Though most of it is ruins, Polonnaruwa is very much alive with an all-pervasive sense of devotion.
ELOQUENT EXPRESSIONS IN STONE: The Vatadge. PHOTOS: SHONAR JOSHI
WHAT Hampi is to India, Polonnaruwa is to Sri Lanka. It falls under the Cultural Triangle circuit and is one of the famed ancient cities in the country. What makes it interesting from the Indian perspective is that it was once a royal capital for both Indian as well as Sinhalese kings and one can, at times, see traces of the influence of one on the other. The South Indian Chola kings and the Sinhalese Vijayabahu I, King Parakramabahu I and King Nissankamalla were largely responsible for its architectural achievements. Parakramabahu was a great tank builder and lived by his theory of "not allowing even a drop of rainwater to flow to the ocean without being used by man".
Today, what may look like decrepit ruins and boulders strewn across, are, on closer inspection, the remnants of some wonderful monuments and buildings of the past stupas, chapter houses, image houses, bodhi tree shrines. Sculptures and mutilated statues give testimony to the time that was and one can almost sense a smile of victory, having stood their ground through the centuries. Undoubtedly, the Sri Lankan government has taken pains to preserve this cherished part of their history.
A sense of the place
It is perhaps best to start with a tour of the Museum and Information Centre as it gives a clear idea of the entire layout. The notes by the side of all the photographs are immensely helpful and the impressive museum has been designed keeping international standards in mind. Some exceptional Hindu sculptures are also exhibited, like the Sivakamasundari, Sundaramurthy Swami, Siva Natraja and a Ganesha. By the side of the museum is the Nissankamalla Palace area, where it is the Council Chamber which takes predominance. Beautifully located by the side of a lake, there is a single lion on one end of the platform, which was used as the king's throne, while the pillars by the side denote the seating arrangement of the members of the council. Given the right light, this is perhaps one of the most photogenic spots in Polonnaruwa.
It was evident that the best way to explore Polonnaruwa would be by bicycle. The layout is fairly straightforward, with most of the structures strewn in a single complex going south to north. If you are armed with a map and a guidebook, it would be a lovely day of exploration and discovery, without the pressure of group timings and guides hawking their knowledge. To make things simpler, the signboards are exceptionally well done and strategically placed, which makes sure you never go off track for too long.
Making it easy
For the sake of convenience, one can divide the ruins into distinct groups the Royal Palace group, the Quadrangle, the Northern and the Southern group.
In the Royal Palace group are the remains of Parakramabahu's time. The palace was said to be seven storeys high with one thousand chambers but what one finds today are massive brick walls with gaps meant to hold the beam-ends. A short distance away is another Council Chamber with a notable frieze of elephants running all around, as well as lions and horse figures carved in relief. The third and last component of this group is the Royal Bath, Kumara Pokuna, elegantly constructed with a lotus motif in the centre and makara-mouthed spouts through which the water was released into the pool.
In the Quadrangle, there are half a dozen monuments on a raised platform bounded by a wall, all of which are of considerable importance both architecturally, as well as historically. The Thuparama is a gedige or a vaulted shrine which supposedly reached its perfection in Polonnaruwa. It is said to belong to Vijayabahu's time (1055-1110) and is the oldest of the image houses. There is a strong influence of Dravidian architecture and although it is quite dark within, one can make out several Buddha images seated in the chamber.
Centrally positioned is the grand Vatadage or Relic House. The stupa is surrounded by four seated Buddhas, looking outwards and encircled by concentric rows of pillars which may have once held the roof. One of the finest moonstones leads up to the inner area while floral motifs and elegantly crafted guard stones stand all around the circular structure. It is decidedly one of the most impressive monuments in this group.
The Atadage was where the Tooth relic and the Bowl relic were housed. It was two-storeyed and while the relics were on the upper floor, the lower was used as an image house. There are inscriptions present in the Tamil Grantha script.
The Hatadage is a larger version of the earlier Temple of Tooth and was built by Nissankamalla. On one side of the complex is the Stone Book or Gal Pota. This is an enormous stone-book inscription measuring 613 cm long and 140 cm wide and was brought from Mihintale, a site close to Anuradhapura, the largest of Sri Lanka's ancient cities. The inscription speaks about the king's lineage, wars in south India and also the building of the Nissankesvara temple in Rameswaram.
Of the two unusual structures here, one is the Nissankalata Mandapa where the king is said to have sat and heard the chanting of Buddhist texts. There is a latticed stone fence running around a small stupa-like structure. Also within the enclosure are short pillars with capitals that resemble unopened lotus buds. The other unusual structure is the Satmahal Prasada or the seven-storeyed edifice. It is pyramidal in form and said to have been influenced by an 8th century monument in Thailand called Vat Kukut.
The Chola presence
Travelling northwards from the Quadrangle, you will pass a few other structures before coming to the next big group. The Shiva Devale No.1 and 2 are, as you may have guessed, Hindu constructions built entirely of stone. The second shrine was built as a memorial to the queen of the Chola king Rajaraja I and has within it a lingam, guarded outside by a nandi. One also comes across the Pabula Vihara which is considered the third largest stupa in Polonnaruwa.
The Northern group is essentially a monastery area and the ruins are quite spread out. The area between one structure and the next is interspersed with lush greenery and one can spot some wonderful bird life as well.
The largest stupa of this ancient city is the Rankot Vihara, which stands at 55m high. It is surrounded by a terrace for circumambulation. While the dagobas in Anuradhapura have been painted white, Rankot has been left in its original form, with the bricks lending it immense atmosphere. There is a monk's hospital by the side from where surgical instruments were recovered and interestingly found to resemble the ones in use today.
Lankatilaka is a very impressive structure with 17m high walls. There is a colossal Buddha (albeit headless) who would have once measured 41 feet in height. The exterior is decorated with stucco figures and bas-reliefs, one of which is extremely graceful despite its mutilated state.
The Kiri Vihara is a literal translation of "milk white" which is how it looked when, after 700 years of being lost under thick woods, the dagoba was discovered with its original lime plaster still intact.
The best specimen of Sinhalese sculpture and rock carving can be seen at the Gal Vihara. There are four images of the Buddha, three of which are spectacular. The standing Buddha with a sombre expression is seven metre tall while the reclining figure by its side is 14 metre long. There is a dent in the stone pillow under the Buddha's head and the folds of his robe are subtly chiselled. The grain of the stone is splendid and each of the four images were at one time enshrined separately.
Finally, as one moves to the extreme north, there is first the beautiful Lotus Pond standing in the middle of a jungle and then the last of the structures the Tivanka Image House, where one finds the Buddha in an unusual "thrice-bent" position: bent at the knees, waist and shoulders and seen more often in female figures, specially in India. While there are sculptures carved outside, inside there are frescoes which have been preserved to some extent.
There are only two structures in the Southern group which are of interest the Potgul Vihara which was perhaps used to store books and the statue which represents either a king or a saint, a subject still debated. It's a very beautiful figure of a man holding a manuscript of sorts. Many take it to be a representation of Indian saint and teacher Agastya while others take it to be King Parakramabahu I.
This essentially ends the tour of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Done over the course of a day, it is a wonderful revelation and trip back in time and although much of what existed is left to the imagination, what remains is still alive, very much pulsating with powerful ideas and a sense of devotion.
Polonnaruwa is connected to Colombo by road and rail. It falls under the Cultural Triangle and thus tickets can be purchased either for Polonnaruwa alone or for the entire circuit.
Once you enter the site and have the ticket checked, you cannot return the following day on the same ticket and must buy a new one. This is why it is advisable to start early specially if one is using cycles.
There is plenty of mid range accommodation in the old town and it is best to go there and see what is available. Cycles can be hired almost at every guesthouse.
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