Polonnaruwa, the miracle that was


King Parakramabahu’s Palace, Polonnaruwa

I had visited the Polonnaruwa ruins more than fifty years ago. And I had the fortune of gazing at them again last week and got the opportunity to learn of what possibly was the grandest, boldest, incredibly beautiful, city planning ever undertaken anywhere in the world. It was the Polonnaruwa of Parakramabahu the Great (1123-1186). He began to reign from 1153. The Wikipedia says: "Streets and shops, homes and palaces, parks and ponds were built, making Polannaruwa a city of extreme beauty. This period in history is referred to as Lanka’s second Golden Age". King Parakramabahu reigned for thirty three years and left the country in a state of great prosperity when he died.

Before getting on to the subject of the miracle that was let me say a few congratulatory words about the conservation and presentation of the Polonnaruwa ruins in their present state. I was much impressed by the professional methods used to preserve them and the attractive way the surrounding parks are neatly kept and conserved. There are security personnel at every interesting ancient relic to be seen. The name and the explanation of each of them are inscribed in three languages on steel plaques fixed on stands. We are grateful to the Department of Archaeology and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs for the good work that is been done. The work of constructing huge covering roofs for some of them like the Gal Viharaya are still going on. It is an essential need. They seem to be attracting a lot of tourists both local and foreign. I am sorry, but I need to gripe about the Kiri Vehera. Initially you are mesmerized by the bright white Vehera, newly painted. There seems to be an annual whitewashing ceremony of the Chaiththiya. But on second thought you feel bad about it. It would have been much better had it been left to its natural, ancient, glory still extant.

A mutual friend introduced to us a young man in his late thirties to guide us in our tour of ancient Polonnaruwa. But he is not a guide. He is a resident of Polonnaruwa doing a private research on the ancient city of King Parakramabahu the Great. It looks like this is his hobby but a serious hobby and a lifelong one. Already he has spent about fifteen years on it. He knows his onions though he is not a graduate of Archaeology or a post graduate student looking for a PhD. He does not have a Smithsonian like well funded institute to back his study. Like Senarath Paranavithane and Martin Wickremasinghe he has never stepped in to a university campus. Thank god! For he did not get trapped either in the Pera ‘box’ or the Colombo ‘box’. Otherwise he would have been merely parroting Bell, Brohier and Deraniyagala like so many others. He was free to take the path he instinctively felt right in his curiosity-led searching mind. And that is exactly what he did. His name is Indika Manawadu and this is his theory of the glorious archipelago like city built by Parakramabahu the Great.

Going against all accepted theories that Parakrama Samudraya was built for irrigation and agriculture, Mr Manawadu maintains that it was not built for that purpose. Parakrama Samudraya that Parakramabahu built was three times the size of the present one, and believe it or not it did not have a spillway. If, as the King declared, not a single drop of water falling from above or streaming down from high ground is to flow back to the sea there should not be a spillway. He trapped and impounded all the water he could get from any and every source and created a veritable sea, Samudraya. All the extant ruins show us many short walls making squares all over the parks like terraces in paddy fields. This is to get the water falling there in to leach in to the ground. The idea was to increase the ground water level. There still can be seen the wells that collected water, not for use, but to keep it and raise the ground water level. Take for example the charming work of art called the Nelum Pokuna. It was not meant for bathing as you could not climb out of it. It was only ornamental and beautified the parks. Not like now, then it was always full of water for the ground water level was very high. The palaces, temples, monasteries, libraries, hospitals, commercial centres and all the necessary institutions and buildings for a thriving city were situated in small islands. Polonnaruwa was a man made archipelago. Though now Polonnaruwa is dry and dusty during the rainless season, then it was always wet, surrounded by water right through the year and must have looked green and lush like the Sinharaja forest.

Imagine ‘pada’ boats and barges plying to Polonnaruwa along a specially built canal from the old harbour of the Mahaveli River, called Gokanna. According to Mr Manawadu the remains of the canal are still there. They came for rice as well as other local products such as spices, gems, elephants and peacocks which were exported. From sea level the canal had to rise two hundred feet to reach Polonnaruwa. The marvelous irrigation engineering of those days made sure there was always water flowing in the canal. Another wonderful discovery we made was the attached latrines in the Sat Mahal Prasadaya. The septic tank was built by the side of the latrines outside the main building deep in to the ground and it goes up to the top floor collecting the refuse.

Almost a millennium ago Polonnaruwa was truly a miracle and not only of Asia. Contemplating the ruins of this our great city and fantasizing how it was in its vibrant glorious days, we felt our spirits uplifted and were sincerely proud to be Sri Lankan. I write this small piece in grateful tribute to the young researcher Mr Indika Manawadu who, though alone, unrecognized and unrewarded, is committed to his work not for gain but simply because of his love for his country and especially for his town, Polonnaruwa.

Fr J.C. Pieris


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...