Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka: Ancient ruins, Buddhist sites and more

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. With more than 3000 years of ancient civilization and Buddhist influences, there exist a large number of cultural and religious sites. 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 – with a 3-year old child in tow – the Cultural Triangle 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. Sigiriya rock citadel, cultural places in Polonnaruwa, Dambulla Temple and Kaudulla national park were the highlights of our time spent in the cultural heartland.

Sigiriya: The most stunning sight in Sri Lanka

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.

This World Heritage site is one of the most popular attractions within the Cultural Triangle.

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. 

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. But let that thought not deter you. After all, we attempted it with our 3-year old daughter! At the start is a dusty road – and you notice the red colour of the sand – before the massive rock citadel reveals itself. What a sight! You pass through well-maintained gardens, some say these are the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

The start was easy with wide steps to begin our Sigiriya rock climb. 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. But it’s worth reaching the caves which has fine frescoes in Sri Lankan style, much like the 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. 

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
The surrounding forests and the luminous white Buddha in the distance are a sight to behold.

More steps 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 the point was not made easy by the strong sun.

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
Continue ahead, 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. Reaching the top gives the travelers a chance to admire both the panoramic view and the ruins of the palace built by King Kassapa in 5th century BC.

Pro-tip: Do wear sensible shoes for the climb. Wear comfortable summer clothes and your light backpack should have water, wet wipes, perhaps sunscreen and a cap/shades for sun protection.

Polonnaruwa: The second capital of ancient Sinhalese civilization

Anuradhapura was the island’s first capital – all the way from 3rd century BC to 10th century AD. But it is a long drive from Sigiriya plus takes the better part of a day to explore it. With a young child, we decided upon a cultural immersion itinerary in short bursts with enough time left to lounge in the comforts of our hotel.

We had devoted the afternoon of the first day to Sigiriya rock climb. For our second day of exploring Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka, historical places in Polonnaruwa, Dambulla Temple 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. No regrets at all!

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. Some photos of this pleasing ancient city to spark your imagination of the Sinhalese era.

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
The Royal Palace ruins at Polonnaruwa.
Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
Part of the Sacred Quadrangle site at Polonnaruwa.
Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
Gal Vihara: One of the 4 Buddhas, cut from a single piece of granite.

Dambulla: Rock-cut Cave Temple

The rock cave temple of Dambulla is a popular cultural and religious site in Sri Lanka. 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. 

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
The Golden Buddhas in the dark caves inside are such a contrast to this exterior.

This site was far more crowded than the Buddhas of Gal Viraha we visited in the morning. Plus we came to Dambulla after extensive sightseeing at Polonnaruwa, so we were pretty much done with cultural exploration and ready to move on. After a quick stop at the Dambulla Caves, we went on an afternoon safari to spot herds of wild elephants.

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. Minneriya or Kaudulla are the two most popular ones near Polonnaruwa and Dambulla that are famous for wild elephants. 

Cultural triangle sri lanka, Sigiriya rock climb, historical places in polonnaruwa, places to visit in polonnaruwa, Kaudulla national park, dambulla temple
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. 


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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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