For nine centuries, Anuradhapura was the capital and most important city of the Sri Lankan Kingdom, filled with glorious stupas, irrigation tanks and an incomparable religious life. Unfortunately, it was easily accessible and made a tempting target for armies from India. The city often fell into enemy hands and in 1056, King Vijayabahu decided to move to a more defensible location further inland. The age of Polonnaruwa had dawned.
Unlike Anuradhapura, whose period of glory spanned nearly a millennium, Polonnaruwa only remained capital of the island for about two centuries. So while the archaeological sites of the two cities are similar, Anuradhapura’s is far more extensive, ancient and atmospheric. But the ruins of Polonnaruwa are in better condition and confined to a more compact area, making them easier to see in a single day.
King Vijayabahu was succeeded on the throne by Parakramabahu the Great, who went on a building frenzy that transformed Polonnaruwa into one of the greatest cities of its day. He was followed by King Nissankamalla, who built new monuments and also set about claiming credit for Parakramabahu’s achievements by placing tablets around the city inscribed with his name. He was the third and final king of Polonnaruwa, which was abandoned to the forest around 1250. As was the case with Anuradhapura, the city wasn’t rediscovered until the arrival of the British.
The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa is truly impressive, but we didn’t enjoy our time there all that much. While Anuradhapura has a vibrant life of its own, Polonnaruwa basically exists for tourists. When the locals see you, dollar signs light up in their eyes. Upon our arrival, I swear I heard one shout “Ring-a-ding ding, payday!” We weren’t left alone from the moment we got off the bus. Literally: the instant our feet stepped off the bus onto concrete, we were set upon. It lasted throughout our four-day stay, and got very tiring.
But then, the touts wouldn’t exist if Polonnaruwa didn’t have so much to offer. There’s a good reason this city pops up on almost every itinerary through Sri Lanka. Once we got onto bikes and could quickly speed away from the sharks clamoring for our money, we had a great time.