The day before yesterday we posted a blog article about the most famous sites in Polonnaruwa. Those must-sees and major attactions are recommended for travellers who can spend only a few hours in Polonnaruwa. Guests who invest a full day in Polonnaruwa have a choice. They can visit the main attractions in a more relaxed way, of course. They should consider a half-day excursion to Dimbulagala for a small hike. Or they can see more temples in Polonnaruwa.
Asked, which are the less-known ancient sites in Polonnaruwa, those less crowded places you can enjoy without being disturbed by busloads, the answer is: There are two categories of off-the-beaten path destinations in Polonnaruwa. Some specific areas of great sites are not as frequented as you might guess, and some smaller sites are usually missed on group tours.
Actually, the Alahena Pirivina complex is often visited on group tours. But usually the busloads only go to the Lankatilaka temple. Behind that impressive image house, further west at the foot of the hill, is a large area of typical monastic buildings such as Kutis and small image houses. Of particular interest in this less-frequented are of the Polonnaruwa’s major monastic compound are some charming bathes and the only rectangular moonstone in South Asia.
Another historically important site, mentioned in most guidebooks, is Nissanka Malla’s palace with the magnificent lion throne hall. Although accessible without ticket and situated charmingly at the shores of the great ancient reservoir called Topa Wewa, the ruined garden-like palace is usually a very silent place, not crowded with tourists.
Inside the archaeological park, many travellers miss to take a small dead-end road to the west, which near the famous Quadrangle branches off the main south-north axis. The said de cul-de-sac will lead you to two attractions that are of much interest for lovers of Sri Lanka’s medieval architecture. Both are most remarkable examples of the specific art of that period. The blind lane leads to the so-called Shiva Devale No. 2. In fact, this is the oldest temple building within the archaeological zone of Polonnaruwa and it is very well preserved. It’s all the more worth visiting as this Hindu sanctuary is Sri Lanka’s best specimen of a temple in the Chola style. It is from the period of Chola occupation (11th century), this means slightly earlier than the Polonnaruwa period. You can study the typical roof structure of Dravidian architecture, with lots of miniature temples as acroters at each tier.
On the way to the Shiva Devale No.2 you will cross the medium-sized stupa called Pabulu Vehera. It’s worth visiting for two reasons. The shape of the dome is not hemispherical but two-storeyed. A smaller slightly flat stupa is placed atop an almost cylindrical stupa. This arrangement is not known from other periods of Sri Lankan art, nor from other Buddhist countries. Though larger ruins of this type survive in other parts of Sri Lanka (Dedigama in the west and Yuddhaganawa in the south of the island), the Pabulu Vihara is probably the best example of this uncommon type of stupa. Furthermore, it is surrounded by eight image houses. Some statues or remnants of images are still in situ.
For those who like to see even better preserved Buddhist sculptures, a small path will lead to the Manik Vehera near the northern gate, which you will cross on the way from the Quadrangle temples to the famous rock sculptures of Gal Vihara. The Manik Vehera is not far from the main south-north axis, but it can not be seen from that road and therefore is usually missed by most independent travellers. And the site is too small to attract busloads. Apart from the said statues, the stupa of this small temple compound is quite interesting, too. It‘s placed on a brick platform which is decorated with a frieze of lions. They are depicted frontally, a common feature in later Buddhist art but not common in the earlier periods of Sinhalese arts.
When leaving the archaeological park at the northwestern gate (just west of the Gal Vihara rock Buddhas and to the south of Tivanka statue house), you will return to Polonnaruwa town via a public road. There are three ruins of Hindu temples along this road. Usually busses don’t stop here. But actually, these are the largest Hindu compound of ancient Polonnaruwa. They are witnesses of the multi-ethnic character of the medieval Sinhalese capital.
Nuwan Chinthaka Gajanayaka