The lost capitals of Sri Lanka

Punita Malhotra


The cultural triangle of the country is famed for three of its ancient capitals. Sigiriya is a steep 656-foot monolithic rock doubling as a monumental 5th-century lion-shaped stronghold with a terraced city at its feet and a palace crowning its summit. Polonnaruwa is a 4-km sprawling garden city filled with palaces, pleasure gardens, Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples. Yapahuwa is a temple carved halfway up a 100-ft high rock, protected by double ramparts and a 10-km long moat. Dive into their history, architectural symbolism and stories of destruction.


Climbing the rock fortress of Sigiriya is touted as one of the most-wanted thrilling experiences in Sri Lanka. One just needs to Google the photographs to agree. This 656-foot monolith of a gigantic rock head jutting out of the dark green jungles is a jaw-dropping sight to behold as much as from a distance as from up close. What is even more fascinating is the fact that Sigiriya is an extinct volcano with sheer walls carved in the shape of a lion-shaped citadel, with a terraced city at its feet and a palace at its summit. A jittery climb of 1,200 steps up a stone stairway through the lion’s giant paws, mouth and throat come with unique rewards. The view from the plateau of ruined palaces and pools over the wild Sri Lankan jungles will inevitably make you marvel at 5th-century engineering and ancient urban planning of King Kashyapa’s stronghold. Reinvented as a one-of-a-kind Buddhist pilgrimage site after it fell into ruins, Sigiriya boasts of the oldest and best-preserved Sinhalese wall graffiti. Look out for the 1,000-years old hand-painted bedecked maidens in vibrant reds, yellows and greens on the Mirror Wall, halfway up the rock face. Quite a choice for a UNESCO World Heritage tag. After all, it also has Asia’s oldest landscaped garden and a sophisticated pumping system to boot.


On the east shore of a 2100-hectare artificial lake, lies an ancient garden city nestled within the peaceful vicinity of 4 kilometres of woodland. This was once King Parakramabahu’s 12-century majestic capital, plundered and destroyed by a Kalinga king from North India. Think of it as a sprawling complex filled with ruins of sculptured palaces, leftovers of landscaped pleasure gardens. In addition to the buildings comprising the royal residence, several religious buildings including Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples are scattered all over Polonnaruwa’s Sacred Quadrangle. These include some of the best and most intricate ancient architecture in the country. Don’t miss the dancing sculptures reflecting the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam. The complex is home to Sri Lanka’s best-preserved moonstone (Sandakadapahana). This stunning piece of craftsmanship can be found at the northern entrance to the upper terrace of the Vatadage. The centrepiece is a large half-lotus, enclosed by concentric bands, and enhanced by many animal figures like lions, horses, elephants and bulls. The most memorable structure that will stay etched in your mind is the Rankoth Vehera Dagoba, a 55-fit brick masterpiece in stone, shaped like a mammoth bell with four engraved altars. Another key spot worth exploring in detail is the Gal Vihara, where four colossal Buddha carvings (including a 46-feet reclining figure) adorn a giant boulder of granite.


10-kilometre long moat, double ramparts and a 100-feet high rock still stand in the heart of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. Here is a living testimony to the rock-fortress capital built by King Buvenekabahu in the late 13th-century to safeguard the Sacred Tooth Relic. Following a series of loot and destruction, Yapahuwa’s glory days came to a close in the 16th-century. Stand at the foot of three flights of steps that lead to an ornamental stone gateway, and slip into the past once again. The carvings and embellishments speak of a beautiful blend of Lankan and South Indian influences. You can almost feel the rhythm in the stone if you concentrate hard enough. Dancers, musicians and mythical animals come together in a celebration like no other on its grim walls. Marvel at the variety of the expressions that the figures sport, ranging from joy to playfulness to devotion. Two grand lions still guard the elaborate entrance, their solemn faces and bulging eyes appropriately reflecting their position. Elaborately carved windows, Greco-style columns and intricate sculptures complete the crumbling picture of perfection. If you love ruins, you will love the poetic beauty of the structure as it would have been centuries ago, when Yapahuwa was at the pinnacle of power. From the summit, when you take in the bird-eye view of the jungle sprawling or miles and miles around, you can relate with the term ‘undefeated’.

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