the new Jetavanarama monastery is the largest brick building of Asia at all. The founder of the Jetavanarama was king Mahasena, who was one of the most important builders of tanks too. Buddhism and irrigation are the two cornerstones of the ancient Sinhalese civilisation. Furthermore, you can study forest monasteries of a monastic reform movement from the late Anuradhapura period, they are situated in the west, on the other side of the Anuradhapura tanks.
Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites Dambulla and Sigiriya belong to the Anuradhapura period, too. Sigiriya was even the capital for a very short period in the 5th century, under the rule of the patricidal king Kassapa. After his brother Mogallana finally defeated him, the capital was instantly returned to Anuradhapura. Dambulla was inhabited by Buddhist monks already in the 3rd century BC, in the very beginning of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist era. Some of the hundreds of Buddha statues in Dambulla’s cave temples are from later centuries of the Anuradhapura period. But most of Dambulla’s statues and rock paintings are from the Kandyan period, because such important temples were restored again and again by different kings from different periods.
Today’s World Heritage Site Polonnaruwa became the capital under Chola occupation about the year 1000. The Cholas were the mightiest Tamil empire that aver existed. The capital of the entire Chola Empire was Thanjavure (Tanjore) in southern India. So Polonnaruwa was only their provincial capital for governing the occupied island of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese leader Vijayabahu finally defeated the Cholas in the middle of the 11th century. He was crowned in Anuradhapura but decided to reside in Polonnaruwa. Most of Polonnaruwa’s beautiful buildings are from the second half of the 12th century, they were constructed during the reigns of Parkramabahu the Great and Nissanka Malla. Polonnaruwa’s most impressive site, however, is not a building but cut from the rock, namely the colossal rock Buddhas of Gal Vihara.
The period between the 13th and the 16th century saw a series of different capitals. Not much remains of them, except from the rock fortress of Yapahuwa. The centre of the Sinhalese civilisation was shifted from the Cultural Triangle (North-Central Province) to the south-west of the island, which had been a scarcely populated rainforest area during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. Today this monsoon-rain area is the most densely populated part of Sri Lanka. Only few rain forests remains, Sinharaja being the largest of them. This is why it became a national forest sanctuary supervised by Sri Lanka’s forest departmentand finally an international recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its biodiversity.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans occuoying parts of the island of Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon by Westerners. They did not try to conquer large territories but to control regional kingdoms by strong garrisons in newly established fortresses, Colombo being the most important one. Galle had a longer tradition as an international seaport. It was well-known to peaceful Muslim traders from Arabia, Persia and India. The Portuguese and other Christians who replaced the Muslim traders in the Indian Ocean forcefully, also built a fort in Galle. But the walls and bastions of Galle’s colonial fortress are from the Dutch period, after the Dutch, supported by Sinhalese forces, succeeded in thriving out the Portuguese.
Kandy became the last royal capital of an independent Sinhalese kingdom during colonial occupation of the island’s lowlands. The Tooth Temple marks this status. All former capitals, beginning with Anuradhapura, had Tooth Temples, too. That ruler who posessed the Tooth Relic was always respected as the island’s highest king. This is why the establishment of the Tooth Relic Temple in Kandy marks a political claim, too. Kandy lost its status as an independent Sinhalese capital as late as 1815, when a rebellion of nobles against the last Kandyan king was successfull with the support of the British. In the Kandyan Treaty the highland nobility accepted British rule. The whole island was reunited again for the first time after half a millenium but under foreign rule. British rule transformed the highland, literally. In the second half of the 19th century, the central highland area between Nuwara Eliya and Adam’s Peak became one of the world’s largest tea production areas, almost all hills are covered with tee plantations. However, the natural vegetation of Sri Lanka’s central highlands survived in some adjacent areas in the south and north of the hillcountry, namely in the mountain ranges of Knuckles near Kandy and Horton Plains near Nuwara Eliya and Peak Wilderness around Adam’s Peak. These protected montane rain forest areas became Sri Lanka’s youngest UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name “Central Highlands.”
Our Sri Lanka World Heritage series
We started our series about Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites already in September with an overview article. We recommend this article as an introductory article for your first information.
Our more detailed descriptions of
Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Sites
n October's and November's blog posts:
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka's ancient capital and eternal sacred city
Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital with world-famous rock sculptures
Dambulla, Sri Lanka's oldest, most typical and most colourful monastery
Sigiriya, surrounded by legends, Sri Lanka's best-preserved fortress
Sinharaja, the wetzone's largest remaining rainforest area
Galle, Asia's best-preserved fortified city from the colonial period
Kandy, the charming hill capital with the Sacred Tooth Relic Temple
Central Higlands, part of one of the world's biodiversity hotspots
We will continue to publish blog posts to describe some more specific attractions or aspects of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Sites in the future. Particularly Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are crowded with complexes deserving many more and much more detailed blog articles.
In December, our series of blog articles about heritage sites will introduce some of the smaller attractions in the Cultural Triangle area, since for those interested in cultural history and ancient sites there is much more to see in Sri Lanka than only World Heritage Sites. Don't miss to see at least some of the less-known places when exploring Sri Lanka.
We call our December's heritage series Sri Lanka's most picturesque ruins.
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