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Polonnaruwa, the island’s medieval capital between the 11th and 13th century, is perhaps the most rewarding of the ancient cities. Flowering principally under three kings over a short period of less than 100 years, it is both historically and geographically compact. The ruins, built alongside a vast and beautiful artificial lake, stand witness to a lavish phase of building, culminating in the sublime Gal Vihara. In its imperial intentions and the brevity of its existence Polonnaruwa may be compared to the great Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra in India. In 1982 it was designated a World Heritage Site.
In 1056 King Vijayabahul defeated the reigning Cholas, setting up his own capital in their principal city, Polonnaruwa. It remained a vibrant centre of Sinhalese culture under his successors, notably Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) who maintained very close ties with India, importing architects and engineers, and Nissankamalla (1187-1196). Polonnaruwa owes much of its glory to the artistic conception of King Parakramabahu I, who planned the whole as an expression of imperial power. Its great artificial lake, which was named Parakrama Samudra (Topa Wewa) after its royal designer, provided cooling breezes through the city, water for irrigation and, at the same time, defence along its entire west flank thanks to 14 km long embankment (bund). After Parakramabahu the kingdom went into terminal decline and the city was finally abandoned in 1288 after the embankment was breached.
The ruins can be split broadly into five groups. Close to the entrance and within the old walls are the Royal Citadel Group to the south and the Quadrangle to the north. The Northern Monuments, which include the magnificent Gal Vihara, are spread out for 3 km north of here. Across the main road from the main site, close to the museum and bund is the small Rest House Group, and, finally, the Southern Group is about 3 km south of town.
The Gal Vihara (Cave of the Spirits of Knowledge) is rightly regarded as one of the Sri Lanka’s foremost attractions and has great significance to Buddhists. It forms part of Parakramabahu’s monastery, where a Buddha seated on a pedestal under a canopy was carved out of an 8 mhigh rock. On either side of the rock shrine are further vast carvings of a seated Buddha and 14 m recumbent Buddha in Parinirvana.