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The Ruins of Polonnaruwa, Part II

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Exhausted from a morning spent exploring Polonnaruwa’s massive archaeological site, we sat down for a much-needed break. I leafed through our guide book, and took a big gulp. We had already seen a lot, but weren’t even midway through. And the ruins which remained threatened to be even more amazing.

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After passing the Rankot Vihara, a large but slightly misshapen stupa just south of the Buddha Seema Pasada, we headed east on a side road to arrive at the Shiva Devale #2. This is the oldest structure in the city, and looks it. Built during a brief period of Indian dominance in Polonnaruwa, the small round temple dedicated to Hindu’s “destroyer of evil” is totally out-of-place in the otherwise Buddhist city. Nearby is the more typical Pabalu Vihara, another brick dagoba tucked away in a pleasant little clearing, built under the order of the Queen.


We now skipped to the southern end of the ancient city to visit the citadel, which was King Parakramabahu’s palace. Along with the palace remains were administrative buildings protected by a heavy, meter-thick rampart. A guard told us that the palace itself had been seven stories high, with a thousand rooms — though this was almost certainly a bit of patriotic hyperbole. The royal bath is the most impressive remaining feature.

Citadel Pool

Having saved the best for last, we biked to the raised square platform of the Quadrangle. The most impressive building here is the Vatadage, which is a 12th century circular temple considered by many to be the greatest of Sri Lanka’s ancient artistic treasures. The first of the Vatadage’s round terraces is completely covered in decoration: lions, midgets, lotus leaves, and a long inscription giving credit for the building to the crafty King Nissankamalla (it was actually constructed during Parakramabahu’s reign). A second platform includes beautiful guardstones and stone steps which lead to the remains of a small dagoba.


Next the Vatadage, we found the Gal Pota, or stone book, which was another of Nissankamalla’s egotistical tricks. This giant block was brought from Mihintale, polished and inscribed with a breathless catalog of the King’s wondrous achievements (most of them probably false). We also saw the Hatadage, which served as Temple of the Tooth while Polonnaruwa was capital. Then, a strange six-storied temple called the Satmahal Prasada, which doesn’t fit in at all with Sri Lanka’s Buddhist architecture, and is thought to have been the work of Malaysian architects.


All that was just on the eastern half of the Quadrangle. By the time we made it to the western half, we were running low on energy and enthusiasm, and paid short shrift to ruins like the Lotus Mandapa with its oddly bent columns. We spent 0.38 seconds admiring a life-size statue of Vijayabahu, and darted in and out of the Thuparama, which is the only image house in Polonnaruwa that still has its original roof.

Take a look at the first part of our exploration of the ancient city, and then tell me that this wasn’t a lot to see in a single outing! We had four full days in Polonnaruwa and would have loved to split up the sight-seeing, but (insanely) the tickets were only valid for one day. It would have cost us another $50 to see the monuments at a more human pace. No way.

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April 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm Comment (1)

The Kandyan Kingdom and Robert Knox

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For hundreds of years, the stubborn Kandyan Kingdom proved a thorn in the side of conquest-happy European powers. Isolated, unassailable and mysterious, the kingdom remained the only independent region of Sri Lanka until finally falling to the British in 1817.

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When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, in 1505, the island was ruled by a number of independent kingdoms. None of them had any hope of matching the Europeans’ naval power, and almost all fell quickly. Jaffna, Colombo, Trincomalee, Galle… the coastal regions were soon under Portuguese control. Suddenly, the treacherous jungle and impossible mountains of Kandy, which had always encumbered commerce and life, proved to be an invaluable asset, guaranteeing independence.

Only a couple paths led through the jungle to Kandy and the natives were able to keep these routes secret. Revealing one of the paths to a foreigner was an offense punishable by death. And given the mountainous landscape, the roads were easily defensible; even if a invading patrol were to find the right trail, they would be routed long before arriving.

Portuguese, Dutch, English, all flailed against the airtight defense of the mountain kingdom. Throughout the colonial period, the Kandyans proved to be feisty negotiating partners, frequently siding with one power against another, then gleefully breaking treaties as the whim took them. The first Dutch diplomatic mission to Kandy ended in a bloody farce, when the king, offended by the foreigners’ drunken and unruly behavior, ordered them killed.

Due to its isolation, relatively little is known about life inside the Kandyan Kingdom. The most important source for information comes from an Englishman named Robert Knox, who was captured by the Kandyans. Knox lived for nineteen years as a prisoner in the kingdom. As time wore on, he gained a fair degree of autonomy, and was able to wander about at will — the few routes which led to escape were heavily guarded.

Eventually, the resourceful Knox (thought to be the real-life model for Robinson Crusoe) did escape, and wrote a long account of his time on Ceylon. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon dedicates most of its pages to a description of life in the Kingdom of Kandy. In the bawdiest bits, Knox, a straight-laced puritan, describes his shock at the overt sexual practices of the islanders, such as polygamy and incest. If you’re interested, the book is available for free Kindle Download at Amazon.

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February 20, 2012 at 5:18 am Comments (4)
The Ruins of Polonnaruwa, Part II Exhausted from a morning spent exploring Polonnaruwa's massive archaeological site, we sat down for a much-needed break. I leafed through our guide book, and took a big gulp. We had already seen a lot, but weren't even midway through. And the ruins which remained threatened to be even more amazing.
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