A tourist climbing the stairs that leads to an ancient stone temple, exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

 Situated in the North Central Province of the beautiful island –Sri Lanka, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa was the second capital in the ancient Lanka after Anuradapura.  The location of this sacred city is hundred and ninety- seven kilometres (197km) away from the Bandaranaike International Airport. After identifying the magnificence of this incient city, UNESCO declared it as a World Heritage Site. Further, Polonnaruwa is also recognised as the best planned archaeological relic city. Subsequently, this site is being preserved and carefully maintained by the relevant authorities of the tourism industry. Thus today, Polonnaruwa is one of the primary means of the Tourism Industry in Sri Lanka.

History of the Sacred City of Polonnaruwa

The root of this fantastic site runs as far as the 10th century. It was first established by the Chola dynasty in the name of ‘Janathapuram’. However afterward, captured by King Vijayabahu- 1 in 1070 AD the trade and agriculture prospered under the Sinhalese crown. The prominence of Polonnaruwa in ancient Sri Lanka lasted for about 300 years. Subsequently, it became increasingly vulnerable to attacks by the Indian invaders. Yet, it survived impressively and flourished later as a sacred city with high historical values. Moreover, in the present, thousands of visitors come to visit the ruins of these beautiful and magnificent structures daily. The majesty woven around these has contributed to color up the culture and tradition of Sri Lanka over the years.

Things to do in Polonnaruwa

Even though Sri Lanka is only a tiny island on the world map, there is an apparent reason for it to be called ‘the pearl of the Indian Ocean’.  As the name evokes, each inch of this incredible island has value. Let it be the North, South, East, or West indeed there are plenty of things to do around the country. Not only sightseeing but also to experience the warmth of the Sri Lankan hospitality, tasting the delicious dishes of Sri Lankan food, and enjoying the well-balanced weather.  

Still, if sightseeing happens to be your favorite on this island, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is one of such sites in Sri Lanka which is a marvelous destination for tourists to visit and enjoy their stay on this fantastic island! 

Moreover, Polonnaruwa is a treasure chest for those who have archaeological interests. The facts and objects reveal out of time to time excavation from the past are mesmerizing! They are under display at a number of museums in Polonnaruwa giving a chance for the people to witness the fascination of the proud history of Sri Lanka.

Let us now peep in at the most popular things to do in Polonnaruwa.

1.   Sightseeing

2.   Cycling

These activities are educative and exciting attractions that lure local and foreign tourists yearly towards the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Hence, their delight is worth exploring. So, why not? Let us get to know more about them!


Indeed, the majority of the local and foreign tourists visit Polonnaruwa for sightseeing. There are so many places to see in the sacred city of Polonnaruwa. Among them, there are the enormous Buddhist pagodas, Buddhist structures, Royal palaces, Libraries, museums and bathing ponds, etc. The importance of having a travel guide for your trip pops up here. A travel guide is well aware of the sequence of sites to see in the city to make sure you do not miss any of these marvelous structures. 

Places to visit in Polonnaruwa

Among numerous places to visit in the ancient city, here are some special sites which you should never miss to see!

1.   Royal Palace

2.   Sacred Quadrangle

3.   Shiva devale No 2

4.   Pabalu Vehera

5.   Rankoth Vehera

6.   Kiriwehera Dageba

7.   Lankathilake Viharaya

8.   Gal Viharaya

9.   Parakrama Samudraya

10. The archaeological Museum

It is always a fantastic idea to read about the specialty of each place, as you visit them. Indeed it would give you a better experience at sightseeing. Therefore, let us also share with your their significance in brief.

1. Royal  Palace

The Royal Palace is one of the main places that is attractive to tourists who visit Polonnaruwa. It is the Palace of King Parakramabahu 1 in the past. Another name for him is ‘Parakramabahu the Great’ whose reign was the Golden Era of Polonnaruwa. (1153-1186)

The monarch of King Parakramabahu 1, expanded and beautified  Polonnaruwa-the capital of old Sri Lanka. Constructing vast irrigation systems, he prospered the kingdom to its peak. He also took the initiation to reform Buddhist practices and encouraged the arts and crafts of the domain.

The main reason behind the speciality of his palace is the marvellous architecture of it! Being a 31m X 13m size building this palace had seven storeys. Besides, it is an incredible structure with 3m thick walls. At present, the ruins show tall walls with huge holes on it. Those holes were to bear the floor beams for the upper storeys. The upper floors should have been built with wood.

Once you stand between the ruins of the palace and gaze at the enormous walls around, the feeling that comes to you is incredible! Undoubtedly, the castle would have been a glamorous and majestic place while King Parakramabahu1 was bearing the crown. Fabricated with lavish decorations, thousands of servants and royal elephants moving around, the sight that can be imagined is absolutely delightful!

2. Sacred Quadrangle

The sacred quadrangle/ quadrangle of the temple of the tooth is an excellent example of the ‘ultimate development’ of this type of architecture. King Parakramabahu 1 has created this structure to hold the tooth relic of Lord Buddha. It can be a reason for Polonnaruwa to be famous as the ‘sacred city of Polonnaruwa’. 

The quadrangle mainly consists of two concentric stone terraces-lower and upper. That is to protect the ‘stupa’ right in the middle which must have held the Relic. The lower platform has a single entrance facing the North. Then there are four entrances to the upper platform within which there is the ‘stupa’. The said ‘stupa’ has four Buddha statues in the ‘Samadhi’ posture around it, facing each door.

This upper platform has a brick wall around it. Does anyone need to witness the supper talents of the ancient Sri Lankan stone carver? Indeed, sacred quadrangle is one of the finest examples.

Sandakada Pahana/The Moon Stone

Also, another unique feature in this structure is the ‘sandakada pahana’/Moon stone . Being a feature of the Ancient Sinhalese Architecture, it is a half-circular stone slab. It can be seen placed at the bottom of the steps of an entrance. Sandakada Pahana is elaborately carved with small patterns in bands all over the surface. Each design within the bands of the moonstone has a meaning behind it. Undoubtedly, this fantastic feature enhances the grandeur of the particular structure to its peak. 

3. Shiva Devala No2

The word ‘Devala’ or ‘Kovil’ reflects the Hindu Shrine. There are two Hindu shrines in Polonnaruwa. Namely Shiva devala No 1 and No 2. Mainly, the devala No 2 is a must-watch among them. It is at a more satisfactory level in its preservation condition at present that many local and foreign tourists visit this remarkable structure.

Primarily, the building consists of three parts. They are the ‘garbhagrha’ (the sanctum)’,’ antharala’  (doorways), and the ‘ardhamandapa’. In the garbhagra there is a stone cut Shiva linga erected. Shiva linga is the central religious object of worship of Hindus. Moreover, the roof of the structure is an Octagonal dome. The whole building ends at a height of 31 feet and 9 inches. Besides, the walls of the building reflect the wonder of its unique architecture. Those walls are made with granite stone blocks that are closely piled up fitting to each other. Moreover, the stone carvings of this devala resemble South Indian art. The inscriptions here are in Grantha Tamil characters. The reason is this structure is believed to be put up by the Indian invaders (king Rajaraja 1) when they established their capital in Polonnaruwa.

4. Pabalu Vehera

Unquestionably, each one of the buildings in the sacred site of Polonnaruwa has a specialty under their uniqueness. Let it be the architecture or the purpose for which it had been used in the olden days. Each structure well evokes the knowledge and expertise of the creators of the ancient Polonnaruwa kingdom.

Another such structure is the Pabalu Vehera that gives the meaning “the coral Shrine”.   It is a monastery complex built by the Queen Rupavati –  a consort of the King Parakramabahu 1.    Further, there is a reason behind the name ‘Pabalu vehera’. The history reveals there was a large number of beads found in the monastery complex in the past.  Subsequently, the battles during the invasion of Polonnaruwa led to the destruction of the upper part of the structure. However, the remains adequately provide an imagination of its original shape, which is different from other Stupas of that era.   

Although there are only four image houses around other Stupas, Pabalu Vehera has nine image houses around it. Also, these image houses contain Buddha statues with different postures. The largest image house contains a Budha statue in the reclined posture. Additionally, there is a narrow staircase in the South of the Stupa. It provides access to the base tiers of the Stupa.

5. Rankoth Vehera

Unquestionably, each one of the buildings in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa has a specialty under their uniqueness. Let it be the architecture or the purpose for which it had been used in the olden days. Each structure well evokes the knowledge and expertise of the creators of the ancient Polonnaruwa kingdom.

Rankoth Vehera is a creation of the King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa. He ruled the country from 1187 to 1196. The building of this Pagoda has a close similarity to the Ruwanweliseya of Anuradhapura. Thus, Rankoth Vehera also bears the name ‘Ruwanweli’.  The entire structure is a brick creation and has a diameter of 550 feet (170m) at the base. The height of this gigantic creation is 108 feet(33m).  Moreover, Rankoth Vehera is the largest Stupa in Polonnaruwa. Besides, it is the fourth largest Stupa in Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, Rankoth Vehera has four Vahalkadas made of bricks. Also, these huge vahalkadas are there in place to hold the weight of the Stupa. Along with, there is a stone seat closer to the structure. Legendary reveals that, the King had been sitting here while observing the construction of the Stupa at that time.

6. Kiriwehera Dageba

Kiriwehera (Stupa of Milk) remains the second-largest Stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The legendary reveals that it is a creation by the Queen Subadra. Moreover, Subadra was another consort of King Parakramabahu the Great.

Kiriwehera is also a part of Alahana Pirivena, which is another excellent archaeological site.

When talking about the formation of the Stupa, it is a dome in the shape of a bubble. Further, the base has three terraces. The coIt has a height of 28.5 m and a diameter of 88 feet at the base. According to the explanation of the guide at the site, after constructing, the Queen bathed the whole Stupa with her breast milk. They believe that the reason for the name ‘Kiriwehera’ or the ‘Stupa of Milk’ is a result of the said incident. Also, the original lime plaster is still left, preserving the dome from Sun and rain through 900 years or more.

Moreover, there are four pieces at the main directions around the Stupa and each front piece has a rectangular shape Buddha shrine placed on either side. The other Stupas restored around the main Stupa are burial chambers of special priests and royals.

However, further inspection reveals that most of them have been destroyed by treasure hunters.    

7. Lankathilake image house

Also known as Lankathilake Pilimageya/gedige, it is the largest clay brick image house built in Sri Lanka. This image house is a fine example of the symbolic ancient Sri Lankan Architecture.  It is a vaulted type image house and is a creation by the King Parakramabahu the Great.

The image house has a Moonstone and two Guard Stones at the entrance. Besides, inside the image house, there is a massive standing Buddha statue in between two great walls and giant pylons. The height of this statue is 14m. It is also a creation of clay bricks in which the head is missing by the time of discovering it. The thickness of the walls on either side is 4m, and the height is 17m. The roof must have been a domed or a curved type as it resembles. Further, Lankathilake image house has had five stories with a staircase of which the ruins can be seen even at present.

Moreover, the inner and outer walls of the structure are full of decoration with paintings and outstanding murals.

The decorations that are visible on the walls of this building

Notably, the walls of the Lankathilake image house are so attractive. They are full of stone carvings and sculptures, which represents the marvellous work of the stone artist in the ancient Polonnaruwa.

  • Guard stones
  • Dragon arches
  • Lion and dwarf carving
  • Adobes of Gods (Dewa Vimana).

These murals absolutely enhance the grandeur of the image house.

8. Gal Viharaya

The original name being “Uttararama”, Gal Viharaya is a Buddhist rock temple. Undoubtedly, it is another incredible masterpiece of the ancient Sri Lankan stone artists. Indeed another great idea of King Parakramabahu the Great too.

In brief, the main feature of this temple is, there are three statues of Lord Buddha. All of them are stone carvings carved out of single granite rock.

The three images that appear on the face of the said granite rock.

They are three different postures of Lord Buddha.

  • Primarily a seated image that is 5 m high with an elaborate halo behind the head.
  • On to the right of the above, there is a standing image about 7 m high and a reclining figure. Because of the unusual posture with the hands across the chest, people believe that it is not an image of Lord Buddha but Ananda Thero –personal attendant of Lord Buddha.
  • Last but not least, there is an image of Lord Buddha in the reclining position. Just over 14 meters long, this statue shows Lord Buddha at rest as he enters into final Nibbana. Moreover, the carving is exquisite of the robe, the pillow, and the feet of the statue. The face also has a most serene and peaceful smile.

Thousands of local and foreign tourists visit this place yearly to gaze at those unbeatable masterpieces of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Meanwhile, as per chronicle Culawamsa, the King has got the workmen to build three image houses for each statue in the same rock. That was after making the three statues. They are namely, “Vijjadhara Guha”,  “Nissan Patima Lena” and “Nipanna Patima Guha”.  

Furthermore, another speciality of the Gal Viharaya is the terrace in front of the rock that contains the images. It is the place where Parakramabahu 1 held a congregation of monks. The reason was to purify the Buddhist priesthood and to draw up a code of conduct. The record of this special event is there on the inscription carved on the same rock face in front of “Vijjadhara Guha”.

However, all these reasons made Gal Viharaya the most visited historical site in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

9. Parakrama Samudraya

Parakrama Samudraya which gives the meaning “‘the sea of Parakrama” is the largest rainwater reservoir of the island.  As the name itself evokes, this reservoir is a creation of the King Parakamabahu the Great. The purpose of this creation was to retain the Monsoon rains in the dry zone of Sri Lanka.

It was during his reign of 33 years, that Sri Lanka was called “The granary of the Orient”. It was because of the ample irrigation and agricultural development that took place during his time. The King Parakramabahu built or resto-red 165 dams, 163 major reservoirs,2376 minor tanks, and 3910 canals.

At present, the dam of this vast reservoir is 14km in length and 12.2m in height. The average depth is about 25 feet. Furthermore, the water of the reservoir covers 5350 acres.

It is a collaboration of five reservoirs namely;

  • Dumbuthulu 
  • Kalahagala 
  • Thopa 
  • Bhu 
  • Eramudu (Katu Vewa)

All these reservoirs had separate dams which helped to reduce the pressure of water in the main dam. However, the original creation of the pool was much more than that, and the current size is only a part of the original creation. The tank supports over 18,000 acres of paddy fields in the North Central of Sri Lanka.

For sure, it is an experience which one should get to stand on the bund of this huge tank. It is fantastic to feel the cool breeze that brushes through the waters of the tank!

10. Archaeological Museum

The archaeological museum here exhibits a number of valuable objects discovered from time to time through excavation in the site. It provides enough witness of the grand history of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Among the exhibits, many Buddhist and Hindu monuments, stone and bronze statues along with scale models and the technology of the structures that existed in the past are fascinating to see. Further, it provides an insight into the art, craft, medical instruments, and so on of the ancient era. The museum has different parts to represent Polonnaruwa as the outer city, the citadel and the monastery, etc.

The museum is maintained by the Department of archaeology of Sri Lanka. Moreover, the officials who are in the museum provide the visitors with a good explanation of the exhibits. A visit to the archaeological museum completes your sightseeing in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Cycling in Polonnaruwa

The ancient archaeological site of Polonnaruwa is situated in a confined area. All the special places can be visited at a distance of a maximum of 20kms. Accordingly, if not for a real walk lover, it is not an easy distance to exercise your feet through cycling.  

At this point, a bicycle ride is a lifesaver plus a fantastic experience!

The cycle rides are generally known as dangerous in Sri Lanka due to the heavy vehicle movement and road traffic. Nevertheless, it doesn’t apply to Polonnaruwa archaeological site. The whole site is a park that is well maintained and organized by the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka. It is also not much crowded most of the time. Thus, it is perfectly safe to use a bicycle for sightseeing in ancient Polonnaruwa. The ruins are stretched across a vast area of green grass. These boulevards have borders of huge trees that strain the best rays of the sun on the cyclists! A bicycle ride along wide paths and greenery experiencing the soft breeze is marvelous in addition to the site visit.

There are places which rent bicycles, or you can get the help of your travel organiser to book that for you.

How do I get to Polonnaruwa?

You can either get their by bus, or by taxi.

Polonnaruwa comprises of two parts, namely the ‘New town’ and the ‘Royal Ancient city of the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa’. As a tourist, it is the Royal ancient city that you should visit.

The distance from the Bandaranaike international airport (BIA) to Polonnaruwa is approximately 197km.

Alternate ways to get to Polonnaruwa from Negombo, their Approximate Durations and Approximate Prices

This information can vary depending on external factors.

Option 1 – Bus

Time : 6hrs and 45 min

Price : Rs.4650 –Rs.5700

Negombo-Katunayake (by a taxi) -> Katunayake-Colombo (by bus) ->Colombo –Dambulla (by bus)->Dambulla-Polonnaruwa (by bus)

Option 2 – Train

Time: 7hrs and 40 min

Price: Rs.1530- Rs.2000

Negombo-Katunayake (by taxi)-> Katunayake-Colombo (by bus)-> Colombo bus stop-Fort railway station (walk) – >Fort to Polonnaruwa (by train) ->Polonnaruwa station to the site (by taxi)

Option 3 – Taxi

Time: 3hrs and 21min

Price: Rs.11000-13000

Option 4- Drive

Time: 3hrs and 25 min

Price: Rs.2700-4200

Option 5 –Fly

Time : 1 hour and 50 min

Price : Rs. 4830 and upwards


Click here for the direction to Polonnaruwa from Negombo.

The most recommended way is to travel by a taxi which saves time and allows you to relax at the same time.

What is the best time to visit the sacred city of Polonnaruwa?

Sri Lanka is generally a country with balanced weather. However, Polonnaruwa has a tropical or pleasant weather condition. The rainfall lasts for at least six months of the year mixed with a dry season of at least three months.

Generally, the rainfall occurs between the months of October and December to Polonnaruwa. It is advisable to avoid this period as the rain may disturb the long relaxing walks or the fantastic bicycle rides across the site. The time between March, April, May and September belongs to the dry season of this area. The atmosphere is not very pleasant In the dry season as the vegetation In the site sometimes gets dried up. That can give an unpleasant sight while sightseeing.

However, the weather would be perfect for a visit during the months of June, July and August. There is relatively high tourist traffic during this period. Alternatively, January also can be recommended with less tourist traffic.

Conclusion | Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

We believe that a traveler’s diary is incomplete if he did not pay a visit to this beautiful island in the Indian Ocean. Among numerous things to explore in Sri Lanka, the exploration of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is full of excitement, fun, and knowledge. Precisely, a  visit to this ancient kingdom full of wonder completes your next trip to Sri Lanka. Following, we recommend you to read the information in this article about all the unique places before the visit. Unquestionably, it would give you a better understanding of each place which is a worthy cause! Happy  Travelling!