The central highlands’ green, tangled hills drop away to the dry zone plains north of Kandy. This hot, desolate landscape is peppered with isolated mountain outcrops that tower over the surrounding flatlands and is covered in prickly brush and jungle. Despite the unfavourable natural surroundings, the magnificent towns of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, whose imposing structures still serve as compelling reminders of Sinhalese civilization’s golden period, were the centres of early Sinhalese civilization. These northern plains, formerly known as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land,” are today more commonly referred to as the Cultural Triangle Sri Lanka.
Table of Contents
- Anuradhapura, the first capital of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
- The ancient city of Pollonnaruwa
- Some other important places in the Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
- Origin of Sri Lanka triangle
- Exploring Sri Lanka triangle from Kandy
- The Ancient Aluvihare temple of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
- Temples within caverns
- National Parks of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
- Origin of Anuradhapura
- Early Sri Lankan irrigation systems
- Important kings of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
- King of Dutugemunu
- Rise of King Dutugemunu
- Reconstruction efforts in Anuradhapura
- The names Subha and Yasalalakatissa
- Orientation towards Anuradhapura
- The Most Sacred District of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
- Trips to the Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura, the first capital of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka cultural triangle tour would not be completed if it did not include Anuradhapura. The spiritual heart of the Triangle is the enormous ruined city of Anuradhapura, which was the island’s capital from the third century BC to 993 AD and one of mediaeval Asia’s major metropolises. It is home to several monasteries, magnificent mansions, large tanks, and three massive dagobas that are only rivalled in antiquity by the Egyptian pyramids in scale.
The ancient city of Pollonnaruwa
The remains of Polonnaruwa, the island’s second capital, are smaller but as fascinating, and few travellers pass up the opportunity to mount the majestic rock citadel of Sigiriya, undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s most extraordinary monument. Other major attractions are the beautiful Dambulla cave monasteries, a mystical treasure trove of Buddhist art and painting, and the sacred hub of Mihintale, the site of Buddhism’s introduction to the island.
Some other important places in the Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
The abandoned cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara, the massive Buddha statues of Aukana and Sasseruwa, the enthralling temples of Aluvihara and Ridi Vihara, and the eerie forest monasteries of Arankele and Ritigala are just a few of the fascinating but lesser-known ancient monuments that dot the Cultural Triangle. Natural features abound in the national parks of Minneriya, Kaudulla, and Wasgomuwa.
Origin of Sri Lanka triangle
Since antiquity, the plains of northern Sri Lanka have been known as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land.” However, this phrase has mostly vanished in recent times, and the area is now known as the Cultural Triangle. In the 1970s, the government made an effort to restore and market the region’s extensive ruins for the modern tourism industry, perhaps as a result of the “golden triangles” of Thailand and India. The great Sinhalese capitals of Kandy in the south, Anuradhapura in the north, and Polonnaruwa in the east make up this hypothetical triangle. However, given that Kandy’s history is quite different and separate from the prior capitals’, this tourist-oriented construct really provides a rather distorted picture of the region’s past.
Exploring Sri Lanka triangle from Kandy
The majority of tourists that visit the Cultural Triangle from Kandy proceed immediately north up the main road to Dambulla, Sigiriya, and beyond. However, if you have your own private transport, there are several good stops along the road. The lovely tiny temple at Nalanda and the well-known monastery of Aluvihara are both located directly on the major roadway.
There are numerous spice gardens along the major road between Kandy and Dambulla. The temperate climate of this location, which is located halfway between the hill country and the coastal plains, makes it ideal for gardening. If you’ve ever wanted to know where the ingredients used in Sri Lankan cuisine are farmed, now is the moment. Although admission is normally free, you will be charged expensive fees to examine the different plants and bushes, including some spices.
The Ancient Aluvihare temple of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
The main Kandy-Dambulla highway passes right by the Aluvihara monastery. The Tripitaka, commonly known as the “Three Baskets,” is the most important collection of Theravada Buddhist texts, and it bears enormous significance in the global history of Buddhism despite its tiny size. It was written for the first time here. The entire body of the Buddha’s teachings was simply passed down orally from generation to generation through memorization for the first five centuries of the religion’s history. However, in 80 BC, King Vattagamani Abhaya, who also erected Anuradhapura’s vast Abhayagiri monastery and the Dambulla cave temples, was anxious that the Tripitaka might be lost in the chaos caused by successive South Indian invasions. He founded Aluvihara and staffed it with 500 monks who laboured for years to transcribe the Buddhist scriptures in Pali onto ola-leaf manuscripts. Sadly, although it had existed for over two millennia, this historic library was nearly completely destroyed by British troops in 1848 when they attacked the temple to put down a local insurrection.
Temples within caverns
The major attraction of the complex is a succession of cave temples linked by narrow corridors and flights of stairs situated inside a beautiful jumble of massive granite outcrops. From the first temple, which holds a ten-meter-long sleeping Buddha, steps lead up to the main level. A second cave temple contains another enormous sleeping Buddha, as well as images and sculptures illustrating the gruesome penalties that wrongdoers in Buddhist hell will endure. This subject appears to hold a morbid allure for the normally peaceful Sinhalese people. A similarly horrific tableau vivant housed in a nearby cave represents the cruel punishments given by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, Kandy’s penultimate monarch.
Steps ascend past the edge of the second temple to another cave temple behind it. This temple is dedicated to Buddhaghosa, the great Indian Buddhist scholar who lived and worked in Anuradhapura in the fifth century AD (though there is no evidence he actually visited Aluvihara) and composed the most thorough set of Tripitaka commentaries. A figure of Vattagamani Abhaya standing in the cave’s corner offers the scholar an ole-leaf text, and a magnificent golden Buddhaghosa image from Thailand keeps guard outside. A dagoba and terrace at the topmost point of the complex provide superb views of the hills and a large new golden Buddha (also gifted by Thailand) that surveys the entire complex from a hillside far above. A final set of steps leads up past a bo tree that looks to be growing out of solid rock.
Just up the hill to the left of the temple complex lies the International Buddhist Library and Museum. It has a few oddities, including a big, multivolume antique ola-leaf copy of the Tripitaka. A local monk may also demonstrate the dying process of writing on ola-leaf parchment. To write on the leaf, first scrape out the words with a metal stylus, then rub ink into it to make the text visible.
National Parks of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
Wasgomuwa National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s most pristine reserves, thanks to its remote location and two large rivers, the Amban Ganga and Mahaweli Ganga, encircling it to the east and west and offering some protection. The park stretches along the northeastern border of the hill country and ranges in elevation from over 500 metres to only 76 metres along the Mahaweli Ganga. It is mostly composed of dry-zone evergreen forest on hills and along major rivers, with broad plains in the southeast and east. The park is home to up to 150 elephants, who can be seen from November to May (especially between February and April). During other seasons, elephants move to Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks. Buffalo, sloth bears, sambar and spotted deer, and leopards and sloth bears have been observed on occasion. There are also over 150 distinct bird species, many of which are indigenous.
Origin of Anuradhapura
For a millennium and more, the history of Sri Lanka was essentially the history of ANURADHAPURA. The city, which is approximately in the middle of the island’s northern plains, rose to prominence at an early period in Sri Lanka’s development. Before Indian invaders destroyed it in 993, it maintained its position of power for over a millennium. Anuradhapura is still a beautiful place today. Due to the huge breadth of the old metropolis that has collapsed and the thousands of years of history that are buried here, you may spend days or even weeks investigating the remnants.
Anuradhapura was one of the island’s main towns at the time, serving as the centre of temporal and spiritual authority. It housed thousands of monks in dozens of monasteries, making it one of the most important monastic towns in history. The colossal dagobas and temples created by the Anuradhapura monarchs, who oversaw Sinhalese civilization’s golden period, rank among the greatest architectural achievements of all time, only surpassed in scale by Giza’s gigantic pyramids. The city became well-known in Greece and Rome, and based on the number of Roman coins recovered here, trade between the two cities appears to have been successful.
Early Sri Lankan irrigation systems
Thousands upon thousands of man-made lakes, known as tanks or wewas (sometimes spelled “vavas”), dot the landscape of Sri Lanka. Because Sri Lanka’s early capitals were located in the parched northern plains, ensuring a steady supply of water for rice cultivation was vital. The majority of early Sri Lankan culture was agrarian. Because of the region’s climate, which alternates between long stretches of drought and brief monsoonal rains, irrigation—which entails conserving water for the regular cultivation of wet fields—became an important component of early Sinhalese civilization. Irrigation, once developed, transformed the island’s arid northern plains into a large rice bowl capable of supporting a rising population.
The first documented instances of hydraulic engineering date back to the third century BC, during the early stages of Sinhalese settlement, when farmers began building dams on rivers to hold water in tiny community reservoirs. Later, when royal power rose, the monarchs of Sri Lanka became interested in irrigation projects. Meanwhile, Sinhalese engineers created a mechanism for storing water in tanks until it was needed, then releasing it through sluice gates and sending it along canals to distant farms.
Important kings of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
The first massive reservoirs were built during the reigns of Mahasena (274–301), who oversaw the construction of sixteen major tanks, including the Minneriya tank, and Dhatusena (455–473), who constructed the incredible Jaya Ganga canal, which is nearly 90 kilometres long and has a gentle six-inch gradient per mile. The canal delivered water from the enormous Kalawewa to Anuradhapura, hastening the unhappy king’s demise. Other tanks and canals were built under the reigns of Mogallana II (531–551), whose Padaviya tank in the northern Vavuniya area was the largest ever built in ancient Sri Lanka, and Aggabodhi II (604-614), who was in charge of the Giritale tank among other works.
Large-scale irrigation systems were created, which contributed to the distinctness of the early Sinhalese civilization. Maintaining these great hydraulic feats, however, necessitated highly developed administration and excellent engineering. In addition to more vegetables and pulses, the gathered waters enabled a second rice crop and higher population densities than would have been possible otherwise. Large-scale irrigation created an abundance of agricultural produce, and the system’s levies provided the royal family with a considerable source of wealth. This enabled the development of massive domestic infrastructure projects as well as military expeditions abroad, culminating in the reign of Parakramabahu I, the king of Polonnaruwa, who famously declared that “not one 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 but finest examples of ancient Sinhalese irrigation.
King of Dutugemunu
The semi-legendary Dutugemunu (reigned 161–137 BC) is the most venerated of the roughly 200 kings that ruled Sri Lanka throughout millennia. He was a military prince and subsequently a Buddhist monarch, and his unusual blend of religious piety and anti-Tamil nationalism continues to inspire many Sinhalese today.
Dutugemunu grew up under the forty-four-year rule of Elara, a Tamil general who took over Anuradhapura in 205 BC. Though they may claim token allegiance to Elara, a number of lesser kings and chiefs ruled over a significant area of the island that remained outside Anuradhapura’s jurisdiction. The most important of these subsidiary rulers was Kavan Tissa, the wife of the legendary Queen Viharamahadevi. He gradually conquered the entire southern region from his base in Kavan Tissa, the city of Mahagama (modern-day Tissamaharama). Despite his growing status, Kavan Tissa insisted on his eldest son and heir, Gemunu, swearing fealty to Elara. When Gemunu, who was 12 years old at the time, was asked to take the oath, he became upset and hurled his rice dish off the table, proclaiming that he would rather starve to death than swear loyalty to a foreign overlord. He then sent his father women’s attire as a symbol of his contempt for him, earning him the moniker Dutugemunu, or “Gemunu the Disobedient.”
Rise of King Dutugemunu
Dutugemunu ascended to the kingdom after his father died. Dutugemunu assembled an army and marched into war, armed with a spear bearing a Buddhist relic implanted in its shaft and escorted by a large force of Buddhist monks. After putting down an insurgency led by his brother Saddhatissa (a conflict symbolised by the enormous dagoba at Yudaganawa), he was able to present himself not merely as a military leader but also as the leader of a kind of Buddhist jihad. Dutugemunu’s campaign took a lot of effort. He fought his way north for around fifteen years, conquering the lesser kingdoms that remained between Mahagama and Anuradhapura, until he was finally able to meet Elara in Anuradhapura. Elara and Dutugemunu engaged in single combat while astride their elephants after a series of preliminary skirmishes. After a lengthy struggle, Dutugemunu managed to spear Elara, who dropped senseless to the ground.
Dutugemunu buried Elara with full honours, and he also commanded that anybody walking by the defeated general’s grave dismount as a symbol of respect. Interestingly, even though the location of Elara’s tomb is unknown today, this procedure was supposedly still followed until the early eighteenth century, or roughly two thousand years later. Following his conquest, the new monarch began a large construction project in Anuradhapura, including the beautiful Ruvanvalisaya dagoba, which Dutugemunu did not live to see completed. He is said to have stared upon the unfinished building from his deathbed and said, “In the past… I fought; now, by myself, I begin my final struggle—with death, and it is not allowed for me to triumph over my adversary.”
For his leadership in driving away the Tamils and bringing the island under Sinhalese sovereignty for the first time, Dutugemunu is regarded as one of Sri Lanka’s greatest heroes (at least among the Sinhalese). Nevertheless, despite his achievements, less experienced leaders quickly shattered the shaky unity he left behind after his death, and South Indian invaders reclaimed control of northern Sri Lanka within 35 years.
Reconstruction efforts in Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura was reclaimed by the jungle after the great northern Sinhalese civilisation collapsed, with the exception of the communities of reticent monks and guardians of the sacred bo tree who continued to reside here. The British “rediscovered” Anuradhapura in the nineteenth century, and it became the provincial capital in 1833. The city gradually rose from the ashes after that. The enormous Anuradhapura New Town has been rising to the east of the Sacred Precinct since the 1950s, and a massive UNESCO plan was initiated in 1980 with the goal of entirely rebuilding the ancient city. The programme, which is still happening today, has taken on considerable national significance for Buddhist Sinhalese, who see the restoration of Anuradhapura’s massive dagobas and other monuments from the jungle after more than a millennium as a compelling symbol of national identity and rebirth.
The names Subha and Yasalalakatissa
The ancient Anuradhapuran monarchs’ devout and benevolent gestures were highly regarded, despite the fact that they regularly fell short of the principles they pretended to follow. The story of King Yasalalakatissa (r. 52-60), who took the throne by killing his brother, is one of the most well-known examples of the murky nature of Anuradhapuran dynasty. Yasalalakatissa’s weakness was practical jokes. He swapped clothes with Subha, a royal gatekeeper, after seeing how much they looked alike. This gave him the opportunity to watch the island’s nobles honouring a simple servant. Yasalalakatissa found it so amusing that he had it replayed several times. Subha, acting as king, eventually gave the order to execute his “gatekeeper” for his impertinence. When Yasalalakatissa declared himself to be the rightful monarch, he was quickly assassinated. It says something about the perverted beliefs of the Anuradhapuran monarchy that Subha was allowed to rule for another six years after his deception was uncovered before being slain.
Orientation towards Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is separated into two sections: the Sacred Precinct to the west, which houses the ancient city, and Anuradhapura New Town, which houses almost all of the town’s housing and practical services. Three massive man-made lakes, known as tanks, encircle the town: Nuwara Wewa to the east, Tissa Wewa to the west, and Basawakkulama Tank to the northwest. The post office, banks, and other businesses can be found on Main Street, which divides New Town in half. Accommodations in Anuradhapura are mostly found on or near Harischandra Mawatha, which runs east of the city.
The Most Sacred District of Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura is dotted with numerous, possibly puzzling structures and ruins. The three great monasteries of the Sacred Precinct are best understood: Jetavana, Abhayagiri, and Mahavihara. One of these complexes has around two-thirds of the major sites.
The Mahavihara, the historical and physical centre of the ancient city, is the most obvious place to begin. Walk south from the Ruvanvalisaya dagoba to Sri Maha Bodhi, then back towards the Thuparama. You can travel north to the Abhayagiri complex or east to the Jetavana Monastery from here.
Other noteworthy sight clusters can be found south of the Mahavihara, between the Mirisavetiya dagoba and the Isurumuniya Temple, and at the Citadel, between the Mahavihara and the Abhayagiri monastery. The big dagobas serve as helpful landmarks if you get lost; however, be careful not to mix the Ruvanvalisaya and Mirisavetiya dagobas, which may appear very similar from a distance.
MIHINTALE, located 12 miles east of Anuradhapura, is well-known for being the site of Buddhism’s arrival to Sri Lanka. Devanampiya Tissa, the 250-210 BC Sinhalese ruler of Anuradhapura, went hunting in the Mihintale hills in 247 BC, according to mythology. He was greeted by Mahinda, the son (or brother) of India’s greatest Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who had been dispatched to convert Sri Lankans to his faith, as he followed a stag to the crest of a hill. Mahinda used his famous mango puzzle to assess the king’s intelligence and determine whether or not he was ready to receive the Buddha’s teachings:
“O king, what name does this tree bear?”
“We call this tree a mango tree.”
Is this the only mango available?”
There are numerous mango trees.
Is there anything else besides this mango and the other mangoes?”
“Sir, there are a lot of trees, but those aren’t mangoes.”
And are there any other trees besides the mangoes and non-mango trees?”
“Sir, look at this mango tree.”
After demonstrating the king’s cunning with this tiresome demonstration of tree-headed reasoning, Mahinda continued to explain the Buddha’s teachings, swiftly (according to the Mahavamsa) converting the king and his forty thousand attendants. The grateful monarch bestowed upon Mahinda and his supporters a royal park in Anuradhapura, which later became the centre of the Mahavihara.
The ruins and dagobas of Mihintale are not as impressive as those of Anuradhapura, but the surrounding area is breathtaking, with rocky hills connected by exquisite ancient stone staircases shaded by frangipani trees. Though you can bypass the first flight by driving up the Old Road to the Dana Salawa level, Mihintale can be exhausting due to its 1850 stairs, which you must climb virtually all of if you want to see everything.
Trips to the Cultural triangle Sri Lanka
The Sri Lanka cultural triangle is part of most Sri Lanka trip packages. The trips to the cultural triangle are available as a Sri Lanka one-day tour or as part of a Sri Lanka multi-day tour such as a Sri Lanka 3 days tour, Sri Lanka 4 day tour or Sri Lanka 7-day tour package.