The Golden Age of Civilization | Sunday Observer

The Golden Age of Civilization

RICHLY CARVED:  The Royal Audience Hall or King’s Council chamber
RICHLY CARVED: The Royal Audience Hall or King’s Council chamber

We drive comfortably towards Polonnaruwa through wide carpeted highways lined with gushing waters of the irrigation canals, stretches of green paddy fields as far as the eyes could see, massive rice mills with towering masts and women and children bathing and washing clothes in the canals running parallel with roads and ruined buildings. In fact, looking at the vast stretch of paddy fields in the area, I cannot imagine why we have to import rice now as ancient kings had transformed this country to become the Granary of the East, producing a bountiful rice harvest and even exporting the surplus.

The whole city has a green feel about it, as the city has always been set apart by the history and culture of its people.

This is a land of kingdoms, once the capital of a dynasty. Most ancient structures now lie in ruins, waiting to tell their story of a once prosperous civilization. En route from Somawathi Chaitya, we came to Polonnaruwa, the other sacred city of Raja Rata, (literally the country of kings), and the second largest city after the capital Anuradhapura in the present North Central Province.

Sri Lanka is home to one of the longest surviving civilizations on Earth, and as such, a repository of a rich and resplendent cultural heritage. Strewn over a relatively small area, called the cultural triangle, are Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy, home to priceless Buddhist treasures that have withstood the ravages of time and which together offer a tantalizing glimpse into an aesthetic past.

The Mahavamsa and the Chulavamsa, the two ancient chronicles, offer an unbroken record of the country’s history over the past two and a half millennia. Virtually, the entire history of Sri Lanka is intertwined with the history of Buddhism in the island.

Polonnaruwa became the capital in 11th century AD, when the Chola attacked Anuradhapura forcing the Lankan kings to move southeast to a less vulnerable spot. It is located on the banks of a vast artificial lake framed by a mountain range on one side and banana-fringed paddy fields on the other.

Polonnaruwa’s claim to fame comes not only from the many ruins that dot its verdant landscape, but from its pre-eminent position as the site of a complex irrigation system that turned this barren strip into a land of prosperity. Polonnaruwa was founded in the 11th century by King Vijayabahu I, a much-revered ruler in Sri Lanka, for it was he who rescued the kingdom from the Chola invaders, renovated its disused tanks and re-established the monasteries. King Parakramabahu, his successor, who was a great tank builder and lived by his theory of ‘not allowing even a drop of rainwater to flow to the ocean without being used by man’ seems to have garnered all the glory. It is his statue, or at least one believed to be his, that adorns the banks of the lake which itself is called ‘Sea of Parakrama’. King Nissankamalla was also largely responsible for its architectural achievements.

Polonnaruwa falls under the Cultural Triangle and the city’s Information Centre gives a clear idea of the entire layout of the sacred city. The notes by the side of all the photographs are immensely helpful for the visitors.

We first visited a few places of historical interest in the sacred city and paid homage to the great builder king, Parakramabahu whose statue stands almost 12 m tall in the south of the city, facing the immense reservoir he built to irrigate his capital. Thanks to Parakramabahu’s foresight, today, Polonnaruwa is a fertile expanse of paddy fields interspersed with banana and coconut plantations. Amidst this lush greenery lie many ruined temples laid waste by the weather and sadly, vandalism/treasure hunting.

Nevertheless, they hark back to an era of unmatched architectural elegance. Entering the sacred city, we came across King Parakramabahu’s seven-storey-high brick palace, Vijayanthapasada, now surviving as a mere shell without a roof. It offers a faint glimpse into a distant past tinged with pride and glory.

A short distance away is another Council Chamber with a notable frieze of elephants running all around, as well as lions and horse figures carved in relief. Centrally positioned is the grand Vatadage or relic house. The stupa is surrounded by four seated Buddhas, looking outwards and encircled by concentric rows of pillars which may have once held the roof. One of the finest moonstones leads up to the inner area while floral motifs and elegantly crafted guardstones stand around the circular structure. Perhaps, it is one of the most impressive monuments in this group.

The Atadage was where the Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relic were housed. It was two-storeyed and while the relics were on the upper floor, the lower floor was used as an image house, which was built by King Nissankamalla.

On one side of the complex is the Stone Book or ‘Gal Potha’, an enormous stone-book inscription measuring 613 cm long and 140 cm wide and is indeed a marvelous creation.

Polonnaruwa is dotted with Hindu temples and deities and Hindu architecture seems to have had a great deal of influence on Buddhist builders through the ages. The Shiva Devale I, is built entirely of stone. We also come across the Pabulu Vehera, considered the third largest Stupa in Polonnaruwa.

The largest Stupa of this ancient city is the Rankoth Vihara which stands at 55m high. It is surrounded by a terrace for circumambulation. While the Dagobas in Anuradhapura have been painted white, Rankoth has been left in its original form, with the bricks lending it an immense atmosphere.

Our next stop is Lankatilaka, a very impressive structure with 17m high brick walls. There is a colossal torso of Buddha who would have once measured 41 feet in height and the exterior is decorated with stucco figures.

The Kiri Vehera is a literal translation of ‘milk white’ which is how it looked when, after 700 years of being lost under a thick forest, the Dagoba was discovered with its original lime plaster still intact. Incidentally, the main Dagoba in the sacred city of Kataragama bears the same name.

A short drive from Kiri Vehera is the spectacular Gal Vihara, which has the best specimen of Sinhala sculpture and rock carving where you can see four massive images of the Buddha, three of which are magnificent. The standing Buddha with a sombre expression is one of the most photographed monuments in Sri Lanka.

As you stroll through the ruins of Polonnaruwa, you are surprised to find numerous stone marvels of unique structures.

To visit all monuments in the sacred city, one needs at least two days. Today, what may look like decrepit ruins are, on closer inspection, the remnants of some monuments and buildings of the past, Stupas, chapter houses and image houses. Sculptures and mutilated statues give testimony to the time they have stood their ground through the centuries.

In our hasty tour, as our allocated time was running fast, we wrapped up our tour of the Cultural Triangle of the sacred city of Polonnaruwa and it bears silent testimony to the civilization that flourished in the great Buddhist kingdom.

Comments

Let all of us protect guard our ancient past for the present and future generation.protect from vanadism and our natural forces

Please don't write rubbish, golden days of civilization.Dont fool our selves with this nonsense. I meet Greeks, Italians and Chinese, Japanese(married to one).They too had a history but non brag about it because they all know that history in any part of the world was dark, horrible and mostly unfair to the majority that lived under tyrants that built these structures for their personal satisfaction. Where are the houses,hospitals,schools,court houses and legislature built for the majority, not forgetting places to bury our people ? Country must move forward without looking in to the horrible past that ended after 1818 and 1845 when our scoundrels tried to reverse the beginning of the new trend that the last colonials ushered. We are in denial to the folly of our people while the present leaders will go to any length to fool the people, rob the country, put us into debt and bugger off in to the civilized countries in the West. This the golden time of civilization that is given to us in bit and pieces and even denied to us due to the corrupt system created after the colonials left. So don't miss lead people.