Sri Lanka, the Spice Land is full of UNESCO Heritage sites. Since time immemorial the country has seduced travelers who are romantically involved with the art of exploring. The beauty of the land has attracted the Indian, European and Arab traders in the search of rare spices, precious stones and magnificent elephants. Along with its beautiful beaches the land also quenches the historians thirst for their search of the past. Particularly the areas which form the Cultural Triangle brings out Sri Lanka’s history along with the origins of Buddhism in the country in the most enthralling manner.
The Cultural Triangle has the town of Anuradhapura on the Northern tip, Polonnaruwa on the Eastern tip and Kandy on the Southern tip with the towns of Sigiriya and Dambulla in the central province.
The top-most point of the Cultural Triangle, Anuradhapura has served as Capital City for 113 kings. Situated on the banks of the Malvathu Oya River, this UNESCO World Heritage site is of great importance to the Buddhist community.
Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred bodhi tree is central to Anuradhapura in both a spiritual and physical sense. This is the tree that the Buddhist nun, Sanghamitta, the daughter of Ashoka the Great, brought as a sapling in the 3rd century BC from Gaya, India, the same tree under which Gautama Buddha sat and gained Enlightenment.
Other things of interest include the monasteries, stupas- also known as dagobas here.
Abhyagiri Dagoba, the largest monastery complex in Anuradhapura, introduces you to Buddhist art, culture and history. Ruwanwelisaya (a Stupa considered a marvel for its architectural qualities), The Gem Palace-Ratnaprasada and The Twin Ponds are the marvels of the ancient Engineering skills that take you across to those Ancient Kingdoms.
Another old town of Anuradhapura is Mihintale where Sri Lankans believe Buddhism was introduced to the country. The Kantaka Chetiya and Mahaseya Dagoba are a must visit here.
Ritigala, a nature reserve, with its forest covered ruined monastery is another one to consider. It is as much of interest to nature lovers as to history buffs.
If wildlife interests you, take a late afternoon safari to one of the national parks. Minneriya is the best known and is a good place to see large herds of wild elephants.
The Aukana Buddha statue is another possible, particularly lovely when viewed at sunrise.
The ''Lion Rock'' is a citadel of unusual beauty rising 200 metres from the scrub jungle visible for miles from all directions. One of the 7 World Heritage UNESCO Sites in Sri Lanka, this rock fortress is covered in almost every magazine or site. Once home to King Kashyapa, who carved and constructed the fortified citadel and pleasure palace, its ruins still surmount this incredible landmark. A stone stairway takes you from the base to the top of the mountain. This climb is approximately 45mins. The top of the fortress offers amazing 360- degree views of the city and is absolutely worth the climb.
About half way to the top, there is a pair of giant lion’s paws which once served as the entrance to the royal palace. The cuts and grooves on the rock above the paws indicate that the lion structure- built with brick masonry and limestone, presumably with a timber framework, was some 14 meters in height. The palace ruins now mostly consist of retaining walls and foundations. Visit the world-renowned frescoes of the ''Heavenly Maidens'' of Sigiriya, which are in a sheltered pocket of the rock approached by a spiral stairway. These frescoes are painted in earth pigments on plaster.
At the bottom, you pass through the water gardens, whose fountains used to erupt into life when the swimming pools on the top of the mountain had their plugs pulled. For most, the Elephant ride would be a memorable experience.
The deserted rock temple of Pidurangala similar to the Sigiriya rock fortress was also formed by volcanic activity. Less populated by the tourist this is a great option to explore.
Note: The climb to the fortress is a steep rock climb though after you reach at the top, you get undisturbed views in all directions.
A World Heritage Site, Dambulla Caves, also known as Rock temples or The Golden Temple, is house to 153 Buddha statues, 3 statues of Sri Lankan kings and 4 statues of gods and goddesses. Upon arrival to this place, the magnificent 30 meters high Buddha greets you. Buy your ticket here and then take the 10-minute climb to the Rock Temples. The area is divided into 5 rock temples that portray Buddhism in great detail with all its charm. The caves are engraved with various 18th century frescoes that illustrate Buddha's life. In one of the caves is the large 45 feet Sleeping postured Buddha statue is said to be the Parinirvana status or the final passing away of the Lord Buddha.
Besides the beauty of the caves itself, you should spend some time to sit and admire the view of the wilderness around which stretches to the Sigiriya rock fortress as well!
Oh! There are hot air balloon flights too in the morning. These offer you with panoramic views of the forests at Dambulla and Sigiriya.
Note: You will have to travel barefoot across the caves.
Another city of historic importance and the medieval capital for nearly a century from 1703 is Polonnaruwa. This city is home to some astonishing ancient architecture and carvings. With the vast but placid Parakrama Samudraya reservoir on one side and lush vegetation on the other, the surroundings makes it almost as impressive as the ruins themselves. This city is best explored on cycle.
The main attractions are:
Polonnaruwa museum: This is a great start in discovering the ancient capital city of Polonnaruwa as there are models of the city’s buildings that allow visitors to see what they would have looked like. It is also worth a visit for its insightful displays on life in the ancient city, and some fine exhibits including a number of superb Chola bronzes recovered from the site.
The Royal Palace: The Polonnaruwa Royal Palace was the once the Grand residence of King Parakramabahu (1153-1186). At its peak, the Polonnaruwa Royal Palace would have been a complex of buildings, some as high as seven storeys. What remains now is at the south of the main palace, the remains of the king’s audience hall and his bathing pools.
Gal Vihara: The pinnacle of rock-carved art in ancient Sri Lanka, the Gal Vihara is home to four magnificent Buddha statues in his different postures through his journey of attaining nirvana. This has two seating Buddha statues, one Standing statue and one statues in a Parinirvana Manchakaya. All the statues were done from a single huge granite rock.
Rangkot Vihara is a 54m dome-shaped high structure, the largest in Polonnaruwa and the fourth largest on the island, has been ascribed to the reign of King Nissanka Malla.
Along with these the intricacy, beauty and grandeur of the structures thousands of years back in this ancient city takes you by surprise.
Kandy, the hill capital is another World Heritage Site forms the southernmost tip of the cultural triangle. The drive to Kandy takes you through many local villages and up narrow mountain roads. The elevation is around 500 meters above sea level and you can see the surrounding mountains and tea plantations most of the time covered by clouds and fog.
To the Buddhist of Sri Lanka and the World, Kandy is one of the most sacred sites as it is the home of the “Dalada Maligawa” - Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. This Buddhist Temple is located right in the heart of Kandy in the former royal palace complex, just next to the famous Kandy Lake.
The Royal Botanical Gardens, 147 acres in extent; started in 1374 as a pleasure garden of the Kings of Gampola and Kandy. There are more than 5,000 species of trees, plants and creepers. Some rare and endemic as well as flora from the tropical world are found in the gardens. Spice Garden and Orchid House are popular with tourists.
Udawattakele Royal Forest Sanctuary, is a forest reserve located on a hill ridge in the middle of Kandy. It is 104 hectares (257 acres) large. It was a royal reserve and the tranquil pond near the entrance is said to have been a royal bathing pond. One can take a wonderful walk on well-maintained tracks through the dense jungle. The Tea Museum, New Ranweli Spice Garden is a must visit too.
Visit a tea plantation and a tea factory, where the best tea in the world is produced. Here you could observe all about the process of manufacturing tea. You can also see how tea is graded. Taste a cup of pure Ceylon tea in the factory.
A good way to spend your evenings is a walk by the Kandy Lake. This is the heart of the town and most construction is around this lake. Kandy Lake is very vivid place with heaps of flora and fauna surrounding it.
Around 42kms away from Kandy, in Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage where around 70 semi-tame elephants roam around freely. This is where an orphanage was started in 1975 to house the abandoned and the wounded elephants. The number of elephants has increased to more than 65 now; including Baby Elephants brought from various parts, as well as the 23 baby elephants born as a result of the captive breeding program. The best time to visit is the feeding time from 0930-1000 hrs and 1330-1400 hrs and the bathing time from 1000-1030 hrs and 1400-1430 hrs when all the elephants are taken to the river close by.
As you are in Kandy, do ascent to the Adam’s Peak to get a glorious view of the sunrise.
Did you know? - Kandy was used predominantly for filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom