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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.


Parakramasamudra

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 Mahaveli River.

Demographic expansion

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Anuradhapura was superseded by Polonnaruwa as the principal centre of dynastic power in the eleventh century.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.

Royal palaces

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 gates.


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 Anuradhapura.

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 agricultural hinterland.

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.

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