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Cultural Triangle


Deep in the highlands in the heart of Sri Lanka is an area which has been since antiquity also the spiritual heart of the island, a region steeped in the art, architecture, and heritage of the Buddhist tradition. Often known as the Cultural Triangle, it encloses an area from Anaradhapura in the north, east to Polunnaruwa, and at the southern tip the mountain kingdom of Kandy. Only a few hours’ trip inland from the coast at Colombo, the sites of the Cultural Triangle are all listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and are not only beautiful and fascinating historic monuments, but are still actively used in Buddhist devotional life, and are essential viewing for any visitor to the island.

Anaradhapura was the first capital of Sri Lanka, dating from the 4th-3rd centuries BC; it remained the island’s capital until it was sacked by the Cholas from mainland India in 993 AD, and languished as jungle ruins until discovered by the British around 1820. Gradually its past glories were revived, revealing the magnificent monuments and glorious artwork that had flourished under centuries of benign royal patronage. Buddhism had come to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC, and in Anaradhapura there are the ruins of monasteries from this early era. The Mahavihara monastery contains some of the most sacred shrines of Sri Lankan Buddhism, including the sacred Bodhi tree, perhaps the world’s oldest tree, purported to be a sapling of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. In addition to the seven major monuments of Anaradhapura are other monasteries, palaces, reservoirs and highly efficient irrigation systems (some still in use), and a number massive dagobas (funerary relic shrines). The Jetavana Dagoba, in the 3rd century monastery, reaches to a height of 122m, higher than St Paul’s cathedral dome. These huge bell-shaped dagobas were built to last, on foundations of stones pounded into the ground by elephants.

Polunnaruwa succeeded Anaradhapura as Sri Lanka’s capital until it in turn fell to invaders in the 13th century, and also lay desolate and forgotten until the 19th century. It is one of the major archaeological sites of the island, with Buddhist and Hindu shrines on the same ground. Most imposing are the massive sculptures of the Buddha at the Gal Viahara: four colossal statues hewn out the rock cliff face, of the Buddha seated, standing, meditating, and reposing in death – this last statue 46ft long. The ancient city lies on the banks of an immense reservoir, the Sea of Parakramabahu, named after the king who built it around 1200 AD, and still in use for irrigation.

Dambulla lies directly in the centre of the Cultural Triangle, and features the largest and best-preserved rock temple complex in Sri Lanka. Built into a 150m rock face is a series of five caves housing one of the island’s most famous Buddhist shrines, and a major pilgrimage site. The second cave, the Cave of the Kings, is the largest and most ornately painted, with some remarkable historical murals, and around sixty beautiful statues of the Buddha, various kings in Sri Lankan history, and a number of Hindu gods and goddesses. The cave paintings are relatively recent, dating mostly from the 18th century.

The mountaintop of Mihintale, 13km east of Anaradhapura, is considered to be the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where in the 3rd century BC the king was converted by Mahinda, an itinerant Buddhist monk, while out hunting. The Poson Festival in May-June brings thousands of pilgrims here to celebrate. At the foot of the mountain are the ruins of a hospital, thought to be the oldest hospital in the world.