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January 03, 2017, Sri Lanka

A tale of three cities

The ancient capitals that comprise Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle tell the story of trials and triumphs

Rajan Raju

THE stars were bright — millions of little gems sparkling against a dark sky. My wife and I were walking back to the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya, a gorgeous hill station in central Sri Lanka, when we stopped in our tracks to admire the display.

It was a sight we rarely see in our brightly lit, built-up Singapore. We were in Sri Lanka to visit its Cultural Triangle comprising the three historical capitals of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, with a stop in the refreshing hill country with its pretty tea plantations and old world ambience.


A short drive north of Nuwara Eliya, Kandy — the last capital of the Sinhala kings — is generally recognised as Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, and is famous for its sacred Buddhist sites.

We headed for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) on the banks of an artificial lake built in 1807 by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe.

The temple itself was magnificent, with sheer white walls that contrasted with the brightly coloured Buddhist flags proudly fluttering in the wind, a verdant forest behind it and an azure sky above.

We visited the temple in the afternoon to avoid the crowds of pilgrims and tourists.

The afternoon heat was intense and we hobbled awkwardly as our bare feet touched the hot pavement in the short walk from the gates to the temple building.

Inside, devotees offered flowers and prayers in the main hall on the first floor. It was truly moving to sit with the pilgrims in front of the room that housed the sacred relic of the Buddha’s tooth.

The tooth relic is removed from its shrine only once a year over a 10-day period, during the Esala Perahera festival.

The Image Hall adjoining the temple has many beautiful and intricately carved statues of the Buddha from many countries, including one from Singapore.

We spent the night at the well-appointed Amaya Lake Resort in Dambulla on the shores of Lake Kandalama. About 72km north of Kandy, Dambulla is almost at the centre of the cultural triangle with Kandy to the south and Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa to its west and east respectively.


We set off early on our drive to the ruins of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first capital and the oldest city in the Cultural Triangle.

Founded around the 4th century BC, it flourished and became the centre of Theravada Buddhism until it was abandoned in the 10th century.

Its palaces, monasteries and monuments remained hidden in dense jungle until they were rediscovered in the 19th century.

We spent the day exploring the ancient capital — now a Unesco World Heritage Site — whose restored ruins are located next to the modern city.

We were amazed by the huge, bell-shaped dagobas, which contain relics of the Buddha, and remain places of worship even today.

These religious sites require visitors to walk barefoot, so make sure you wear socks as the ground can get quite hot, unless it is very early in the morning or late in the evening.

Some of the highlights of our visit include the Jetavanarama Dagoba, which was the third largest building in the world when it was built; the Thuparamaya Dagoba, possibly the first stupa built in Sri Lanka and said to enshrine the collarbone of the Buddha; the Sri Maha Bodi, believed to have grown from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment; and the Samadhi Buddha statue, whose serene aura gave me a deep sense of tranquillity. As it is still a place of worship, we stayed to experience one of the prayer sessions there.


The next day, we drove to Polonnaruwa, the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in the 10th century.

King Parakramabahu I built many of the impressive buildings and tanks that survive today.

Polonnaruwa is best seen on bicycle, but it has a network of roads that are accessible by car. My three favourite places were the Royal Palace, the Sacred Quadrangle and a rock carving referred to as Gal Vihara.

Only fragments remain of the seven-storied palace of King Parakramabahu, such as the outer walls and the niches for the beams, but I could still get a sense of its grandeur.

The Royal Baths next door and the King’s Council Chamber were very impressive too.

The Sacred Quadrangle is possibly the best collection of buildings in Polonnaruwa. Usually packed with tourists, the ruins include ancient temples that once held the sacred tooth relic and a stone book that weighs over 25 tonnes.

Gal Vihara comprises four beautiful Buddha statues carved from a single slab of granite, and showcases what is probably the best expression of Sinhalese rock carving.

It is a compelling piece of work, and I was completely awed by its artistic power.

As we ate our dinner under the nearly full moon at our hotel, I looked up again at the stars, as I did earlier in Nuwara Eliya.

The night stars would have seen the changing fortunes of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals, but the beauty of the land, the warmth of the people and the pervasiveness of Buddhism have remained constant threads.


- We flew from Singapore to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airways.

- Sri Lanka has a wide variety of hotels, but due to booming tourism, many are filled to capacity, so book in advance. Prices for rooms vary significantly so check online.

- Sri Lanka has hot days and generally balmy nights. In the hills, you will need a light sweater.

The best time to visit is December through April, as it is the dry season in the popular west and south coastal areas and in the hill country.

- It is best to hire a car with a chauffeur cum guide who will accompany you throughout your stay. 

- If possible, ride the trains for one leg of your journey on the island. 

- Book the local transportation through your travel agent.

- Sri Lanka is a conservative society. All religious sites require shoulders and knees to be covered and footwear to be removed. Wear socks to protect the soles of your feet. 

- Most tourist sites have charges, so do check online for the prices. 

- While there have been efforts to make temples and archaeological sites accessible, people with disabilities will still find these places challenging to visit.

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