A battle of two cities: Anuradhapura vs Polonnaruwa

Many visitors to Sri Lanka only have time to take in either Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. Luckily for us, with the luxury of a whole month to explore Sri Lanka we were able to take in both. In our opinion, Polo would win hands down in a battle between the two ancient capitals. So, if you only have time to visit one, we’d recommend choosing Polo. Here’s why.

  1. Its melange of Hindu and Sinhalese relics
    Due to its turbulent past that saw it become Sri Lanka’s second capital after Anuradhapura was plundered and then abandoned by south Indian invaders in 993 AD, the World Heritage site of Polo is home to as stunning mix of Indian and Sinhalese architecture. When Chola forces descended on the city, they made it the seat of their Hindu reign and set about making their mark. Following its re-capture by the Singhalese in 1056, a so-called golden age of Polonnaruwa ensued that saw three successive kings (Vijayabahu, Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla) add to the architectural splendour that we see today. Despite encountering further attacks from South Indians and a period of anarchy (both of which left it ruined and ultimately consumed by the jungle where it lay forgotten for seven centuries), the ruins far outweigh those of Anuradhapura – both in terms of architectural variety and condition.
    Siva Devalaya
  2. It is easy to get around
    Compared to Anuradhapura, Polo is a contained site; the entire complex is situated within a fenced off area that you can easily cycle/tuk-tuk around in one morning or afternoon. If you prefer a more leisurely pace and enjoy strolling with the sun on your backs, then you could even consider walking the sites. It would likely take you a full, warm (!) day to see the main sites.
  3. It is very well preserved
    While we’re no archaeological experts, we felt that Polo’s sites were in far better condition than Anuradhapura’s. This is likely due to a combination of their relative youth (they are newer than those of Anuradhapura), luck (perhaps the jungle protected them from the elements) and better management/maintenance (it seems the £30 per person entry fee is indeed going towards preserving the sites for future generations). For those of us blessed with limited imagination, this is definitely a plus!Polonnaruwa
  4. Its museum is open for visits
    Unlike in Anuradhapura, where you have to buy a ticket for the museum even though said museum was (as of August 2017) closed for renovation, you can actually visit Polo’s museum. It is actually quite an informative museum. It offers a quick summary of the city’s history and summarises the sites you’ll see – with models of how they might have looked in their heyday – and also houses some pots, jewellery and statues uncovered during restoration.Remnants of a statue at Polonnaruwa
  5. You might even catch a glimpse of a wild elephant
    When driving back from the sites in the afternoon, our eagled-eyed tuk-tuk driver suddenly stopped the vehicle and pointed to the lake. Visible to the naked eye were not one, but two, wild elephants drinking in the mid-afternoon sun. Polo’s proximity to Wilpattu National Park means this is a not uncommon occurrence.

If you do decide to go, these are just a few of the delights that await you:

  • Royal Palace complex: originally a seven-story building (only three are visible today), the palace apparently contained 1000 rooms. We’re unconvinced, as its actual footprint could not possibly accommodate that many rooms – even if they were only broom closets! Some beautiful details of the original building remain; we particularly enjoyed learning about the intricate edging of the walls, so designed to prevent snakes from slithering into the complex. Ingenious. A stunning council chamber is also visible, complete with well-preserved pillars representing the various ministries of the Kingdom.
  • Moonstones: placed outside Buddhist temples and other buildings of importance, these are a unique feature of Singhalese architecture that were especially popular during the Anuradhapurian period. A semi-circular stone featuring carvings of a half lotus, a procession of swans, and rows of elephants, lions, horses, and bulls (symbolising the four stages in life: growth, energy, power and forbearance), some maintain that these were the doormats of ancient times.
  • Quadrangle: this complex contains some of the most magnificent buildings and structures of Polo, including: Satmahal Prasada (a six-storied, stepped pyramid construction with a rare carving of a human dwarf) and Gal Pota (a 25 tonne giant slab of granite covered in script praising the works of King Nissankamalla).

Buddhist temple

  • Lankatilaka: a brick building whose outer walls are covered in elaborate designs and carvings and whose interior houses a 12m high Buddha statue.


  • Gal Vihara: a rock temple containing four images of Buddha, each carved out of a single slab of granite.

Gol Vihara

  • Thivanka Image House: still being restored and thus scaffolding-clad, this is one of the most notable edifices in Polo. Once covered in frescos depicting the previous incarnations of Buddha before enlightenment, the dancing dwarves and animals that adorn the building do not fail to impress.

And here are a few top tips:

  1. Take a thick pair of socks with you. As at Anuradhapura, you have to remove your shoes before entering each and every temple/complex and by 10am the ground is absolutely baking.
  2. If you’re in a hurry and on a bit more of a flexible budget, then hire a tuk-tuk to take you around the sites. Bike hire is LKR 400/- per person or a tuk-tuk is LKR 1000/- total.
  3. Don’t leave your belongings (even bottles of water) in the tuk-tuk while you’re visiting temples as mischievous monkeys will eat anything they find!
  4. Start sightseeing early in the morning (it’s cooler) and start at the end of the complex first. This way you’ll encounter fewer people and should avoid the coachloads of tourists that descend on the city as the day goes on.