The great ruined capital of POLONNARUWA is one of the undisputed highlights of the Cultural Triangle – and indeed the whole island. The heyday of the city, in the twelfth century, represented one of the high watermarks of early Sri Lankan civilization. The Chola invaders from South India had been repulsed by Vijayabahu and the Sinhalese kingdom he established at Polonnaruwa enjoyed a brief century of magnificence under his successors Parakramabahu and Nissanka Malla, who planned the city as a grand statement of imperial pomp, transforming it briefly into one of the great urban centers of South Asia before their own hubris and excess virtually bankrupted the state. Within a century, their enfeebled successors had been driven south by new waves of invaders from southern India, and Polonnaruwa had been abandoned to the jungle, where it remained, unreclaimed and virtually unknown, for seven centuries.
Polonnaruwa’s extensive and well-preserved remains offer a fascinating snapshot of medieval Sri Lanka and are compact enough to be thoroughly explored in a single (albeit busy) day. Remains aside, Polonnaruwa is also a good jumping-off point for the national parks at Minneriya and Kaudulla.
The history of Polonnaruwa stretches far back into the Anuradhapura period. The region first came to prominence in the third century AD, when the creation of the Minneriya Tank boosted the district’s agricultural importance, while the emergence of Gokana (modern Trincomalee) as the island’s major port for overseas trade later helped Polonnaruwa develop into an important local commercial centre. As Anuradhapura fell victim to interminable invasions from India, Polonnaruwa’s strategic advantages became increasingly apparent. Its greater distance from India made it less vulnerable to attack and gave it easier access to the important southern provinces of Ruhunu, while it also controlled several crossings of the Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka’s longest and most important river. Such were the town’s advantages that four rather obscure kings actually chose to reign from Polonnaruwa rather than Anuradhapura, starting with Aggabodhi IV (667–683).
Throughout the anarchic later Anuradhapura era, Polonnaruwa held out against both Indian and rebel Sinhalese attacks until it was finally captured by Rajaraja, king of the Tamil Cholas, following the final sack of Anuradhapura in 993. Rajaraja made it the capital of his short-lived Hindu kingdom, but in 1056 the city was recaptured by the Sinhalese king Vijayabahu (1055–1110), who retained it as the new Sinhalese capital in preference to Anuradhapura, which had been largely destroyed in the earlier fighting. Vijayabahu’s accession to the throne ushered in Polonnaruwa’s golden age, although most of the buildings date from the reign of Vijayabahu’s successor Parakramabahu, reigned 1153–86. Parakramabahu developed the city on a lavish scale, importing architects and engineers from India whose influence can be seen in Polonnaruwa’s many Hindu shrines. Indian influence continued with Parakramabahu’s successor, Nissanka Malla, reigned 1187–96, a Tamil from the Kalinga dynasty and the last king of Polonnaruwa to enjoy any measure of island wide power.
Nissankamalla’s death ushered in a period of chaos. Opposing Tamil and Sinhalese factions battled for control of the city – the next eighteen years saw twelve changes of ruler – while at least four invasions from India threatened the stability of the island at large. This era of anarchy culminated with the seizure of the increasingly enfeebled kingdom by the notorious Tamil mercenary Magha (1215–55). Under Magha the monasteries were pillaged and onerous taxes imposed, while his soldiers roamed the kingdom unchecked and the region’s great irrigation works fell into disrepair, leading to a decline in agricultural produce and a rise in malaria. Although Magha was finally driven out of Polonnaruwa in 1255, the damage he had inflicted proved irreversible, and Polonnaruwa was finally abandoned in 1293, when Bhuvanekabahu II moved the capital to Kurunegala. The city was left to be swallowed up by the jungle, until restoration work began in the mid-twentieth century.