Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of ancient Sri Lanka was established by King Vijayabahu 1 who defeated the Chola invaders in the 11th century AD. In the 12th century AD under the patronage of one of Sri Lanka’s greatest rulers, King Parakramabahu 1, Trade and agriculture flourished in this ancient city. The ancient irrigation systems found here are far superior to those of Anuradhapura. The ruins found in Polonnaruwa are a blend of south Indian Hindu culture and amazing Sinhalese Buddhist rock art and architecture.
The second city listed in Sri Lanka’s long line of kingdoms, Polonnaruwa became the kingdom in 1070 AD after the fall of Anuradhapura, the western point of the Cultural Triangle. Among its many attractions, the Parakrama Samudra (sea) is a landmark. Created by King Parakramabahu, it is the largest man-made rainwater reservoir in the country, spanning an area of 2,500 ha and remains a primary source of water for agriculture in the district.
South of this vast expanse of water is the standing statue of its creator carved out of rock with the king holding a stack of manuscripts written on ola leaves. There are many other effigies in the city among the fascinating ruins, including a 16m carving of Buddha, all of which can be viewed. There are also some ancient Hindu temples in the ruined city.
King Parakramabahu I ruled through the golden age of Polonnaruwa. Under his leadership the country flourished as many development took place under his leadership. Using far superior technology to that which was present in Anuradhapura, king Parakramabahu I was able create irrigation systems that ensured every bit of rain water was distributed efficiently without wastage. The Parakrama Sea for example is considered to be one of the greatest of these development projects. It ensured that the crops flourished during the dry season and also served as a moat for protection against invaders.
The glories of that age can be found in the archaeological treasures that still give a pretty good idea of how the city looked in its heyday. You'll find the archaeological park a delight to explore, with hundreds of ancient structures – tombs and temples, statues and stupas – in a compact core. The Quadrangle alone is worth the trip.
That Polonnaruwa is close to elephant-packed national parks only adds to its popularity. And with good accommodation and plenty of bikes for hire, the town itself makes a pleasant base for a day or two, fringed by a huge, beautiful tank with a relaxed ambience.