The Cultural Triangle – Dambulla – Polonnaruwa – Anuradhapura – encompasses very many of the unique historical and religious sites of Sri Lanka. The popular sites include the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the ruined city of Polonnaruwa, the ruined palace atop Sigiriya, the extensive murals in the Dambulla Cave temples, the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Invitation Rock at Mihintale and the monastic ruins of Ritigala and many more. In addition it also has wonderful the National Parks and Nature Reserves such as Kaudulla, Minneriya and Giritale. I’ve also included Wilpattu here because, although it is on the West Coast, the entrance is easily reached from Anuradhapura. These beautiful reserves offer great chances to see large groups of elephants, elusive leopards, sloth bears, water buffalo, water monitors and a rich bird life.

Many visitors head to this area on arrival, either by car from the airport or Negombo or by train from Colombo to Anuradhapura on the Colombo to Jaffna line or Colombo to Habarana on the Colombo to Batticaloa line. You can find distances between places here and even more transport information in my ebook here.

November to January are the wettest months here, especially so in the three National Parks around Habarana. June to August are the hottest and driest.  A good guide will add fascinating stories of the lives of Royalty in ancient times to the historical facts.

ANURADHAPURA is geographically at the pinnacle of the Cultural Triangle.

With its intriguing domed dagabas dominating this UNESCO World Heritage city, Anuradhapura offers plenty to explore, discover and marvel over. The capital of Sri Lanka from the fourth century BC until the eleventh century AD, it was invaded and ruled at times by Tamil Kings from South India leaving behind stories of battle, patricide and fratricide and intrigue. A city sacred to the Buddhist population, ongoing archaeological research and excavations continue to reveal its long hidden treasures.

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is the most important religious site in the country for many Buddhists. Grown from a sapling of the tree under which Prince Siddharta obtained enlightenment and became Buddha, it was brought to Sri Lanka from India by the daughter of Emperor Asoka. The nearby Ruwanwelisaya dagaba, together with the Lovamahapaya ruins are abuzz with pilgrims not only on auspicious days and can be visited in a couple of hours. This dagaba was constructed by King Dutugemunu 140 BC after he defeated the invading Tamil King Elara.

Another stunning dagaba is the Abhayagiri stupa which is part of a complex containing at least twenty one other significant ruins.

POLONNARUWA has been my favourite place in Sri Lanka since I first visited it in 1967 when only  very few of the ruins had been recovered from the forest. I remember my feeling of awe as I gazed at the three gigantic Buddhas carved out of the rock – Gal Vihara. Many visits later, I still find this ancient city fascinating and awesome!

King Parakaramabahu 1, who ruled Polonnaruwa from 1153 to 1186, was a politically ambitious and a not to be underestimated king. He is credited with not only restoring the war destroyed city of Polonnaruwa but also with building a series of water reservoirs such as the Parakrama Samudra. This supported agriculture on a grand scale making Polonnaruwa the centre of trade in the region, bringing wealth which enabled the building of this magnificent city.

 

After Parakrama’s death Polonnaruwa was attacked by an invading King from South India and by 1215 it was apparently deserted.  Recovery from the jungle started in 1903 and is ongoing. For the best experience take a guide to reveal the stories behind the ruins of the palace that was once at least seven stories high, the beautiful Vatadage uncovered in 1903, the hospitals, Council Chambers, Gal Vihara, Gal Potha and more.

Hinduism and Buddhism lived side by side and there are some Hindu Shrines to be found here too. See if you can find the pre Angkor like ruins of what is thought to be a five story palace! You may also come across very recent work reassembling excavated buildings a la lego!

 

It’s a big park like site to get around so transport is recommended, as is a water bottle, sunhat and sunscreen. You might like to take your lunch and eat under the shade trees. Watch out for those cheeky monkeys though! [ Please don’t feed them.]

My next highlight of the area for you is what some describe as the jewel of the Cultural Triangle, the iconic  SIGIRIYA !

 

This massive column of granite rock, some 200 metres high, dominates the surrounding plains. History has it that in the mid 12th Century King Kasyapa chose it to build his new palace on the very top.

King Kasyapa  had great need of a secure fortress because he had acquired the throne by deposing and later killing his father, King Dutusena, and chasing his brother, the rightful heir, off to India. This was not a popular move and his father’s loyal subjects followed his brother, Mogallana, to India where Moggallana gathered an army that eventually defeated and killed King Kasyapa.

Kasyapa means Father Killer – his other names include the more well known Kassapa.

During King Kassapa’s time, access to this mountain top fortress was by way of hidden staircases. Today the steps are easily seen and there’s a lovely rest area on a small plateau half way up. Here King Kassapa had a grand Lion entrance built, hence the name Sigiriya – meaning Lion. [Sinha as in Sinha-lese, means Lion People, however there are no lions in Sri Lanka.]
As well as being a bit of a rogue, King Kassapa also seems to have had an eye for beautiful things, notably the Art Gallery of beautiful maidens etched on the rock face about half way up the rock and several meticulously laid out gardens at the foot of the rock. His palace at the top also had a pool for his many wives to enjoy. What a view they had!

 

To avoid excessive heat, time your climb up this massive rock for early morning or mid afternoon for a sunset view. Footwear such as trainers is best. I’ve seen children as young as seven climbing but perhaps they are the daring ones! Don’t forget your camera, however, so as to protect the aged paint, photos of the painted ladies are no longer allowed to be taken.

The story of the GOLDEN CAVE TEMPLES at DAMBULLA starts long before the caves were occupied by Buddhist monks and the one hundred and fifty three Buddha statues and amazing murals were painted on the rock ceilings and walls of today’s five cave temples.   Archaeological excavation of burial sites with human skeletons has shown that, about 2700 years ago, prehistoric people inhabited the eighty odd caves that are hidden around this mountain.

 

The popular belief is that these caves were part of a large Buddhist monastery in the first century BCE and, for that reason, it is today regarded as a very holy place by Sri Lankan Buddhists who bus in from far and wide , all wearing white pilgrimage clothing.

Records show that in the third and second centuries BCE the monastery here was a very important and influential one.  In the next century King Valagamba is thought to have taken refuge here when he was chased out of his Anuradhapura kingdom by one of the many South Indian kings who, for many centuries, invaded Sri Lanka. During his fifteen years of exile here he reorganised and expanded his army and, after defeating his Indian usurper, paid back his hospitality by converting the cave shrines into temples.  Makes me wonder about the non violent teachings of the Buddha!

 

Several other kings contributed to the development of this powerful Buddhist monastery, having murals depicting the story of Buddha’s enlightenment painted on the rock surfaces of the ceilings and walls and adding new statues and gilding important ones with gold.

It is these intricately painted and complex designs covering 2,100 square metres of the contours of the rock together with the statues, some rock hewn, others of brick and stone, that draw tourists from around the world.

These awesome Cave Temples enjoy UNESCO World Heritage Status and are being protected and preserved. A Museum has been built recently and is well worth a visit.

As is often the case, this holy site requires some climbing to get to it! Steps have been hewn from the granite rock, however there is one short part where there are no real steps on the hot rock incline. If you have some balance or mobility issues stick to the sides where there is a handrail. It’s not that bad! Just requires a bit more care going up !

 

There is no need to remove your shoes until you arrive at the entrance to the Caves. Here, you can have them safely taken care of for SLR100 per pair.

Be aware that everyone, men women and children, need to have their shoulders and chests covered and that their hemlines should be below their knees. Sunhats are recommended for the climb however these must be removed before entering the temple complex.

Take your water bottles and cameras. Often there is an icecream seller under the trees half way up the rock. I’ve partaken several times to no ill effect.

Before you descend, enjoy the view from the top. Look out slightly to the left and you may see Sigiriya!

MIHINTALE, ten kilometres from Anuradhapura, offers peace and tranquility as you explore this sacred site regarded as the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

This came about in 247 BCE when King Devanampiya Tissa was out hunting deer on a flat plateau in his mountain forest. He was about to shoot a deer when he heard his first name called out. Surprised at hearing this, he stopped his shot and discovered an unusual sight – an orange clad monk. This monk was Thero Mahinda, son of the recently converted King Ashoka of India who had been sent on a mission to  take the message of peace of the newly founded Buddhism to Sri Lanka.  King Devanampiya Tissa, intrigued by this unusual event had a conversation with Mahinda Thero.  This resulted in  Mahinda Thero asking the king a riddle  involving a mango to ascertain his ability to understand the meaning of Buddhism. Obviously the answer was correct and Buddhism began to flourish in the country. All this is said to have happened in the month of Poson, [June] so at the Poson Poya, thousands of pilgrims arrive to worship.

Mahinda Thero stayed on at Mihintale, living in a cave there and Mihintale became an influential monastery. King Devanmanpiya Tissa had a vihara built as well as 68 caves for the monks to live in. Later kings added to the number of stupas and buildings such as the hospital, refectory and bathrooms with advanced plumbing facilities.

Ambasthala Dagaba, a small stupa surrounded with stone pillars. It is said to have been erected on the spot where the King and the Monk first met. Built by King Makalantissa it is believed to enshrine the relics of Mahinda Thero.

If you have no fear of heights you might like to carefully climb to the top of “Invitation Rock.” The 360 degree views are outstanding, but not for the faint hearted. There are 1840 steps to climb as well as some walking around at the top so either an early morning or mid afternoon visit is recommended. Wear trainers, sunhats and carry water bottles too.

Think of Sri Lanka and elephants come to mind! A safari in MINERIYA, KAUDULLA and GIRITALE National Parks will leave you with long lasting memories – an elephant suddenly appearing through the bushes followed by the rest of the family, of baby elephants playing in water, closely watched over by all the females and protected by the dominant male of the group. The famous “gathering” which occurs from August to October, provides an awesome sight of  hundreds of elephants from all over the area congregating around the remaining water sources.

The sparkling wewas, constructed as far back as the first century BCE, provide irrigation for this dry, low lying part of the country and, in addition to the elephants seeking water and lush feed vegetation, attract many birds such as the sea eagle, cormorants, bulbuls, painted stork, spot billed pelican, herons and more.

Elephants and birds seem to dominate these parks however there are shyer animals such as  macaques, langurs, sloth bears, spotted deer hiding in the bush.

While the “gathering”season is most exciting, safaris can be made all year round. Safaris can be arranged by your accommodation hosts, your tour guides or by simply locating operators who gather in the centre of the towns. The best times to see elephants and other animals is either in the mornings 6 – 9 am or in the afternoons 3 – 6 pm when they emerge from the shade of the vegetation to feed. The compulsory guides who hop in the front seat after you have paid your entrance fees and the jeep drivers usually know which area the elephants are in on any given day.

The wet season lasts during the north eastern monsoon from October to January and from May to September considered as the dry season.

WILPATTU [ Land of Lakes] National Park, just 40km from Dambulla and 55km from Anuradhapura, is now becoming popular with dedicated nature lovers. One of the oldest National Parks in the country it was, prior to the ethnic war that impacted on it severely, famed for its leopard population. Happily, sightings of leopards are now being reported with greater frequency. Wilpattu is a place of dense forests, dry scrub lands, woodlands as well as sixty sand-rimmed rainwater lakes which are dotted throughout this large park. The  animals here are, relative to other National Parks in the area, small and shy, so you need a good guide  who knows the animals and area well. Other animals you may see are the sloth bears, water buffalo, spotted dear, mongoose . . . and, of course, elephants. The natural lakes  attract many water birds such as the spoonbill stork, whistling teal, ibis, purple heron and more. In addition the many different birds of the forest and scrub lands make it a birders paradise. Monitor lizards, mugger crocodiles, cobras and pythons as well as the soft shelled and pond turtles in the lakes also delight those lucky enough to spot them.

While visitors often come to this Park from Kalpitiya, on the mid west coast, many are now including it in their Cultural Triangle itinerary.

 

The Cultural Triangle is very much more than the treasures I’ve shared here with you. There are many more intriguing sights to see – the amazing standing statue at Aukana, the forest ruins at Ritigala and many more seldom visited places. I’ll be happy to help you with any queries.

Ask Archi for detailed information about the places and activities that appeal to you in this amazing country, Sri Lanka.

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Independent Insider Knowledge

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