Rise and fall of Polonnaruva
Like all other ancient capitals, Polonaise was also a centre of
habitation in the pre-historic and proto-historic eras, but
unfortunately archaeological research on pre-and proto historic
Polonnaruwa has not been satisfactory. In the historical era beginning
from the third century B.C. there were several settlements in and around
Polonnaruwa as testified by the Brahmi inscriptions at places such as
Enderagala, Duvegala, Galkandegama Kanda, Konattegodagala,
Lunuvaranagala and Mutugala.
The proximity of Polonnaruwa to the Mahaveli River and to the east
coast had resulted in the development of settlements in the region
throughout centuries. The region was agriculturally developed at least
as early as the fourth century A.D. Long before that, Polonnaruwa was an
important military post due to its strategic location and therefore it
was known as the Kandavuru Nuvara. Its strategic importance lay in the
fact that it controlled access into Rohana and from Rohana into the
Northern plain through the passes at Dastota and Magantota along the
Five of the twelve great reservoirs mentioned in the ninth and tenth
century inscriptions, namely Padaviya, Vahalkada, Kantale, Kavudulu and
Minneri and a large number of village irrigation works were located
around the lower Mahaveli basin in the Dry Zone and the North eastern
part of the island. The construction of irrigation works and the
concomitant agricultural development created dense clusters of
population in this area, resulting in the emergence of new economic and
political forces which changed the demographic pattern and the cultural
landscape of the island.
From the sixth century A.D. onwards Polonnaruwa became increasingly
important. The demographic expansion in the region after the sixth
century is indicated by the construction of shrine rooms, an alternative
residence for the Anuradhapura kings and hospitals at Polonnaruwa during
the reigns of Silakala (518-31), Aggabodhi III (629-39), Aggabodhi IV
(667-83) and Udaya I (793-801).
Anuradhapura was superseded by Polonnaruwa as the principal centre of
dynastic power in the eleventh century. The Cholas who conquered the
Northern part of Sri Lanka in 1017 A.D. established their capital at
Polonnaruwa and held sway over Rajarata for 53 years until 1070 A.D.
After the Cholas were expelled, the Sinhala kings too selected
Polonnaruwa as their capital and it flourished for nearly two centuries
until 1215 A.D. The foreign invader Magha conquered Polonnaruwa in 1215
and with his atrocious rule, the Sinhala nobility drifted to the south
west and established kingdoms in places such as Dambadeniya and Yapahuva.
Polonnaruva was a fortified city. What is now known in Polonnaruwa as
the ‘citadel’ was the fortified portion of the inner city within which
the palaces and other royal establishments were located. The Mahavamsa
claims that the city was surrounded by three moats and four fortified
walls of receding height in the twelfth century. The excavated portions
of the city justifies the claims of the Mahavamsa. The citadel or the
royal enclosure had a 12 feet wide wall with a soldiers’ parade walk of
eight feet wide. This wall had one main entrance at the North with a set
of guardrooms on either side of the gateway. The outer city had fourteen
Statue of King Parakramabahu I
The architectural remains of the royal palaces and other
establishments are very imposing and occupy a prominent position among
the excavated ruins. The seven-storied Vaijayanta palace of
Parakramabahu I was the most important building in the royal enclosure.
Nissankamalla altered the character of the inner city when he
established his own palace on a promontory beside the Parakramasamudra.
Here he built a large residence, a Council chamber and royal baths. One
remarkable feature at Polonnaruwa is that its secular aspect was not so
thoroughly and completely overshadowed by religious establishments as in
Outside the royal precinct were religious establishments. The Tooth
Relic and the Alms bowl of the Buddha were almost always under the
custody of the monarch and by this time the Tooth Relic had become a
sort of national palladium, symbol for the legitimization of political
authority. The Atadage and Hatadage, two of the finest and imposing
monuments of Polonnaruwa were presumably designed as temples for
enshrining the Tooth Relic by different kings. Monks belonging to
various fraternities were accommodated at exceptionally large monastic
dwellings in the city. King Parakramabahu I is credited with the
construction of eight monasteries of which the Jetavana was the largest.
Within its precincts were three sermon halls, two libraries and seventy
five Parivenas or residences of monks.
Another monastic complex of large proportions constructed by
Parakramabahu I was the Alahana Parivena which included within its
precincts the Stupa now known as the Kirivehera. The Gal Vihara, Rankot
Vihara, Potugal Vihara and Satmahal Pasada were among other monumental
edifices constructed in Polonnaruva during the twelfth century. Besides
these Buddhist religious buildings, there are also the architectural
remains of no less than sixteen Hindu temples scattered over the city.
Commerce and craft production
The increase in the market or commercial activity and the importance
of administrative centres were factors that led to the growth of the
urban complex. According to the Mahavamsa, in the city there were
several streets and various bazaars in which all sorts of commodities
were available. The market area just outside the citadel and monastic
complexes has been excavated recently.
As in any other South Asian city food production in the country side
was an essential requisite for the development of the process of
urbanization of Polonnaruva. Agriculture in the environs of Polonnaruva
was facilitated by Parakramasamudra and other reservoirs. The
Parakramasamudra was constructed by joining three earlier reservoirs
Topavava, Dimbutuluvava and Eramuduvava. Being the largest of the
ancient reservoirs, its embankment is eight and half miles long and
rises to about 40 feet.
Thus the city of Polonnaruva like any other ancient South Asian city
consisted of a citadel within which the royal precinct was located, a
defense wall system and moats, monastic and devale complexes which were
the ritual centres and a well laid out market complex. In the periphery
of the city were centres of craft production and beyond them the
The city of Polonnaruva fell into decay after the collapse of the
Rajarata civilization in the middle of the thirteenth century. The
jungle encroached upon its environs and the area became depopulated and
was infested with Malaria. At the census of 1871, the extensive region
known as Tamankaduwa which included Polonnaruva had only a population of
4 persons per square mile. But from the beginning of the twentieth
century again settlements increased with the colonization schemes
initiated by the government.