The great cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, whose imposing monuments still serve as potent reminders of the golden age of Sinhalese civilization, were the centre of early Sinhalese civilization despite the unpromising natural surroundings. These northern plains, traditionally known as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land,” are now more popularly known as the Cultural Triangle.
Table of Contents
- Where is the Sri Lanka cultural trainagle?
- Three-quarter vision
- Kandy, the entry point of Sri Lanka cultural triangle
- Aluvuhare rock cave temple
- Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: Dambulla golden temple
- National park in the cultural triangle; Wasgamuwa National Park
- The main city of Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura
- The lifeblood of Sri Lanka cultural triangle: Ancient irrigation system
- Main contributors of massive ancient irrigation system
- The great kings of Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: King Dutugemunu
- Rise of King Dutugemunu
- Contribution of King Dutugemunu to Anuradhapura
- Resoration Cultural trinagle city Anuradhapura
- Reign of Subha and Yasalalakatissa
- Direction of Anuradhapura
- The Most Holy Precinct
- Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: Mihintale
- Trips to the Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka
Where is the Sri Lanka cultural trainagle?
The verdant, tangled hills of the central highlands drop away to the plains of the dry zone north of Kandy. This hot, barren area is dotted with solitary mountain outcrops that loom dramatically over the surrounding flatlands and covered with prickly shrubs and jungle. The great cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, whose imposing monuments still serve as potent reminders of the golden age of Sinhalese civilization, were the centre of early Sinhalese civilization despite the unpromising natural surroundings. These northern plains, traditionally known as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land,” are now more popularly known as the Cultural Triangle.
Since ancient times, the plains in northern Sri Lanka have been referred to as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land.” However, in modern times, this term has mostly faded, and the area is now known as the Cultural Triangle. The government made an effort to restore and market the region’s severely damaged sites for the modern tourism industry in the 1970s, possibly as a result of the “golden triangles” of Thailand and India, which is where the name came from. The great Sinhalese capitals of Kandy in the south, Anuradhapura in the north, and Polonnaruwa in the east are the three points of this imaginary triangle. However, this tourist-oriented invention actually presents a rather distorted sense of the region’s past, given that Kandy’s history is quite different and separate from the earlier capitals’, both chronologically and geographically.
Kandy, the entry point of Sri Lanka cultural triangle
Most tourists, who plans a Sri Lanka cultural triangle tour, starts their trip from Kandy travel directly north up the main route to Dambulla, Sigiriya, and beyond. But if you have your own vehicle, there are a number of worthwhile stops along the way. Two of these are located directly on the major highway: the magnificent small temple at Nalanda and the well-known monastery of Aluvihara.
Numerous spice gardens may also be seen all along the main road between Kandy and Dambulla. This region’s moderate climate, which is found halfway between Sri Lanka hill country and the coastal plains, makes it perfect for gardening. If you’ve ever wondered where the ingredients used in Sri Lankan cuisine are grown, now is the perfect time to do it. Although admission is usually free, you’ll be expected to pay sometimes for the opportunity to view the numerous plants and bushes, including some spices.
The great ruined city of Anuradhapura, which was the capital of the island from the third century BC to 993 AD and one of mediaeval Asia’s great metropolises, is located at the spiritual centre of the Triangle. It is home to numerous monasteries, ornate palaces, massive tanks, and three enormous dagobas, which were rivalled in size in antiquity only by the Egyptian pyramids. The ruins of Polonnaruwa, the second capital of the island, are smaller but just as fascinating, and few tourists pass up the opportunity to scale the magnificent rock citadel of Sigiriya, which is arguably the most remarkable tourist attraction in all of Sri Lanka. The magnificent cave temples of Dambulla, a mystical treasure trove of Buddhist art and painting, and the holy hub of Mihintale, the site of Buddhism’s entrance to the island, are two other top attractions.
The abandoned cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara, the enormous Buddha statues of Aukana and Sasseruwa, the captivating temples of Aluvihara and Ridi Vihara, and the eerie forest monasteries of Arankele and Ritigala are just a few of the fascinating but comparatively lesser-known ancient monuments that dot the Cultural Triangle. Additionally, the national parks of Minneriya, Kaudulla, and Wasgomuwa abound in natural attractions.
Aluvuhare rock cave temple
The main Kandy-Dambulla highway is directly near the Aluvihara monastery. The Tripitaka, also known as the “Three Baskets,” is the most significant collection of Theravada Buddhist texts, and despite its small size, it holds immense significance in the global history of Buddhism. It was written here for the first time. For the first five centuries of the religion’s history, the entire body of the Buddha’s teachings was simply passed down orally from generation to generation by memorization. However, in 80 BC, King Vattagamani Abhaya, who also built the great Abhayagiri monastery in Anuradhapura and the Dambulla cave temples, was concerned that the Tripitaka would be lost in the chaos brought about by repeated South Indian invasions. He established Aluvihara, staffing it with 500 monks who toiled for years to transcribe the Buddhist scriptures in the Pali language onto ola-leaf manuscripts. Sadly, despite having survived for almost two millennia, British troops nearly completely destroyed this ancient library in 1848 when they attacked the temple to put down a local revolt.
Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: Dambulla golden temple
The complex’s main feature is a series of cave temples connected by tiny passageways and flights of stairs that are nestled within a magnificent jumble of enormous rock outcrops. Steps lead up to the main level from the first temple, which houses a ten-meter-long sleeping Buddha. Inside, a second cave temple hides another large sleeping Buddha, along with a number of images and sculptures depicting the gory punishments that wrongdoers in Buddhist hell will face. This topic seems to have a ghoulish fascination for the otherwise peace-loving Sinhalese people. On the other hand, a similarly gory tableau vivant located in a different cave depicts the ruthless penalties administered by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the final monarch of Kandy.
Steps ascend past the second temple’s side to another cave temple behind it. This temple is dedicated to the illustrious Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa, who lived and worked in Anuradhapura in the fifth century AD (though there is no proof he ever visited Aluvihara) and wrote the most comprehensive set of Tripitaka commentaries. A statue of Vattagamani Abhaya standing in the cave’s corner offers the scholar an old-fashioned manuscript, and a magnificent golden Buddhaghosa image from Thailand keeps watch outside. At the very top of the complex, a dagoba and terrace provide excellent views over the hills and over to a massive new golden Buddha (also donated by Thailand) that surveys the entire complex from a hillside far above. From here, a final flight of steps leads up past a bo tree (which appears to be growing out of solid rock).
The International Buddhist Library and Museum is located just up the hill to the left of the temple complex. It contains a few odd items, one of which is a large, multivolume old ola-leaf copy of the Tripitaka. A local monk may also demonstrate the dying method of writing on ola-leaf parchment. To write on the leaf, one must first use a metal stylus to scratch out the words, then rub ink into it to make the words emerge visibly.
National park in the cultural triangle; Wasgamuwa National Park
With its remote location and two sizable rivers, the Amban Ganga and Mahaweli Ganga, enclosing it to the east and west and providing some protection, Wasgomuwa National Park is among the most pristine of all Sri Lanka’s reserves. The park spans the northeastern border of the hill country and varies in elevation along the Mahaweli Ganga from over 500 metres to just 76 metres. It is primarily made up of dry-zone evergreen forest on the hills and along the main rivers, with wide plains in the southeast and east. The park is home to up to 150 elephants, who are best viewed from November to May (and particularly from February to April). During other seasons, the elephants tend to migrate to the national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla. Additional wildlife includes buffalo, sloth bears, sambar and spotted deer, and occasionally glimpsed leopards and sloth bears. There are also about 150 different species of birds, many of which are indigenous.
The main city of Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura
The history of Sri Lanka was basically the history of ANURADHAPURA for a millennium and more. Located nearly in the middle of the northern plains of the island, the city gained significance at a very early stage of Sri Lanka’s development. Before Indian invaders finally destroyed it in 993, it held this position of dominance for more than a millennium. Anuradhapura is still a lovely site today. You might spend days or even weeks exploring the remains due to the enormous scope of the old metropolis that has collapsed and the thousands of years of history that are buried here.
Known as the core of temporal and spiritual authority for the island, Anuradhapura was one of the largest towns of its time. It was home to thousands of monks living in dozens of monasteries, making it one of the greatest monastic cities in history. The massive dagobas and temples built by the Anuradhapura monarchs, who supervised the golden age of Sinhalese civilization, rank among the greatest architectural achievements of all time, only exceeded in scale by the gigantic pyramids at Giza. The city became well-known in Greece and Rome, and based on the quantity of Roman coins discovered here, it seems that trade between the two cities was prosperous.
The lifeblood of Sri Lanka cultural triangle: Ancient irrigation system
Thousands upon thousands of artificial lakes, often called tanks or wewas (also spelt “vavas”), dot the map of Sri Lanka. Since the early capitals of Sri Lanka were located in the arid northern plains, securing a consistent supply of water for rice cultivation was a critical issue. Early Sri Lankan civilization was mostly agricultural. The climate in this region, which alternates between long stretches of drought and brief monsoonal floods, made irrigation—which involves storing water for the regular cultivation of wet fields—a crucial component of early Sinhalese civilization. Once perfected, irrigation managed to turn the island’s parched northern plains into a massive rice bowl that could sustain a growing population.
The oldest known instances of hydraulic engineering can be traced to the third century BC, during the early stages of Sinhalese settlement, when farmers started building dams on rivers to retain water in small community reservoirs. Later, when royal power grew, Sri Lanka’s kings got involved in irrigation projects. Meanwhile, Sinhalese engineers perfected a method that let water be held in tanks until it was needed, then released through sluice gates and sent along canals to far-off fields.
Main contributors of massive ancient irrigation system
The initial massive reservoirs were built during the reigns of Mahasena (274–301), who oversaw the construction of sixteen major tanks, including the Minneriya tank, and Dhatusena (455–473), who built the amazing Jaya Ganga canal, which is nearly 90 km long and has a gentle six-inch gradient per mile. The canal brought water from the massive Kalawewa to Anuradhapura, ultimately hastening the demise of that unfortunate king. During the reigns of Mogallana II (531–551), whose Padaviya tank in the northern Vavuniya district was the largest ever created in ancient Sri Lanka, and Aggabodhi II (604–614), who was in charge of the tank at Giritale among other works, other tanks and canals were erected.
Large-scale irrigation projects were built, and this contributed to the early Sinhalese civilization’s distinctiveness. However, maintaining these enormous hydraulic achievements required highly developed bureaucracy and expert engineering. In addition to extra vegetables and pulses, a second rice crop and larger population densities than would have been feasible otherwise were made possible by the gathered waters. Large-scale irrigation produced an abundance of agricultural produce, and the system’s taxes provided a significant source of income for the royal family. This allowed for the construction of massive domestic infrastructure projects as well as military expeditions abroad, which culminated in the reign of Parakramabahu I, the king of Polonnaruwa, who famously proclaimed that “not one drop of water must flow into the ocean without serving the purposes of man” and oversaw the construction of the enormous Parakrama Samudra, one of the last but finest examples of ancient Sinhalese irrigation.
The great kings of Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: King Dutugemunu
The semi-legendary Dutugemunu (reigned 161–137 BC) is the most revered of the approximately two hundred kings who ruled Sri Lanka over the course of millennia. He was a warrior prince and later a Buddhist king, and his unique combination of religious piety and anti-Tamil nationalism still serves as an inspiration to many Sinhalese even today.
Growing up, Dutugemunu lived under the forty-four-year rule of Elara, a Tamil general who had taken over Anuradhapura in 205 BC. Though they could have claimed token allegiance to Elara, a number of lesser kings and chiefs reigned over a large portion of the island that remained outside the purview of Anuradhapura. Of these subsidiary kings, Kavan Tissa—the spouse of the fabled Queen Viharamahadevi—was the most significant. With Kavan Tissa as his base, the city of Mahagama (modern-day Tissamaharama), he progressively conquered the entire southern region. The innately circumspect Kavan Tissa insisted that his eldest son and successor, Gemunu, vow loyalty to Elara in spite of his growing prominence. When Gemunu, then 12 years old, was asked to take this oath, he became enraged and threw his rice bowl from the table, declaring that he would sooner starve to death than pledge allegiance to a foreign overlord. He then sent his father articles of women’s clothing as a sign of his disdain for him, earning him the nickname Dutugemunu, or “Gemunu the Disobedient.”
Rise of King Dutugemunu
Following his father’s death, Dutugemunu assumed the throne. Dutugemunu raised an army and went to battle, armed with a spear that had a Buddhist relic embedded in its shaft and accompanied by a sizable contingent of Buddhist monks. This allowed him to position himself not only as a military leader but also as the leader of a kind of Buddhist jihad, after putting down an insurrection led by his brother Saddhatissa (a battle symbolised by the great dagoba at Yudaganawa). Dutugemunu’s campaign required a lot of work. He battled his way north for around fifteen years, overthrowing the series of smaller kingdoms that stood between Mahagama and Anuradhapura, until he was eventually able to confront Elara in Anuradhapura. Following a series of preliminaries skirmishes, Elara and Dutugemunu engaged in single combat while both astride their elephants. After a fierce struggle, Dutugemunu managed to spear Elara, who collapsed to the ground unconscious.
Contribution of King Dutugemunu to Anuradhapura
Elara was buried with full honours by Dutugemunu, who also ordered that anyone passing the defeated general’s tomb should dismount as a sign of respect. Interestingly, this order was reportedly still followed in the early eighteenth century, or around two thousand years later, even though it’s unclear where Elara’s tomb is today. After completing his conquest, the new monarch started a massive construction project in Anuradhapura, which included the magnificent Ruvanvalisaya dagoba, which Dutugemunu himself did not survive to see completed. From his deathbed, he is reported to have gazed upon the incomplete building and uttered the words, “In the past…I fought; now, by myself, I begin my final struggle – with death, and it is not allowed for me to triumph over my adversary.”
Dutugemunu is considered one of Sri Lanka’s greatest heroes (at least among the Sinhalese) for his leadership in driving out the Tamils and uniting the island under Sinhalese control for the first time. Nevertheless, despite his achievements, the tenuous unity he left behind after his death was soon overthrown by less capable rulers, and within 35 years, South Indian invaders had once again taken control of northern Sri Lanka.
Resoration Cultural trinagle city Anuradhapura
With the exception of the communities of reticent monks and keepers of the sacred bo tree who remained to live here, Anuradhapura was reclaimed by the jungle after the great northern Sinhalese civilisation collapsed and was virtually forgotten by the outside world. Anuradhapura was “rediscovered” by the British in the nineteenth century, and it became the provincial capital in 1833. From that point on, the city gradually rose from the ashes. To the east of the Sacred Precinct, the sizable Anuradhapura New Town has been growing since the 1950s, and a massive UNESCO plan was launched in 1980 with the aim of fully restoring the ancient city. For the Buddhist Sinhalese, who view the restoration of Anuradhapura’s huge dagobas and other monuments from the jungle after more than a millennium as a potent symbol of national identity and rebirth, the programme, which is still ongoing today, has taken on significant national significance.
Reign of Subha and Yasalalakatissa
The pious and charitable displays of the ancient Anuradhapuran rulers were highly valued, despite the fact that they frequently fell short of the principles they professed to uphold. One of the most well-known accounts of the murky nature of Anuradhapuran royalty is the tale of King Yasalalakatissa (r. 52–60), who usurped the throne by killing his brother. A weakness of Yasalalakatissa’s was practical pranks. He exchanged clothing with Subha, a royal gatekeeper, after realising how much they resembled each other. This allowed him to witness the island’s nobility honouring a humble servant. Yasalalakatissa found this so hilarious that he had it repeated multiple times. Eventually, Subha, assuming the role of a king, gave the order to execute his “gatekeeper” due to his impertinence. When Yasalalakatissa asserted that he was the true king, many disregarded him, and he was soon killed. It speaks something about the twisted ideals of the Anuradhapuran monarchy that Subha was permitted to continue ruling for an additional six years after his deceit was exposed before he too was slain.
Direction of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is divided into two separate areas: the Sacred Precinct to the west, which is the location of the ancient city, and Anuradhapura New Town, which is home to practically all of the town’s lodging and practical services. Three large man-made lakes, often known as tanks, encircle the town: Nuwara Wewa to the east, Tissa Wewa, and Basawakkulama Tank to the west. Main Street, which divides the New Town in half, is home to the post office, banks, and other businesses. Accommodations in Anuradhapura are mainly located on or close to Harischandra Mawatha, east of this location.
The Most Holy Precinct
There are many, possibly perplexing, monuments and ruins scattered across Anuradhapura. The Sacred Precinct is best understood in terms of its three major monasteries: Jetavana, Abhayagiri, and Mahavihara. Approximately two thirds of the significant sites are part of one of these complexes.
The Mahavihara, the historical and physical hub of the ancient city, is the most apparent location to start. From the Ruvanvalisaya dagoba, walk south to Sri Maha Bodhi, then make a double back towards the Thuparama. From here, you can travel north to the Abhayagiri complex or east to the Jetavana Monastery.
Other significant sight clusters are located south of the Mahavihara, between the Mirisavetiya dagoba and Isurumuniya Temple, and at the Citadel, between the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri monastery. The main dagobas serve as helpful landmarks in case you become lost; however, take caution not to confuse the Ruvanvalisaya and Mirisavetiya dagobas, as they may appear quite alike from afar.
Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: Mihintale
Twelve kilometres east of Anuradhapura, MIHINTALE is well-known for being the site of Buddhism’s introduction to Sri Lanka. Duwe to its historical importance it is inluded in Sri Lanka tour packages to thecultural triangle.
According to legend, Devanampiya Tissa, the 250–210 BC Sinhalese monarch of Anuradhapura, went hunting in the Mihintale highlands in 247 BC. As he followed a stag to the summit of a hill, he was met by Mahinda, the son (or maybe brother) of India’s greatest Buddhist ruler Ashoka, who had been sent to convert Sri Lankans to his faith. Mahinda offered his renowned mango riddle as a means of first gauging the king’s intelligence and determining whether or not he was ready to receive the Buddha’s teachings:
“O king, what name does this tree bear?”
“We call this tree a mango tree.”
Is this mango the only one available?”
There are a lot of mango trees.
Apart from this mango and the other mangoes, are there any other trees?”
“Sir, there are a lot of trees, but those aren’t mangoes.”
And are there any other trees in addition to the other mangoes and the non-mango trees?”
“Sir, look at this mango tree.”
After demonstrating the king’s cunning with this tiresome demonstration of tree-headed reasoning, Mahinda continued to explain the Buddha’s teachings, swiftly (according to the Mahavamsa) converting the king and his forty thousand attendants. A royal park in Anuradhapura, which later became the centre of the Mahavihara, was bestowed upon Mahinda and his supporters by the grateful monarch. Additionally, Mihintale—a Buddhist center—became significant as well. The term Mahinda tale is a contraction of “Mahinda’s hill.” Thousands of white-robed pilgrims gather in Mihintale during Poson Poya (June), a celebration honouring Mahinda’s introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, despite the fact that Mihintale is barely more than a sizable village nowadays.
When compared to the ruins and dagobas at Anuradhapura, the ruins and dagobas of Mihintale are not as impressive, but the surrounding area is stunning, featuring rocky hills connected by exquisite ancient stone staircases shaded by frangipani trees. Though you can bypass the first flight by driving up the Old Road to the Dana Salawa level, Mihintale can be exhausting due to its 1850 stairs, which you must climb virtually all of if you want to see everything. To avoid having to climb the stairs during the hottest part of the day, it’s a good idea to visit in the early morning or late afternoon.
Trips to the Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka cultural triangle is part of most Sri Lanka trip packages. The trips to the cultural triangle is available as Sri Lanka one day tour or part of Sri Lanka multi-day tours such as Sri Lanka 3 days tour, Sri Lanka 4 day tour or Sri Lanka 7-day tour package.