Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Lankan diaries: Polonnaruwa - the royal ancient city

After Sigiriya Rock Fortress hike, the driver insisted that we go on a bullock cart safari to a village and have lunch there. He wanted us to visit Polonnaruwa the next day, but we didn’t budge. We didn’t want to skip the place on that day. So, after lunch we went to Polonnaruwa. On the way, we saw a small monitor lizard crossing the road and I was lucky to get a click of it!

Monitor lizard crossing the road
In Polonnaruwa, we paid full amount of Rs 1,925 (SAARC nation fee) for each person. We didn’t get any 30% discount mentioned in the itinerary! Our driver stopped a guide who was on his way home and asked us to hire him to show around the ruins.

We hired that local guide for Rs 1,500 and he took us around in our van to show most of the important places. His English was pretty good, and we enjoyed digging into the history of Polonnaruwa.

Archaeological Museum
First, the guide took us to the Archaeological Museum, which was right next to the ticket office, and gave us a brief introduction to what we were supposed to see outside. We felt that was indeed a great idea to visit the museum before heading to the city to see the ruins. Since we had missed Sigiriya museum, we didn’t want to miss anything here!

The rooms in the museum are interconnected, each dedicated to a particular theme. They have miniature models of buildings and temples helping us know how they would have looked in their glorious days.

Rise and fall of the medieval capital
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s splendid medieval capital, replaced Anuradhapura in the 10th century. It was a thriving commercial and religious centre of Sri Lanka. South Indian rulers Cholas chose Polonnaruwa as their new capital and moved the capital from Anuradhapura. Reason?  The guide gave us two: One, it was a strategically better and safe place from the attacks of Ruhunu Sinhalese rulers in the south-east. Second, it had fewer mosquitos compared to Anuradhapura!

Around 1070, the Sinhalese kingdom ousted the Chola rulers and captured the city. The city saw three great Sinhalese rulers. King Vijayabahu I who defeated the Cholas retained Polonnaruwa as his capital. During his rule, Polonnaruwa saw its golden period and reached its highest glory.

Later, King Parakramabahu I (1153-86) built several big buildings, parks and a large (25 sq km) water tank which.

Then came the third and the last ruler, King Nisanka Malla (1187-96). Though he tried to match his ancestors’ achievements, he ended up bankrupting the kingdom!

By the early 13th century, the glory completely faded and the city was abandoned. The capital was moved to the western side of the island where Colombo is today.

The vastness of the ancient city 
The ruins of the ancient city are on the east shore of the large water tank, Topa Wewa Lake, or Parakrama Samudraya - the Sea of Parakrama - built by King Parakramabahu I.

Palace buildings and clusters of dozens of dagobas, temples and various other religious buildings are within a rectangle of city walls.

Several historic buildings are scattered to the north of the main complex, outside the city walls and close to the main road to Habarana and Dambulla.

Parakrama Samudraya 
After seeing the museum we headed towards the ruins in our van. The vehicle moved over the banks of Parakrama Samudraya built by King Parakramabahu. This largest ancient man-made rainwater reservoir in the island country dominates the western part of the Polonnaruwa district. The vast reservoir that covers an area of around 2,500 hectares has a capacity to store around 134 million cubic metres of water. It is not only the lifeline to the agricultural activities of Polonnaruwa and surrounding places, but also to the wildlife of the nearby Habarana forest area.

Parakrama Samudraya built by King Parakramabahu
The guide informed us that the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which had extended 122 hectares, spreading out to a distance of 5 km from north to south and 3 km from east to west, gets the cool breeze from this lake.

The statue of King Parakramabahu/ Sage Pulasti 
On the Southern side of the lake, there’s a rock carved statue of a man of noble disposition holding a stack of manuscripts. The guide said that the identification of the statue is difficult as different people interpret it differently.

Some archaeologists say that 3.5 metre tall sculpture is of King Parakramabahu. While some others argue that it’s the image of sage Pulasti, after whom the city was named as Pulastinagara.

Pulastinagara is the Pali word of the Sinhala name Polonnaruwa.

Vishvamitra in the Rig Veda (IIII.53.16) mentions about sage Pulasti, who was regarded as the progenitor of Ravana and Kubera. He says his city, Pulasti-Pura, was located in ancient Sri Lanka.

Whoever it is, the man standing in tribhanga style, holds a palm-leaf book in his outstretched arms, has a gently swelling stomach, upper torso is bare, while a knotted sheer garment is seen wrapped around the lower body. 

The Royal Palace 
Next we went to see the Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu in the ancient city. The 7-storied building might have been once richly decorated.

The Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu
The ruins of the remaining walls are so thick, around 3 metre, that we were quite amazed to see them intact.
Thick walls of the palace
The seven-storied building contained numerous pillared rooms, including banqueting and dancing halls, all timbered, stuccoed and painted. The guide said that the various small rooms supported by 30-50 columns once were filled with the treasure. We agreed, because some of the rooms are so tiny and compact that only wealth or grains could be filled in them and nothing else!

Bathroom and toilet in the palace
Some of the walls that are left have holes to hold floor beams. The beams might have been made of wood. The palace was lit and the wooden beams were burnt to ashes, informed the guide, showing us some black spots on the wall as burnt marks!

The Council Chamber  
Across the way we went to see the beautiful King Nissanka Malla Council Chamber also known as Royal Audience Hall. Beautiful because it’s embellished with lion portals, graceful pillars and a moonstone - a delicately carved stepping stone at the entrance.

King Nissanka Malla's Council Chamber
Two beautifully carved lions on the stairs of each side welcome the visitors inside the hall.

Two beautifully carved lions on the stairs of each side
This Hall is one of the best-preserved structures in the ancient citadel. The walls have beautifully carved elephants and interestingly, each elephant is different in position and style.

Beautifully carved elephants on the walls
The hall has 48 columns and each is inscribed with the councillors' titles, to indicate everyone's assigned place in the meeting room. The titles include princes, queens, generals and even merchants!

There’s an inscribed stone lion which marks the location of the king's throne. Maybe it was a part of the throne, if not the throne itself.
Board instructing not to sit on the King's Lion Throne
Though the structural techniques here are very much similar to Anuradhapura, here they have used lime mortar. It enabled them to build huge and massive brick structures of various dimensions that were never before tried.

Kumara Pokuna
A little further there’s a royal bath or king’s swimming pool called Kumara Pokuna. The water was filled with green algae and we were quite astonished to see how fresh water was led into the water with crocodile-mouth shaped spouts!

The Sacred Centre
Our next stop was at the Sacred Centre. It compounds some beautiful ruins within a raised platform. We were told that this part consists some most important relics like Vatadage, Hatadage and Atadage, besides other beautiful ruins.

The Sacred Quadrangle
Satmahal Prasada
Before entering the Vatadage, we stopped first at Satmahal Prasada. What’s so unique about this building is it’s in a seven-storied, square stepped pyramid shape. Though only the first six-storeys remain, it’s still quite impressive. Similar temples can be found in Thailand like Wat Cham Thewi temple and Vat Kukut temple at Lamphun built in the 8th century.

Seven-storied, square stepped pyramid shaped Satmahal Prasada
Though the identity and the purpose of this building is yet to be proved, some chronicles mention that King Parakramabahu had built a stupa in the area and some scholars argue that the building was in fact this stupa! A similar building discovered in Anuradhapura is known as Nakha Vehera.

Whatever be the purpose, the building is quite impressive.

Gal Potha 
Just next to the Hetadage and Satmahal Prasada there’s a massive stone slab. Construction workers were busy cementing the place around it as I was clicking the pics.

26-ft stone slab Gal Potha 

The 26-ft stone slab is called as Gal Potha, in which King Nissankamalla had his remarkable deeds recorded on it. The inscription not only mentions about his wars with Dravidian invaders from South India, but also about his genealogy.

The inscription itself says that the slab of stone was brought to the location from Mihintale. Besides throwing light on the ruler’s achievements, the stone slab also reveals the evolution of the Sinhala script.
Two stone carved Elephants sprinkling water on Goddess Lakshmi
There are two stone carved Elephants sprinkling water on Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Prosperity, on the side of Gal Potha, indicating the king’s family or harem had some queen belonging to Hinduism!

We next stepped into the Vatadage, a circular relic house, with an exceptional elegance and beauty quite typical of its kind.

Vatadage is a general architectural term, not a specific place-name. It means a stupa, erected upon a circular platform, and enclosed by a two-part roof. The top part of the roof is conical or bell-shaped, and the lower part is an annular surrounding eave. The roof is supported on pillars. The building has symmetrical entrances at each of the four cardinal directions.

The outer circle is very tastefully ornamented with petalled flowers. All the four entrances are flanked by a pair of guard stones and intricately carved moonstones.

A seven-hooded Nagaraja upholds an elaborate floral stem and a pot of plenty, attended by ganas at his feet, in a very beautiful guard stone which stands at the eastern entrance to the Vatadage. The design symbolizes prosperity. It’s a belief that the guard stone Nagaraja continues to protect the Vatadage from bad influences over the centuries.

The moonstones have three major bands or circles. The outer band displays hamsas, the middle band displays elephants and the inner band displays horses. The earlier moonstones found at Anuradhapura have lions and bulls, whereas, they are not to be seen here!

Historians give two reasons for the omission of lions and bulls. For Hindus, bulls are sacred, as it’s considered to be the sacred vehicle of Lord Shiva and they would not tread and not allow Buddhists or anyone else to trample on the sacred animal. Secondly, they might have not included the lion, as it’s the national symbol of Sinhalese and they wouldn’t want to trample on it!

The Vatadage
The stairs leading to the centre at the four entrances are beautifully carved. The risers of the stairs are decorated by dancing dwarves. At the head of each flight is a statue of meditating Buddha. The seated Buddhas are placed in each of the four cardinal directions.

The eastern entrance is not only the most complete, but also the most beautiful of the four cardinal entrances to the Vatadage.

We next went to the Hatadage built by Nissankamalla. The inscription at the entrance mentions that it was constructed by Nissankamalla.

Nissankamalla's inscription
The king, a Tamil prince, had married the princess of Polonnaruwa. After ascending the throne, he undertook vigorous measures to glorify his reign, both at home and in military expeditions abroad, which is revealed by his several inscriptions around.

Though there’s only lower storey, the building originally had two-storeys. It is believed that it housed a tooth relic of the Buddha.

There’s a weathered frieze on the wall in the building thought to be the oldest pictorial representation of Bharat Natyam, the classical South Indian dance form.

Buddha statue in Hatadage
The building also has a statue of standing Buddha which is little ok, while the other two statues are in a very bad shape and require repair.

This temple is deliberately aligned with the Vatadage. Its central Buddha looks directly across to the northern directional Buddha of the latter shrine!

Atadage is an enlarged version of Hatadage built by King Vijayabahu. Having liberated Sri Lanka from the Dravidian invaders, King Vijayabahu setup his capital at Polonnaruwa and built the Atadage so that the sacred tooth relic of Buddha and the Bowl relic could be deposited. The ground floor was the image house.
The Atadage also housed the Sacred Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relic of Buddha. Atadage is also embellished with fine carvings.

Image House or Thuparama
Thuparama, a brick-built gedige or vaulted shrine is in excellent condition. This oldest image house goes back to the reign of King Vijayabahu the first (1055-1110 AD).

Limestone statues in the shrine of Thuparamaya
A brick base is about one meter high with three projections that once carried an image of Buddha, which is now simply a pile of bricks. The stone images in the Thuparama date back to the Anuradhapura period.

The Thuparama image house originally enshrined a large seated Buddha, now lost, that has been replaced by several ancient limestone statues.
Cutout windows in the shrine
The inner shrine of Thuparama is still completely enclosed by its original vaulted brick roof. The place is illuminated only by natural light from the cutout windows and by the flickering light of devotional candles and oil-lamps. The thickness of the walls accounts for the ancient shrine's excellent condition.

Nissanka Lata Mandapaya 
Nissanka Lata Mandapaya was built by King Nissankamalla. It’s an innovative work of art depicting the splendour of classical architecture.

Nissanka Lata Mandapaya built by King Nissankamalla
Historians believe that the pavilion was used for chanting Buddha’s teaching while the inscription at the pavilion reveals that the king used to listen to the chanting of pirith, i.e., Buddhist blessings.

Pavilion is surrounded by Buddhist railings
The pavilion is surrounded by Buddhist railings, houses a bubble shaped small dagoba, without its upper part, while it is carved out of stone in the centre. Maybe the stone carved stupa used to hold the relic casket during pirith chanting.

Shiva Devale 1 & 2 
Though there are two temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in the ancient city, we visited only one (Devale 2), while we just saw the other one (Devale 1) from a distance.

Past the north gate of the citadel is the 11th century Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva built entirely of stone. There’s a stone carved lingam in the sanctum and the statue of Nandi in front of the temple.

This is the oldest Hindu shrine in Polonnaruwa, dating back to early ruling years of South Indian Chola dynasty (around 1070) when they established the city. The inscription mentions that it’s a memorial to one of the queens of the Chola emperor Rajaraja I (985-1014 AD), who conquered Anuradhapura and built the Brihadeshvara Temple in Thanjavur.

Potgul Vehera 
Around 100 metres south of the statue of King Parakramabahu, outside the Royal Garden of Nandana Uyana, there’s Potgul Vehera or the Library Monastery.

A central square terrace houses the principal monument, a circular shrine or library where the sacred books were deposited. It is surrounded by four small dagobas.

Historians feel that the library also doubled up as an auditorium on occasions to read the books, read the tenets of Buddhism and chant the blessings called Pirith.

Pabalu Vehera
Our next stop was at Pabalu Vehera. This is another typical dagoba, dating back to King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186). It’s believed that this stupa was constructed during the late Anuradhapura period and enlarged during the Polonnaruwa period. This is the third largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa, and is in excellent condition.

The stupa is surrounded by four image houses located in the cardinal points. The limestone statues of Buddha are sculpted in different postures.

Rankoth Vehera
Later, we walked towards Rankoth Vehera built by King Nissankamalla which is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa. We saw a monk resting under the shade of a tree near the stupa.

The architecture of this dagoba is similar to the traditions of early stupas built in Anuradhapura. But the shape of the dome is quite flattened, compared to the stupas in Anuradhapura.

Rankoth Vehera built by King Nissankamalla is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa
The enormous dagoba, measuring 180 ft. tall and 550 ft. in girth, belongs to the Alahana Pirivena monastery complex. Around the enormous dagoba are image houses and flower alters set in the wide sand terrace surrounding the stupa. At the four central points are Vahalkadasa or front entrance enclosures built of brick, with four flights of steps providing admission to devotees.

Image house
The inscription on the stone-seat in front of the dagoba says that King Nissankamalla used to supervise the construction of the Rankoth Vehera. Another inscription on the platform to the south narrates that King Nissankamalla used to worship the dagoba from the pavilion.

There’s a splendid Buddhist shrine called Lankatilaka in the ancient city. Built by Parakramabahu I the impressive shrine displays a colossal, standing Buddha in a narrow but very tall two massive 16m-high walls that are introduced by five-storey-high pylons.

"Lankatilaka" means "Ornament of Lanka”. With elaborate carvings this building is a vaulted shrine called gedige. Though the statue doesn’t have a head, it still looks magestical. If there was a head, maybe it would have measured 14m tall! During the emperor’s rule, the tall statue might have had its own mysterious and otherworldly aura as it towered above the worshiper. The feelings of awe and reverence, that this image must have induced, are appropriate to the Mahayana concept of Buddha as a divine figure - a concept that would have seemed heretical to the orthodox Theravadins, who regarded the Great Teacher as a human being.

The exterior walls are decorated with stucco figures and architectural models. On the right balustrade Nagini, the female counterpart of Nagaraja, stands as a guard stone. Though Naga images are common in the guard stones, such images are found in balustrades only in this shrine.

Kiri Vehera
Kiri Vehera is just ahead of Lankatilaka. The milk-white shrine was named Kiri Vehera by archaelogists for its exterior of gleaming white when they discovered it amidst the overgrown jungles. Kiri Vehera in Sinhalese means “milk coloured stupa”. It was built by Queen Subhadra, a consort of King Parakramabahu.

Perhaps Kiri Vehera is not only the best preserved dagobas in Polonnaruwa, but also one of the best of Sri Lanka’s dagobas.

The excavation not only revealed a three-chambered relic bloc, but also unearthed many mounds which were originally minor stupas containing the corporeal remains of the royal family and the prelates of the monastery.

Gal Viharaya 
We went much further and parked the vehicle at a designated parking area and walked towards Gal Viharaya. We met several Lankans dressed in white robes approaching the place. After showing the tickets at the counter, we quenched our thirst by drinking water at the facility set up there.
Gal Viharaya is also called the Rock Temple. It is unparallel among such ancient monastic edifices, as it houses a group of colossal Buddha statues carved out of a granite boulder. The group has of four beautiful Buddhas in perfect condition, cut from one long slab of granite.

Meditating Buddha: The Meditating Buddha is the leftmost, as we face the Gal Viharaya, of the four sculptures. The Buddha sits in meditation within a shallowly-carved niche that is framed by a makara torana behind his torso, a scalloped arch above his head, and architectural pavilions around the arch. His oval head is sensitively carved, yet aloof and abstracted. His legs are folded in meditation, his hands in dhyana mudra. The base of his lotus throne is decorated with alternating trisulas and lions.

The leftmost statue as we face the site
Meditating Buddha: The meditating Buddha with attendants is the second statue from the left as we face the site. Still enclosed by its original rock-cave, as well as some modern wire cages, this is the earliest statue at Gal Viharaya.

Enclosed by its original rock-cave, as well as some modern wire cages, this is the earliest statue at Gal Viharaya
Standing Buddha: This is the second statue from the right. It is 23 ft tall. His arms-crossed posture is unusual and has a sad facial expression. Historians feel that the facial expression of Buddha shows his supreme compassion towards the suffering. The figure stands upon a lotus throne. His subtle bend at the waist, that is consistent with his turned-out left foot, is admirable.

The arms-crossed posture is unusual
Reclining Buddha: This is the rightmost figure at Gal Viharaya. The whole statue is 46 ft long, perhaps not coincidentally the height of the colossal standing Buddha at Lankatilaka. His face, seen in close-up here, is serene and peaceful, resting his head upon a bolster. The natural striations of the rock have been used to good effect in order to indicate the subtle folds of the Buddha's gown. The head rests on the right palm, while the left hand is stretched along the left side of the body. The dent on the pillow caused by the weight of the head and the slightly drawn angle in the left leg adds life to the superb rock carved work of poise and balance. Probably this statue represents the Buddha in gentle Parinirvana, although it has also been interpreted as simply a sleeping Buddha.

The Buddha in gentle Parinirvana
My little one was in no mood to leave the place and was in a happy mood running around. After seeing the statues, we just went and sat near a small pond filled with lotus flowers in front of the Gal Viharaya. The size of the lotus flowers in the pond was unusually bigger than the ones we had seen in other parts of Lanka!

Lotus pond
Monkey Kingdom
Polonnaruwa has been in limelight ever since the Hollywood movie “Monkey Kingdom” was released in 2015. The movie, documenting the life of a troop of wild toque-macaque monkeys locally known as “Rilaw”, was entirely shot around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Adieu to the Ancient City
After a long and tiring day, it was time to say adieu to the Ancient City. The guide realized that Alex was unable to communicate with us in decent English and told us that it’s unfortunate that such a driver had accompanied us…

After Polonnaruwa, Alex said he would check with his friends about Minneriya jeep safari and would take there the next day. He insisted we do a body massage at his friend’s place and took us there, but we refused his offer. He dropped us back to the hotel in Sigiriya and left the place for the day.

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