Discover Sri Lanka's UNESCO World Heritage listed wonders

June 29, 2015

Ringed by palm-fringed beaches and home to a lush interior of rainforest and tea plantations, Sri Lanka makes for a stunning tropical getaway. But add to that cultural sites that span more than two millennia and this little island, formerly known as Ceylon, offers another intriguing layer for visitors to explore. Its fascinating history of Buddhist, Hindu and later Christian inhabitants is reflected in the stunning architecture, design and use of materials that have been fused together. Six cultural sites within the country have attained UNESCO World Heritage listing, ranging from sacred ancient ruins to colonial cities where the modern world beats outside their city walls.

1. Witness the Buddhist architecture and Bodhi Tree of Anuradhapura

In the 3rd century BC a cutting from Buddha’s ‘tree of enlightenment’ was brought to this site and, over time, a city evolved that would later become both Ceylon’s capital and one of the island’s most sacred Buddhist cities. While it weathered the assaults from countless invaders over 1,300 years, it finally succumbed in the 10th century and the capital was moved to Polonnaruwa. Today, its palaces, monasteries and distinctively Sinhalese stupas have become a shrine for Buddhism, with the sacred Sri Maha Bodhiya an important pilgrimage site.

The Archaeology and Folk museums are good places to start to brush up on your Sri Lankan history before exploring the temple complex. The glistening white Dagaba Rubanwelisaya, built in the 2nd century, is now an important centre of worship for Sri Lanka’s Buddhist population. Also of note are the 1,600 stone pillars remaining from the Brazen Palace or Lovamahapaya, a once opulent monastery that housed Buddhist monks. Its bronze-tiled roof and walls decorated with precious gems were plundered by Indian Colas when the city fell.

To see Anuradhapura in full festivities, visit during the Poson Festival, held during the full moon of June. It celebrates the enlightened monk, Mihindu, bringing the message of Buddhism from India in the 3rd century and sees the ancient city swamped with devotees dressed in white. The city is illuminated with light and music shows, known as pandols, and free food and drinks are offered at the numerous dansal stalls that spring up.

To see Anuradhapura in full festivities, visit during the Poson Festival, held during the full moon of June. It celebrates the enlightened monk, Mihindu, bringing the message of Buddhism from India in the 3rd century.

2. See the fusion of religions at the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

When Anuradhapura was sacked in the 10th century, the conquering Cholas moved their capital to Polonnaruwa. Here elegant Brahminist temples dedicated to Shiva, set amidst impressive Buddhist architecture and monuments, were built by successive regimes up until the 13th century.

Polonnaruwa’s compact size makes it easily navigable on either foot or bike and the Polonnaruwa Museum is the best place to start. The Dalada Maluwa is the heart of ancient Polonnaruwa and home to the Vatadage. It was built to house the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic and is considered one of Sri Lanka’s most ornate and impressive buildings. The Lankatilaka with its soaring image of Buddha and the rock sculpture of the Gal Vihara are also considered among Sri Lanka’s finest art works.

As you are walking or cycling around Polonnaruwa, keep an eye out for the cheeky toque macaques who have inhabited this city since humans first arrived and endured long after they left.

The rock sculpture of Gal Vihara is considered among Sri Lanka’s finest art works.

3. Climb the stairs to the Sky Palace of Sigiriya

Sigiriya, or the 'Lion’s Rock' is an 180-metre high granite peak that towers above the surrounding plateau and is dominated by fortified palace ruins that date back to the 5th century AD. It is home to some of the oldest known landscaped gardens in the world, set within the walled ‘lower city’. Here imaginative urban planning includes water-retaining structures and hydraulic systems that can still function today.

The ruins of the fortified palace are a spectacular place to wander, offering exceptional 360 degree views out across the plains below. As you ascend the side of the rock’s western face, elaborate frescoes depicting heavily adorned women can be seen, together with the ‘Mirror Wall’. Originally covered in highly polished white plaster, enabling the king to see his reflection as he passed by, it now features the ancient Sinhalese texts of the 'Sigiriya graffiti'.

Sigiriya is one of the few places in Sri Lanka to go hot air ballooning, and soaring over the palace-topped granite peak, surrounded by lush jungle traversed by elephants, is an incredible experience. The hot air balloon season runs from November to May and most tours include a champagne breakfast following the sunrise flight.

The ruins of the Sigiriya fortified palace are a spectacular place to wander, offering exceptional 360 degree views out across the plains below.

4. Marvel at the cave frescoes of Dambulla’s Golden Temple

Home to outstanding mural paintings and Buddhist statues, this 1st century cave-temple complex is the largest and most well-preserved of its kind in Sri Lanka.

Throughout the five caves you can witness some of the 153 statues of Buddha that reside there, together with frescoes illustrating the Kandy school style of painting in the late 18th century. Under these there are paintings dating back to the monastery’s inception. The site has an overwhelming sense of tranquility, fusing man-made structures, such as a monastic chapter house and dagoba, within a naturally beautiful landscape.

The Golden Temple of Dambulla presents a unique set of challenges to conservationists as to whether the paintings should be stripped back to show their earlier examples. Wall surfaces have been continually painted over throughout its 22 century history - an ongoing tradition made necessary by the salt and moisture content of the caves that naturally degrades them.

Dambulla's Golden Temple, a 1st century cave-temple complex, is the largest and most well-preserved of its kind in Sri Lanka.

5. Pay your respects at Kandy's Temple of the Tooth

Kandy at the southern-most tip of the 'Cultural Triangle' is famed for the Temple of the Tooth Relic which houses Buddha’s sacred tooth and serves as the religious capital of Buddhism. Founded at the end of the 16th century, the temple is open to visitors regardless of religion to explore its elaborate interior decorations. While the sacred tooth itself is not always on display, monks perform rituals three times daily and on Wednesdays it is bathed in fragrant waters.

Designed around a tranquil artificial lake lie the remains of the impressive Royal Palace, including not only the Temple of the Tooth but also the National Museum of Kandy. This beautiful building exhibits artefacts including weapons, jewellery and tools that date back to the Kandian period and is a good first port of call in the city.

By far the best time to visit is during the Kandy Esala Perahera, held each year during July and August, and paying homage to the procession that originally brought the tooth from India to Sri Lanka. The carnaval-like atmosphere features traditional fire dancing, live music and lavishly adorned elephants, culminating in a water cutting ceremony at the Mahaweli River.

The Temple of the Tooth Relic houses Buddha’s sacred tooth and serves as the religious capital of Buddhism.

6. Wander the ramparts of the fortified town of Galle

Blending European architecture with elements of Sri Lankan tradition, the beautiful city of Galle on Sri Lanka's south-west coast is considered the most impressive fortified city built by Europeans in South-East Asia. Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, the streets are lined with crumbling colonial architecture that reflect its successive rule under Dutch and British governments.

The calm, traffic-free streets are home to beautiful old Dutch villas and religious structures, with the Dutch Reformed Church being one of the most evocative, despite its small size. Dating to 1755, it is the oldest Protestant place of worship on the island and its floor is lined with the gravestones of Dutch residents. Wandering the old ramparts that surround Galle Fort is a good way to get your bearings, with beautiful views over the red-tiled roofs of the city to one side and magical sunsets over the Laccadive Sea on the other. Don’t miss the old lighthouse, built by the British following their takeover at the end of the 18th century, together with the Historical Mansion Museum, packed full of antiques and bric-a-brac.

The streets of Galle play host to an annual literary festival in January that draw authors from across the globe to this historical melting pot. Reflecting Galle’s cultural status, the festival also hosts art and photographic exhibitions, garden tours, plays and concerts, fusing Sri Lankan and European influences.

Exploring Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle

While Sri Lanka’s large northern Indian neighbour is cited for its cultural wonders and historical sites, the 'Teardrop of India' is often overlooked. But its compact size and sparser population means relatively easy access to its UNESCO sites, particularly when all but one are situated within the small area dubbed the 'Cultural Triangle', located in the heart of the country. An intriguing mix of religions, successive rulers and conquerors, the history of Sri Lanka is rich, and with beautifully preserved sites keeping it alive, amidst festivals and regions of natural beauty, there are plenty of reasons to consider Sri Lanka as a cultural holiday destination.

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