Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka: Fantastic ancient ruins and Buddhist sites

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Think Sri Lanka and for most people, images of pristine beaches and rolling hills comes to mind. Besides the beaches, forests and misty hills, the country has enough and more to engage the culturally inclined. There exist a large number of cultural and ancient ruins, Buddhist temples and royal cities from the Sinhalese civilisation in Sri Lanka. This is understandable with more than 3000 years of ancient civilization and Buddhist influences. The most famous of them are all in the central heartland of the country, north of Kandy. This dry flat land is popularly known as the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.

For our 10 day itinerary to Sri Lanka, the Cultural Triangle to visit many of Sri Lanka ancient ruins was the first leg of the trip. We decided to make Sigiriya as our base to explore the heartland of the country. Sigiriya is about 170 km from Colombo and doable via a road trip. The rock citadel in Sigiriya, cultural places in Polonnaruwa, Dambulla Temple and Kaudulla national park were the highlights of our time spent in the cultural heartland. The best time to visit the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka is during the dry months between January and March.

We decided upon this cultural immersion itinerary for Sri Lanka ancient ruins in short bursts. We needed enough time left to lounge in the comfort of our hotel with a young child in tow.

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Day 1 of Cultural Triangle Itinerary in Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
The rock citadel of Sigiriya is an impressive sight.

Sigiriya is a World Heritage site and one of the most popular attractions within the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. This site is ancient, it dates back to 477-495 AD, when it was chosen as a new capital by King Kassapa.

Sigiriya is a massive column of rock, about 200 metres high that dominates the flat plains all around it. Atop this rock column sits an ancient fortress and the view from here of the surrounding forests and plains is unbelievable. 

Visit to Sigiriya Lion Rock

This site is open for visitors from 630 AM to 530 PM each day. It is best to arrive early in the morning or late afternoon to beat the heat. You need to buy tickets to Sigiriya Lion Rock and to the museum. There are 8 stages of Sigiriya rock climb. Climbing Sigirya rock is a must do activity.

It is not easy to reach the ruins of the fortress though. There are about 1200 all the way from the base to the top of Sigiriya rock. Let that thought not deter you from Sigiriya rock climb. After all, we attempted it with our 3-year old daughter! You notice the red colour of the sand on the dusty road at the start itself. And then the massive rock citadel reveals itself. What a stunning sight. You pass through well-maintained gardens, some say these are the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

Sigiriya rock climb

The start was easy with wide steps to begin our Sigiriya rock climb. The initial part is through Boulder Gardens and the Terrace Gardens. But soon enough, we started getting a bit tired as we had to carry our daughter for most parts. My husband did the bulk of the carrying. The tricky part came when the climb got a bit steep. The zig-zag stairs lead to a platform which is good for a bit of rest. A narrow spiral staircase leads to Sigiriya Frescoes painted over 1600 years ago.

It is worth reaching the caves which has these fine frescoes depicting the harem of King Kasyapa. They reminded me of frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora caves in India. You have to admire the beautiful work quickly and keep moving as people can only move in a single-row here. 

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The surrounding forests and the luminous white Buddha in the distance are a sight to behold.

More steps had to be taken and then we reached the half-way point of the Sigiriya rock climb. The views from the half-way point are spectacular. That and the giant carved lion claws in the rock that mark the beginning of the fortress make this a popular photo-op site. We had climbed about 600 steps and were wondering whether we could climb the next 600 carrying a child. It was hot and the decision to turn back at this point was made easy by the strong sun.

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, Sri lanka ancient ruins, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
Continue ahead to the Sky Palace, the climb is worth the effort!

If you don’t turn back like we did and take the steps that start between the lion claws, you would eventually reach the top. The climb to Sky Palace from the Lion staircase is the most difficult part of Sigiriya rock climb. This would be challenging for anyone who has vertigo or fear of heights.

Once you summit, the magnitude of the Sky Palace ruins amaze you. Reaching the top gives the travelers a chance to admire both the panoramic view and the ruins of the palace built by King Kasyapa in 5th century BC.

Tips for Sigiriya rock climb

  • Do wear sensible shoes for the climb.
  • Wear comfortable summer clothes.
  • Your backpack should have water, wet wipes, perhaps sunscreen and a cap/shades for sun protection. And what would be handy to carry your stuff is a light-weight backpack.
  • Be attentive when the slope is steep.
  • Start your climb early in the morning to avoid strong sun.
  • Keep your belongings safe from monkeys.
  • Visit the museum after the Sigiriya climb

Day 2: Places to visit in Polonnaruwa

Anuradhapura was the island’s first capital – all the way from 3rd century BC to 10th century AD. It is a long drive from Sigiriya plus takes the better part of a day to explore it.

For Day 2 of Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka, historical places in Polonnaruwa and a wildlife safari in Kaudulla national park was on the cards. We gave Anuradhapura a miss altogether and visited Polonnaruwa instead, the second capital of the country for Sri Lanka ancient ruins. No regrets at all! Polonnaruwa is smaller in scale, but the ruins and temples are in better condition.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa reminded me of Hampi in south India. The historical places in Polonnaruwa are in a compact area that gave us enough time to explore this site without any rush. 

Polonnaruwa was the capital of the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms for about 3 centuries. There are many places to visit in Polonnaruwa, so do earmark 2-3 hours for sightseeing here.

Top 10 sights to visit in Polonnaruwa

Royal Palace: Once you enter the Ancient city, you come upon the Royal Palace group. This was a massive structure once, but what remains now are some stone walls.

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The Royal Palace ruins at Polonnaruwa.

Swimming Pool: There is a swimming pool in one corner of the Palace grounds.

Audience Hall: The King’s Audience Hall is a well-preserved structure with neat elephants carved on the sides of the wall. The stairs to the Audience Hall have beautiful lions on both sides.

Sacred Quadrangle: This includes impressive ruins within a raised platform. There is a circular relic house – The Vatadage – in the middle of the Quadrangle.

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, Sri lanka ancient ruins, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
Part of the Sacred Quadrangle site at Polonnaruwa.

Pabalu Vehara: This is another dagaba like the one in Sacred Quadrangle.

Rankot Vihara: This is another huge dagaba iin excellent condition.

Dagaba Kiri Vihara: This milk-white dagaba is the best preserved one in Polonnaruwa.

Shiva Devale: This is the oldest building in Polonnaruwa, one of the few Hindu temples.

One of the Hindu temples in Polonnaruwa.

There are impressive Buddha statues in this ancient city.

Buddha Statue at Lanka Tilaka: This huge statue has walls that are 17 meters high.

Buddha at Gal Vihara: This is a group of 4 beautiful Buddhas in perfect condition.

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Gal Vihara: One of the 4 Buddhas, cut from a single piece of granite.

Tips for visit to Polonnaruwa

  • Most travelers pay a ticket price of USD 25 to enter this ancient city. Adult travelers from SAARC countries pay half the price, USD 12.50. Locals have free entry
  • Buddha is a spiritual and religious deity for Sri Lankans so don’t do anything that shows disrespect. 
  • Wear loose cotton or linen clothes that cover your knees and shoulders at cultural sites.
  • Wear sensible shows or sandals to walk around within Polonnaruwa.
  • Carry water and keep yourself hydrated.

Day 3: Dambulla, Rock-cut Cave Temple

The rock cave temple of Dambulla is a popular cultural and religious site in Sri Lanka. There are about 80 documented caves within this area but 5 main ones to visit. The cave temple is situated at a height – about 350 feet above the surrounding plains carved from one side of a massive rock – and there are easy steps to reach the entrance. The 5 caves within the Dambulla Temple hold a vast number of Buddhas in different positions. 

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The Golden Buddhas in the dark caves inside are such a contrast to this exterior.

The cave temples are positioned under a large rock overhang with partition walls built to separate the cave into individual temples. Cave 1 houses a 15m-long recumbent Buddha carved out of solid rock. Cave 2 has over 150 statues and images of Buddha. There are impressive murals covering the ceilings. Cave 3 has a olid rock meditating Buddha as its focus point. The 4th Cave is small and has a dagoba in the centre. The smallest Cave is the 5th one and has brick and plaster Buddhas.

This site was far more crowded than the Buddhas of Gal Viraha we had visited in Polonnaruwa. After a stop at the Dambulla Caves, we went on an afternoon safari to spot herds of wild elephants.

Tips for visit to Dambulla caves

  • Entrance ticket to this site costs about Sri Lankan Rupee 1500.
  • You can visit the caves in the morning or in the afternoon.
  • Both men and women should not have their upper arms and legs bare, so dress modestly. 
  • It is considered an insult to show your back to the Buddha statue in the temple so selfies are out!
  • There are 350 steps to climb to reach the site, so wear sensible shoes or sandals. While entering into a Buddhist temple, you would be required to take off your footwear outside.

If you wish to take guided tours with transport to these cultural sites, check out these options:

Kaudulla national park: Elephants in the wild

If you are visiting the central heartland for cultural sites, make time for a wildlife safari to a national park in Sri Lanka. Minneriya or Kaudulla are the two most popular ones near Polonnaruwa and Dambulla that are famous for wild elephants. 

Kaudulla national park
Do not miss the wild elephants while visiting the cultural heartland of the country.

We had a fabulous experiences sighting herds of elephants in the wild on an afternoon safari in Kaudulla national park, a short distance from Sigiriya. It is smaller than Minneriya in size and less popular, but that also meant there was just one more jeep that afternoon. Check out this post for elephant spotting in Minneriya national park and Pinnawala orphanage.

Jetwings Vil Uyana: Luxury stay in Sigiriya

If you are looking for luxury accommodation as a base for exploring the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, I highly recommend the Vil Uyana by Jetwings. Independent cottages laid out over a vast area, interspersed with paddy fields, wooden paths connecting all the cottages, a vast lounge and restaurant area near a water body all make for a peaceful getaway amidst nature.

The hectic sightseeing in the daytime was perfectly balanced by the relaxed evenings we spent at this beautiful property. If you are with young kids, you may want to request a cottage near the main lounge and dining area of the resort. 

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka?

Do check this post on Beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka

And here is a 10-day itinerary for Sri Lanka Highlights

[This post was originally published in 2018 and updated with fresh content later]

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The most famous cultural and religious sites in Sri Lanka are in the central heartland of the country, popularly known as the Cultural Triangle. Read more about the top cultural sites - Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. Also, see the elephants in the wild at Kaudulla National Park. #srilanka #culturaltrianglesrilanka #culturalsightseeing #sigiriyarockclimb #placestovisitinpolonnaruwa #dambullacavetemple #wildlifesafarisrilanka
The most famous cultural and religious sites in Sri Lanka are in the central heartland of the country, popularly known as the Cultural Triangle. Read more about the top cultural sites - Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. Also, see the elephants in the wild at Kaudulla National Park. #srilanka #culturaltrianglesrilanka #culturalsightseeing #sigiriyarockclimb #placestovisitinpolonnaruwa #dambullacavetemple #wildlifesafarisrilanka

Which site comes to mind when you think of cultural immersion in Sri Lanka? Share your experience in the comments below.

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Author: Shweta Singhal

Hi! I am Shweta, the zest behind this blog . I play several roles – parent to a 6-year old, adventure enthusiast, travel blogger, generally open to trying out new things in life. Besides travel, I love books and theatre and art. I would love to hear from you; do drop a comment. Join me on Instagram / Twitter @zestinatote.

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