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  • Highlights of the Cultural Triangle

    Sigiriya Rock Fortress

    Minneriya National Park

    Highlights of the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka

    There are many highlights of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle including four UNESCO World Heritage Sites which between them telling the fascinating story of Sri Lanka’s Civilisation. As well as Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the Cave Temples of Dambulla, the Mediaeval capital of Polonnaruwa and the sacred city of Anuradhapura there are numerous other places of interest which are well worth a visit.

    Sigiriya Rock Fortress
    The 5th century Sigiriya Rock Fortress (also known as Lion Rock due to the huge lion that used to stand at the entrance to the palace), is one of the island's most awe-inspiring archaeological sites and its prime tourist attraction. For just two decades in the 5th century AD, the king set up his capital at Sigiriya; his creation was a remarkable feat of engineering and a true work of art. You can stroll through the ruins of the palace and gardens down below and admire the rock, but to fully appreciate Sigiriya it is worth climbing up the steep steps that take you up one side of the rock to reach the summit. At the top, there are majestic views of the surrounding jungle and the foundations of a Royal Palace, whilst on one of the stairways part-way up the rock, you will find ancient frescoes of 21 life sized damsels (believed to be the king’s concubines), still shining in their original colours.
    Where to stay: Jetwing Vil Uyana, an eco-friendly luxury resort with views in the distance of Sigiriya Rock Fortress or Elephant Corridor, an all-suite boutique hotel with stunning views.

    Cave temples of Dambulla

    Hewn into a 160m granite outcrop are the remarkable cave temples of Dambulla. Used as a refuge since the 1st century BC, each cave is filled with murals depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life and gilded statues of the Buddha in various poses. The temple is spiritual and mesmerising with no less than 150 Buddhist statues in the five caves. Cave 2, the Maharaja Vihara, is the largest and most spectacular. This visit involves a 10-15 minute uphill climb on foot, though you are also rewarded with wonderful views looking over the plain.
    Where to stay: Heritance Kandalama, an award winning eco-resort designed to resemble a natural extension of the mountainside or Kassapa Lion’s Rock, a comfortable hotel where culture blends with nature and adventure.

    Mediaeval capital of Polonnaruwa
    In the 12th century AD, the capital of Polonnaruwa was one of the great urban centres in South Asia. Today, the well preserved ruins give you the chance to experience the grandeur of this period and marvel at the artistry of the island's early craftsmen. Highlights are the Royal Palace and Council Chamber, and the four graceful Buddha statues of Gal Vihara (Stone Temple), the pinnacle of Sri Lankan rock carving. The site also hosts the Royal baths and the vast artificial Parakrama Samudraya reservoir (Sea of Parakrama) as well as many distinctly South Indian-style Hindu temples. Set amongst gently undulating woodland, the monkeys, giant lizards and birdlife in abundance, Polonnaruwa’s historical site is visited using a combination of driving and on foot; or else hire a bike and cycle around (best visited early morning or late afternoon because this is the dry zone).
    Where to stay: The Deer Park Hotel, a jungle hideaway which blends traditional and contemporary styles.

    The sacred city of Anuradhapura
    The ancient city of Anuradhapura is a vast ancient archaeological site of palaces, monasteries, temples and dagobas, mostly in ruins though some have been restored. This was once one of the grandest monastic cities the world has ever seen, established in the 4th century BC then rising to become the major centre for Buddhist pilgrimage and learning in Sri Lanka. It is home to the 2,300-year-old sacred bo tree, the Sri Maha Bodhiya, which was brought by Sangamitha Theri as a sapling from the bo tree in India under which Buddha attained enlightenment. The great kings of Anuradhapura oversaw a golden age in the island's history, building colossal dagobas that rivalled the pyramids of Egypt in scale, and developing a sophisticated irrigation system consisting of vast reservoirs and canals scattered across a 250 square kilometre area that are still in use today. The Jethawanaramaya Stupa is one of the largest ancient monuments in the world, a remarkable feat of engineering. Anuradhapura eventually fell into decline in the 10th century AD, enduring frequent invasions from India. A thriving town has grown up next to the ancient site and both remain an important centre for Buddhism, welcoming pilgrims and monks throughout the year, especially at full moon festivals. Due to the vast scale of the ancient city and the hot weather, people usually drive to the various sites, maybe walking between a few of them. You can hire bicycles to cycle around, best done in the early morning and late afternoon.
    Where to stay: Ulagalla Resort, a 200 year old mansion with a distinctive character.

    Mihintale Sanctuary
    Clearly visible sitting on ‘the hill of Mahinda’, 8 km from Anuradhapura, lies Mihintale sanctuary. Known as the ‘cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka’, it was here that the Buddhist doctrine was first preached by the monk Mahinda, son of Asoka, Emperor of India, to King Devanampiyatissa more than 2,000 years ago. Mihintale has been a sanctuary since 247 BC and some of the Brahmi inscriptions found here date back to 3 BC. It is approached by a magnificent, wide, ancient stone stairway of 1,840 steps.
    Where to stay: Ulagalla Resort, an eco-friendly resort set amongst paddy fields and lakes.

    Ritigala
    Ritigala is the location of the ruins of a 9th century monastery, hidden away in dense forest on a mountainside. These intriguing remains include a reservoir wall, hospital, banqueting hall for the monks, library and ordination hall. The visit is on foot, up hill, along paths occasionally overgrown with vegetation.
    Where to stay: Chaaya Village, a comfortable hotel which is in harmony with its natural surroundings.

    Minneriya National Park

    This park offers the best chance of seeing elephants in the wild, particularly on the water’s edge of Minneriya tank, an ancient reservoir built by King Mahasen 1,500 years ago. Visitors are also likely to see spotted deer, wild buffalo, wild boar, crocodiles, sambur, water birds, and peacocks within the park. There have been rare sightings of leopards and sloth bear. Asian elephants are renowned as highly social animals and their ‘tank gatherings’ demonstrate their complex group dynamics in action. At Minneriya, between July and October, you can witness the phenomenon of 100, even up to 300, elephants gathering in the late afternoon around the tank. Wildlife safaris by jeep can be arranged to Minneriya National Park during most months of the year (it is on the road to Polonnaruwa). A little further to the north-east is Kaudulla National Park, established in 2002, which supports a large herd of elephants and a range of wildlife similar to those found in Minneriya.
    Where to stay: Deer Park Hotel, a comfortable hotel in peaceful and private surroundings.

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