The Cultural Triangle is the land which lies within the three ancient cities of Dambulla, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, which bear testament to the great civilisation that existed here dating back to 4 BC. On seeing the extensive ruins here, and with a little imagination it is possible to re-create the life of the proud people that once lived here and developed this region into the masterpiece of creation that it once was. The numerous irrigation tanks covering hundreds of acres, with their waters held back with manually constructed packed earth bunds are proof that the ancient Kings were exceptionally advanced for their time. The Cultural Triangle holds the distinction of housing three of the seven World Heritage Sites in the country which are Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.
Must Do List
- The World Heritage sites of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa ruins
- Climb the Lion Rock fortress of Sigiriya
- Cave paintings and statues of the Dambulla Temple
- Experience Wesak in Mihintale
- Elephant watching in Minneriya and Kaudulla
- Elephant rides in Habarana
- Leisurely bike rides around villages surrounded by jungle, lakes and paddy fields
Cultural Triangle – In Focus
The Cultural Triangle tells a rich tale of Sri Lanka’s magnificent Royal past and the great civilisation based on agriculture which flourished here in ancient times and the ruins of what would have been magnificent palaces and the huge irrigation reservoirs built by ancient Kings are a testament to how advanced the race was at the time. Anuradhapura was Sri Lanka’s first capital city established in 4 BC and continued to hold this status until 11 AD being the domain of over 100 kings during this period, and has seen many wars fought between rival Kings as well as invading Indian armies from the North. Between the 11th and 13th Century Polonnaruwa was the Royal capital and the ruins of the buildings seen today are attributed to construction mainly by King Vijayabahu I and King Parakramabahu I. The region is also the point from which Buddhism was propagated in the island, as it was at Mihintale that King Devanampiya Tissa was first converted to the faith by Arahat Mahinda, son of the Emperor Ashoka of India.
As the Cultural Triangle is located in the North-Central part of the country it receives little or no effect from the cooling breeze off the Indian Ocean. As a result the weather here is typically hot and dry with an average temperature of 30°C and humidity of 60%. Most of the rainfall is experienced between November and February when the North-East monsoon prevails.
The Cultural Triangle is usually approached from Kurunegala, but the congestion on the Colombo-Kandy road has made the trip much quicker through Puttalam on the North-West Coast. From the airport back-roads could be taken to avoid congestion but is advisable only if you have a guide. If arriving from Kandy the approach is through Matale.
Colombo to Habarana – 4-5 hours
Airport to Habarana – 4 hours
Colombo to Dambulla – 3.5 hours
Dambulla to Polonnaruwa – 2 hours
Airport to Anuradhapura – 4 hours
Habarana to Dambulla – 1 hour
Kandy to Dambulla 2 hours
Accommodation – Hotels in/around Cultural Triangle – Click
The Cultural Triangle is packed with hotels with a wide range in budget, but which all have something unique to offer. As a base to explore Sigiriya, probably the most talked about hotel is the sprawling Heritance Kandalama designed by Geoffrey Bawa; overlooking the Kandalama Lake and built into the face of a huge granite monolith. Boutique properties in the area include Jetwing Vil Uyana and Elephant Corridor which are both eco based. Amaya Lake and Sigiriya Village are 3 Star properties offering chalet style accommodation. In Habarana, Cinnamon Lodge offers 5 Star services and Chaaya Village would be the mid-range option. Accommodation in Polonnaruwa is unsurpassed at the Deer Park Hotel which is a part of the Banyan Lodge chain, and the Royal Lotus nearby is slightly cheaper offering excellent value for money. For excursions out of Anuradhapura Palm Garden village presents the best offer, lying in a painstakingly landscaped parkland and having excellent facilities. The Tissawewa Grand Resthouse is a budget hotel, but offers stunning views of the Tissawewa Reservoir.
The Cultural Triangle being located in a rural, farming area in the country presents limited opportunities to pull out your wallet, but small stalls run by home garden owners offer fruit and vegetables fresh from the tree. Reflecting its ancient cultural background many interesting carvings and religious artifacts can be purchased from craftsmen who have their workshops close to the archaeological sites.
Attractions & Events
Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa
The capital city of Sri Lanka between the 11th and 13th Centuries, Polonnaruwa is one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka. Containing some spectacular statues and astonishing works of construction, Polonnaruwa is testament to the great history that Sri Lanka has to offer. The medieval capital, Polonnaruwa was fortified with inner and outer moats and walls. The Royal Palace, Audience Hall and other buildings in the inner city were enclosed by another tall wall. Some of the ruins that must be seen are the Lankatilake, Tivanka and Thuparama which are the most beautiful and largest Image Houses, and Tivanka which has the best examples of frescoes of the Polonnaruwa period. Rankoth Vehera and Kirivehera are both large well preserved stupas, and the Gal Vihare or rock shrine has four Buddha statues, of which two are seated, one standing and one reclining and a statue of King Parakramabahu cut out of a single granite rock. The Parakrama Samudraya is an irrigation tank covering an area of 5600 acres and lies on the Western side of the city and was built by King Parakramabahu, who stated that not on drop of water must flow into the ocean before serving the purposes of man.
Built in the 5th Century during the reign of King Kasyapa (477-495 AD) Sigiriya is commonly called the ‘Fortress in the Sky’ and is probably the most fantastic wonder of Sri Lanka. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also known as Lion Rock because of the huge lion that used to stand at the entrance to the Palace on the summit of the 600-foot rock. On the summit can be seen the foundations of the Royal Palace, water tanks which supplied water to other buildings and at the edges of the rock the guardhouses. On one of the stairways the only known ancient work of Sinhala secular painting survived in the form of frescoes of 21 life-sized damsels and they still shine to this day in their original colours. At the base of the rock lie the Royal Gardens, which comprised water gardens, a fountain garden, summerhouses and boulder gardens. There are a number of caves as well within the enclosed area and these should not be missed.
Located 8km from Anuradhapura, Mihintale is called the ‘cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka’ as it was here that the Buddhist doctrine was first preached by the monk Mahinda, son of Asoka, Emperor of India, to King Devanampiyatissa more than 2000 years ago. It is also the world’s first declared sanctuary and has been one since 247 BC. Mihintale or the ‘the hill of Mahinda’ is approached by a magnificent, wide, ancient stone stairway of 1,840 steps. Some of the monuments found here are the oldest in the country and the many Brahmi inscriptions here were made in 3 BC. The Kantaka Cetiya, Ambastala Dagoba, Maha Thupa, At Vehera, Alms Hall, Girihandu Seya, Indikatu Seya, Old Hospital and Kaludiya Pokuna are some of the interesting sites at Mihintale. There is also a good Site Museum and its main attraction is an actual Relic Chamber of a Dagoba at Mihintale.
The ancient city of Anuradhapura has four museums with a wide range of exhibits. The Abhayagiriya Fa-Hsien Museum holds a very good collection of artifacts found at the sites excavated in a 500 acre Monastery complex. The Jetavanaramaya Museum exhibits items found at the 200 acre site of the largest and tallest dagoba in Sri Lanka. The Archaeological Museum contains a large number of statues, other sculpture and many other interesting objects of art collected from the Anuradhapura District, and the Folk Museum houses a collection of objects from the North Central Province, reflecting the rural life of its population.
Haththikuchcha Buddhist Temple
The Haththikuchcha Buddhist Temple in Anuradhapura was originally a group of caves used by Bhikkus for meditation from 2 BC onwards. The caves were converted into a monastery between the 7th and 8th Century with the addition of more structures and it is believed to have been used up to the 13th Century. More than 40 inscriptions from the 6th or 7th Century are found here where devotees recorded the deposit of money for the continued supply of alms to the temple. It is believed that King Sirisangabo (247-249 AD) gave his head in donation to a poor man who came from Anuradhapura and a small vata-da-ge was constructed at the site where his body fell from the rock cave above.
It is believed that Vessagiriya in Anuradhapura is place where the first 500 Buddhist Bhikkhus in the country entered in to the Sasana. King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC) constructed and donated the caves in 3 BC to the Bhikkhus who came from all over the country to reside there and practice meditation. The complex comprises 65 caves which carry inscriptions written in Brahmi and are the oldest in Sri Lanka. Later other Kings also added many structures to this monastery which is spread over an area of 100 acres.
Issurumuniya Temple (Dakkina Meghagiri Viharaya)
Archaeologists believe that the Issurumuniya Temple in Anuradhapura is where ceremonies for the Rain God were performed. The elephant sculpture, small pond, the black rock formations and the beautiful sculpture of the Man and Horse, identified as Agni (Lightning God) and Parjannya (Rain God) at the site, indicate that ceremonies for the Rain God were held here. A small on-site museum at the Temple exhibit the famous sculpture of the Issurumuniya Lovers and other sculptures found at the site including a piece of Royal Family sculpture.
Sri Maha Bodhi Tree
The Sri Maha Bodhi tree grew from a sapling of the Sacred Bo Tree at Bodhgaya, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was brought to Sri Lanka by Rev. Sangamitta in 246 BC during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa and planted in the Mahamevuna Gardens, and later King Vasabha (67-111AD) built the Bodhi Tree Temple, which contained 4 images of the Buddha. This is oldest, historically authenticated tree in the world.
Lovamahapaya or the Brazen Palace in Anuradhapura lies between the Ruwanweliseya and the Sri Mahabodhi. Constructed by King Devanampiyatissa on a site consecrated by Arahat Mahinda, King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC) expanded this to a 9-floor, 1,000 room structure for the use of Bhikkus. Later King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 AD) carried out major repairs to the building and added two ponds for the supply of water. What is seen today of the 40 rows and coloumns of pillars are the remains of King Parakramabahu’s work.
Ruwanweliseya (Maha Thupa)
The Ruwanweliseya in Anuradhapura was built King Dutugemunu, but during its construction he fell ill. Realising that he would not be able to complete it, he asked his brother Saddaha Tissa to complete the construction before his death. In order to satisfy the King, Saddaha Tissa covered the entire dagoba with white cloth and informed the King that the construction of the dagoba was complete, and it is said that when King Dutugemunu went and saw the dagoba that he died there. Originally designed to resemble a bubble of milk, today after 1940 repairs the dagoba is 350 feet in height and 300 feet in diameter.
The Thuparama Dagoba in Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka’s first historical dagoba and was constructed by King Devanampiyatissa in 3 BC to enshrine the Collar Bone Relic of the Buddha. The vata-da-ge was first built by King Vasabha (67-111 AD), but the structure was destroyed by invaders and renovated by Kings many times over. Originally the dagoba was built in the ‘paddy heap’ shape, but reconstruction and renovations over time have changed it to a ‘bell shape’.
The Jetavanarama Dagoba in Anuradhapura is the tallest stupa in the world standing at a height of almost 400 feet. It is also the largest brick building ever built with approximately 93,300,000 baked bricks being used in its construction, and the third largest structure in the ancient world after the two Pyramids of Giza. One side of the platform on which the stupa sits is 576 feet long, and the flight of stairs leading up to it is 28 feet wide. The compound covers approximately 8 acres.
The Abhayagiriya Dagoba in Anuradhapura is the second tallest dagoba in Sri Lanka and was constructed by King Valagambahu in 103 AD. In its present state with part of the pinnacle fallen off it stands at 235 feet high and has a diameter of 310 feet, but according Fa-Hsien a Chinese pilgrim, the stupa was 400 feet in height when he was stayed at the Abhayagiriya Monastery in the 5th Century.
The Lankarama Dagoba in Anuradhapura, also known as the Silasobhakandaka Chaitya, is similar in style to the Thuparama Dagoba and was constructed by King Valagambahu in 1 BC.
After defeating King Elara in battle, King Dutugamunu built the Mirisawetiya Stupa in Anuradhapura. Although renovated by King Kasyapa I and Kasyapa V it went through long periods of dilapidation. What stands today is the renovation carried out by the Cultural Triangle Fund.
Royal Palace Of King Vijayabahu I
When King Vijayabahu I captured Polonnaruwa from the Cholas after a long battle, he built a temporary palace for himself at Anuradhapura until his palace at Polonnaruwa was completed, but he went on to be coroneted in Anuradhapura and took up residence there. The Palace building is comparatively smaller in size and would have had at least three floors as the steps leading to the upper floors can be seen even today. A Guard House at the entrance to the Palace lies about 200 yards from the main building, and the guardstones depict Sanka Nidhi and Padma Nidhi, two assistants of God Kuvera, the God of Wealth.
Temple Of The Sacred Tooth Relic (Dalada Ge)
When the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Keerthi Sri Megha Varna (301-328 AD) it was housed in a shrine called Dharmachakka, which was constructed by King Devanampiyatissa. It was after this that the shrine came to be known as the Daladage. Destroyed by wars and reconstructed on numerous occasions an inscription placed on it by King Mahinda (965-972 AD) identifies it as the Dalade Ge. The ruins are located close to the Royal Palace of Anuradhapura.
The first Royal dwelling in Sri Lanka constructed in 5 BC in Anuradhapura, it was the residence of Sakka Prince Anuradha, and later used also by King Pandukabhaya as his palace. Other Kings who ruled at Anuradhapura had their palaces at the same site, but these were destroyed in war by the Cholas in 10 AD.
Twin Ponds (Kuttam Pokuna)
These two ponds date back the 8th or 9th Century and were constructed for Bhikkhus of the Abhayagiriya monastery to take their ablutions. Another theory is that these ponds might have been used by the Kings, as the Royal Palace nearby has no bathing pond in its premises. Water was supplied to these ponds from the Bulankulama and Puliyankulama Tanks, and passed through a complex de-silting and purifying process before reaching the ponds.
Gal Palama (Stone Bridge)
Gal Palama (Stone Bridge) is located close to the Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds), and they lie across the Malwathu Oya and Yoda Ela. The first bridge spans the bed of where the Yoda Ela was, and a little further on, the ruins of the second and more impressive bridge can be seen where stone slabs are laid across rows of three stone pillars.
Samadhi Buddha Statue
This statue of the meditating Buddha was found buried in 1880 and had damage to its nose when uncovered. It is believed to be one of four statues that were placed around a Bo Tree here and parts of two other statues have also been found, but the fourth remains missing. The Statue depicts the Buddha in a meditation posture called Virasana Mudra, is 7 feet 3 inches in height and dates back to the 4th or 5th Century showing Gupta influence in its sculpture.
Alms Halls at Anuradhapura
In ancient times each monastery complex had separate alms halls. Of them the Abhayagiriya is the largest with the stone rice boat 60 feet in length, adequate to provide meals for 5050 Bhikkhus. At the Mahavihara Alms Hall which is in front of the Ruvanweliseya dagoba meals were provided to 2500-3000 Bhikkhus. The Jetavanaramaya Alms Hall is to the South East of the dagoba where meals were provided to about 3,000 Bhikkhus. The Mahapali Alms Hall is in front of the Royal Palace and the palace provided the food here. The Mirisawetiya Alms Hall provided alms to the bhikkus residing at the Mirisawetiya Temple.
The best moonstone in Anuradhapura is found at the Abhayagiriya Monastery complex. Initially, it was thought that Moonstones were for decorative purposes, with the four animals in them representing the four directions and used in Temples to welcome devotees coming from all directions of the country. The actual fact is that the animals and floral designs, guard-stone, balustrade, steps, single stone lading and the Buddha Statue gives a symbolism to the moonstone comparing the decorations to Samsara or the cycle of birth. Only five moonstones fall into this category.
The best specimen of a guardstone in Anuradhapura is found at the Ratnaprasada Chapter House of the Abhayagiriya Monastery Complex. Guardstones were originally used as a stop to prevent the fall of a balustrade or to reduce damage to the walls of buildings. The earliest guardstones did not have any decoration, but later they developed into very detailed pieces of sculpture with a rich tale behind every structure.
Avukana Buddha Statue
Undoubtedly, the most magnificent undamaged ancient image in the island, this 5th Century statue, ascribed to King Dhatusena, is 46 feet high, standing in the remains of an image house which once enclosed it. Located 51km from Anuradhapura passing the great tank of Kalawewa, this is the most beautiful rock-cut standing Buddha statue in the Island, if not the entire world.
Dambulla Cave Temples
The Dambulla Cave Temple is the most magnificent of Rock Temples to be found in Sri Lanka and is located on a vast isolated rock mass 500 feet high and measures a mile around the base. The caves of Dambulla sheltered King Valagambahu during his 14 year exile from Anuradhapura, and when he regained the throne he had the temple built in 1 BC. The temple comprises five caves and the first cave has a 47 foot sculpture of the Buddha cut out of the rock which is surrounded with murals of deities associated with Buddhism around the world. The second cave, the finest and the largest of all, hold 150 life-size statues of the Buddha in various postures together with a few statues of Gods and Kings. The ceiling is also covered with frescoes, which depict great events in the life of the Buddha and landmarks in the history of the Sinhalese people. The third cave is only second in size to the second cave and is believed to have been built by King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1781 AD), as his bearded statue and 57 Buddha Statues in the seated and reclining postures are found here. The fourth cave is holds a small dagoba known as the Somawathie Dagoba was said to contain the jewellery of Queen Somadevi who was King Valagambahu’s wife. It is believed Valagambahu lived in this cave during his period of exile. The fifth cave is the most recent addition to the temple having been constructed in the late 19th Century and houses a reclining Buddha and 11 other statues.
Menikdena is a 45-acre forest reserve converted to an Arboretum with 110 species of identified trees by the students of the Trinity College, Kandy as a school project. Located 8km from Dambulla on the Dambulla-Matale road, Menikdena is a historic site as well as it has been identified as the place where King Vijayabahu I destroyed a Chola Fort and established his own fort here. King Parakramabahu I also had his base camp here in his fight against King Gajabahu II of Polonnaruwa.
The Popham Arboretum has about 70 species trees and is located on the Dambulla-Kandalama Road, about 1km from Dambulla. It was established by Sam Popham who came to Sri Lanka on volunteer work, and upon his retirement he purchased five acres of chena cultivated land and converted it into the arboretum that stands today.
Ibbankatuwa Pre-Historic Site
Situated in Talakiriyagama, near Dambulla off the Dambulla-Kurunegala road this is actually a pre-historic cist mass burial site. A cist is a stone lined chamber with a single large stone covering the top of it. The extent of this site is more than 10 acres and it dates back 4000-5000 years. Bodies were cremated at a central crematorium and the leftover bones were collected and buried at this site. More than 10 graves have been opened at the Ibbankatuwa site.
Kaudulla National Park
Located in the Polonnaruwa District and covering an extent of 6,900 hectares, the Kaudulla National Park was established in 2002 and encompasses the Kaudulla Wewa and the surrounding jungle area. Kavudulla supports a a large herd of Elephants, Sambhur, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Wild Buffalo, a range of reptile species and large number of bird species. Most famous for its elephant’s, the population found here far exceeds those found in other Park.
Minneriya National Park
This National Park is located 6km from Habarana and has an extent of 8,889 hectares and is reputed for its large population of elephants in herds of 100 to 150 roaming in the jungle and seen in the catchment area of the lake. Other wildlife that can be sighted include wild buffaloes, wild boar, spotted deer, sloth bear, sambhur, leopards, crocodiles, jackals, nine species of amphibians, 25 kinds of reptiles, 160 species of birds, 26 varieties of fish and 78 varieties of butterflies.
The Nalanda Gedige or monument lies in the town of Gedige 20km from Dambulla on the Dambulla-Kandy and is a stone temple dating back to the 8th Century. Depicting one of the most remarkable examples of the amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist architecture, the shrine room has a ‘gopuram’ like structure similar to a Hindu Shrine room but the all the figures and statues within it are of a Buddhist theme. It is considered to be a Mahayana shrine, as its stones contain rare tantric sculptures of a sexual nature.