What is Polonnaruwa?

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Polonnaruwa is an ancient city in Sri Lanka. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1982. The site was the capital of Sri Lanka for many years, and features some amazing statues and ruins from this period.

Polonnaruwa served as the capital of the second great kingdom to rule over all of the island of Lanka. It was ruled over by King Vijayabahu I, who fought back Chola invaders in the late-11th century and reclaimed the entirety of the island as one sovereign kingdom.

Polonnaruwa continued to be the capital for more than a century, and during this time it flourished as a center for trade on the island. Agriculture also bloomed during the rule of Parakramabahu I at Polonnaruwa, who issued a famous decree that no drop of water that fell from the skies would be wasted in the city, and that it was all to go towards developing the land and expanding the agricultural base for his people.

As a result of this decree and obsession with water conservation and use, the irrigation systems of Polonnaruwa were some of the most advanced in the entire world. The highlight of these irrigation systems is the immense Sea of Parakrama, which is a reservoir of such immensity that it does in fact appear to be a sea. Standing on one shore of the reservoir and looking across, one can’t see the other side, and in addition to acting as an amazing source of water for agriculture, it also served as a substantial defensive construct against invaders.

After Parakramabahu’s rule, Polonnaruwa began to decline, as its rulers turned more to court intrigue and away from strengthening the kingdom. They began to make alliances with kingdoms in South India, and eventually one of those rulers, King Magha, invaded at the beginning of the 13th century. The later Arya Chakrawarthi invasion, in 1284, signaled the fall of a sovereign Sri Lanka, and the capital was shifted from Polonnaruwa to Dambadeniya.

The modern city of Polonnaruwa, as distinguished from the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, is a well-appointed small city of some 300,000 people. It is known for being relatively free of pollution, and quite green. A robust tourist infrastructure, and of course the proximity to the ruins at Polonnaruwa, has led to it being one of the more popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka.

Exploring the old city is most easily done on bicycle, and a number of shops have bikes available for rent. The city is rather immense, and so can offer days of sightseeing for a dedicated adventurer. Like Angkor in Cambodia, there are many distinct sites within the larger site of Polonnaruwa, some of which are truly incredible attractions.

Of particular interest to most visitors are the Gal Vihara and the Quadrangle. The Gal Vihara is a collection of Buddha images, hewn from the rock faces. The most iconic of these is the immense reclining Buddha. The Quadrangle contains more than ten distinct structures, in very good condition and offering a good example of Buddhist construction of the era. Other sites include the immense dome of the Rankot Vihara Dagoba, King Parakramabahu’s Council Chamber, and the Thuparama Image House.

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