Despite unfavourable natural conditions, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were the centres of early Sinhalese civilization, and their imposing structures serve as potent reminders of that civilization’s golden age. These northern plains, formerly known as Rajarata or “The King’s Land,” are now more commonly known as the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.
Table of Contents
- Triangle of Sri Lankan culture
- A tour of cultural triangle
- The metropolis of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is Anuradhapura.
- Perspective in three quarters
- From Kandy, travel to Dambulla in the north
- Aluvihare Temple
- Wasgamuwa National Park
- Rise of Anuradhapura
- Early irrigation techniques in Sri Lanka
- Significant irrigation constructions in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
- Emperor of Dutugemunu
- Reconstruction of Anuradhapura
- Both Yasalalakatissa and Subha
- Instructions for Anuradhapura
- The remains of Anuradhapura
Triangle of Sri Lankan culture
From the verdant, tangled foothills of the central hill of Sri Lanka, one can descend to the arid lowlands north of Kandy. This arid, desolate region is covered in thorny shrubs and tropical rainforest, with isolated mountain peaks that tower majestically over the surrounding flatlands. Despite unfavourable natural conditions, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were the centres of early Sinhalese civilization, and their imposing structures serve as potent reminders of that civilization’s golden age. These northern plains, formerly known as Rajarata or “The King’s Land,” are now more commonly known as the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.
A tour of cultural triangle
A cultural triangle tour of Sri Lanka is the best way to discover the intriguing historical and cultural sites of the cultural triangle. The cultural triangle excursion is offered in a variety of formats. It can be booked as a one-day excursion from Colombo, but this one-day tour may only visit a handful of historical and cultural sites. With a 2-day tour or 3-day Sri Lanka cultural tour, travellers can visit numerous significant cultural and historical sites. The cultural triangle tour can be combined with a 7-day tour or a 10-day Sri Lanka tour.
The metropolis of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is Anuradhapura.
At the spiritual centre of the Triangle is the obliterated city of Anuradhapura, one of mediaeval Asia’s most important metropolises and the island’s capital from the third century BCE to the ninth century CE. There are several monasteries, elaborate residences, enormous tanks, and three enormous dagobas, which are the second-largest ancient structures after the Egyptian pyramids. Less well-known but equally captivating are the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the island’s second capital, and few tourists pass up the opportunity to scale the magnificent rock citadel of Sigiriya, perhaps the most extraordinary sight in all of Sri Lanka. The sacred hub of Mihintale, which commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to the island, and the beautiful cave temples of Dambulla, a mysterious treasure trove of Buddhist art and artwork, are two additional must-see locations.
The abandoned cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara, the massive Buddha statues of Aukana and Sasseruwa, the intriguing temples of Aluvihara and Ridi Vihara, and the eerie forest monasteries of Arankele and Ritigala are among the fascinating but relatively lesser-known ancient monuments scattered throughout the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. In addition, there are numerous natural attractions in Kaudulla, Wasgomuwa, and Minneriya national parks.
Perspective in three quarters
Since ancient times, the northern lowlands of Sri Lanka have been known as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land.” In recent years, however, this moniker has largely disappeared, and the region is now known as the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. In the 1970s, the government attempted to revitalise and promote the region’s enormously demolished landmarks for the modern tourism industry. The points of this hypothetical triangle are the main Sinhalese capitals of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Kandy, located in the east, north, and south, respectively. Nevertheless, given that Kandy’s history is distinct from the histories of other capitals in both time and space, this tourist-oriented creation provides a skewed impression of the region’s past.
From Kandy, travel to Dambulla in the north
The majority of visitors to the Cultural Triangle arrive from Kandy and travel directly north on the main road to Dambulla, Sigiriya, and other destinations. However, there are other worthwhile stops along the route if you have a private car tour of Sri Lanka. Two of these, the enchanting little temple at Nalanda and the well-known monastery of Aluvihara, are located directly on the main road.
Numerous spice plantations can be found along the main road between Kandy and Dambulla. This location, situated between the coastal plains and the hill country, enjoys a temperate climate that makes it ideal for gardening. If you have ever pondered where the ingredients used in Sri Lankan cuisine are grown, the time is now. While normal admission is free, you will have to pay exorbitant fees to view the numerous bushes and plants, some of which are seasonings.
The Aluvihara monastery is located immediately adjacent to the Kandy-Dambulla highway. Despite its diminutive size, the Tripitaka, also known as the “Three Baskets,” is the most significant collection of Theravada Buddhist literature. It has enormous significance in the global annals of Buddhism. This is the initial location where it was written. During the first five centuries of the religion’s existence, the entire corpus of the Buddha’s teachings was simply memorised and transmitted orally from generation to generation. Around 80 B.C., however, King Vattagamani Abhaya, who also built the renowned Abhayagiri monastery in Anuradhapura and the cave sanctuaries in Dambulla, feared that the Tripitaka might be lost in the unrest caused by South India’s constant invasions. He established Aluvihara and populated it with 500 monks who spent years copying Buddhist texts onto ola-leaf Pali manuscripts. Even though it had persisted for nearly two millennia, this historic library came perilously close to being destroyed in 1848 when British forces attacked the temple to put down a local uprising.
cavernous temple dues
The main attraction of the complex is a collection of cave sanctuaries connected by winding passageways and staircases and concealed among a spectacular jumble of enormous granite outcrops. The first sanctuary contains a ten-meter-long sleeping Buddha, from which stairs ascend to the main level. A second cave shrine contains a second enormous sleeping Buddha, as well as numerous images and sculptures depicting the gruesome torments that Buddhist hell’s wrongdoers will endure. The normally placid Sinhalese appear to be horrifyingly fascinated by this topic. However, another cave contains an equally graphic tableau vivant depicting the cruel punishments imposed by the last Kandyan king, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha.
Behind the second temple are steps leading up to another cave temple. This temple is dedicated to the famous Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa, who compiled the most extensive collection of Tripitaka commentaries while living and working in Anuradhapura in the fifth century A.D. (though there is no evidence he ever visited Aluvihara). Outside the cave is a gilded statue of Buddhaghosa from Thailand, and in the cave’s corner is a statue of Vattagamani Abhaya offering a palm-leaf manuscript to the scholar. A dagoba and terrace at the summit of the complex offer breathtaking views of the surrounding hills, and a massive new golden Buddha (also donated by Thailand) stands on a distant hill overlooking the entire complex. From here, one final flight of stairs ascends past a bo tree that appears to be growing out of solid granite.
The International Buddhist Library and Museum can be found to the left of the temple complex, slightly uphill. Among its peculiar contents is a large, multivolume, ancient Tripitaka copy on ola leaf. A local friar could also demonstrate how to write on ola-leaf parchment using the dying method. To write on the leaf, you must first scratch out the words with a metal stylus and then press ink into the leaf to reveal the text.
Wasgamuwa National Park
Wasgamuwa National Park is one of the most pristine sanctuaries in Sri Lanka due to its remote location and the fact that two large rivers, the Amban Ganga and the Mahaweli Ganga, provide some protection to it. Along the Mahaweli Ganga, elevation variations along the park range from 500 to 76 metres. In the southeast and east are expansive plains, while the highlands and major rivers are predominantly covered with dry-zone evergreen forest. There are up to 150 wild elephants in the park, and the ideal time to see them is between November and May, specifically between February and April. During other seasons, elephants typically migrate to Kaudulla national Park and Minneriya national Park. Other species include buffalo, sloth bears, sambar, and spotted deer, with occasional sightings of leopards and sloth bears. There are approximately 150 species of birds, the majority of which are indigenous.
Rise of Anuradhapura
For more than a millennium, Sri Lanka’s history was dominated by that of ANURADHAPURA. The city rose to prominence comparatively early in Sri Lanka’s history, given its location in the centre of the island’s northern plains. It maintained this position of preeminence for more than a millennium until Indian invaders devastated it in 993. Even now, Anuradhapura is a magnificent site. Due to the scale of the fallen city and the tens of thousands of years of history entombed here, you may spend days or weeks exploring the ruins.
Anuradhapura was one of the largest cities of its time and was considered the temporal and spiritual capital of the island. There were thousands of monks residing in dozens of monasteries, making it one of the finest monastic settlements in history. The colossal temples and stupas built by the Anuradhapura monarchs, who presided over the zenith of Sinhalese civilization, are regarded as among the greatest architectural achievements in history, second in size only to the enormous pyramids of Giza. According to the quantity of Roman coins unearthed in the city, trade between the two cities appears to have been lucrative.
Early irrigation techniques in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is covered with hundreds of thousands of man-made lakes, also known as reservoirs or wewas (also spelt ‘vavas’). As the ancient cities of Sri Lanka were located in the parched northern plains, it was essential to secure a constant supply of water for rice farming. Early Sri Lankan civilization was primarily agricultural. Due to the region’s cyclical monsoon flooding and prolonged droughts, irrigation — the process of reserving water for the regular cultivation of wet fields — was crucial to the emergence of early Sinhalese civilization. Once irrigation was perfected, the island’s arid northern plains were transformed into a vast rice bowl that could support a growing population.
The earliest known applications of hydraulic engineering date back to the early Sinhalese settlement period in the third century B.C., when farmers began constructing river dams to store water in small communal reservoirs. As their authority grew, the Sri Lankan monarchs became interested in irrigation initiatives. Simultaneously, Sinhalese engineers devised a method that allowed water to be stored in containers until it was needed, after which it was released through sluice gates and transported via canals to distant fields.
Significant irrigation constructions in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
The first large-scale reservoirs were constructed under the reigns of Dhatusena (455–473), who constructed the magnificent Jaya Ganga canal, which stretches nearly 90 km with a mild six-inch gradient per mile, and Mahasena (274–301), who oversaw the construction of sixteen major tanks, including the Minneriya tank. The canal hastened the death of that unfortunate monarch by transporting water from the vast Kalawewa to Anuradhapura. Additional tanks and canals were constructed during the reigns of Mogallana II (531–551), whose Padaviya tank in the northern Vavuniya region was the largest ever created in ancient Sri Lanka, and Aggabodhi II (604–614), who, among other projects, oversaw the construction of the Giritale tank.
The construction of extensive irrigation projects contributed to the singularity of the earliest Sinhalese culture. However, the maintenance of these enormous hydraulic achievements required both expert engineering and a highly developed bureaucracy. The combined waters enabled not only a greater yield of vegetables and pulses, but also a second rice harvest and higher population densities than would have otherwise been possible. The royal family derived a substantial portion of their income from the system’s levies, which allowed for the production of a vast quantity of agricultural food. The result was the reign of Parakramabahu I, the king of Polonnaruwa, who famously proclaimed that “not a single drop of water must flow into the ocean without serving the purposes of man” and oversaw the construction of the massive Parakrama Samudra, one of the last and finest examples of ancient Sinhalese irrigation.
Emperor of Dutugemunu
Dutugemunu (161–137 BC) was the most revered of the approximately two hundred monarchs who ruled Sri Lanka throughout millennia. He was a military nobleman who eventually became a Buddhist king. His unique blend of anti-Tamil nationalism and religious piety remains a source of inspiration for many Sinhalese.
As a juvenile, Dutugemunu endured Elara’s forty-four-year rule over Anuradhapura, which the Tamil general had seized in 205 BC. Although they could have professed nominal allegiance to Elara, lesser monarchs and chiefs ruled over much of the island that remained outside Anuradhapura’s jurisdiction. Kavan Tissa, who was the husband of the legendary Queen Viharamahadevi, was the most significant of these subsidiary rulers. Using the city of Mahagama (present-day Tissamaharama), Kavan Tissa served as his base, and he progressively took over the whole southern Sri Lanka. The naturally reticent Kavan Tissa demanded that his eldest son and heir, Gemunu, vow allegiance to Elara despite his rising status. Gemunu, who was twelve years old at the time, was enraged when asked to sign this oath. He threw his bowl of rice from the table and declared that he would rather languish to death than pledge allegiance to a foreign master. As a sign of his disdain for him, he gave his father women’s clothing, which earned him the nickname Dutugemunu, or “Gemunu the Disobedient.”
After the death of his father, Dutugemunu became monarch. Dutugemunu amassed an army and charged into battle while leading a sizable contingent of Buddhist monks and carrying a spear with a Buddhist relic embedded in its shaft. This allowed him to crush an uprising led by his brother Saddhatissa (a battle symbolised by the large dagoba at Yudaganawa) and establish himself as the leader of a Buddhist crusade. Dutugemunu exerted laborious exertion. Before he could ultimately face Elara in Anuradhapura, he spent approximately fifteen years fighting his way north and destroying the string of minor kingdoms that existed between Mahagama and Anuradhapura. After a series of preliminary conflicts, Elara and Dutugemunu engaged in an elephant-mounted duel. Elara collapsed unconscious to the ground after Dutugemunu speared her after a fierce struggle.
Dutugemunu gave Elara a dignified funeral and commanded that anyone passing the burial of the defeated general dismount out of respect. Despite the fact that the current location of Elara’s grave is unknown, it is intriguing to note that this arrangement was allegedly observed in the early eighteenth century, or nearly two thousand years later. The majestic Ruvanvalisaya dagoba was part of the massive construction project that the newly crowned king Dutugemunu did not survive to see completed in Anuradhapura following his conquest. It is said that as he lay dying, he looked out over the unfinished structure and said, “In the past, I fought; now, alone, I begin my final battle – with death, and it is forbidden for me to win.”
Dutugemunu is regarded as one of Sri Lanka’s greatest heroes (at least among the Sinhalese) because of his leadership in expelling the Tamils and bringing the island under Sinhalese authority for the first time. However, despite his achievements, the fragile unity he left behind after his death was swiftly shattered by less capable leaders, and within 35 years, the northern region of Sri Lanka was once again under the control of South Indian invaders.
Reconstruction of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura was essentially forgotten by the outside world and reclaimed by the jungle, except for groups of reticent monks and guardians of the sacred bo tree who continued to reside here after the collapse of the great northern Sinhalese civilization. In the nineteenth century, the British “rediscovered” Anuradhapura, and in 1833 it was designated as the provincial capital. After that, the city began to gradually emerge from the ruins. Since the 1950s, the expansive Anuradhapura New Town, located east of the Sacred Precinct, has been expanding. In 1980, UNESCO initiated a comprehensive plan for the complete reconstruction of the historic city. Buddhist Sinhalese view the restoration of Anuradhapura’s colossal stupas and other monuments from the rainforest after more than a millennium as a potent symbol of national identity and rebirth.
Both Yasalalakatissa and Subha
Ancient Anuradhapuran monarchs Yasalalakatissa and Subha were highly regarded for their religious and altruistic demonstrations, despite frequently falling short of their stated ideals. The story of King Yasalalakatissa (r. 52–60), who ascended the throne by murdering his sibling, is one of the most well-known depictions of the contradictory nature of the Anuradhapuran dynasty. One of Yasalalakatissa’s flaws was her susceptibility to practical pranks. When he saw how similar he was to the royal gatekeeper Subha, he traded clothing with her. This allowed him to observe the island’s nobles honouring a menial servant. Yasalalakatissa found this so amusing that he repeated it multiple times. In the end, Subha, in his capacity as a monarch, had his “gatekeeper” executed for impertinence. Many people disregarded Yasalalakatissa’s claims that he was the true monarch, so he was assassinated swiftly. The fact that Anuradhapuran monarchy’s corrupt ideals allowed Subha to rule for an additional six years after his deceit was discovered but before his own demise is indicative of the perverted nature of those ideals.
Instructions for Anuradhapura
The Sacred Precinct to the west is the site of the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Basawakkulama Tank to the west, Tissa Wewa to the south, and Nuwara Wewa to the east form a ring around the city. Main Street, which divides New Town in two, contains the post office, banks, and other commercial establishments. On Harischandra Mawatha, to the east of this location, the preponderance of Anuradhapura’s lodging options are located.
The remains of Anuradhapura
Numerous, possibly perplexing monuments and ruins are spread throughout Anuradhapura. The three major monasteries that comprise the Sacred Precinct are Jetavana, Abhayagiri, and Mahavihara. One of these complexes contains roughly two-thirds of the significant sites.
The most apparent starting point is the Mahavihara, the physical and historical centre of the ancient city. From the Ruvanvalisaya stupa, proceed south to Sri Maha Bodhi, then turn around and return to the Thuparama. From this location, you can travel east to the Jetavana Monastery or north to the Abhayagiri complex.
At the Citadel, between the Mahavihara and the Abhayagiri monastery, and south of the Mahavihara, between the Mirisavetiya stupa and the Isurumuniya Temple, are two additional significant concentrations of sites. The large dagobas are helpful landmarks if you become lost; however, the Ruvanvalisaya and Mirisavetiya dagobas, which appear very similar from a distance, should not be confused.
Mihintale, twelve kilometres east of Anuradhapura, is renowned as the place where Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka. According to legend, the Sinhalese ruler of Anuradhapura between 250 and 210 B.C., Devanampiya Tissa, went hunting in the Mihintale highlands in 247 B.C. Following a deer to the summit of a hill, he met Mahinda, the son (or possibly sibling) of Ashoka, the greatest Buddhist ruler of India, who had come to Sri Lanka to convert the locals to his philosophy. Mahinda posed his famous mango riddle to the king as a test of his wisdom and readiness to receive the Buddha’s teachings: “O king, what name does this tree bear?”
This tree is known as a mango tree.
“Is this the only mango available?”
Mango trees are plentiful.
Are there any mango-bearing trees besides this one and the others?
“Sir, there are many trees, but they’re not mango trees.”
And other than the non-mango trees and mango trees, are there any other trees?”
“Sir, take a look at this mango tree.”
According to the Mahavamsa, after proving the monarch’s cunning with this tedious demonstration of tree-headed thinking, Mahinda proceeded to expound the teachings of the Buddha and swiftly converted the king and his forty thousand attendants. The grateful monarch presented Mahinda and his allies with a regal park in Anuradhapura, which eventually became the heart of the Mahavihara. A Buddhist centre known as Mihintale also rose to prominence. “Mahinda’s hill” has been abbreviated to “Mahinda tale.” During Poson Poya (June), a festival commemorating Mahinda’s introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of white-robed pilgrims converge on Mihintale, which is now little more than a large village.
Mihintale’s ruins and stupas are less impressive than those of Anuradhapura, but the surrounding landscape is breathtaking, with frangipani trees shading ancient stone steps that connect precipitous slopes. Even though you can avoid the first ascent of 1850 steps by driving up the Old Road to the Dana Salawa level, climbing Mihintale’s 1850 steps can be exhausting if you want to see everything. Visit during the early morning or late afternoon to avoid climbing the stairs during the hottest part of the day.