The earliest reference to Anuradhapura, the first kingdom of Sri Lanka, goes back to 5th century BC, even before Buddhism had been introduced to the country. Since then, the kingdom shifted from one city to another for many reasons until 1815. These ancient cities have a wealth of attractions, including many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Anuradhapura was the first historical capital of Sri Lanka and the first planned city. It was founded in the 5th century BC. Due to the numerous ruins that stand as evidence of ancient Sri Lankan civilizations, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Anuradhapura gives you a glimpse into the excellence of an ancient hydraulic culture with its artificial lakes and sophisticated hydrology engineering techniques. The majestic stupas were built considering the effect of lightning on high-rise constructions, among numerous other engineering factors. Magnificent rock carvings and stone pillars stand proud amidst the ruins of royal palaces, Buddhist monasteries, and temples of Anuradhapura.
Polonnaruwa rose to fame as the capital of Sri Lanka (10th to -12th century AD) after the decline of Anuradhapura. Polonnaruwa showcases an exciting blend of the influence of the South Indian Hindu culture alongside Sinhala Buddhist art and architecture in the scattered shrines and monuments. Due to its archaeological prominence and ancient technological marvels, UNESCO declared Polonnaruwa a World Heritage Site in 1982 under the name ‘Ancient City of Polonnaruwa.’ The must-visit Gal Vihara is considered the glory of Polonnaruwa and the height of its artistic and architectural achievements. The King’s council chamber, the floral stone pillars of ‘Nissanka Latha Mandapaya, ‘the Kumara Pokuna (baths), the Thuparama with its original vaulted roof, the exquisite Circular Relic Chamber lavish with moonstones, guard stones, and Lankathilaka the image house are a few of the interesting remnants of an ancient civilization. The Parakrama Samudra, or the ‘Sea of Parakrama,’ is an artificial lake and the effort of King Parakrama, who was adamant that no drop of water falling from the heavens was to be wasted and was to be used toward the development of the land. The irrigation systems in Polonnaruwa are far superior to those of the Anuradhapura Age.
Built in 5th century AD by King Kashyapa on a sheer-sided volcanic plug rising 200 meters above the surrounding jungle, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is possibly Sri Lanka’s most impressive attraction. Known also as the ‘Lion Rock‘ it was once a royal citadel. It is a complex of buildings, part royal palace, part fortified town, with water gardens on par with the best in the ancient world. The entire site bears witness to the magnificent and unique architectural prowess of the ancient Sri Lankans. In a sheltered pocket approached by a spiral stairway are the famous Sigiriya frescoes, the earliest surviving pictorial art of Sri Lanka and of the same period as the Ajantha frescoes in India. Remains of the foundations at the summit show that it was once resplendent with palaces, pavilions, ponds, and audience halls. It is regarded as the 8th wonder of the ancient world.
The city of Kandy is situated 1500 feet above sea level at the doorstep of the central hills. It is a charming, culturally vibrant city that was the seat of government of the last Sri Lankan kingdom, until it was taken over by the British in 1815. Some aspects of the art and architecture of ancient Kandy still survive in living form. Seen from the hills above the lake this architectural complex gives us a brilliant miniature image of what the dead capitals looked like as well as the style and the characteristics of the historic civilization. What brings sanctity to Kandy is the ‘Dalada Maligawa‘ (Temple of the Tooth) which houses the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. The temple is visited daily by both locals and tourists, bearing flowers and incense as offerings, throughout the day and night. Here visitors can observe the pooja (offerings), the ancient traditions of drumming, and sacred chanting in honour of the sacred tooth relic performed three times each day. Kandy is also the venue of the Beautiful Esala Perahera, easily the most colourful pageant in Asia, held in July/August of each year.
Situated in the southwest, Galle is a beautiful town that still carries the flavour of the colonial era and examples of the architecture of the time and well-preserved fortifications. The old Dutch fort encompasses what used to be the Dutch quarter and is situated away from the busy town, just outside its walls. In 1505, the Portuguese landed accidentally at the Galle harbour and built a fortress on the southwest the tip of the town. When the Dutch seized the port in 1640, they fortified the walls, which survive to this day. In 1796 Galle was handed over to the British. Only a few ruins belonging to the Portuguese period can be seen, but many buildings built by the Dutch and British have been well preserved.
The Dambulla cave temple is also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1991 and is situated in the central part of the country. This site lies 148 kilometres east of Colombo, 72 kilometres north of Kandy and 43 km north of Matale. The Dambulla temple is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka.