On the Road to Ruins
Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
27Trip End Dec 15, 2007
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The heyday of the city, in the twelfth century, represented one of the high watermarks of early Sri Lankan civilisation. The Chola invaders from South India had been repulsed by Vijayabahu, and the Sinhalese kingdom he established at Polonnaruwa enjoyed a brief century of magnificence under his successors Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla, who planned the city as a grand statement of imperial pomp. However, with a century, their enfeebled successors had been driven south by new waves of invaders from southern India, and Polonnaruwa had been abandoned to the jungle, where it remained, unclaimed and virtually unknown for seven centuries.
As you might expect, there is too much detail to cover here. However, highlights included the Quadrangle, which is dominated by the magnificent Vatadage (circular relic house). The entire outer structure is a fantastic riot of artistry, with almost every surface carved in a melee of decoration without parallel in the rest of Polonnaruwa.
The monumental Rankot Vihara is an immense red-brick dagoba rising to a height of some 55m, the fourth largest such structure in Sri Lanka. Substantial Anuradhapuran-style vahalkadas stand at the four cardinal points, decorated with the usual dwarf, elephant and lotus friezes, while an unusually large number of brick image houses, some of which still contain Buddha statues, stand around the base of the dagoba.
A couple of hundred metres beyond the Rankot Vihara stretch the extensive remains of the Alahana Pirivena. At the heart of this site, the Lankatilaka ("Ornament of Lanka") consists of a huge (though now sadly headless) standing Buddha, over 14m high, hemmed in between two narrow walls. The shrine emphasizes the change in Buddhist architecture and thought from the abstract symbolic form of the dagoba to a much more personalised and devotional approach, in which attention is focused on the giant figure of the Buddha.
Just to the north, the Gal Vihara ("Stone Shrine") represents the pinnacle of Sri Lankan rock carving. The four Buddha statues here, all carved from the same massive granite outcrop, originally formed part of the monastery complex - each statue would originally have been housed in its own enclosure. The massive recling Buddha, 14m long, is the most famous of the four statues, a huge but supremely graceful figure which manages to combine the serenely transcendental with the touchingly human.
Also worth a mention is the Polonnaruwa Museum, which displays a fine collection of bronzes and sculptures recovered from the site, along with some fascinating scale models showing how the city's building might have looked in their prime.