Sri Lanka – The Cultural TriangleBack to Story

Sri Lanka's ancient capitals

The Cultural Triangle

The area containing Sri Lanka’s first capitals is known as the Cultural Triangle. Five of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites are contained within the ‘Cultural Triangle’. The ancient cities of Sri Lanka including: Dambulla Caves; Sigiriya Rock and Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are the highlights here.  The area is rich in history and particularly Buddhist history dating back to 3BC. The ruins are a major site for pilgrims as well as a significant tourist attraction.

The Sri Lankan population consists of two main communities who settled from India, the Sinhalese and Tamils who came to Sri Lanka at approximately the same time in 5 BC. King Pandukabhaya made and developed Anuradhapura as the first capital in 4 BC and cleverly laid out the city, which remained in the same layout through all its growth.  He constructed a reservoir called Abhayarapi and carefully managed the use of water. The amazing thing is that you can drive out to the dam today and marvel at the engineering that has stood the test of time.

The Sinhalese invented the system of tank feed irrigation that harnessed the monsoonal rains and allows for a sophisticated form of irrigation.  These systems are very much the backbone of agriculture to this day.


The history of this area is believed to date back to 500BC. Anduradhapura was once the greatest monastic city of the ancient world by apparently supporting 6000 monks in its peak. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC and remains one of the island’s prominent religions.  The first capital Anuradhapura was developed and soon became the centre for Buddhist religion and culture.  Despite emerging conflicts with the Tamils, Anuradhapura remained the capital for over a millennium and was one of the most magnificent cities of the ancient world.

On visiting the old capital you can immediately get a sense of the scale of what the former township was. The city spans 40km2 and the infrastructure was a real marvel.  Reservoirs cleverly feed a loop of ponds in the city with clearly designated areas for bathing, washing and drinking.

The twin ponds Kuttam Pokuna are the twin bathing ponds and show jut how remarkable the engineering was.  The faces of the pool are carved out of granite slabs and each end is decorated with pots and flowers.  Long steps lead down to the water’s edge.

You can see the ruins of the old refractory where the monks gathered to be fed.  There are large stone-carved troughs that feed the monks and you can imagine the sheer scale of feeding such a large number of monks.


Due to increasing conflict in the North with the Tamils the capital was moved to Polonnaruwa where it stayed from 11C – 13C AD.  One of the major Kings during this time was King Parakarma who reigned in the 12C.  His statue can be seen at Polonnaruwa.  It was during his reign that Polonnaruwa became a period of religious and political reconstruction.

Dambadeniya is the third historic centre that has been the capital for Sri Lanka at one time.  As conflict in the north developed with the Tamils over the centuries the centre has progressively been moved further South.  This centre is smaller in size from the original and only some restoration has been completed.  The highlight is the brightly painted frescoes on the ceiling.  Weather permitting there is a nearby archaeological site to walk around.  The weather wasn’t permitting at the time, as there was a huge tropical downpour at the least appropriate time.

Dambulla Caves

Sitting high in the hills is Dambulla’s sacred temple  – the Golden Temple – consists of 5 separate caves. The caves have many Buddhist statues and amazing paintings dating from 1st Century BC through to the 16th Century. The climb is steep and to be avoided during the heat of the day. It is also advisable to take your time and it is well worth the effort. The stairs are lined with Macaks – curious monkeys that will distract you from gasping for breath. The outside of the caves have been lime washed and look amazing as you come through the gates.

The first cave is Devarago Lena or the Cave of the Great Gods. The predominant feature here is the 14 metre reclining Buddha statue dating back to 1BC that was carved out of the cave’s rock. The second is the Maharaga Cave or the Cave of the Great Kings also dating from 1BC and is much larger and features some later additions. As you enter each cave it has different colours and themes and each is beautiful in it’s own right.

Minneria National Park

In August / September it is supposed to be the time for the famous elephant gathering. In previous years hundreds of elephants have reportedly come down to Lake Minneria to drink because it is the dry season for that area. I am not sure how long ago these large numbers were reported but we certainly didn’t see anywhere near hundreds. In order to go through the National Park you have to line up and take a jeep safari.  It is very busy on the day we’re there because it is also school holidays. The elephants seem quite shy creatures and the fumes and noise of the jeeps did not encourage them to come out. However, it is still very beautiful and we did see a dozen wild elephants including a tusker (male elephant with tusks) and some baby elephants with their mothers.

Sigiriya’s Rock Fortress

This unfortunately is the one site that I didn’t have time to go and see. It is also known as Lion’s Rock and is famous for its cave and paintings. The grounds look amazing and well with many angles looking back over the rock.  Bring your walking shoes and follow the path around the side of the rock to the cave walls to see the frescoes.

For where we stayed see Sri Lanka Hotels.

Travel photographs from the UNESCO sites in Sri Lanka. Images from Anuradhapura, Polonnarawa, Aukana, Dumbella and Lake Minneriya. Wild elephants and monkeys in the temples. Images of Pagodas and buddhist monks.

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