Kurunegala enjoyed a brief period of significance in Sri Lankan history in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries as the capital of the Sinhalese rulers Bhuvanekabahu II (1293–1302) and Parakramabahu IV (1302–26). Arriving from the peaceful backcountry of the Cultural Triangle, the contemporary town will startle you with its densely packed streets and busy activity.
Table of Contents
- Roughly Kurunegala
- Panduwan Nuwara
- The stronghold
- The monasteries.
- Ektem Maligaya
- Panduwas Nuwara Museum
- Ridi Vihara
- Varakha Valandu Vihara
- Ancient Pahala Vihara
- Uda Vihara
- Arankele hermitage
- Remains of Buddhits monastery
- The main monastery
- Route for introspection
Busy and perplexing Kurenegala, the biggest town between Anuradhapura and Colombo, is the capital of the Northwest Province and a significant trading centre. The town is located at a major crossing of the routes that connect Colombo, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy, and Anuradhapura; therefore, you may need to change buses here. Kurunegala itself isn’t really worth visiting; however, it’s a convenient base for exploring the array of sights in the southwest region of the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.
Kurunegala is not included in most Sri Lanka trip packages; however, many tourists stop here to have a rest on their hours-long tour from Colombo to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. The historical city of Kurunegala also boasts many interesting and historical places in Sri Lanka, such as ridi vihara.
Though not much remains from this era, Kurunegala enjoyed a brief period of significance in Sri Lankan history in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries as the capital of the Sinhalese rulers Bhuvanekabahu II (1293–1302) and Parakramabahu IV (1302–26). Arriving from the peaceful backcountry of the Cultural Triangle, the contemporary town will startle you with its densely packed streets and busy activity.
The town’s main attractions are the massive exposed rock formations that encircle the town and give it an oddly lunar atmosphere, and the windy Kurunegala Tank, located north of the town, aside from a charming stone clock tower and war memorial from 1922 that silently observes the hustle and bustle of the congested centre. According to the inescapable legend, these are the stone-like remains of a strange menagerie of enormous animals, including tortoises, eels, and elephants, that were about to drain the lake dry when a demonic creature that lived in the waters turned them to stone.
It’s worth spending a few hours walking or taking a tuktuk up to the enormous Buddha statue atop Etagala (Elephant Rock), which is located just above town and offers fantastic views.
The rarely visited area north of Kurunegala offers an unusual assortment of attractions, including the abandoned villages of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara, the fascinating forest monastery of Arankele, and the magnificent Padeniya and Ridi Vihara temples, which are remnants of the Kandyan era. If you are travelling independently, you may take a leisurely day to see all of these places, either returning from Kurunegala to Anuradhapura or the other way around. (If you want to save money by not renting a car all the way to Anuradhapura, ask to be dropped off at Daladagama, where it’s easy to catch a bus.)
Just off the Anuradhapura road, 45 km north of Kurunegala, sits the magnificent Yapahuwa castle. Situated approximately a hundred metres above the surrounding plains, it is built around a large granite boulder. Bhuvanekabahu I (1272–84), one of the short-lived capitals of the thirteenth-century Sinhalese collapse, founded Yapahuwa. In response to repeated incursions from South India, he transferred the capital from the less easily defendable Polonnaruwa to this place, taking the Tooth Relic with him. However, the action proved to be ineffective. Following their capture of Yapahuwa in 1284, the Pandyan dynasty’s warriors transported the Tooth Relic to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. After being captured, Yapahuwa was mostly abandoned and turned over to hermits and monks; Kurunegala was designated as the new capital.
Halfway between Kurunegala and Chilaw, in the rarely visited countryside, lie the ruins of Panduwas Nuwara, one of the oldest cities in the country. The mythological Panduvasudeva is the source of the city’s name, “Town of Panduwas,” and it is commonly accepted that the city has existed since the dawn of Sinhala civilization. It is also supposed to have been the residence of the legendary Ektem Maligaya, although, like with most of the early history of the area, the lines separating fact from fiction are blurry, if not completely blurred.
Most of the remnants date back to the reign of Parakramabahu I, the valiant monarch who first established his capital here before eventually seizing control of Polonnaruwa. Many people believe that Parakramabahu’s city at Panduwas Nuwara served as a trial run for his incredible achievements at Polonnaruwa. A sense of lost grandeur reminiscent of Ozymandias permeates the site, even though the individual relics of the city are not as noteworthy as they once were. The site’s overall extent is certainly spectacular.
The ruined city is spread out over several square kilometres. The citadel, which has a single entrance facing east and is surrounded by sturdy walls and a dried-up moat, is located in the centre. The two-tiered royal palace within the citadel, which is oriented towards the entrance and resembles Parakramabahu’s royal house at Polonnaruwa, is the principal ruin. The footings for the pillars that originally supported the long-gone timber palace construction may still be seen, although not much of it is left. The arrival of the boisterous Nissankamalla to attend a dance performance is commemorated with a table with an inscription at the top of the steps on the left. At the rear right of this terrace are the remains of a smart mediaeval latrine, consisting of a water channel that leads to a well-like cesspit. While there are a few tiny, elegantly restored ruins of older buildings surrounding the palace, the castle is still largely covered in woodland regions, with the mounds of many old buildings remaining concealed beneath them.
To the south of the citadel are the massive ruins of three monasteries. The first is around 200 metres south and has a dagoba made of shattered brick, a bo tree enclosure (bodhigara), and the remnants of a temple where the Buddha’s feet are the only parts that remain intact. There are further monastic structures and two more ruined dagobas directly to the south. There’s also another monastery with a Tamil inscription on its door.
About 250 metres to the south is the third, and possibly most notable, of the three. It features the ruins of a high-walled bodhigara, a tampita (a shrine placed on pillars), and an enormous stupa on a gigantic raised square foundation facing a smaller vatadage (on a circle base).
Even further south is a fourth monastery, far more modern and still in operation. An outdated wooden pavilion from the Kandyan era fronts the monastery’s tampita, which is its main structure. The tampita is surrounded by a colourful variety of contemporary buildings.
Only a short distance from the modern monastery lies Panduwas Nuwara’s most enigmatic and fascinating place. It comprises the little circular building’s foundations exactly in the centre of a large, round, partially walled depression. Nothing else on the island is like this building. The king was positioned at the centre of a circular area that represented the universe, and legend holds that this is nothing less than the legendary remains of Ektem Maligaya. However, a more plausible historical explanation is that this was a location where oaths of loyalty were given to Parakramabahu.
Panduwas Nuwara Museum
Before departing the complex, it is worthwhile to spend ten minutes in the small Panduwas Nuwara Museum, which houses relics from the site. Highlights include an unusual polished-stone mirror and a little metal sculpture of Parakramabahu positioned in a manner strikingly similar to the famous king figure at the Potgul Vihara in Polonnaruwa.
The daughter of the legendary King Panduvasudeva, Unmadachitra (loosely translating as “she whose beauty drives men mad”) was one of the finest femme fatales in early Sri Lankan history. She once heard a prophecy as a little child that her son would kill his relatives and inherit the throne. Panduvasudeva had Unmadachitra imprisoned in the circular, windowless Ektem Maligaya in an attempt to prevent this from happening. But Unmadachitra, like most young princesses held captive in great towers, did not waste any time in falling in love with one particular Digha-Gamini, an eligible young prince. The young couple was married right away, and before the latter was forced into hiding, they had a son named Pandukabhaya. When Pandukabhaya came of age, he confronted his uncles head-on and came out as himself. After then, all of them were put to death, save for Anuradha, who declined to fight against his dubious nephew. Pandukabhaya subsequently called his new city Anuradhapura in honour of Anuradha.
About 20 kilometres northeast of Kurunegala, nestled in stunning rolling countryside, lies the cave shrine known as Ridi Vihara. It’s worth investigating if you have your own transportation; otherwise, getting there could be difficult. Ridi Vihara, often known as the “Silver Temple,” is credited to the legendary King Dutugemunu. After discovering a rich vein of silver ore in Ridi Vihara, Dutugemunu constructed the massive Ruvanvalisaya dagoba in Anuradhapura. The king constructed a shrine near the location of the silver vein as a token of his appreciation.
Varakha Valandu Vihara
Once you enter the compound, the tiny Varakha is to your left, past some modern monastery structures and a beautiful ancient bo tree. The “Jackfruit Temple,” or Valandu Vihara, is a quaint little structure wedged against a tiny outcrop of rock. The structure, which was first constructed as a Hindu temple before being converted into a Buddhist temple, was built in the eleventh century and retained its characteristically South Indian aspect, with large, rectangular columns holding up a seemingly robust stone roof.
Ancient Pahala Vihara
The main temple lies beneath a large rock protrusion that is believed to resemble a cobra’s hood, just beyond the Varakha Valandu Vihara. The temple is divided into two halves. The ancient Pahala Vihara (Lower Temple) is built like a cave beneath the rock. A stunning ivory carving of five ladies stands beside the front door, and within are a number of massive statues that are positioned gravely in the dim light. A large sleeping Buddha is located on the left side of the cave. A platform with inlaid blue-and-white Flemish tiles, purportedly gifted by a Dutch diplomat to the Kandyan court, stands in front of it. In this hallowed Buddhist shrine, there is a subtle attempt at Christian proselytising through the depictions of biblical themes and Dutch country settings on the tiles. It is believed that one of the worn statues at the temple’s far end depicts an eroded image of Dutugemunu.
Steps leading up to the Upper Temple, also known as Uda Vihara, which the Kandyan emperor Kirti Sri Rajasinha built in the eighteenth century, are to the right of the Pahala Vihara. The external entry stairs have a magnificent moonstone with elephant-shaped balustrades on either side, and the main chamber features a remarkable depiction of a seated Buddha against a crowded background (the black figures are Vishnus). Note also the entrance behind it that leads to the small shrine, on top of which is an unusual painting of nine ladies arranged in the shape of an elephant. Outside, almost hidden beneath another portion of the projecting rock, lies a dagoba.
Around a hundred steps, some carved into the bare rock, return to the monastery entrance and lead to a modest but well-repaired dagoba with wonderful views over the surrounding countryside.
Situated around 25 kilometres north of Kurunegala, on a jungle-covered mountainside, is the deserted forest hermitage of Arankele, one of the most fascinating and seldom-seen sites in the Cultural Triangle. Although there are still a lot of areas in Arankele that need to be investigated, people lived there as early as the third century BC. Most of what can be seen today dates back to the sixth and ninth centuries AD. A community of pamsukulika monks who have devoted their lives to a solitary, contemplative lifestyle still remains at the monastery at the back of the land.
Remains of Buddhits monastery
Just before you reach the site’s entry, take note of the exquisite Jantaghara, which means “hot water bath” and could be a monastic infirmary similar to the one at Mihintale. Sitting atop robust rectangular walls is a lovely ancient stone bathing tank.
The main monastery
Just beyond the entryway lie the enormous ruins of the main monastery. It seems nearly incredible that the early Sinhalese engineers and craftsmen were able to transport and shape such gigantic boulders. They are renowned for their fine craftsmanship and the extraordinarily large stone blocks that were utilised in their construction. The lovely chapter house, one of the most noticeable structures here, has a sizable moat surrounding it to help cool the air. There’s a large pond with steps next to it. Nearby is the monastery’s main reception hall, which features only four enormous granite slabs for flooring, an elaborate stone lavatory, and a modest, once-covered meditation promenade that is the only one of its sort in Sri Lanka. The footings that formerly supported the columns holding the roof up are still visible; however, the roof itself has long since vanished.
Route for introspection
Arankele’s magnificent principal meditation promenade begins beyond the main monastery. It’s a straight, lengthy stone walk with a few short flights of stairs scattered throughout. The tropical foliage it passes through is wild and arid, a far cry from its mathematical neatness. You reach a tiny “roundabout” on the path after going about 250 metres. Though it was most likely merely a rest area with a long-gone roof, the prevailing consensus is that it was built to keep monks who were meditating from tripping over each other. The ruins of the main monk’s home are located close by. Among these are the remains of a large hall, an inevitable lavatory, and a few partially collapsed pillars that supported an outdoor meditation platform in the past.
The meditation walkway ends at a little cave shrine nestled beneath a rock outcrop after around 250 metres. This is the oldest part of the remains, dating to the third century BC. It still has the original drip ledge and the openings where a projecting canopy was once fixed. There’s a little Buddha shrine and two smaller meditation chambers inside.
Past this point, the route proceeds into the modern monastery, from which a long, covered hallway leads to the rear entrance.