Troops of langurs sit proprietarily on the ancient city walls and watch tourists curiously. Monks in luminous orange robes bow before a weathered Buddha and chant prayers. Western tourists ride bicycles armed with maps and guide-books followed by small local boys selling plastic wrapped post-card sets and sliced pineapple. For almost seven hundred years, this city was covered with a thick jungle straight out of an Indiana Jones movie and virtually unknown, till a group of British explorers stumbled on it in the late 19th Century. We are struck by the scale of this ancient city. It must have been an astonishing urban creation!
Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital city occupied after the decline of Anuradhapura, is part of the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka (and the least appreciated of the ancient cities) and dates back to the 11th century. It was occupied by both Sinhalese and Chola rulers from South India. This city flowered under the rule of three kings over a short period of less than 100 years. King Vijayabahu I was a revered monarch who liberated the country from the Cholas, re-established monasteries, trained monks with help from Burma and repaired the canals and tanks. However it was his successor, the wise, untiring and zealous king Parakramabahu who earned all the glory with his architectural activity and artistic conception! Boastful King Nissankamalla was the third king in the trinity, who was originally from South India.
Today, Polonnoruwa stretches for miles, magical and otherworldly with vast temples, orange sand roads, rambling palaces in ruins, majestic stupas and rolling grass and trees inside three concentric city walls. This city is reminiscent of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s city of Fatehpur Sikhri near Agra. Our guide, Barie takes us first to the southern group of ruins. Here is the iconic statue cut into a rock boulder which some people believe is that of King Parakrama Bahu holding a yoke (which may represent the burden of royalty) or a palm leaf manuscript in his hands. Others say that it’s the statue of a rishi or sage. Close by is the ruins of the Monastic library laid out in four terraces where the most sacred texts may have been stored. Weathered remains of the living cells of the monks lie amidst four dagabas or stupas which show that it was Buddhist. It is said that the king used to sit here and listen to the reading of the Jataka Tales by priests. We drive along the, the ancient man made reservoir (so vast that it can be mistaken for the ocean) encircled by rugged hills which even today irrigates miles of rice fields. In days of yore it used to irrigate the paddy fields, provide an additional defense, and cool the city with breezes.
The ‘Udyana Dvipa’ was used by Parakramabahu as his pleasure garden and for bathing. The baths were fed by underground pipes from the lake-medieval engineering never ceases to amaze! The circular bath resembles the coils of a serpent. Later Nissankammala liked this place so much that he built his Council chamber here. We see the striking Council chamber with stark pillars still standing tall and a lion throne. I daydream, imagining the king in all his finery sitting on this throne surrounded by his ministers! In the Royal palace group of ruins we see the Royal Palace which used to be seven stories high and ‘with a hundred chambers’. Sadly most of it was made of wood and was destroyed by fire. Even today the walls of the palace look thick and stand to a height of thirty feet!
We drive to a compact collection of ruins on a raised platform simply called the ‘Quadrangle’ where we see the Vatadage or the Relic House- a distinctive circular shrine, a riot of friezes and artistry with four large seated Buddhas looking out in different directions. Barie points out the ‘moonstone’ to us. These are like welcome mats in stone- a unique architectural invention which is a semi-circular rock with ornamentation like elephants, horses, creepers and lotuses. There are an unusual structure in the Quadrangle. It’s a six storey ziggurat- like pagoda with a Cambodian look, which has stymied archaeologists about its inspiration and origin. What catches our fancy is the ‘Gal Pota’, a stone book which talks about the achievements of the eccentric king Nissankamalla (the politicians of those days also indulged in self-promotion!). This weighs 25 tons and has figures of the goddess Lakshmi and elephants carved on it along with seventy two lines of hieroglyphics- like inscriptions. It is believed to be transported from 100 km away probably using elephants!
As we drive through this ancient city we see trade stalls, a monastic hospital (where surgical instruments were discovered) complete with a stone cut medicine trough showing the evidence of advanced healing techniques. Barie points out an ancient Hindu temple with a Sivalinga (still intact) which is the oldest building in this city and probably survived because it was completely built in stone. One of the things that interests me are the inscriptions that have figures carved into the stone next to them, to convey information to those who could not read. For instance one stone shows a monk, a dog and a bird. The message is "If you steal from the monks, you will come back in your next life as a dog or a crow.”
We walk to the main crowd-puller - the 12th Century Gal Vihara. This is home to four majestic Buddhas carved out of a single 100 foot outcrop of lilac gray granite. There is artistry in the ripple of the robes and the extravagance of scale. There is an incongruous and unsightly modern pavilion constructed over the Buddhas to protect them from the sun and rain and they are roped off with clumsy barriers from tourists. Braving the walk barefoot on the scorching earth and sharp gravel we are rewarded by the serenity on Buddha’s face. We end our visit to Polonnoruwa with a snack by the ancient tank, watching giant water monitors and contemplating the fascinating vignettes of daily life surrounded by centuries of history. Ancient Philosophy, poetry, sculpture and medicine-time travel at its best!
PUBLISHED IN THE STATESMAN, 2010