The stone ruins of Shiva Devalaya in Polonnaruwa, a remarkable inheritance of invasions.

Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian ocean, holds with it a colonization history, that further enhances the exclusivity of the Si Lankan saga. Starting from the South Indian invasions, this island was colonized by Portuguese, Dutch and British over centuries. These invasions made way to change or affect several countries’ domains, such as social and cultural.  Even today, the shades of these changes haunt in the name of ruins, unravelling the long story of ancient Sri Lankan history. One of the best examples as such are the ruins of Shiva Devalaya in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Hence, we thought of sharing with you its remarkable significance, highlighting a yet another escapade of the past of this splendid island.

How did Shiva Devalaya come to Polonnaruwa?

South Indians invaded Sri Lanka several times in history, from 215 till 1215 AD. It was by Chola and Pandyan dynasties of India. After the invasions, they made Polonnaruwa their capital. The occupation of the Hindu people in the city brought the need of Hindu shrines for worshipping. It was the reason for them to build many Hindu shrines in the city of Polonnaruwa. However, there are only two of the Shiva Devalayas under preserved condition among them, yet in ruins. Meanwhile, the rest of the Shiva Devalayas in Polonnaruwa are either entirely destroyed or in a severe status under preservation.

Shiva Devalaya No 1

Location of this place is just after entering the ancient Royal city of Polonnaruwa. To be specific, it is between the Royal Palace complex ruins and the sacred Quadrangle. There is no record to specify who was the actual creator of Shiva Devala No.1. However, the researchers reveal that the building is of the Pandyan architectural style. Thus, there is a belief that the Shiva Devalaya No.1 of Polonnaruwa could be a creation during the 13th century, where Magha of Kalinga ruled the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa. 

Meanwhile, Kalinga Magha was an impious King, who had a special attention on prospering Hinduism. Hence, many of the Hindu shrines and monuments were built during his reign. Further, his era was the darkest period for the Buddhism and Buddhist culture of Polonnaruwa. Moreover, many of the Buddhist pagodas and temples became just ruins hiding the grandeur of ancient Sinhala architecture owing to his actions. Yet, constructions with Hindu touches such as Sihiva Develaya, came up in the course.

Architecture of the Shiva Devalaya No 1

As mentioned above, the shrine resembles the Pandyan architectural style. It had three parts: the Garbhagruha/Sanctum, an Antarala/vestibule and a Mandapa/courtyard.

Besdies, Shiva Devalaya No.1 has been a temple with a domed roof. It is now fully collapsed. The construction method of shrine walls is unique too. The walls are mounted with rectangular stone blocks which are smoothly and neatly cut. The bricks fit to each other very closely. Specialty is in fact; there is no trace of any usage of plastering to fix the blocks to one another.

Moreover, on the outer walls, there are many decorations of stone carvings.

However, it is incredible to observe the greatness of this kind of architecture. Despite the time passed since the shrine’s built, some parts of such walls are still preserved.  

Inside the Shiva Devalaya No1

This shrine was a dedication to the Hindu God Shiva. Inside the Garbhagruha/Sanctum you can see the Shiva lingam made of stone erected (A description of Shiva Lingam is in the latter part of this article).

Moreover, the Hindus in Sri Lanka respect this shrine even today. Obviously, that is visible by the sight of flower offerings at the Shiva Lingam most of the time when you visit this Shiva Devalaya. There is also a stone gutter near the shiva linga for the washed water to glide out of the Sanctum. This gutter is namely the “Soma Suthra”. It connects to a small pond again made of stone outside of the temple.


Meanwhile, excavation carried out in 1907 by H.C.P. Bell revealed many items of archaeological importance from the site. H.C.P. Bell was a British civil servant and the first  Commissioner of Archaeology in old Ceylon. Those items found included the religious figurines made of bronze. Most significant were God Nataraj, God Shiva and Parvathi, some other statues of Hindu saints and a bronze bell. Those items reflect the ancient history of Indian civilization in Polonnaruwa. They are preserved even now, and people can see them at the archaeological museum of Polonnaruwa.

Recent excavation of the Shiva Devalya No 1

Recently, in 2019 there was new excavation done in the premises of Shiva Devala No.1 by the archaeological department of Sri Lanka. These excavations revealed a wall made of clay bricks under the shrine where the Shiva lingam is located. Researchers state that the said building could be a creation of the 4th-5th century A.D. Depending on the suspicion to be a part of an old Buddhist temple of that time, there is a belief that this can be a temple collapsed by Pandyans to build a Hindu shrine on it. However, no confirmation is given by the relevant authorities regarding this suspicion.

Meanwhile, the stone carvings of the outer walls have brought an exclamation to the researchers. Those carvings include the artefacts of the Sinhala art tradition such as lion sculptures and creepers. It gives the feeling that this Shiva Devalaya had attributed the Sinhala artistic touch too. Will it change the fact that the Shiva Devalaya was a creation by Pandyas? Does it express the unity that existed between the Sinhala and Tamils in the past? Of curse, the society needs more research to unravel the truth!

Shiva Devalaya No 2

Although this particular structure has the name Shiva Devalaya No2, this is the oldest Hindu shrine of Polonnaruwa kingdom. The location of this shrine is about 400m away to the right from the Janapada mawatha.

The history of Shiva Devalaya No2 of Polonnaruwa runs as far back as to the 10th century. The Cholas invaded the North of Sri Lanka in 993 A.D. A Chola emperor-Rajaraja 1 launched this battle. He won against the Kingdom of Anuradhapura and absorbed it to the Cholas emperor. Subsequently, with the collapse of the Anuradhapura Kingdom following the destruction done by Rajaraja1, in 1017 his son Rajendra Chola took over. He conquered the whole country and kept Polonnaruwa as their control center.

It is during the reign of Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola that they built the Shiva Devalaya No2. In fact, it must be to fulfil the spiritual needs of the South Indian of the Kingdom.

Architecture of the Shiva Devalaya No 2 of Polonnaruwa

As same as in the Shiva Devalaya No1 , this building also consists of three parts. They are the Garbhagruha/Sanctum, Antharalaya /vestibule and an Ardha mandapa/semi courtyard.

In contrast to the Shiva Devalaya No1, this shrine’s preservation condition is at a satisfactory level. This structure has a domed roof of octagonal shape. The specialty of the Shiva Devalaya No 2 is the availability of the roof even at present. The whole design is in stones, mostly granite.  The stone blocks are smooth in their cut. The smoothness amazes us of the ancient architecture/technology of the ancestors, who worked even without high tech machinery like today.

Then coming to the outer walls of the shrine, they consist of several decorations of stone carvings. Those carvings resemble the South Indian artefacts.

In addition to the carvings, there are also Tamil inscriptions on stone blocks. They are in Tamil Grantha characters. These inscriptions belong to Rajaraja Chola’s era.

Additionally, there is a stone statue of ‘Bull Nandi’ outside the temple. ‘Bull Nandi’ was the vehicle of God Shiva . However, this stone figure is in half at present due to destruction over time, and only the latter half of the structure is visible. Nevertheless, sometimes even at present Hindu people come and bathe the figure in respect to the God Shiva.

Inside the Shiva Devalaya No 2

First and foremost, in the center of the shrine there is a statue of the shiva linga in the erect position. That is the main symbol of the God Shiva. Even today the visitors or the Hindu tourists do not miss to worship it on their trip to Polonnaruwa.

Shiva Lingam

We mentioned that there was a statue of a ‘shiva lingam’ (masculine symbol) in the Garbhagruha/Sanctum of each shiva devalaya. What is this ‘shiva lingam’?

According to Hindu pilgrims, Shiva Lingam is not a male sexual organ but a spiritual symbol. It is the main object of worship of the Hindus similar to the Dharmachakraya/wheel of Dharma of Buddhists or the cross of Christians. It symbolises the God Shiva.

Moreover, the Shiva lingam is in the shape of a cylindrical pillar  which is often on an oval shape base. It is often a creation of stone, meta, wood or clay. The oval shape base is the ‘yoni’  (feminine symbol)of the goddess Parvathi. The whole design symbolizes the union of masculine and femine principles.


However, once you walk around the ruins of those shrines, observing the special features, you will definitely get to imagine how bustling this place must have been in the past! You are sure to get goosebumps picturing the premises crowded with pilgrims who come to worship the God Shiva while hearing the sound of bells ringing in the temple.

As a local or a foreign tourist who are in the mode of exploring the fascinating history of Sri Lanka, the two Shiva Devalayas are two best places to visit. So, never forget to witness their delight. Happy backpacking in Sri Lanka!