I mount a silver vintage 1930s Singer bike to explore Polonnaruwa, a surreal awe-inspiring ancient city in the dry zone where troops of Toque monkeys have taken over the once thriving kingdom. An extraordinary ruined city, a hot spot for curious travellers, like many visitors I want to learn more about this highly advanced hydraulic [...]


In awe of Polonnaruwa

In her fortnightly travel series Juliet Coombe takes a walk among the ruins of a great civilization that can still shed light on modern life

Reclining Buddha: Serenity in stone

I mount a silver vintage 1930s Singer bike to explore Polonnaruwa, a surreal awe-inspiring ancient city in the dry zone where troops of Toque monkeys have taken over the once thriving kingdom. An extraordinary ruined city, a hot spot for curious travellers, like many visitors I want to learn more about this highly advanced hydraulic civilisation still operating and feeding the surrounding paddy fields.

Polonnaruwa which became the second capital of Lanka in 1070 CE after the fall of Anuradhapura, was a city devoted to the Buddha and his teachings, to science, advanced irrigation systems, inter-connecting tanks for movement of small trading boats, traditional medicine, complete with a giant carved stone book and grand architectural buildings like the seven-storey palace now in ruins, which must have been impressive, judging from the materials left behind.

Biking and walking is the best way to see the many different parts of this historic site especially in the early morning, as villagers make pujas at sacred trees, with hand carved Buddhas hidden within and over the tank, a myriad of different birds dive for fish. For primate lovers, the mischievous Toque monkeys only add to the experience of biking through the ruins of the temples, palaces, library and the original Ayurveda hospital where the human shaped treatment room to cure snake bite with a herbal bath still can be seen.

Grandeur of ruins and guardstones

As you learn about these huge monastery complexes from the knowledgeable national guides, you realise how spiritually advanced the King was, not to waste even a drop of water and be a part of nature, not apart from it. Abandoned for around 700 years by man, but not by beast, the Toque Macaque monkeys (one of three species of Macaque found in Sri Lanka), now live in the jungle ruins of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Even though the forest is under threat, as the numbers of trees are declining, they have found new ways to survive and thrive here.

I leave my bicycle at the entrances of the different sites, so I can walk around at my own pace, observing the fascinating buildings lost to the outside world until they were rediscovered, quite by accident, by the British army in 1820. A Lieutenant Fagan, commanding a brigade from Batticaloa to Minneriya through the jungle came face to face with Polonnaruwa’s Gal Vihara sleeping and standing Buddhas carved from the living granite rock.

Galpotha describes some of the rules of Polonnaruwa

Before the great kingdom was destroyed, Polonnaruwa had been famed for its ingenuity with water and regard for nature in general. Exploring the ruins, I learn how the Romans traded here for gems, the Arabs for spices and even the Iranians came to do business, as revealed in an archaeological dig of the market area, that produced a lot of pottery from Iranian antiquity. “Not even a single drop of water that comes from the rain must flow in to the ocean without being made useful to man”  – King Parakramabahu’s decrees were discovered in ancient temple books, making him one of the first recorded recyclers and inventors of a fully hydraulic off-the-grid civilisation. He also built three huge river dams, so that water could be controlled for the use of all the inhabitants, and extended the canal so that the three large irrigation tanks of Minneri, Kaudulu and Kantale were linked. Thus, he completed an impressive array of water engineering feats both highly technical and beautiful to behold, described as “a giant blue ribbon wrapped around a mystical garden city that even by today’s standards was ahead of its time,” and on a huge scale, “It is of such a width that it is impossible to stand upon one shore and view the other side.” Other canals were constructed to discharge additional water from swampy lands to make them suitable for paddy rice cultivation and to inter-link tanks and small rivers all the way to the ocean.

Legendary monarch: King Parakramabahu Pix by Juliet Coombe

As well as farming hundreds of different types of rice, known today as heirloom varieties, (now being reintroduced into pockets around the country), they also harvested honey from bees, both to eat, but also, interestingly, to seal their frescos in the picture houses and on caves, as honey is a well known preservative and can last for millennia in the right mix and light conditions. Living as part of nature, this civilization would have been aware of the dangers of monoculture and the need for diversity of cropping to support all the different creatures within an ecosystem.

As I explore the magnificent complex, I realise the king’s skills and those of his people go beyond these hydraulic marvels and in some cases tap into them, like the arrangement of gravity-fed pipes and water channels that are used for creating open air domestic showers downstream of the dams or from the vast water tanks. The thick walled rooms of these ancient palaces and temples were also built to last with the added bonus of having excellent insulation qualities that negate the need for aircon in the dry zone, as even in the heat of the day, the thickness of the walls keeps the rooms cool. Similarly, houses were, to some extent, built with open ends to facilitate the free flow of air, both to keep them cool and to prevent the build-up of harmful house dust. Today such cross ventilation would stop the spread of harmful viruses.

Another extraordinarily visionary invention involved the strategic placement of statues opposite windows within houses and inserting gemstones in their eyes, which would reflect the light from the moon and sun, entering through the windows as it rises, and sending light around the room, so brightening it -  a free lighting supply.

As with many great civilizations, they left records, via stone inscriptions on giant rocks, the most famous of which is the ‘galpotha’ (stone book), weighing 25 tons, which was carried 90 km from Mihintale by elephants, and rolled on logs. It took just over a year to get it to the city and it is a fascinating read as it covers many aspects from wars that were waged, to the city’s rules and regulations.

The bathing area

This was a very advanced civilization that fully appreciated and lived within its needs and nature’s constraints, recognizing too the importance of spirituality as a key part of the healing process along with herbal potions and natural oils. Some say the great king was inspired by ancient Pali inscriptions from temples in the area.

Ornate drainage system just one of the many examples of their advanced thinking

So take this walk back in time and you will, with the right guide receive a king’s scholarly tour of one of the greatest living civilizations of the ancient world. An education that might even encourage you to build your next home differently and perhaps even look at gemstone lighting as an alternative to electricity.

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