Sri Lanka - Getting to know the Cultural Triangle
Five UNESCO World Heritage sites, one excellent National Park, all within four hours drive - little wonder that Sri Lanka’s ‘Cultural Triangle’ region is a huge draw. Its temptations include the 2,000 year old cave temples of Dambulla, the impressive ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka's first & second capitals, from about 300 BC-1215 AD), an extraordinary rock fortress called Sigiriya, and the ancient-but-still-thriving sacred city of Kandy… and we haven’t even mentioned Minneriya NP, with its huge herds of elephants.
For many who visit Sri Lanka, the area known as the 'Cultural Triangle' is the sole reason to visit the spice island; others consider it a remarkable bonus. It’s home to five of Sri Lanka's seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and easily rivals Myanmar's Bagan region and the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia.
Whilst Sri Lanka undoubtedly offers many wildlife and cultural highlights - as well as the odd nice beach (read 'dozens') - the Triangle will likely become a highlight of your trip, if not the place you enthuse about most on returning home. Along with its world-renowned sites, it contains scores of other temples, ruins and dagobas that are very much worth a visit, despite not holding the much-revered UNESCO status.
The actual Triangle has Anuradhapura as its northern corner, with Polonnaruwa marking the east and Kandy the southernmost points. Sigiriya and Dambulla sit near the centre, not far from the fantastic Minneriya National Park - handy if you fancy some wildlife mixed in with your ancient wonders. Minneriya centres on a reservoir built around 300 AD, and is visited once a year by the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world.
What to do in the Cultural Triangle
- Climb the stone steps to the Golden Temple of Dambulla, which has drawn pilgrims for 22 centuries. It comprises five inner sanctums, dug into a rocky outcrop & filled with gleaming Buddhist icons.
- Marvel at the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, which began to flourish in 288 BC around a fig tree grown from a cutting of the Buddha’s own tree of enlightenment. The city became the first capital of Sri Lanka, & a key Buddhist centre. The tree still flourishes today, amidst several square miles of ancient architecture.
- Stroll beside tranquil mandala-ponds & admire elegant impressive religious statues in Polonnaruwa, an ornate Hindu garden city.
- Relish the dramatic views from Sigiriya, a fortified citadel perched atop a 180m high granite outcrop, which juts from a flat jungle-covered plain.
- Get a sense of the scale of the region by going up in hot air balloon!
Sri Lanka’s 3rd century irrigation engineers used inventions that didn’t reach Europe til the 1800s
Beyond the ruins
- Although very much part of the Triangle, the Sacred City of Kandy is no ruined metropolis - it’s a thriving, charming city that’s very much alive, in a beautiful mountain setting en route between the central Cultural Triangle’s and Tea Country or Colombo. Founded during the 1300s, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second largest city, and world-famous for its temple, which protects one of the Buddha’s teeth and attracts thousands of pilgrims each year.
Minneriya National Park protects a crucial water source that has helped this hot dry area to thrive for nearly 2,000 years - it’s known as the ‘Minneriya Tank’, and was built by one of the kings of Anuradhapura to supply his citizens with water and freshly grown crops.
Now, it irrigates a lush landscape populated by macaques, langurs, leopards, deer, hundreds of bird species and several large reptiles. Most famously, the reservoir attracts hundreds of migrating elephants, who stop off each year during dry season to snack on vital vegetation sustained by the steady water supply.
Read more about the Cultural Triangle's highlights
Conveniently close to Sigiriya Rock, the approach to ancient Polonnaruwa - with the vast but placid Parakrama Samudraya reservoir on one side and lush vegetation on the other - is almost as impressive as the ruins themselves, and Polonnaruwa is home to some astonishing ancient architecture and carvings.
The city is set on the banks of one of the region's huge man-made reservoirs, created by King Parakramabahu I during the 12th century AD. These tanks ensured that large populations could live more comfortably Sri Lanka's arid central regions. Even with today’'s machinery, a reservoir of this size would be a monstrous undertaking - this one was built with basic tools and man-power.
Close to the reservoir, a statue shows the king without a shirt and holding an ox yoke, signifying a unity with his people; a theme still reflected in the Royal Ploughing Festivals in Thailand and Cambodia today.
The ancient capital itself is spread across a vast area, and contains many fine carvings and ruins. You can easily spend a day wandering the site - the Sacred Quadrangle alone can fill an hour of happy exploration. Amongst the highlights are four huge Buddha’s carved into a single rock face, including an amazing lying Buddha and another considered by many experts to be one of the finest Buddha carvings to be found anywhere in the world today.
The King's palace is the only building here with any walls still in tact - once seven storeys high, his Audience Hall and council chambers now exist as large stone platforms, topped with ruined walls, grand stairways, pillars and stone carvings. The Audience Hall's wall of carved elephants is particularly interesting, as each elephant is uniquely posed.
A little further on, you'll find the King's well preserved baths, where perfumed (so experts believe) water was kept cool on hot days by the masses of stone beneath it, while the nearby 'shower bath' once sprayed a constant cloud of water onto privileged bathers.
Just north of the Palace, the Sacred Quadrangle contains several significant dagoba and temples, including one whose Buddha statue once had sapphires for eyes - these caught the early morning sunlight that shines through strategically placed holes in the roof, and reputedly flooded the whole room with blue light. Nearby, the vatagage features four Buddha statues - to reach it, you cross the Moonstone, a semicircle of finely carved elephants embedded in the threshold.
Polonnaruwa can be explored by car or by bike if you prefer (be prepared for some quite long rides between various ruins) and there is also a fantastic museum, which demonstrates how the buildings would have looked in their prime.
One of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, Sigiriya Rock Fortress was built in the 5th century by King Kasyapa as a fortress and pleasure palace.
It dominates the surrounding landscape, rising 200 metres above the ground. The view from the flattened summit of the rock is spectacular and well worth the climb, but those without a head for heights can stroll around the ramparts and pleasure gardens, or take in the famous Sigiriya frescoes that can be found partway up the rock.
There are many legends surrounding King Kasyapa and Sigiriya, the most well-known of which is as follows. King Dhatusena had two sons: Kasyapa who was born of a commoner and Mogallana whose mother was of royal blood. Mogallana was favoured by the King to take over the throne however Kasyapa took over the kingdom by force and his younger brother fled to India. Following an argument over hidden treasure Kasyapa ordered his father killed and, legend has it, the king was buried alive! Fearing his brother’s vengeance Kasyapa ordered the construction of this lofty palace to keep him safe. Mogallana did indeed return with an army, but when Kasyapa rode to battle the elephant he was on sensed a hidden swamp and turned away. His troops saw this and, thinking the king was turning back, fled the battlefield. Realising his defeat, and rather than fall captive to his brother, Kasyapa committed suicide.
Anuradhapura sits on the on the banks of the Malvathu Oya River and is unsurprisingly protected by UNESCO World Heritage status. It is home to several of the tallest brick-built stupas in the ancient world, and a sprawling Bodhi tree, believed to be an offshoot of Buddha's fig tree, brought to the island by an Indian emperor's daughter, a Buddhist nun, in the 288 BC. It's the oldest human-planted tree whose planting date is known, and is venerated by Buddhist pilgrims.
Buildings of interest include the monasteries, dagobas - also known as stupas, these are ancient architectural mandala whose forms are used as a focus for meditation and worship - and the magnificent water tanks, or 'pokunas', which once supported one of the most ambitious irrigation systems of the ancient world. Some of the most remarkable dagobas here are over 2,000 years old, and have been very well preserved. Some contain Buddhist relics, and are still actively revered. Also notable are the elegant Twin Ponds, a number of ancient ornate stone carvings, and the monks' dwelling houses.
After just 10 minutes drive from the town of Dambulla, you near the base of a rock that towers above its surroundings, and begin scanning for the famous cave temples at its top... but you can't help but briefly lose focus on the morning's aim, thanks to the gigantic golden Buddha and somewhat Disney-esque temple that guard the entrance to the steep path leading upwards.
Once past this diversion, a steep 20 minute walk (much of which can actually be driven via a different route) leads to the five cave temples at the summit. The view of the surrounding hills - including the nearby Sigiriya rock fortress - from the top is spectacular, but it's what’s inside the temples that makes the climb worthwhile. Each cave houses a number of Buddha statues (153 in total), all of various sizes and ages, as well as pieces of Sinhala art and ancient murals. There is a little Hindu influence here too, with statues of Vishnu alongside those of the Buddhas and a couple of honoured kings. On the walls, 18th century frescoes illustrate Buddha's life.
The Dambulla Caves are best visited at either end of the day, as this not only improves the view and light for photographers, but makes the walking between the caves without shoes a little easier on your bare feet.
- Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
Growing in Anuradhapura, this is the world's oldest historically documented human-planted tree. Believed to have grown from an offshoot of the fig tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment, its own offshoots are planted nearby and have been sent to other countries too. It is cared for by a scientist who studied at Kew Gardens. Nearby stands a huge white dagoba, Ruwan Veli Saya, which is surrounded by 136 carved elephants.
Another highlight of Anuradhapura, this 400 feet high dagoba was the world's tallest brick structure - and third tallest of all structures, with Giza's Great Pyramid the tallest - when it was built in the 4th century AD, and remains the largest in terms of masonry volume. Its 93 million bricks would stretch into a 10 foot high wall all the way from London to Edinburgh. A piece of Buddha's belt is reputedly enshrined here.
About five miles east of Anuradhapura, and often translated as Mahinda's Mountain, legend states that this mountain was where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. Here, the Sinhalese King Devanampiya met the Buddhist monk Mahinda, the son the last Buddhist emporer of India, and was converted by him to the Buddhist faith. Today, the mountain remains an important pilgrimage site. Visitors can examine what is possibly the oldest hospital in the world at the mountain's base, while the peak offers incredible views, a 2,000 year old stupa, and the sacred rock where Mahinda supposedly arrived.
- Aukana or Avukana Buddha
This astonishing statue, fifteen miles north west from Dambulla, is over twelve metres (40 feet) high and was carved, in the 5th century AD, from a single solid rock. Rumoured to be the result of a competition between a master sculptor and his pupil, the statue is truly magnificent, and makes the hour-long side trip well worthwhile.
Here, a 2,000 year old Buddhist monastery, 40 miles from Anuradhapura, sits atop Sri Lanka's highest mountain. Ritigala mountain itself is designated a Strict Nature Reserve, due to its biodiversity and microclimate, which keeps vegetation and wildlife alive even during the dry season. Caves here contain ancient cave-paintings and are the subject of much mythology, while the monastery itself, along with its ancient reservoir or ritual bathing tank, offers some extraordinary stone structures that are well worth exploring. No monks live here now - however, you may well be welcomed by a troupe of local monkeys.
select another destination
For much of the year, the Cultural Triangle region is hot and dry, as the Central Plains see little of Sri Lanka's two wet seasons. It’s best to allow yourself at least three nights to cover the entire Triangle at a comfortable pace, but it is possible to tailor a short itinerary to suit your preferences.