A visit to Sri Lanka’s medieval capital, Polonnaruwa

It was just over 1,000 years ago that the city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka peaked in its role as the capital of the island country. Today the site, and the ruins it contains, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a number of old temples, palaces and sanctuaries available to visit. The historic area is rather large, spread over a few miles of space, but the sites are absolutely stunning.

The Rankot Vihara dagoba is 54 meters across; huge!

Like most of the historical temples and palaces we saw throughout the trip, the level of detail in the structures was the most impressive part. Little things, like the stairs being carved as dragons, for example, or intricate details in the columns that previously held up the roof in the temples. Simply amazing.


Unfortunately, it was during this part of the trip that I was also the most affected by the stomach bug I picked up so I mostly remember trying to remain upright and not pass out as we walked around the sites rather than the details of all the structures we were seeing. Still, looking back through the photos from the day I’m impressed by the scale of what they built.


One of the many temples in the area was The Temple of the Tooth. There are several such temples throughout the island, each built to house the relic tooth of Lord Buddha. Holding the tooth relic imparted divine power and was a major factor in any leader being able to demonstrate their right to govern. It is not surprising that the temples built to house it were so impressive. That said, in ruin the one at Polonnaruwa actually isn’t so amazing. But there were plenty of other bits which were.


Speaking of Buddha, the carvings at Gal Vihara are an impressive series of Buddha images, all cut from the same enormous slab of granite. There is a standing Buddha, roughly 7 meters tall and holding its hands in a rather unique pose that has piqued the curiosity of historians over the years. Not too far away is a reclining Buddha that is about 50 feet long. Despite the size, however, the level of detail in the carvings is still tremendous


There was a roughly 700 year period where the site was swallowed up by jungle. Fortunately, thanks in large part to the  UNESCO designation (and the ~USD $50 entrance fee for most the UNESCO sites on the island), the restoration and preservation efforts are doing great things to maintain an improve the area to be able to handle the crowds.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Are you sure those carvings are dragons? I highly doubt they are dragons and most likely they are the carvings of a lion or croc. I dont think the concept of dragon is native to Sri Lanka and the kings that ruled those areas are mostly indigenous or part of the kingdoms that ruled southern part of India.

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