Spanning nearly three millennia, Sri Lanka’s history is rich in tales of victory and defeat, myths, legends, and stories written about the evolution of the Sinhalese civilization and the rise and fall of its ancient kingdoms. Today, the remnants of these once thriving cities give a glimpse of the glory and the epic events of a bygone era and the island nation’s unique history, spiritual heritage and traditional way of life.
And It All Begins…
Tucked away in the deep wilderness of Wilpattu National Park are the ruins of what is believed to have been the palace of Kuveni – the queen of the Yakka tribe. The legend goes that Prince Vijaya, the first of the Sinhalese race, sailed to the north-western shores of Sri Lanka with several hundred followers after being expelled from an Indian kingdom, and wed Kuveni to gain control over the Yakkas who inhabited the island nation at the time. After being crowned king however, Prince Vijaya banished Kuveni and took in marriage an Indian princess; and thus, began the story of the ancient Sinhalese Kingdoms.
Today, what remains of the palace are remnants of stone floors and a few stone pillars scattered around, blending in with the surrounding environs. The sounds of the forest and sights of an important piece of Sri Lankan history in front of you, will be sure to pique your interest in the legendary events this site once witnessed.
Driving away from the site, the white sand of the forest is gradually replaced by copper dust as you reach the shores of Kudiramalai beach. The dazzling blue ocean lining the coppery-red shore of Kudiramalai is definitely a sight to behold and would once have mystified Prince Vijaya, leading him to name the island Thambapanni, the copper coloured land.
A Rare Sight in the North
Located in the outskirts of the city of Kantarodai, Kadurugoda Viharaya (temple) houses the ruins of nearly 60 gray coral-stone stupas in varying sizes, which were discovered in the early 20th century. Scattered over half an acre of land, only about 20 stupas remain interspersed with the crumbling foundations of some others.
Being one of the very few Buddhist sites remaining in Jaffna today, this ancient site holds an important place in Sri Lanka’s history and Buddhist heritage. It is believed that this is the location where Lord Buddha preached a famous sermon during his second visit to Sri Lanka. It is also believed that years later when his disciple Sangamitta Thero arrived at Dambakolapatuna in Jaffna with a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi – the sacred fig tree under which Lord Budhda attained enlightenment – she visited this temple.
An Epic Encounter
Revered as the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Mihintale, translating into Mahinda’s Hill, is where Arahath Mahinda Thero confronted and converted then-king of the island nation – King Devanampiyatissa, leading to the spread of Buddhism throughout the country with state patronage. The legend has it that King Devanampiyatissa was hunting a stag at the summit of Mihintale when he was approached by Mahinda Thero, the son of the Great Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who tested the king’s wisdom and preached Buddhism, which was then embraced by the king himself and a majority of the Sinhalese.
When in Sri Lanka, visiting Mihintale is a must as it is an archaeological site like none other. The climb up the 1840 step stone stairway is an exciting one, passing beautiful shrines, rock caves, carvings and ruins leading up to the summit.
Centuries later, masses of devotees still flock to Mihintale every Poson Poya day (the full moon day in the month of June) to commemorate the introduction of Buddhism to the country, during which the city is transformed with Buddhist flags, lamps and colourful lanterns.
Home of the Buddhist Bikkhus
Of all the ancient cities in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is the most famed and the longest serving kingdom in the country. Established by King Pandhukabhaya in the 4th century, the kingdom flourished thereon and bore witness to some of the most significant historical events of the country.
Entering the ancient city, you will feel an overwhelming sense of calm and peace, as you see views of numerous ancient ruins and magnificent stupas rising high above the ground. Among the many remarkable archaeological sites in Anuradhapura, the colossal dagoba that is Abhayagiriya stands out, which was once home to 5000 Buddhist bikkhus (monks).
Built by King Valagamba amidst the light woodlands of Anuradhapura, the setting and the ruins of the monastery are extraordinary in every way. Considered as one of the greatest structures of the ancient world, Abhayagiriya is believed to have once stood over 100 metres tall and has been an important hub for Buddhism and artistic activity.
The Finest of Ancient Rock Carvings
Gal Viharaya translating into ‘rock temple’, is one of Sri Lanka’s most eminent Buddhist archaeological sites and an artistic masterpiece of the ancient Sinhalese civilization. Consisting of four fascinating cave shrines, this celebrated temple is in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Polonnaruwa.
Crafted during the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great, the four shrines – Cave of Vijjadhara, Excavated Cave, Cave of Standing Image and Cave of Reclining Image – house statues of different designs, intricately carved on solid granite. These larger than life portrayals of Lord Buddha which are deeply expressive and unique in architecture and sculpture, are a great testament to the unmatched skills of ancient craftsman of the island nation.
A Medieval Fortress
Located between the cities of Anuradhapura and Kurunegala is the Yapahuwa Rock Fortress, which is believed to have served as a royal palace and a shrine for the sacred relic of Lord Buddha during the 13th century. Built on a 90-metre-high rock, the most prominent feature of the fortress is its well-preserved ornamental stone stairway. Statues of elephants, makara thoran (dragon arches), goddesses and a pair of stone lions that flank the sides and an intricately carved doorway and windows at the top of the stairs are the exquisite work of skilled craftsmanship. Yapahuwa Rock Fortress is also home to a cave temple dating back to the same time and contains beautiful frescoes and images of Lord Buddha made from wood and bronze.
Take the road less travelled and visit Yapahuwa, as the combination of these magnificently crafted features, steep hike and breathtaking views from the top make it a worthy attraction to visit.
The Eighth Wonder of the World
The UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya, is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring historical sites in Sri Lanka. Towering 200 metres over the plains of Raja Rata (Kings’ Country), the rock fortress can be recognized from miles away due to its unique shape and the view from the top is breathtaking in all directions. It is believed that the name Sigiriya, translating into Lion Rock, is due to the gigantic lion statue constructed on the rock, of which only the paws remain today.
Initially a monastery, legend has it that King Kashyapa built the rock fortress and the royal palace to defend himself from his brother Prince Mogallana, who was the true heir to the throne. After his death however, it was abandoned and Sigiriya went back to being a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Today, what remains are the remnants of a ruined palace, surrounded by an extensive network of fortifications, vast gardens, ponds, canals, ramparts, and fountains. Two of the most striking features of Sigiriya are the Mirror Wall – painted with inscriptions and poems written by visitors from all corners of the world; and the frescos – a vast picture gallery filled with paintings of 500 female figures. Often topping the list of must-visit archeological sites in the country, the majestic Sigiriya is an unparalleled combination of arts, architecture and urban planning and is considered by many as the eighth wonder of the world.
Carved in Wood
Famous for its elaborate wood carvings, Embekke Dewale is a renowned shrine in the vicinity of the historic city of Kandy. Legend has it that Kataragama Deviyo (deity) appeared in the dreams of a drummer named ‘Rangama’ and King Wickramabahu III’s consort asking them to build a temple for him. And so, the King constructed a temple devoted to the worship of Kataragama Deviyo, consisting of a shrine room, a dancing hall and a drummers’ hall decorated with intricate woodcarvings on its pillars and roof.
Recognized by UNESCO as the most outstanding woodcarvings to be found anywhere in the world, the pillars consist of carvings of swans, lions, bulls, elephants, vines, dancers, mythical creatures and scenes depicting the legend surrounding Embekke Dewale.
Standing the Test of Time
Alongside the beaches of Pottuvil, is the ancient temple Muhudu Maha Viharaya, which according to legend is the place where Queen Vihara Maha Devi washed ashore after being cast into the sea from the western shores as sacrifice to dispel a curse. Although there have been interesting historical events surrounding this temple, today only the remnants of a pillared structure, a pond and the ruins of a dagoba can be seen. The site houses three well preserved intricate stone statues as well.
Believed to have been built over 2000 years ago by King Kavantissa of the Ruhunu Kingdom, Muhudu Maha Viharaya has stood the test of time, the onslaught of the colonizers and the civil war.
The Perfect Blend of Culture and Beach
Being a UNESCO World Heritage site, the historic city of Galle and the world-famous Galle Fort are a must to explore in Sri Lanka. Originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the fortress was completely rebuilt by the Dutch in the 18th century, after which it was used as their headquarters in the island.
Considered a living heritage site by many, the Galle Fort is protected by thick stone walls, with the endless azure Indian Ocean on the other side. This 300-year-old Dutch fort encompassing Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, rustic mansions, plenty of stylish cafes and quirky boutiques is a true delight, and a day wandering through its cobblestone streets is a must.
Wander through these historical sites and immerse yourself in the magnificence of a by gone era, which bears testament to the abounding history of the island, the sagas of its kings and queens, its rich heritage and long-lived traditions of arts and architecture.