Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and its treasure trove of archaeological sites is increasing in popularity amongst travelers – with its frolicking monkeys, massive statues of Buddha and ruins that are over 1500 years old, no one wants to miss out on exploring these!
One of the most magnificent archaeological sites is the soaring rock fortress of Sigiriya. In the late 5th century, this palace was built in the geographical heart of Sri Lanka – within the area known today as the cultural triangle. The cultural triangle itself is home to at least five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the Lion’s Rock is one of them.
In 1982, the Sri Lankan government launched the Cultural Triangle Project with an aim to restore, conserve and promote ancient ruins such as Sigiriya. However, in less than a year, this project came to a halt as the civil war erupted throughout the country. In 2009, this bloody war ended and consequently, tourism has expanded. Peak season kicks off in December and visitors flock to the Cultural Triangle. Many hotels have recently sprung up in Sigiriya and the rest of the triangle. According to a resident naturalist at Jetwing Vil Uyana, tourists come to Sigiriya because of the Lion’s Rock – which according to him is the main attraction in the region of the Cultural Triangle, and probably all of Sri Lanka.
The legendary King Kasyapa built the fortress of Sigiriya on a natural rock that was 200 meters high – simply for defensive purposes. He had committed the murder of his father – Kind Dhatusena during the year 477 and had fled from the city of Anuradhapura. He had a fear of his brother avenging the killing and Mogallana (Kasyapa’s brother) did just that. 20 years after the crime, Mogallana returned from exile in India and came with an army to capture Sigiriya. Not only did Mogallana win over the fortress but he also gained ownership of the stunning frescos beautifully custom designed by Kasyapa. With deep color tones and fragmented borders, these frescos were believed to be the King’s favorite companions and were very different to the paintings of the Anuradhapura era.
Central Sri Lanka has monkeys sprawled all over the place. Wherever you stop for a nice click, laugh at the sight of a macaque saying hi from the back! Among the monkey family, macaques are common. Although these are small, they can be very aggressive. They often do a good job at protecting belongings that tourists may leave unattended.
In Sigiriya, you will also find the oldest surviving gardens in Asia. At the center of these beautiful gardens are quadrilateral pools of water. Also known as char-bagh or four gardens, this Persian style attraction is built from limestone. These water gardens are connected to a channel at the bottom of the palace by means of a fully functioning 1500 year old underground conduit.
The cleanliness and preservation of artefacts in Sigiriya is exceptional. Archaeologists are constantly working on the site, making new discoveries every now and then. The most recent one being a 2000 year old clay pot found close to the water channel.
For some centuries, the ruins of Sigiriya were neglected and a thick jungle grew around the area. In 1890, a team from the Archaeology department performed backbreaking work in the scorching heat having to climb and descend the rock every single day. The hard work paid off indeed because the team discovered a massive lion’s head, legs and paws, located around the southern end of the rock. In the early 20th century, the legs and head of the lion collapsed but the paws remain until today.
Visiting this area is kind of tricky because just above the set of paws is a huge colony of hornet hives. These hornets become active in the afternoons, particularly during the dry season. As a result, authorities will temporarily close the site. The idea of removing the hives was discussed and ruled out because the hornets would simply build more hives there. Also, hornets scare away mosquitoes and other insects that come and chip away the 1500 year old paintings, thereby preserving the frescos.
Standing at the top of the rock, outside his enormous palace, King Kasyapa must have got the feeling of being the “King of the world”, beholding his kingdom. According to local guides at Sigiriya, the ponds or cisterns that you find at the top of the fortress were filled with water by conduits that were connected to the water gardens. The concern of how Sri Lankans managed to transport water so high without the use of pumps – still remains a mystery and is assumed to be a technology or industry that was lost and forgotten over the centuries.
Drive about 55kms east from Sigiriya and you will reach the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Originated in the 12th Century, Polonnaruwa is the second oldest Kingdom of Sri Lanka and has become one of the best planned archaeological sites in the entire nation. A wee bit north of the modern day town of Polonnaruwa is a sprawling complex of eight stunning archaeological sites comprising thousands of statues, temples, ramparts, tombs, rotundas, artefacts and stupas.
One amazing example is the royal palace constructed by King Parakramabahu the Great who was an architect in ancient Polonnaruwa. Today, only 3 stories of the palace remain but during its peak of success, it had seven stories and over 1000 chambers. The sockets and crevices on the thick brick walls prove that large wooden beams were held there and the ceiling was made up of terracotta tiles. According to archaeologists, there is evidence that the palace was destroyed by fire and then abandoned.
Another structure in Polonnaruwa is the Thuparama Gedige temple, found within the Sacred Quadrangle of Polonnaruwa. This is one of the only temples in the ancient city that still has its roof intact. Most of the Buddha statues here are decapitated. Some of the heads are seen at the museum in Polonnaruwa while some made their way to private collections – by means of black market for stolen antiques.
When entering some of the structures in Polonnaruwa, visitors will see doormats that are made from moonstones and designed with intricate carvings of elephants, monkeys, buffalos and lions. All tourists are requested to enter barefoot because these attractions still serve as Buddhist shrines today. As tourism grows and there is constant pounding of feet with or without shoes, the carvings in these moonstones will gradually wear away.
In Polonnaruwa, Parakramabahu’s successor – King Nissankamalla built an enormous 55m high stupa and named it Rankot Vihara. The dome of this stupa has a peculiar egg shape, is made of brick mantle and plaster and is surrounded by mini brick shrines. Mid-morning is a good time to visit Rankot Vihara if you want to avoid the crowds.
Gal Vihara is a collection of four giant Buddha statues, carved into a hard granite cliff. Located at the north end of Polonnaruwa, this attraction is the holiest place in the park. Visitors should approach the statues barefoot and are not allowed to turn their back towards the statue – hence making it impossible to take selfies!
The giant statues of Lord Buddha resting in different positions are indeed remarkable. One of the largest sculptures in Asia is amongst these – the 14m long reclining Buddha statue. This statue of Lord Buddha has his left foot slightly withdrawn, indicating that Buddha is not sleeping or resting but has obtained nirvana-after-death. One of the other four statues is a 7m tall standing Buddha while the other two are of Buddha in a sitting position. Recently, authorities covered these statues with scaffolding to protect them from damage from the sun – thereby making photography slightly difficult.
During your cultural tour of Sri Lanka, Don’t be surprised if you come across Sri Lankan newlyweds in historical costumes – posing for photos in front of these archaeological and religious ruins on their special day. About a quarter of the Lankan 21 million population is aged 15-25 – making weddings a big business in the country.