HISTORY OF SRI LANKA (PART 2)
Sri Lanka is an old nation with a rich written history that dates back over 2000 years. It’s an island where history fades into fable and lore, and the myths and legends still prevail.
Our previous article delved into the history of Sri Lanka from prehistoric times to the Anuradhapura Kingdom. In this article, we will follow that journey all the way down to Kandy, the last kingdom of Sri Lanka. Emphasis is made on important historical points from each era so that travellers can visit and witness these places.
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Kingdoms of Sri Lanka
In the year 1017, the city of Anuradhapura which stood for over 1400 years fell at the hands on an invading South Indian Chola army. The Cholas sacked the city and established a kingdom in the nearby city of Polonnaruwa. Most of the people fled to southern parts of the country and the hills during this time. A few sub-kingdoms appeared around the Southern parts of the country which rebelled against the Cholas.
Polonnaruwa was chosen as a strategic location as it was well placed to stop any rebellions from the South. It also had a well-developed irrigation and agriculture system and was in close proximity to the Mahaweli river. The Mahaweli fed the ocean at the Bay of Trincomalee, which is even now one of the largest and most important harbours in Asia.
After 75 years of Chola rule, Polonnaruwa was captured by Prince Keerthi, who was crowned 1st Sinhalese king of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom under the name of Vijayabahu the 1st. Later during the rule of King Parakramabahu the great, the whole island was brought under one banner. Irrigation, agriculture and trade developed and the country saw a reign of prosperity.
Polonnaruwa stood for 200 years before finally, it fell at the hands of a massive invasion under the Indian general Kalinga Magha around the year 1215.
Medieval city of Polonnaruwa
The city of Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO heritage site and is one of the most important historical sites in Sri Lanka. Like Anuradhapura, the foreign entrance ticket price is 25 US$ and is definitely worth it. Tickets can be bought at the archaeological museum in Polonnaruwa.
Unlike Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa has a majority of its main attractions confined to a small area. The best way to explore the city is by bicycle, and you can hire one for about 1000 Rs outside the gates of the ancient city. You will get a map of the area with your ticket. Note: Make sure you visit the attractions inside the ancient city and the Parakrama reservoir first before checking out the museum. This way you will avoid a lot of cycling/ walking around under the hot sun.
The ancient city is one of the best preserved historical sites of Sri Lanka. It is a fortified medieval fortress, with its walls still marking the borders of it. Within you will find many different areas such as the royal complex, with the palace and court and many religious complexes with statues and dagobas. The monolithic Buddha statues of the Gal Viharaya and the 41 ft giant brick Buddha statue at the Lankathilaka image house are simply stunning to behold.
The Sea of Parakrama
King Parakramabahu the Great commissioned many reservoirs (tanks), and canals during his time which were much superior to the irrigation work of the Anuradhapura Era. His most famous creation is the massive reservoir “Parakama Samudraya” (Sea of Parakrama), so-called for its vast size. Today after much reconstruction the reservoir covers an area of 5350 acres with an average depth of 25 ft, and its dam is 14 km long. Even such the Parakrama Samudraya now is only a fraction of its original size. It still sustains a large portion of Sri Lanka’s agriculture, providing water to over 18,000 acres of rice fields.
If you travel South along the Bund road of the Parakrama reservoir, you will come to a site known as the Pothgul Viharaya. This is believed to have been built during King Parakramabahu’s time and served as a Buddhist library. One of the most unique attractions there is the 3.5m monolithic statue carved out of a boulder. Some say the statue is that of King Parakramabahu. There are few who believe it is an image of the Indian saint Agastya, or an Indian High priest named Pulasthi. The statue is a fine example of the skilled stone craftsmanship of the Polonnaruwa Era.
Right next to the archaeological museum, between the Parakrama reservoir and the Polonnaruwa Fortress lies the Nissankamalla Complex. Here you can find the palace of King Nissankamalla and also his courtroom. The iconic courtroom is a well-preserved structure with 48 beautifully carved stone pillars and a majestic stone lion which served as the King’s throne.
Dambadeniya was the 3rd kingdom of Sri Lanka lasting from 1215 to around 1345. After the fall of the Polonnaruwa kingdom, Sri Lanka was in a state of disarray. Rebel generals who fortified strategic points around the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa (Northcentral) areas held the marauding armies of Magha at Bay. Vijayabahu III became the first king of the Dambadeniya kingdom driving back the armies of Magha to Polonnaruwa. He established the dynasty of Sirisangabo which would rule the country for kingdoms to come.
The threat of India was ever present during this era and the country had to face off more invasions from time to time as well as internal conflicts. Due to this instability, the capital changed a few times during the Dambadeniya kingdom.
King Vijayabahu III built his palace and fortress atop the rock of Dambadeniya for its defensive capabilities and made it the first capital of the Dambadeniya Kingdom (1232 – 1272). After a short rule, his son Parakamabahu II defeated the South Invader Kalinga and drove him out of Polonnaruwa, but continued to rule from Dambadeniya.
Today one can still see the remnants of the royal palace, many ponds and a temple on its summit. The surrounding area is also populated with many temples or ‘Viharas” from his era as Buddhism saw a revival during the reign of this scholar king. He also did much to bring about a transition in Sinhalese literature.
Fortress of Yapuhuwa
Yapahuwa is one of the most awe-inspiring fortresses of Sri Lanka in the likes of Sigiriya. It is a 90 m high inselberg which became the second capital of the Dambadeniya Kingdom (1272 – 1284).
Set amidst dense foliage, the rock of Yapahuwa still bears witness to its original splendour. The battlements and fortified walls, the giant stone stairway, the remnants of the royal palace and moats are still formidable. The intricate rock carvings and statues still preserve much of its beauty. It is definitely one of the most important historical sites of Sri Lanka that one must visit.
After the fall of Yapahuwa, the capital changed again to Kurunegala for a while till the Kingdom of Gampola was established during the mid 14th century.
The unstable situation of the country continued throughout the next few centuries. The Kingdom of Dambadeniya transitioned into the Kingdom of Gampola, further into the heart of the island, closer to Kandy. Many of the notable remnants of the Gampola Era include temples. The city of Gampola is itself referred to as the ‘Temple City’.
The Kingdom of Gampola lasted from 1340 to 1410
Not too far from the town of Pilimathalawa, Kandy, is the Gadaladeniya Rajamaha Viharaya, one of the most significant remnants from the Gampola Era. Built by king Buvanekabahu IV in the year 1344, the Gadaladeniya temple has a few Buddha images and some stunning stone and wood carvings. The architecture is of South Indian origin, with its outer shrine fashioned after the palace of the god Indra.
As you travel a few kilometres passing the temple of Gadaladeniya you will come across the Lankathilaka Viharaya, another temple built by King Buvanekabahu IV. It is a stunning example of the beautiful architecture of that era. The setting itself is picturesque, set on top of a massive rock overlooking the Hanthana mountain range. With its intricately carved pillars of wood and stone, statues and many paintings, the Lankathilaka Viharaya is a fine example of the artistic renaissance of the Gampola Kingdom.
The Embekke Temple is another, if not the most important site from the Gampola Era. This temple built by King Vickramabahu III lies 8 km away from the town of Pilimathalawa. It has grabbed the attention of the world due to the exquisite woodcarvings that can be seen here which are believed to be the finest wood carvings of Sri Lanka. It is a must-visit site, for all travellers of Sri Lanka, and can be easily covered together with the Gadaladeniya and Lankathilaka Temples in one day.
Kotte and Sithawaka Kingdoms
After Gampola, the Kingdom of the Sinhalese shifted to the West coast city of Kotte – modern day Colombo. Kotte became a well-fortified metropolis and grew in splendour for a while but civil disruptions tore the kingdom apart. During the latter half of the Kingdom, a sub-kingdom rose to power in Seethawaka (modern-day Awissawella). The kingdoms were at war. By this time the Portuguese had already landed in Sri Lanka and recognized its strategic importance in their naval dominance in Asia. By aiding the King of Kotte they managed to establish a foothold in Sri Lanka and eventually claimed the Kingdom of Kotte. After many battles, the invaders laid waste to the Kingdom of Kotte as well. The Kingdom of the Sinhalese shifted to Kandy. There in the heart of the island, amidst impenetrable jungles and mountains, the Kingdom of Kandy held out against the foreign invaders – the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English till 1815.
Sadly nothing much remains of the Kotte and Seethawaka Kingdoms. While much of Seethawaka’s ancient structures were razed to the ground by the Portuguese, Kotte disappeared to make way to modern Colombo leaving only lingering traces of if its existence amidst the busy neighbourhoods.
Kandy is an old city which was established during the Gampola era (mid 14th century) and became the capital of the Kandyan Kingdom after the fall of Seethawaka. The mountainous terrain with its dense jungles that surrounded Kandy made it impossible for invading armies to easily reach the city. This in combination with the guerilla warfare tactics that the Kandyans used, fully utilising the landscape made sure that the Kingdom stood fast for a few hundred years.
Towards the later part of the Kingdom, internal strife weakened the kingdom. The British were quick to capitalize on the situation. With the aid of the Kings own ministers, they entered the city of Kandy in 1815 and took Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last King of Sri Lanka, prisoner. He was exiled to India where he died in a cell.
Today the city of Kandy is a popular tourist attraction. The last royal palace and it’s lake lie in the heart of the city, well preserved and open to visitors. The grounds of the palace shelter a few different museums that showcase all kinds of exhibits from the last Sri Lankan Kingdom. It is also the site of Sri Lanka’s most important relic – the tooth relic of the Lord Buddha.
A vibrant mix of Colonial British and Kandyan architecture can be seen around the city as many of the historic buildings in Kandy still remain in good condition. For the lover of nature, The King’s forest ‘Udawatta Kele’ lies on a hill behind the Royal Palace and the scenic Hanthana range on the border of Kandy offers amazing hikes with Stunning views of the city of Kandy below.
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