UNESCO – World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, is the proud title-holder to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Six of these remarkable sites belong to the Cultural category whereas the other two belong to the Natural, each bestowed with its unique historical value and beauty. Each can be explored in various Sri Lanka tour packages.
Ancient City of Polonnaruwa – Cultural
Once the capital city of Sri Lanka, as declared by King Vijayabahu I, Polonnaruwa is an ancient town where the main attraction are ruins which date from the late 10th century. King Vijayabahu I along with his successors made this the capital when they recognised that Anuradhapura’s location was vulnerable to attacks from southern India. The Chola Kings of southern India had previously invaded Sri Lanka and conquered Anuradhapura, however when they moved their capital to Polonnaruwa, intentionally located to defend themselves against attacks from the unconquered Sinhala Kingdom of Ruhuna from the southeast, their defenses proved inadequate and they were evicted in 1070 by force from Polonnaruwa by the great King. He added enormous temples, palaces, parks, gardens and vast tanks. Yet dismay struck once again by the 13th century AD, when new waves of attacks from southern India forced the brave Sinhalese Kings to abandon their kingdoms in the north and move back to the southwest and Kandy where power was rebuilt.
King Vijayabahu’s grandson, King Parakramabahu I reigned Polonnaruwa’s golden ages within a rectangle of city walls where he built magnificent palaces, dagobas, temples and various other religious buildings which stand on the east shore of his greatest masterpiece, a vast artificial lake. Today the ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned Archeological relic sites in the country, standing evidence to the discipline and greatness of the Kingdom’s first rulers.
Ancient City of Sigiriya – Cultural
Rising 200 metres above the ground, Sigiriya presents extraordinary yet beautiful 5th century urban planning, architecture and engineering. King Kasyapa and his master-builders constructed it as a palace during the 4th century AD with its main priority being security. After he killed his own father and took the throne which was rightfully to be given to his brother Moggollana – the crown prince – and forced him into exile in India, Kasyapa established a new capital at Sigiriya and led a luxurious, extravagant life knowing that one day his brother would return for revenge! His fears approached when Moggollana, returning with an army from India, conquered his ruthless brother.
Today this ancient fortress is considered the eight wonder of the world and one of Asia’s major archaeological sites. The area in which Sigiriya is located is of significant natural beauty and historical interest. It still has the remnants of an upper palace located on the flat top of the rock, a mid-level terrace that includes the Lion Gate, the Mirror wall and frescoes, a lower palace that clings to the slopes below the rock, and the moats, walls and gardens that extend for a few hundred metres out from the base of the rock.
Golden Temple of Dambulla – Cultural
Located in the central part of the country, within the Cultural Triangle, lies the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The Dambulla Cave Temple which has been a sacred place since the 2nd century BC, has earned the name Golden Temple because of its gilded interior. It is made up of five separate caves adjoined together under a 160 m tall boulder. The caves contain beautifully maintained ancient statues and religious paintings which relate to Lord Buddha and his life, on the inside dating back from the 15th and 16th centuries.
The unique features that make this temple so remarkable is a 15 m long reclining Buddha and the fact that it possesses the foremost Buddha Statue of the World designed in the pose of Dhamma Chakka. A modern museum lies below the rock where the caves are located, displaying the recent history of Sri Lankan Buddhist culture.
Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
Galle is an old colonial town situated on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka. With the arrival of the Portuguese invaders in the 16th century, who took the town from the Sinhalese Kings, it became the main port on the island. This prime status heightened the development of the town till the 18th century before the arrival of the British invaders, who took over from the Dutch, who in turn had taken over from the Portuguese, and developed a new harbour in Colombo.
The Portuguese erected the first fortifications which consisted of a single wall over-looking a moat which extended from the sea to the harbour. The Dutch converted this harbour into a single fortress and built an impressive line of defense, solidly ringing the walled town. To this day, the foreboding old walls attract many tourists and the town has grown around the historical buildings, spreading its glory to the surrounding areas and has been proclaimed an Archaeological Reserve, identified as a living World Heritage Site. The city was unfortunately devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which destroyed infrastructure and the caused the loss of thousands of lives.
Sacred City of Anuradhapura
Located in the North Central Province, the sacred city of Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka renowned for its beautifully preserved ruins built by the early civilization of the country that were ruled by the great Sinhalese Kings. The vast heritage site is an impressive reminder of the civilization which was built upon Anuradhapura which was one of the greatest monastic civilizations of Asia and the world. They lived in one of the most stable and durable centres of political power and urban life in southeast Asia creating a wealthy city and unique culture.
Established in the 4th century BC, Anuradhapura rose to prominence with the arrival of Buddhism, becoming a centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and learning. Today the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and magic it possessed then can still be felt among visitors with the oldest archeological treasures in Sri Lanka. Worshippers still come to meditate here drawn to the Sri Maha Bodhi Bo-tree, grown from the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in Northern India. Many other monuments have been beautifully restored and stand majestically next to the grand tank built by an ancient King, attracting many domestic and international tourists
Sacred City of Kandy
Nestled amidst lush highlands of Sri Lanka, fortified by the terrain of mountains, lies the ancient royal city of Kandy. Today, the sacred city is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It was the capital of Sri Lanka’s last independent kingdom, surviving two centuries of colonial incursions by the Portuguese and the Dutch before falling to the British in 1815. The legacy of this proud tradition lives on today in the form of the city’s distinctive architecture, art and dance.
Kandy is home to the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha which is kept in a golden casket in the Sri Dalada Maligawa which is also known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The tooth relic is said to have been snatched from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled to Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess. It is of great spiritual significance and it set within the royal palace complex. Through out history, the relic has played an important role in local politics as it is believed that whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country which caused the ancient kings to protect it with great effort. The relic is taken around the city on the back of a majestic elephant during the Kandy Esala Perahera is a spectacular event that takes place in either July or August with a magnificent display of medieval pageantry.
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka – Natural
The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka is the newest natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country since Sinharaja Forest. The beautifully lush property compromises of the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. These montane rainforests reach an elevation of about 2,500 metres above sea level and are home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna including several endangered species. The forests are globally important as they provide a variety of precious habitats for endemic species such as the Horton Plains Slender Loris, the Bear Monkey and the Sri Lankan Leopard.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve – Natural
Saved from the worst of commercial logging by its inaccessibility and with a name that translates to Kingdom of the Lions, Sinharaja Forest is often referred to as the jewel of the last remaining virgin rainforest crown of Sri Lanka. Situated in the lowland wet zone of the country, it is a lush, hilly region of breathtakingly beautiful forest that covers an area of 8900 hectares. Due to its high bio-diversity and ecological importance, it has been declared a World Biosphere Reserve and is declared a natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Forest is a paradise of endemic species of fauna and flora, however due to the dense vegetation; wildlife is not as easily spotted as they are in dry zone national parks. Beautiful, crystal clear streams and waterfalls lace the thick foliage, surrounded by medicinal plants and valuable shrubs. Nature thrives in Sinharaja and any environmental enthusiast who visits will feel blessed to experience such richness of natural beauty and life.