Ven- S. Dhammika-www.buddhanet.net/sacred-island/polonnaruwa.html
Throughout the 10th century Sri Lankan politics was marked by continual power struggles, regional revolts and civil wars. The south Indians took advantage of this instability to launch a series of invasions. In 954 Sena IV became king and took the decision to move the capital to Polonnaruwa, a large regional city which was much further east and thus much safer from invasions. Two of Sri Lanka’s greatest kings, Vijayabahu I and Parakramabahu I ruled from Polonnaruwa; the first for forty years and the second for thirty-two years. Both monarchs were great builders and these two men built most of the monuments the pilgrim sees in the city today. Another great builder was the Nissankamalla who also repaired or enlarged several temples and stupas built earlier. The ruins of Polonnaruwa are spread over a wide area in a north – south formation. We will start with those in the south and move north.
The Royal Palace
This huge structure is probably the royal palace Vijayabahu I built for himself. The eastern entrance leads to a pillared hall, which in turn leads to the huge central edifice made of brick. To the left of this is a flight of granite stairs, which led to the upper stories of which the Culavamsa says there were seven. Around the hall and central edifice is a gallery containing 40 small chambers or rooms. These must be some of the one thousand rooms mentioned in the Culavamsa. One wonders what they were all used for.
To the east of the palace is a high pillared hall. At the landing slab at the head of the stairs leading up to this hall is an inscription which reads ‘hall of public audience’. This is where the king would occasionally address his subjects or listen to their complaints. The hall consists of a three tiered platform with an impressive staircase in three parts on its north end. On the sides of the bottom platform are figures of elephants, on the second lions and on the third dwarfs. There are four rows of pillars, 12 in each row. All are decorated with floral designs. If the pilgrim now leaves the royal compound and takes the road north he or she will soon come to the sacred compound containing some buildings of particular interest and beauty.
Despite claiming to have done so, the Vatadage was not built by Nissankamalla but only repaired and embellished by him. It follows the pattern of other stupa houses of the original two inner circles of pillars none have survived.
The entrance stairs at the four cardinal points are profusely ornamented. Of the original three circles of pillars supporting the roof only the outer one remains. Between each of these pillars are stone screens tastefully decorated with four-petalled flowers. The carvings on the Vatadage’s moonstones and other features are particularly fine. This is to my mind the most beautiful temple built during the Polonnaruwa period.
Moonstone of the Vatadage
The Stone Book
On the eastern side of the Hatadage is a huge slab of rock in imitation of a palm leaf book and with an inscription by King Nissankamalla on its upper surface. The stone is 26 feet 10 inches long, 4 feet 7 inches wide and 2 feet 2 inches thick. Carved on each end is a line of geese below which is figure of the Hindu goddess Laksmi with two elephants tipping pots of water over her. The postscript on the southern end says that this stone was dragged from Mihintale, some 80 miles away, by team of men under the command of Totadanavu Mandnavan. The inscription was written towards the end of Nissankamalla’s reign but is just as boastful as his numerous earlier ones.
According to the Culavamsa this lovely little pavilion was built by Nissankamalla so he could sit within it and either listen to pirit or on special occasion’s worship the Tooth Relic. A stone railing, plain except for the cone shaped tops of the posts, encloses an area 34 feet by 28 feet which is entered by a gate on the side. Inside is a stone platform with a small stupa at its centre and with eight pillars carved in imitation of lotus stalks rising from it which supported the roof. At the top of each pillar is a separate octagonal capital in the shape of a lotus blossom. The king and the members of his court would probably sit on the ground around the platform listening to the chanting of the assembled monks who sat on the platform.
Proceeding north along the road the pilgrim will arrive at a large collection of buildings clustered around a stupa. This is the Alahana Parivena, a monastery built by Parakramabahu. The most prominent structure in this complex is the Kiri Vehera. Directly south of the Kiri Vehera is the Lankatilaka, the monastery's main image house. This huge building is nearly 50 feet high and originally had a vaulted brick roof. The entrance is made of massive fluted pylons covered with plaster in which must have originally been two huge wooden doors. Walk around the walls and look at some of the fine stucco work. The walls of the Lankatilaka were once covered with paintings but theses have all disappeared. At the far end of the hall is the remains of the image. The whole of the Alahana Parivena is surrounded by a wall 1,880 feet long. The main assembly hall of the monastery is to the south east and is called the Baddhasimapasada. As well as these three main buildings numerous other buildings are to be seen, mainly monk’s cells, shrines, as well as several bathing ponds. In the hospital at the Alahana Parivena is a stone medicinal bath on in which patients were immersed in medicinal oils.
The medicinal bath
Rankotvehera is meant to be a copy of the Ruvanvalasaya and was built by Nissankamalla. It has a diameter of 186 feet and was originally 200 feet high and thus was the last great stupa to be built in Sri Lanka. The Kiri Vehera was built by Parakramabahu I, it has a diameter of 88 feet and is now 80 feet high. Parakramabahu also built the Damila stupa so called because Tamil prisoners of war did all the work.
The Temple of the Tooth
The temple is surrounded by a solid wall whose gate was originally flanked by two prosperity vases, only one of which still remains. Passing through this gate the pilgrim arrives at the entrance of the temple itself with its elaborate moonstone, guard stones and balustrades. Climbing the steps one enters the main vestibule. Note the six richly carved pillars, the small door on the north, where the presiding monks would have entered, and the stairs in the corner. These stairs would have led up to the second floor of the temple which was made entirely of wood but now has completely disappeared. Proceeding further one now enters the main shrine, in which three standing Buddha images once stood. The one remaining image is 8 feet tall and its deep eye sockets suggest that they once held gems. Vijayabahu I built this temple. Stepping over the elaborate moonstone and climbing the four steps one enters the vestibule with its richly calved pillars. The Velaikkara inscription in Tamil, which was found near the temple, describes the ceremonies that were conducted there. The inscription is in Tamil because at that time a body of Tamil mercenaries called the Velaikkaras had control of the Tooth Temple. Inscription on the north wall gives the history of the temple. The stairs in the far left corner led up to the second story which would have been made of wood and which has of course now all disappeared. Inside the main shrine were originally three Buddha statues only one which still survives. The deep eye sockets of this statue suggest that they also once held gems. Near this Hatadage built by Vijayabahu I is the Atadage built by Nissankamalla.
This inscription is unusual in that the king actually manages to talk about something other than himself. In the prologue he says, "This Dhamma which gives happiness and which alone deserves to be honored in the world should always be preserved". Nissankamalla makes this appeal over and over again to the rulers of the earth for the sake of their good name.
The Large Statue and the Potgul Vehera
This building is popularly believed to be a monastic library but there is nothing in its layout or structure to suggests that this is so. it consists of a rotunda with a circumference of 157 feet with an oblong vestibule attached to its eastern side. A long inscription was found here but it is no help in identifying this building or what it was used for and the pilgrim will find the whole thing of little interest. North of the Potgul Vehera and a short walk from it is a large statue carved out of a cliff. This statue does not seem to be the idealized type usually seen in Sri Lankan sculpture but rather a portrait with very distinct individual characteristics. The figure, bearded and wearing a tall rounded cap, holds either a book or a yoke in its hands. It is an imposing figure but is saved from being overbearing by its serene downcast eyes. It is a 12th century statue often referred to as "The Sage ", but popularly beleived to represent Parakramabahu I.
Statue of "The Sage" or King Parakramabahu 1.
Vanavanmadevi Isvaram Temple
During the 70 years the Cholas ruled Sri Lanka and it is interesting that they built a temple to their gods not between or on the nearby Buddhist temples but discreetly beside them. According to the inscription on the walls of this temple it says it was built by Rajendra Cola and named after one of his queens. It is an excellent example of Chola architecture and almost perfectly preserved. The positioning of this temple says a lot about the Cohlas religious policy in Sri Lanka. Their rule was undoubtedly harsh but they were tolerant as far as religion was concerned. They could have built this temple to their god on top of the nearby Buddhist temples but instead they chose to place it discreetly near them. It is also interesting that when the Sinhalese finally succeeded in driving the Cholas out and regained their capital they did not destroy this temple.
At the north-east corner of the quadrangle and just outside it is an unusual monument now called the Satmahal Sasada. This consists of square pyramidal tower built in seven diminishing stages, each stage having an arched niche housing an image of a god. Who built this monument, why and what its original name was is not known; however it seems likely that it was meant to be a copy of the mythical Mount Meru, the home of the gods and the center of the world according to Hindu cosmology.
How To Get There
About 1.5 hours by bus east of Sigiriya, or 3 hours North East of Kandy.
© 2007 Copyright Ven. S. Dhammika & BuddhaNet/Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.
Ven. S. Dhammika
Perhaps the most beautiful Buddha images in Sri Lanka are the ones at Gal Vihara. Four images of different sizes are carved out of a cliff about 56 yards long and falls away gradually at each end. Nearly 15 ft. of rock has been cut away to form the three large images and the cave. The beauty of the images and their lovely natural setting have long attracted the admiration of visitors. The famous Catholic monk Thomas Merton fell into a state of exaltation when he came here. The modern name Gal Vihara means the Rock Temple while the name given in the Culavamsa is The Northern Temple (Uttara Vihara).
The sitting image is 15 ft. high and sits on a low pedestal in the front of which are niches containing lions and crossed vajras showing the lingering influence of Tantric Buddhism. Next to this is a cave with pillars carved into the cliff. In the middle of the cave is a high throne with a Buddha image on it flanked by two devas.
The Buddha in the lion posture (sihasana)
46 ft. long and depicts the Buddha in the lion posture (sihasana) just as he attained final Nirvana. He rests his head on an elaborately decorated cylindercal pillow. Walking to the far end of this image the pilgrim will notice that the soles of the Buddha's feet are covered with auspicious marks. As is charastic of images of the polo period the Buddha has a round face with a high forehead. Despite its somewhat stylized form it has a peaceful that cannot fail to mov affect the all who see it.
Next to the cave is a standing Buddha with its arms crossed in front of it, one of the few Buddha images depicted like this Because of this unusual hand gesture some have speculated that this is not an image of the Buddha but of Ananda grieving for his master about to pass into final Nirvana. This image has a particularly benign and peaceful face. Right next to this is a reclining Buddha some 46 ft. long, a masterpiece of the sculptor’s art.
On the sloping rock between the cave and the standing image is one of the longest inscriptions from ancient Sri Lanka. The inscription details King Prahramabahu’s efforts to reform and unite the sangha in 1165. It quotes the king as saying; ‘Seeing again and again a blot on the immaculate Buddhist religion if a mighty monarch like myself were to remain indifferent the religion might perish and many living beings would be destined for hell. Let me serve the religion that it might last a thousand years’. It then proceeds to detail a new code of conduct for monks as drawn up by the famous ascetic monk Maha Kassapa of Dimbuagala. This code is interesting in that it gives a glimpse of the everyday life of Sri Lankan monks in the 12th century.
If a wayfarer fails to find one
Equal to or better than himself
Let him be content to walk on alone.
There should be no fellowship with fools.
- Dhammapada; 61
The wise man proceeds from one shrine to another, giving no thought to rivers, mountains, rain or the burning sun. He ignores any abuse he encounters and humbly accepts any alms he receives. He greets fellow-pilgrims, gladly shares his food with them and gives them advice on the road ahead. Thus he learns patience and contentment, generosity and kindness. Such a pilgrim is truly blessed by the Buddha. .
- Abhayatadananamaparajita Sutra
Think of yourself as a pilgrim and your teachers as guides.
Think of their instructions as the road
And the practice as the land of your destination;
- Gandhavyayu Sutra.
© 2007 Copyright Ven. S. Dhammika & BuddhaNet/Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.
Called Serendib by Arab traders (the origin of the word “serendipity”), Sri Lanka has an amazing diversity for a small island and offers the possibility of experiencing vastly different climates, history, and cultures during a short vacation. In this Four Part Series I will share a glimpse of four vastly different areas of Sri Lanka that can, and should, be a part of any itinerary to the island of providence. The first part in this series explored the the East Coast city of Trincomalee and the Hindu Koneswaram Temple.
Nestled in the lush central jungles of Sri Lanka sits Polonnaruwa, the 10th century ancient capital on par with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Myanmar’s Bagan, or Thailand’s Ayutthaya. The rectangular archeological site sits on the shores of the Topa Wewa Lake, slightly north of the modern day town of Polonnaruwa where you can buy your entry ticket. Crumbling palaces, dozens of dagobas (stupas), temples and a multitude of ancient religious buildings peak through the dense jungle where monkeys run and swing in troops. Part of the enchantment is the journey there as you drive along the boarders of national parks where it’s common to see wild elephants crossing the road or disappearing into the thickets.
The site covers an extensive area and under the hot Sri Lankan sun it can be quite taxing to see all of it. Rent a bicycle in town if you want to stay close to nature, or even rent a taxi and pick up one of the guides waiting at the entrance gate.
Walking amongst the crumbling temples, solitary Buddha statues and exposed rock walls transports the visitor into a bygone era of ancient kingdoms and fierce battles. While all of the sites are amazing and should be enjoyed with equal attention, the real delight are the four Buddha statues at Gal Vihara on the northern boarder of the complex. Crafted in the 12th Century by unknown artists the Buddha’s represent the pinnacle of Sri Lanka rock carving and are probably the most beautiful images of the Buddha in all of Sri Lanka.
The four Buddhas are carved out of a single cliff, the tallest towering seven meters into the air while the enormous reclining Buddha measures a full 14 meters. However, its not the size that draws attention but the skill of the carvers and the enchanting veins of different rocks that sweep easily across the smooth faces and bodies allowing the statue to at once stand out and be a part of the surrounding cliff.
The large seated Buddha on the far left depicts the dhyana mudra which is rare in Sinhalese sculpture as it is related to the Mahayana (such as tantric) forms of Buddhism rather than the Theravada Buddhism present in Sri Lanka today and which is said to be the original teachings of the Buddha.
A small seated statue is located in an artificial cave near the center of the cliff and is similar in style to its larger neighbor. Be sure to remove your shoes before you enter the statue areas and do not turn your back to the statues to take a picture as it is considered extremely rude.
A visit to the the ancient city will leave you amazed at the history of the area, but a visit to the Buddhas will leave you calm and relaxed. If you are interested in ancient majestic statues this is a must see part of any trip to Sri Lanka.
If you go
Travel by car or bus is your only real option. The road conditions are fine, if a bit crowded until you reach Habarana. The drive typically takes 8 hours from Colombo and can easily be combined with a few nights in Habarana to check out nearby Sygiria, the Dambula Cave Temples, or safaris in the national parks along the way. Kandy is only 90 miles (140 km) away and a trip to the other ancient capital, Anuradapura can easily be included as a day trip as well.
When to Go:
No particular season…just go!