The north-central heartlands of Sri Lanka are home to an abundance of historical sites that make up Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. The hot, dry landscape of this region is scattered with timeworn ruins, sacred Buddhist monuments, restored temples and stunning frescoes. The Cultural Triangle stretches between the two ancient capitals of Anuradhapura to the north and Polonnaruwa to the east, as well as the Dambulla Cave Temple to the south. Once home to Sinhalese royalty, you will find five of the country’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites here.
Ancient City of Sigiriya
The best-known of these – and one of the most spectacular – is Sigiriya (or Lion Rock), which we were fortunate enough to visit on our recent trip. Thought to have been formed by magma from an extinct volcano, the huge rock rises dramatically 200m out of the forested plains and is crowned with the remains of a royal palace and fortress. We, at cazenove+loyd, always suggest going in the early morning or late afternoon in order to beat the heat of the day.
It was approaching evening when we passed through some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world on our trek to the top. These were made up of a complex of irrigation channels, pools and fountains, as well as caves, boulders and terraced gardens. The manpower – with the help of elephants – and the advanced engineering skills required to construct such a staggering monument is fascinating to hear about from your private guide, who will elucidate you on this extraordinary place as you ascend. Its scale was mind-blowing.
About a third of the way up, we continued up a spiral staircase on the side of the rock and encountered some fantastically preserved, colourful cave paintings – many of scantily dressed ladies that the king obviously desired at the time! Another interesting stop is the Mirror Wall, which, in the past, was so polished that the monarch could see himself in it. Now, it is covered in age-old inscriptions and poems written by visitors from as far back as the 8th century.
Further up, we reached the main entrance, designed in the shape of two gigantic lion’s feet. Ascending the last flight of stairs, we were greeted by a wonderful, cool breeze and breathtaking views. The 1,200 steps were certainly worth the climb! The rugged plateau at the summit served as a monastery until the 5th century, when King Kasyapa decided to build his royal residence. After his death, it once again became a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
An experience we strongly recommend to our clients is the hike up to the top of Pidurangala Rock in time for sunrise. On my trip, we left our hotel in the dark, somewhat bleary-eyed, and after a short drive, found ourselves walking up a craggy pathway through the forest by torchlight. The expedition was exhilarating and, eventually, we arrived at a large reclining Buddha, a sign that we were nearly there.
After this, it was just a short distance further, involving a bit of gentle scrambling up some boulders. But it was definitely worth the effort for the tremendous vistas. The sky was a dark mix of purple and blue, the jungle-covered plains below were broken by the odd enormous Buddha statue protruding from the trees and the Knuckles Mountain Range towered in the background. To top it all off, we can arrange a very special picnic breakfast here, overlooking the fortress of Sigiriya in the distance.
Sacred City of Anuradhapura
Another must-see, in our opinion, is the sprawling site of Anuradhapura. Chosen back in the 4th century by King Pandukabhaya as the capital of the Sinhalese people, it remained Sri Lanka’s stronghold up until 900 AD when the capital moved to Polonnaruwa.
The best way to cover the distance between the many ancient pools, giant stupas and crumbling temples here is by bicycle. We can organise fun cycling trips with some of our favourite guides, who will explore the rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders with you, as well as leading you past lush rice paddies and modest, modern-day dwellings.
Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple
The Dambulla Cave Temple was once a sanctuary for King Valagamba when he fled from Anuradhapura, and afterwards, it became a place of royal worship. Today, this is still a destination for pilgrims, and you will share the caves with devotees placing their offerings on the laps of the many Buddhas.
Reached by 364 steps, the temple consists of five separate caves – each home to hundreds of detailed, vibrant murals, sculptures and several vast reclining Buddhas. It is said that many of the images were first created 2,000 years ago and subsequent kings added to them over time. We loved our visit to this amazing site and would suggest breaking your journey to or from Kandy with a stop-off here.
In the high season, the Cultural Triangle can be busy. However, through careful planning and curation, we can showcase the region in its best light, avoiding the busiest times of day, taking our guests to lesser-known spots and bringing these incredible places to life with our exceptional specialist guides. One such quieter site, for example, is Ritigala, an ancient Buddhist forest monastery. The enigmatic remains are tucked away on a mountainside within a nature reserve. Considered some of the island’s most mysterious ruins, the complex includes several natural caves, where monks would have once meditated.
Our experience of the Cultural Triangle far exceeded our expectations. We couldn’t believe how extensive, well preserved and impressive the ruins were – and would encourage any clients to visit these extraordinary sites to gain an insight into Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage.