The history of Polonnaruwa shines a dazzling light on the history of Sri Lanka. And ancient ruins and latter-day ageing rock-stars underscore why this World Heritage Site lies at the centre of our sacred cultural firmament.
In 1982, chart-topping British rock band Duran Duran came to this tropical island paradise to make their music video Save a Prayer, and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa formed a perfect backdrop.
In fact, ancient and modern coexist in perfect harmony in what was once not only Sri Lanka’s capital city, but also juxtaposed traditional Buddhist introspection with a far-sighted commitment to the science and technology of the day.
The city’s Golden Age began nearly 1,000 years ago in the reign of Parakramabahu I. Trade and agriculture flourished thanks to a magnificent system of irrigation and water management that even today is the backbone of the region’s staple rice production.
The Sea of Parakrama, an enormous man-made reservoir that encircles the city, was also a defensive moat that safeguarded the tombs and temples, statues and stupas that are the heart and soul of the ruins of Polonnaruwa.
Another major attraction are the toque macaque monkeys. For centuries, they lived and thrived in the city, and are now the stars of the film Disneynature’s Monkey Kingdom Polonnaruwa, which has proved a box-office hit worldwide.
Of the sacred monuments themselves, one of the most significant is the Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya temple and its two massive statues of the Buddha, one standing and the other reclining, which were carved into the living rock face.
A trip to Polonnaruwa would not be complete without seeing the Lankatilaka image house. Built by Parakramabahu and restored by Vijayabahu IV, this huge cathedral-like gedige has 56ft (17m) high walls, while the central aisle leads to a huge headless standing Buddha.
Also worth a visit is the Archaeological Museum, with rooms dedicated to particular themes, including the central citadel, the outer city, the monasteries and and Hindu monuments.
So, as Duran Duran’s Save a Prayer says: ‘You don’t have to dream it all—just live a day.’ And a day at Polonnaruwa will create living memories that will last a lifetime.