In 477 BCE, King Kashyapa, having usurped the throne, was fearful of an attack on Anuradhapura by the rightful heir Moggallana. His solution towers today, a few kilometres from Dambulla. The rock fortress Sigiriya is among Sri Lanka’s most iconic travel sites. At its pomp, Sigiriya – originally referred to as Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock – was King Kashyapa’s home for 18 years until 495 when his army was defeated. During those 18 years, King Kashyapa transformed the fortress into a gallery as well as a garden – the inside walls adorned with intricately painted frescoes while the Royal Gardens around the complex hint at an engineering ingenuity that must have astounded the ancient world.
Today, the site attracts large numbers of visitors, both local and foreign, eager to view the frescoes, wander among the landscaped gardens, and take in the view from the top of the fortress. All three will aspects of Sigiriya will astound the first time visitor.
Sinharaja (meaning Lion King) is a vast sprawling rainforest that covers Ratnapura, Galle and Matara. Its World Heritage Status is well-earned as it is home to a number of endemic species, both flora and fauna. Its thick foliage has meant that it retains much of the bio-diversity that made the British name it as a Crown Property under the Wasteland Ordinance in 1840. Despite its relative inaccessibility, especially in comparison to Yala and Udawalawe National Parks, has meant that visitors planning to visit have to use two routes to access the forest. One such way is through Deniyaya via Galle while the other is through Kalawana via Ratnapura – there are circuit bungalows at both ends. Hiring a tracker is recommended.
A city whose history stretches back to the 1st century BCE, Dambulla is home to the stunning cave temples that are situated under an overhanging cave. Three of these caves – called Devarajalena (Cave of the Divine King), Maharajalena (Cave of the Great Kings), Maha Aluth Viharaya (Great New Monastery) – contain statues of The Buddha, Gods Saman and Vishnu, and Kings Vatta Gamini and Nissanka Malla. Attracting thousands of devotees, the Dambulla Rock Temple has been restored and lit following World Heritage Status. Dambulla’s attractions can stretch from the historic to the prehistoric as a visit to the Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Burial Site will demonstrate. The site is dated between 750 and 400 BCE, which approximates to the Early Iron Age of Sri Lanka, and shows the existence of a civilization prior to the entry of Buddhism.
A short drive away is the Sigiriya Rock Fortress.
The last kingdom to fall to the British, Kandy was, in 1817, the sole native political structure, and the home of the Sacred Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha. These two facts bestow a gravitas to this hill country capital that is unmatched – it is why UNESCO conferred a World Heritage status on this sacred city. Chief among its attractions are The Temple of the Tooth where the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha is housed; even on an island that is overflowing with sacred Buddhist sites, this temple is the holiest and most venerated among all Sri Lankan Buddhists. Inside the Dalada Maligawa complex is a museum that gives visitors an incisive look into the history surrounding the Sacred Relic of the Tooth. Around the temple, other historically important structures beckon visitors: the Mahawasala (the Royal Palace), and Magul Maduwa (the Royal court), for instance, underscores how important the Sacred Relic of the Tooth was to Sri Lankan royalty.
Galle - like Colombo and Nuwara Eliya - openly shows its colonial past. And the Galle Fort is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most well-known remnant of colonial rule, being built initially by Portuguese before the Dutch fortified it and the British modified it after they had captured a large portion of the country. The evidence can be seen on inscriptions on the fort, through the many passageways and catacombs, and even on the streets within the fort - many of which continue to be referred to by their Dutch names. In addition, the Galle Fort is host to a Dutch Church, the Galle National Museum (itself a repurposed Dutch colonial building), the Historical Mansion Museum that is privately run by current Galle resident and gem merchant, and the National Maritime Museum.
Today, Galle is a vibrant modern city that is home to modern hotels, an international cricket stadium and is the main base for beach-dwellers from around the world wanting to explore the sandy beaches around this historical southern city. But step inside the Galle Fort and you, traveller, will briefly be transported to a different time when this city and its harbour were considered essential to colonial powers.
Though it is a modern city today, ask residents and they'll point you towards sites that reveal Anuradhapura's age - ancient and stately, it seems to reach out from the past, offering visitors a beguiling glimpse into some of Sri Lanka's earliest recorded history. Nowhere is this more tangible than at the Abhayagiri vihāra, an imposing monastic complex that was the first location to safeguard the Sacred Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha - before moving to the current location in Kandy's Temple of the Tooth. Its namesake museum hosts a large collection of artefacts that include jewellery, states, pottery, plates and other items that were part of the daily lives of kings, courtesans, priests and ordinary citizens during the Anuradhapura Kingdom between 377 BCE – 1017 AD. As a constant target of invasions, the city miraculously withstood armies for centuries before finally falling in 1017. With its fall came the rise of Polonnaruwa.
Polonnaruwa's reputation as a garden city is as old as it well earned. This is a city that was once the capital of Sri Lanka, rising to prominence as Anuradhapura fell into decline, and experiencing a golden era under the rule of King Parākramabāhu I. This golden era saw the city become a cultural, commercial and agricultural hub that was the envy of South Asia. Parākramabāhu I devoted much of his time to overseeing giant structures and reservoirs that still stand today: the Gal Viharaya (Rock Monastery) whose centrepieces are giant statues of The Buddha seated, standing and recumbent; the Kirivehera, a 'milk' stupa - essentially a hemispherical structure - that was built for meditation; and the magnificent Parakrama Samudraya, a giant reservoir whose engineering brilliance continues to beguile engineers and non-engineers alike today.
These - and other sites of historic importance - still survive today, making Polonnaruwa a hypnotic introduction to Sri Lankan history.