Poetically known as the “Tear Drop of India” or the “Pearl of Indian Ocean,” Sri Lanka is one of the Indian Ocean’s crowning jewels. A tear-drop shaped island, Sri Lanka, the resplendent land southeast of the Indian Subcontinent, is one seed in history dating back to at least 125,000 years. Formerly known as Ceylon, this land is a center of religion and culture, encompassing Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Its geographic location and deep harbors made it a prominent spot of the Silk Route. With 103 rivers, several estuaries, and lagoons, Sri Lanka’s dense mangrove system spanning over 70 sq km plays a vital role in buffering tsunami-like waves. Sri Lanka is one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots globally with the highest biodiversity density in Asia. Another interesting fact about Sri Lanka is that it is home to eight magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you must visit on your trip to Sri Lanka. We are excited to share the significance and importance of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka with you, including cultural and natural landmarks.
Highlights of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka
Dambulla Cave Temple (UNESCO)
Dambulla is located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. The main entrance with its grand golden Buddha was built in the 19th century. The golden Buddha’s hands are in the teaching form as a welcoming sign to anyone who steps through its sacred door.
One of Sri Lanka’s greatest hidden wonders, the cave temple, has stood since the 1st century BC. Inhabited by Buddhist monks since the 3rd century BC, it still operates as a practicing place of worship for thousands, making it a must-see pilgrimage on your journey. In the 1st century BC, King Valagamba used the caves for refuge during his 14-year exile from the Anuradhapura Kingdom. Buddhist monks who meditated in Dambulla’s caves protected the king from his many enemies – a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed. When King Valagamba returned to the throne at Anuradhapura, he had a majestic rock temple built at Dambulla as a token of his gratitude to the Dambulla monks. The colours of the temple statues have been preserved by being in the dark interiors of the cave and away from the harsh effects of natural light. As a result, they haven’t aged in the same way as other monuments from the same era, which is remarkable to see up close and first-hand.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress (UNESCO)
Sigiriya, a 5th-century rock-fortress citadel, is located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Filled with legends, the fortress’s origin is attributed variously to several mythological characters, the most popular being King Kubera, half-brother of Ravana, the antagonist of the Indian epic, Ramayana. Historically, it was King Kashyapa’s capital from 477 to 495 CE. Rising sharply above the rest of its surroundings, the flat plane on the top of the hill contains the vestiges of a grand city. With its geometrically designed gardens, pools, and paintings, the citadel reflects the Monarch’s tastes. The Lion Staircase leading up to the summit has a massive lion paw carved out of the rock. Frescoes of slender, bejeweled women that decorate several of the fort’s wall surfaces glow in vibrant colours.
An extraordinary feature of this place is the mirror wall, which, in its time, was a highly-polished surface that would cast a mirror-like reflection of the passer-by. Today, the wall is partially covered in verses known as “Sigiri Graffiti,” which are poems dating back to the 8th century. A UNSECO site, Sigiriya, is currently being excavated and restored under UNESCO’s Cultural Triangle Project and could be the future eighth Wonder of the World.
Ancient city of Polonnaruwa (UNESCO)
Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka between the 11th – 13th centuries. The city contains some of the most beautiful and magnificent statues.
Pulasthipura was an early historical name of Polonnaruwa, the UNESCO world heritage site that carries a great history. Polonnaruwa’s main sites are the conserved ruins of massive Buddhist temples, splendid royal palaces, enormous unbroken statues carved from boulders, and ancient irrigation reservoirs. Lankatilake, Tivanka, and Thuparama are the most impressive and largest shrine ruins. Tivanka is considered to be the best example of frescoes of the Polonnaruwa period. The other places of interest are Buddha Statues at Gal Viharaya, Vata-da-Geya, Moonstone, Pothgul Vehera, and others. The best way to enjoy the unhindered beauty of Polonnaruwa is on bikes.
The first historical capital of Sri Lanka, the city of Anuradhapura, was founded around the 5th century BCE. During that time, it was one of the most stable centers of political power in South Asia.
A World Heritage Site, the city was the nucleus of Theravada Buddhism and is considered sacred by the Buddhists around the world.
With its gigantic Buddhist shrines, splendid palaces, pavilions, parks, and bathing ponds, the city gives us a glimpse of the stately, well laid-out metropolis this city used to be.
The documented account refers to Anuradhapura as the first capital of Sri Lanka. The city still holds relics of architectural ruins of the ancient kingdoms and Buddhist temples that cannot be seen in most parts of the world. Anuradhapura is truly an ancient city with a deep heritage, culture, politics, and religious history. Some of the most famous monuments here are Brazen Palace’s ruins and the impressive Ruwanwelisaya built by majestic King Dutugamunu. Mahamevuna Uyana houses the Sacred Bo-tree of Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest authenticated sacred tree, planted from a sapling from the Mahabodhi tree in Bodhgaya in India, under which, Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. Another magnificent sight is Jetavanaramaya, the largest Dagaba (stupa) in the world. The city is spread with ruins of ancient Dagabas and other sites of religious significance.
The last capital of the Kingdom, Kandy, is a repository of traditional culture and the Island’s most frequented tourist resort. Set amidst tea and spice gardens, lakes, mountains, and a river, Kandy’s varied charm offers memorable sights and scenes. Accessing Kandy from Colombo through the Kadugannawa and Balane Passes takes the traveller on a scenic and dramatic journey, aptly suited to a medieval mountain capital.
Since the times when the Buddha’s Tooth was taken to Sri Lanka hidden in an Orissan princess’ hair, away from other kingdoms’ sinful hands, the relic has grown in its reputation and sacredness in Sri Lanka and throughout the world. Sri Dalada Maligawa, famously known as the “Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic,” houses the most sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. Every evening, there is a beautiful ceremony inside the temple, which is worth a visit. Historical procession called “Esala Perahera” is held annually during July to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha.
Cycling in Kandy
While in Kandy, do not miss the fun-filled Cycling from Hantana to Peredinya. The Hanthana massif is in the south-west of Kandy. The lovely experience of riding a bike on the back roads of Kandy, winding through tea estates and smaller towns is mostly a downhill back road cycling trip. The starting point is in front of the Ceylon Tea Museum at the top of the Hanthana Hill, and you will ride down through winding back roads to Peradeniya University. Enjoy views of the surrounding valleys, tea estates, and small-town village life. The ride is undulating down with a few climbs. The ride ends at the Peradeniya University grounds.
If you want to give something back to society while you leave your carbon footprints, you can also volunteer at a ‘Speak-in-English’ Class here. A group of villagers (aged between 05 and 50 years) gather around a mud house for a two hour English speaking class every Saturday evening. It is their ambition to speak fluent English that brings them here every weekend. It is nothing like attending a school session, but it is a fun way of learning, which is filled with many activities focusing on verbal thoroughness. The activities include games, storytelling, role-playing and speeches, singing, debates, and much more. To encourage participants, every week the most active participant is rewarded as well. During your visit here, teach, talk, sing, play, have fun and, most importantly, be a part of the group of students who have a deep curiosity to learn about your country and you, and in return, can ask them questions and finally pick the winning student.
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
Central Highlands is a protected land full of natural beauty in the south-central part of Sri Lanka. The Horton Plains, The Knuckles Conservation Forest, and The Peak Wilderness Protected Area are the main three areas under Central Highlands. Interestingly, here the land rises to 8,000 ft. above sea level. Central Highlands is home to astonishing flora and fauna, including numerous endangered species such as the Horton Plains Slender Loris, the western purple-faced Languor, and the Sri Lankan Leopard, which is one of the main reasons why UNESCO choose it as a World Heritage Site.
The site conserves the largest remaining submontane and montane rainforest in Sri Lanka. It also protects the habitat of a collection of species displaying extraordinary endemism levels, many of which are site endemic.
Let’s take a look at the major area of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.
- The Knuckles Mountain Range, a paradise for trekkers, lies in central Sri Lanka. The mountain range gets its name from a series of reclining folds and peaks that resemble knuckles of a clenched fist when seen from a few locations. While the name was given by early British surveyors, the locals have traditionally referred to it as Dumbara Kanduvetiya, which means a Mist-laden Mountain Range.
The higher biogeographic zone is often robed in thick layers of clouds. In addition to its artistic excellence, the range is of great scientific interest as well. It is a world within Sri Lanka as it depicts the entire country’s climatic zones in this massif. There are series of isolated cloud forests at higher elevations, harboring flora and fauna. The massif is home to a significant proportion of the country’s biodiversity. The isolated Knuckles range refuges several relicts, endemic flora, and fauna different from the other massif.
- Horton Plains National Park is a great highland plateau situated at an elevation of 2100 -2300 meters above sea level and is capped by montane grassland and cloud forest. Many species found here are endemic to the region.
The weather at the plains changes considerably during the day, with temperatures as high as 27 degree Celsius during the day and dips as low as 5 degree Celsius in the evenings and night with thick mist formation. One of the most-visited parts of Horton Plains and heaven for trekkers and bird watchers is the “The World’s End.” It is a 700 meters vertical drop that gives a superb view of the valley, and the beautiful watercourses of Baker’s waterfall make it even more interesting for the visitors.
- Peak Wilderness sanctuary is a natural reserve in Sri Lanka, the third largest of its 50 sanctuaries. It is spread over a land of 224 sq km around the Sri Pada Mountain.
The stunning Adam’s Peak stands tall at 7360 feet and is identified by Buddhists as the Buddha’s footprint, by Hindus as Shiva, and by Muslims as Adam. It is considered to be one of the holiest places for many religions in Sri Lanka. Be sure to take a night trek to Adam’s peak to behold the most spectacular sunrise you would ever see in your life.
Situated approx. 116 kilometers from Colombo, Galle’s sea-side town has been around since the 16th century and has stood the test of time through the colonial periods of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. A perfect example of a walled or fortified city built by the Portuguese in Asia, Galle reached its peak in the 18th century, during the Dutch colonial period. Today, Galle has been declared as an archaeological reserve and a World Heritage Site.
The best way to get a quick outlook of the UNESCO world heritage site is by taking a walking tour. This walk will bring to you the highlights that best suit your interest in the fort. From architecture, culture to people and their lifestyle, this walk touches all aspects that best defines and describes the fort.
Sinharaja Rain Forest
A unique lowland rain forest spread across 11,187 hectares, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot and one of the least disturbed forests in Sri Lanka. Declared a National Heritage Area in 1988 and World Heritage Site later, the forest is bounded by rivers on three sides—Kalu Ganga in the north, Gin Ganga in the south, and Kudawa Ganga in the west. A series of unbroken ridges, aligned east to west, define the topography of this place. The forest’s undergrowth is what one finds in a tropical lowland rainforest—dense and luxuriant. Several butterflies, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals are unique to this reserve.
While staying at Sinharaja Rain Forest, do not forget to take the nature trail with an experienced guide. This nature trail is a full day visit to Sinharaja Rainforest for lowland endemics and mixed-species bird flocks.
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