The first thing you will notice when you arrive in Sri Lanka is the sheer riot of colours tossed on to you. The tender, bright orange coconuts, heaped on the roadside every few yards, dusky women in their decorative sarongs sheltering under colourful umbrellas, the ruby-red-tiled houses, the lambent green of the luxuriant tropical vegetation, the striking magenta of the ubiquitous ‘birds of flowers’ is an experience of a lifetime to witness during your drive from Bandarniyek airport to your hotel in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. The pristine sea forming a lasting backdrop all along the road is another beautiful experience during your first introduction to this beautiful island nation. The drive from the airport to your hotel on a heavily plyed Galle road, running parallel to the immaculate coast, easily takes an hour and 30 mins.

In Sri Lanka, thousands of tourists arrive every year to enjoy its most pristine and beautiful beaches, which stretch for miles south and west. Some travellers visit Kandy to witness the Toothless Relic temple’s beauty and watch the evening’s famous fire dance. But there is so much more to see in Sri Lanka, which lies beyond the beaches, masks, and fire dance. Sri Lanka is home to one of the oldest and longest surviving civilizations here on earth, and, as such, it is a treasury of a rich and glorious cultural heritage. Spread over a comparatively small area, which Sri Lankans call the cultural triangle, are Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Kandy. All of them were once home to priceless Buddhist treasures that withstood the time.

When you travel to these beautiful places together, they will offer you a tantalizing glimpse of a different and beautiful part of Sri Lanka.

Two of the many ancient chronicles, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, offer an unimpaired record of the past 2500 years of Sri Lankan history. Practically the complete history of Sri Lanka is coterminous with Buddhism and its history on this island. In 307 B.C., Mahendra (or Mahinda, referred to by Sri Lankans), son of the legendary Emperor Asoka, brought Buddha’s message to King Tissa Devanampiya. It was King Tissa Devanampiya who built the first Buddhist capital in Anuradhapura. For over 1,300 years after that, Anuradhapura was the capital of successive rulers.

buddha statue

Anuradhapura, a Buddhist city, was once the seat of the sacred tooth relic and home to the `tree of enlightenment.’ The tooth relic kept here was a prized relic for succeeding rulers. It was said that the tooth was said to be taken from the Buddha’s funeral pyre. It was also said that the relic’s mere possession would have guaranteed stability and prosperity to the ruling Kings. It is believed that the Bodhi tree here in Anuradhapura had grown from a branch of the tree at Bodhgaya in India. The story is Sanghamitra, who was the daughter of Asoka, brought the tree to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C. Sanghamitra had established an order of Buddha Bhikshus (or nuns) for the first time on this island.

Top Five Famous Buddhist Sites in Sri Lanka


Anuradhapura is a complex spread across a big area covering temples, shrines, stupas (dagobas), monasteries, and tanks. The ruins indicate a walled city planned and laid out well, with four suburbs of living quarters indicating four castes and professions at the time. The Chinese traveller Fa Hien praised about grace and beauty of these huge stupas, solid circular structures in the fifth century A.D. One of the famous sites among these structures is the Abhayagiri, which is the great dagoba. Once Fa Hien, a Chinese Buddhist monk, and translator who travelled from China to India on foot visited sacred Buddhist sites in Central, South, and Southeast Asia. He described Abhayagiri as Four hundred feet in height, decorated with silver, gold, and all kinds of precious substances combined. It sprawled over 200 hectares (or 500 acres) and housed around 5,000 monks in its heyday.  It was said to be the second most powerful institution at that time after the king. Although when you visit this beautiful site today, you will see bushes and weeds still, you can witness the perfectly proportioned sides, the monument, which still exudes harmony and grace of the time gone by. Another dagoba is the Ruwanwelisayathe, which is a bubble-shaped stupa.

The Ruwanwelisaya was built by King Dutagamani and had cost him around 6.4 million coins in wages. It is believed that all the workers involved in construction received clothing, food, and several `extra perk’ as well. Ruwanwelsiaya has a beautiful array of limestone and plaster elephants that holds the stone-flagged platform. It is said to be among the most photographed structures in Sri Lanka. Among the temples, one of the oldest temples in Anuradhapura is Thuparama Dagoba. It is believed that the Thuparama Dagoba contains the right collar-bone of the Buddha.

Anuradhapura Site

Another major attraction in Anuradhapura is Kuttam Pokuna. This ornamental twin pond is an engineering beauty of a bygone era. The water system here is one of its kind. Water first goes into a pit where mud sinks to the bottom. After that, the clear water flows into a rim, and from where it then goes to a chamber, and finally, it enters the pond. The pond’s water now looks partly greenish due to the moss and the reflection of the greenery surrounding this pond.


The second major Buddhist site of Sri Lanka is the majestic Polonnaruwa city. In the 11th century A.D, Polonnaruwa became Sri Lanka’s capital when the Cholas from South India forced the kings of Anuradhapura to a relatively less vulnerable spot. This beautiful city is located on the banks of a vast artificial lake surrounded by banana-fringed paddy fields and a mountain range on one side. Polonnaruwa came to fame came from the many ruins with a verdant landscape. But what sets Polonnaruwa standing out is its preeminent position as a site with a very complex irrigation system, which turned this barren land of fertility. These canals and tanks network dates back to the first century A.D., but what makes it so amazing is the fact that they still look in good repair condition even after 2,000 years.

This city was founded by King Vijayabahu I, who was a much-revered ruler in Sri Lanka. He rescued the kingdom from the great Cholas of South India, re-established monasteries, renovated its disused tanks, and brought monks from Burma (in present-day Myanmar) to train the amateurs. But then, his successor, King Parakramabahu, seems to have earned all the glory. Culavamsa describes King Parakramabahu as a statesman, warrior, and builder of palaces and temples. He is also remembered for his waterworks and excellent irrigation system. Nowhere is his obsession with water more obvious than in a passage from Culavamsa crediting to the king himself: “In the realm that is subject to me there are, apart from many strips of the country where the harvest flourishes mainly by rainwater, but few fields which are dependent on rivers with the permanent flow or on great reservoirs. Also, by many mountains, thick jungles, and widespread swamps, my kingdom is much straitened. Truly in such a country, not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to mankind.”

Thanks to King Parakramabahu’s foresight, Polonnaruwa today is a fertile land with an expanse of paddy fields sprinkled with coconut and banana plantations. Amidst these lush green surroundings lie many monasteries and viharas laid waste by the weather. These monasteries still narrate the stories of an era that had unmatched architectural elegance. The first thing that you will see in the ruins of Polonnaruwa is Vijayanthapasada, which was built by King Parakramabahu. Vijayanthapasada is a seven-story-high brick palace, which survives now as a mere shell without a roof. However, this place still offers a faint glimpse into a distant past. The 12th century Gal Vihara that houses the reclining Buddha is an exquisite example of the rock-cut Buddhas of Sri Lanka. It is remarkable for its absolute simplicity and majestic appearance. Another must stop in the Ruins is Vatadage, a circular shrine housing another Buddha statue. The Buddha statue is a stark elegance study.

carving Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is also famous for the moonstone, which is a very unique architectural innovation of Sri Lanka. The moonstone was originally built as a part of a complex of balustrade and steps, which lead to the Buddha’s shrine. The moonstone survived centuries even as the other edifices crumbled over time. It is a semi-circular rock, which is ornamented with horses, elephants, conventional boughs, and creepers in eternal hot pursuit. At the center is a lotus. The moonstone’s significance is debated, but its imagery may well represent stages in the spiritual path. According to one interpretation, the first ring outside the stone depicts flames, representing desire. It is believed that when one steps into the next circle, the desire is left behind. Pacing around the ring is a magnificent frieze of four animals – horses, elephants, bulls, and lions, depicting four sorrows as the Buddha did. When you reach a creeper with twisting leaves symbolizing life-force, when you surpass this craving, you will reach the hamsa or goose, which decides in between good and bad. At the center is the lotus, symbolizing purity and the approach to nirvana.

As you walk by the ruins of Polonnaruwa, you will be surprised to find several bhikshus, maroon-robed and shaven-headed, wandering around these ruins. It will give you the impression of being transported back to the ages when the city was in its full glory.


Your next stop is at Sri Lanka’s most famous city, which is Sigiriya. Sigiriya is the citadel atop a monolithic red rock, which rises 370 meters. The Sigiriya Rock Fort was built by King Kasyapa I more than 1,500 years ago. King Kasyapa I was a parricidal king who was fleeing from retribution. Sigiriya Rock Fort is said to be the most impressive surviving remains of ancient Ceylon.

Mount Sigiriya

As you walk up the series of winding steps (around 1200 steps, to be precise) and often pause to admire the magnificent view below, it is rather difficult to imagine why this rock became the capital of the kingdom. It is amazing how everything starting from construction materials to food was hauled up the rock’s sheer sides. As you walk further up the hill, you will notice that the steps start to get a bit narrower until you reach the spiral heading vertically up. There is even a small stretch where you will move gingerly on a wooden plank, which is suspended by chains on the side of the rock. The best part of the Rock Fort is the frescos of beautiful women in various postures, and if you have been to Ajanta Caves, you will notice that these frescos resemble the frescos on the walls of Ajanta cave. Further ahead, there is a small stretch of mirror wall, where the lime plaster still shines like glass and has survived the ravages of time.


When you think you finally have reached the top of the hill, you are only half-way up, standing near the grand lion-foot entrance to the fortress! The toenails of the lion’s paw are made using lime, mortar, and rock. To reach the fortress, you will have to enter the lion’s awesome throat, which leads to a stairway. After heaving yourself up for around 20 minutes, swaying and dangling precariously on edge, you will reach the top of the rock. Atop there are the foundations of a once-grand palace now in ruins. The entire fortress area is spread over three acres with well-distinguish spaces for a royal lifestyle. Surprisingly, it seems that there was no dearth of water on the rock as you notice a large tank amidst the ruins. It is said that during summers, the royalties used it as a bath-house.


Even today, the tank is filled with water. There is little doubt that the fortress at Sigiriya and its surrounding waterworks are the finest manifestations of hydraulic engineering, which is unparalleled. The other thing I am sure is captured by millions of travellers visiting Sigiriya is the stunning view of the surrounding jungles and the magnificent, landscaped gardens sustained by a complex latticework of conduits, fountains, cisterns, and water channels.


As you move ahead around 20 kilometers from Sigiriya, you will reach the famous city of Dambulla. Dambulla is another granite hillock, home to the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The largest cave among them all is a cave with 48 statues of the Lord Buddha and Hindu gods’ images, such as Saman and Vishnu, the former dating back to the 12th century.


Like Sigiriya, the Dambulla caves provided refuge to King Valagambahu, who fled from an invading army. The caves also contain representations of the Lord Buddha’s life. You will notice a grand golden Buddha statue in padmasana poster at the entrance to rock caves, which is a recent addition, towering majestically against a blue sky.


The last stop in the Ancient Buddhist Sites of Sri Lanka is the last capital of ancient Ceylon, Kandy. Kandy is a beautiful town, which is perched on the banks of a serene lake. Kandy’s most famous thing is the temple, which houses the sacred tooth relic, which was shifted from Anuradhapura. In 1998, this 450-year-old temple was partially destroyed in an attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam when a truck with explosives was rammed into its precincts. The attack failed to dislodge and put any harm to the tooth relic.


After the incident, the temple was restored to its original glory, and every year the temple attracts thousands of devotees and tourists alike. The best time to visit the temple is in the evening when the temple is beautifully illuminated and vibrates to drums and cymbals’ music. Here you can enjoy watching traditional Ceylonese dances performed with colourful masks every evening. The performance ends with the fire-walking, with the dancers inserting a flaming stick into their mouths.

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