The ruined cities of Sri Lanka take the visitor back through many centuries during which a unique civilization flourished. Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa, extending from the 3rd Century BC to the 12th Century AD record a grandeur unsurpassed.
The gentle sway of Buddhism which, transformed the Indo-Aryan Sinhalese has produced magnificent feats of architecture and construction. In the massive dagobas, the ornate pleasure gardens and palaces and the exquisite sculpture which abounds, particularly at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
The Ruvanveliseya. Abhayagiriya, Jetawanaramaya, Thuparama all at Anuradhapura are dagobas which are still venerated by the Buddhists. Well preserved and restored these grand Buddhist shrines of the past reveal the past glory of a city which in its heyday, exceeded in size some of the largest cities of the modern world.
The Samadhi statue of the seated, meditating Buddha, the intricately sculpted guardstones and moonstones speak of a standard of sculpture and artistry which is unmatched up to this day.
Polonnaruwa, shows the interesting blend of the influence of South Indian Hindu culture on the Sinhala Buddhist art and architecture. The Shiva Devales are interesting transposition of the Hindu style of decor. The Gal Vihare complex, of the seated. standing and reclining Buddha sculpted in granite is one of the most evocative pieces of the sculptors art anywhere. The Lankatilleke Viharaya shows a unique style of brickwork architecture while the Tivanka image house has some of the best examples of Buddhist frescoes of the 11 th Century.
The Vatadage complex of temples, with the Temple of the Tooth Relic and the Nissanka Lata Mandapaya all show the heights of stone craft and artistry which prevailed in this period of Lanka’s history.
Sigiriya was an interregnum of great excitement. Built by Kasyapa who killed his father to gain his wealth, this literal fortress in the sky, is a masterpiece of construction, artistry and irrigation. It was a resort of pleasure, a citadel of beauty and fortress of strength. Sigiriya has been made famous throughout the world for the frescoes on its rock wall. The Heavenly Maidens, preserved as part of the world’s artistic heritage. While the frescoes are certainly captivating, there is much more to see and discover at Sigiriya, which was later a monastery and also has some links to very early Christianity in Sri Lanka.
Dambulla or the Golden Rock is a cave temple which dates back to the 1 st Century BC. Its rock ceiling is one large sweep of colourful frescoes which depict Buddhist mythology and the tales of the Buddha’s previous births. Within the cave temple is the collection of the largest number of Buddha statues in one place.
One of the most important places of worship at Anuradhapura is The Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest historically documented tree in the world, dating back to over 2000 years with clear documentation.
This Bodhi Tree (Ficus Religiosa) has been grown from the same tree under which the Siddhartha Gautama. meditated until he attained enlightenment and Buddhahood more than 2500 years ago, at Buddhagaya in India.
The sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi was brought to Sri Lanka as a gift from the Emperor Asoka of Ili1dia, shortly after the introduction of Buddhism to the country by the Arahat Mahinda, the son of Asoka. The person chosen to bring the bodhi sapling was Sangamittha, the daughter of Asoka.
Through the centuries the Sri Maha Bodhi has been venerated by Buddhists in Sri Lanka and the world over. Successive kings have taken steps to protect it, as seen by the several retaining walls around it. Today it is looked after as a national treasure by botanists, specially appointed by the government. The gilded fence around it, known as the Ran Veta, is a recent offering made through public contribution.
Devotees make many offerings to the Sri Maha Bodhi. The most common are the prayer flags which are hung on its branches.
Sri Lanka’s ancient cities are also the centres of the irrigation works of the past. Massive reservoirs built to collect rain water, river diversions, giant aqueducts and miles long irrigation channels are proof of a civilization highly developed in the science of irrigation, hydraulics and water management.
Most of these ancient irrigation works such as the Tissa Wewa, Basawakkulama and Nuwara Wewa at Anuradhapura; the massive Parakrama Samudhra or Sea of Parakrama, Giritale and Minneriya in the Polonnaruwa region, the Kalawewa and Balaluwewa still provide water to irrigate the rice fields of the rice farmers of the dry zone in Sri Lanka.