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Ancient Polonnaruwa and its environs

by Prof. W. I. Siriweera, Vice Chancellor, Rajarata University


Click to enlargeJust like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa was also a centre of habitation in the pre-historic era, but unfortunately archaeological research on pre-historic Polonnaruwa has not been satisfactory. In the historical era beginning from the third century B.C. there were several settlements in and around Polonnaruwa as testified by the Brahmi inscriptions found at places such as Enderagala, Duvegala, Galkandegama Kanda, Konattegodagala, Lunuvaranagala and Mutugalla. The proximity of Polonnaruwa to the Mahaveli river and to the east coast had resulted in the development of settlements in the region throughout centuries. The region was agriculturally developed at least as early as the fourth century A. D. Long before that Polonnaruwa was an important military post due to its strategic location and therefore it was known as the Kandavurunuvara. The strategic importance of Polonnaruwa lay in the fact that it controlled access into Rohana and from Rohana into the northern plain through the passes at Dastota and Magantota along the Mahaveli river.

Five of twelve great reservoirs mentioned in the ninth and tenth century inscriptions, namely Padaviya, Vahalkada, Kantale, Kavudulu and Minneri and a large number of village irrigation works were located around the lower Mahaveli basin in the Dry Zone and the north eastern part of the Island. The construction of irrigation works and the concommitant agricultural development created dense clusters of population in this area, resulting in the emergence of new economic and political forces which changed the demographic pattern and the cultural landscape of the island.

From the sixth century A. D. onwards Polonnaruwa became increasingly important. The demographic expansion in the Polonnaruwa area after the sixth century is indicated by the construction of shrine rooms, an alternative residence for the Anuradhapura kings and hospitals at Polonnaruwa during the reigns of Silakala (518-31), Aggabodi III (629-39), Aggabodhi IV (667-83) and Udaya I (793-801).

Anuradhapura was superseded by Polonnaruwa as the principal centre of dynastic power in the eleventh century. The South Indian Chola empire which conquered the northern part of Sri Lanka in 1017 A.D. established its capital at Polonnaruwa and held sway over the Dry Zone regions for 53 years until 1070 A. D. After the Cholas were expelled the Sinhala kings too selected Polonnaruwa as their capital and it flourished for nearly two centuries until 1215 A. D. The foreign invader Magha conquered Polonnaruwa in 1215 and with his atrocious rule the Sinhala nobility drifted to the South west and established kingdoms in places such as Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa.

Polonnaruwa was a fortified city. What is now known in Polonnaruwa as the citadel was the fortified portion of the inner city within which the palace and other royal establishments were located. The chronicle Culavamsa claims that the city was surrounded by three moats and four fortified walls of receding height in the 12th century. The excavated portions of the city justify the claims of the Culavamsa.

The architectural remains of the royal palaces and other establishments are very imposing and occupy a prominent position among the excavated ruins. One remarkable feature at Polonnaruwa is that its secular aspect was not so thoroughly and completely overshadowed by religious establishments as in Anuradhapura.

Click to enlargeOutside the royal precinct were religious establishments. The Tooth Relic and the Alms bowl of the Buddha were almost always under the custody of the monarch and had by this time become a sort of national palladium, symbols for the legitimization of political authority. The Atadage, Watadage and Hatadage, three of the first and imposing monuments of Polonnaruwa were presumably designed as temples for enshrining the Tooth Relic by different kings. Monks belonging to various fraternities were accommodated at exceptionally large monastic dwellings in the city of Polonnaruwa. King Parakramabahu I is credited with the construction of eight monasteries of which the Jetavana was the largest. Within its precincts were three sermon halls, two libraries and seventy five parivenas or residences of monks. Another monastic complex of large proportions completed by Parakrambahu I was the Alahana Parivena which included within its precincts the monumental stupa now known as the Kirivehera. The Gal vihara, Rankotvihara, Potgulvihara and Satmahal Pasada were among the other monumental edifices constructed in Polonnaruwa during the twelfth century. Besides these Buddhist religious buildings, there are also the architectural remains of no less than sixteen Hindu temples scattered over the city of Polonnaruwa .

When Polonnaruwa was the centre of political authority it exercised a relatively high degree of central control. Therefore the administrative function was one of the important factors which contributed to the development of the city. The city supported vast royal, administrative and military establishments. As the city stood in the open plains and lacked the advantage of natural defences its decence systems had to be artificially created by constructing walls, moats etc. Therefore, Polonnaruwa maintained a substantial standing army and there was a concentration of Military power in the city.

Click to enlargeThe increase in the market or commercial activity was another important function that led to the growth of the city. In order to cater to the needs of a large population, the city had centres of commercial activity such as markets, fairs and bazaars. According to the chronicle, the Culavamsa, in the city of Polonnaruwa there were various bazaars in which all sorts of commodities were available and there was incessant traffic of elephants, horses and chariots in the streets. In order to facilitate foreign trade the city accommodated emissaries from foreign countries and also foreign merchants. The market area just outside the citadel and monastic complexes has been excavated recently.

Not only the presence of foreign diplomats and merchants but also the presence of army personnel, administrative officers, craftsmen, city cleaners and various other groups led to a complex occupational structure in the city. The maintenance of the monastic establishments and collosal monuments also required the settlement of a large number of persons for the performance of professional and menial services. Click to enlarge

Like any other city Polonnaruwa was by no means associated with agricultural production. It was entirely dependent on the hinterland satellite settlements of craft production and trade for its supplies. Surplus food production in the countryside was an essential requisite for the development of the process of urbanization of Polonnaruwa as in any other South Asian City. Food production in the environs of Polonnaruwa was facilitated by Parakramasamudra (1153-86) and other reservoirs. The Parakramasamudra was constructed by joining three earlier reservoirs Topavava, Dimbutuluvawa and Eramuduvawa. Being the largest of the ancient reservoirs, its embankment is eight and half miles long and rises to about 80 feet.

Thus the city of Polonnaruwa like any other ancient South Asian city, consisted of a citadel within which the royal precinct was located, a defense wall system and moats, monastic and devale complexes which were the ritual centres and a well laid out market complex. In the periphery of the city were centres of craft production and beyond them the agricultural hinterland.


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