If you’re staying in the region around Sigiriya on a trip to Sri Lanka then paying a visit to one or both of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, is a must. Both are cities of incredibly well preserved ruins showing ancient Sri Lankan civilisation dating back, in the case of Anuradhapura, to 350BC! The capital moved to Polonnaruwa in 1070, and eventually moved to Kandy.
Anuradhapura, a couple of hours from Sigiriya by car, was established in 350 BC by Pandukabhaya of Anuradhapura, and remained the capital of Sri Lanka for almost 1400 years until war divided Sri Lanka and the city was all but destroyed. Anuradhapura has a completely different feel to Polonnaruwa as there are actually many active temples and worship sites in the area, despite it being the older of the two cities, so a lot of Sri Lankan locals come to visit and pay respects. We visited on a weekend so the place was buzzing with Sri Lankan families all dressed in white carrying flowers and others offerings to place before the shrines and stupas.
People travel to visit a shrine holding the right collarbone of Buddha, as well as the ancient Bodhi tree, dating back to 249BC making it the oldest tree in the world. It is considered to be a sapling of the tree under which Buddha himself achieved enlightenment, so pilgrims come from all over to see it and sit at the bottom singing songs.
Polonnaruwa is about an hour’s drive from Sigiriya so it’s a little more convenient and easier to schedule in for a half day and do something else in the afternoon. The capital was moved to the city in 1070 by King Vijayabahu I after his army ended the long-standing conflict and reunited Sri Lanka.
At Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, you can find stunning examples of impeccably preserved moonstones. It’s just amazing how much detail you can still see when you consider that they’re over a thousand years old.
Parakramabahu I decreed that not a drop of water was to be wasted, and a huge irrigation system was built that brought water to wider areas and allowed paddy fields to flourish in the dry zone. The huge reservoir that remains in Polonnaruwa continues that legacy.
A lot of people only visit Polonnaruwa because it’s in a more convenient location and maybe they don’t want to get “templed out”, but I’m glad we did both. It was amazing to be a part of the community atmosphere of Anuradhapura and to see the ancient Bodhi tree, and it was really humbling to be able to see such ancient ruins of a civilisation that existed thousands of years ago.