Anuradhapura, the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka is one of the oldest cities in the world. No wonder! Anuradhapura was the capital Sri Lanka, from 4th century BC till 11th century AD. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a sacred place for Buddhism.
History of Anuradhapura
The capital gained more prominence over the years with the introduction of Buddhism and became one of the biggest cities of Sri Lanka, till the capital was moved to Pollonaruwa in 10th century AD. Anuradhapura was abandoned for many centuries and its once glorious buildings turned into ruins hidden in a jungle. Stephan Montagu Burrows started excavations of the ruins in 1884 and brought back history to us. Today, Anuradhapura is still considered a sacred place of pilgrimage.
What to see in Anuradhapura?
The ruins in Anuradhapura are mainly remains of dagobas (bell-shaped masses of masonry) , monastic buildings (stone platforms, and stone pillars), and pokunas (water tanks).
Eight places (Ruwanwelisaya, Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, Lovamahapaya, Thuparamaya, , Abhayagiri Dagoba, Jetavanarama, Mirisaveti Stupa and Lankarama) in Anuradhapura count to sacred places since Buddha had visited them during his visits to Sri Lanka.
Our tuk tuk driver started the tour there where others actually finish their tour, so that we could avoid the mid-day heat which could become very uncomfortable when you walk barefoot around world biggest dagobas.
Isurumuniya Rock Temple is built into a cave. In front of the temple there is a pool and the rock bordering the pool has some cool carvings of happy Elephants. Admittedly this place was the least spectacular one of all in Anuradhapura. Here you need to pay an extra of 200 LKR.
Our next stop was Mirisawati Dagoba which dates back 2nd century BC. The location near to Tissa Rainwater Reservoir is part of a legend. Before the King went for a bath, on the shore he planted his spear which contained a Relic of the Buddha. After his bath he was not able to pull out his spear which also meant he had to leave the relic there. What better idea would have a king in such an occasion? Yes, build a dagoba on top of it.
Elephant Pond & Ratnaprasada & Moonstone
In the area of Abhayagiri Monastery we first walked around the big Elephant Pond, which is a huge 159 meter long water tank.
Then we walked through the ruins of Ratnaprasada, the Gem Palace which dates back the 8th century. Unfortunately there is not much left but one highlight is the very well preserved “Guardstone” in the entrance. What a story a guardstone can tell! Cobra King and his companion the dwarf and so goes on…
Another highlight in the area of Abhayagiri Monastery is Sri Lanka’s finest carved Moonstone, in the entrance of the Monk School from the 9th century.
In front of this majestic 75 meters high brick monument I felt pretty tiny. The 3000 years old Abhayagiri Dagoba was originally 100 meters high and the 2nd tallest dagoba in Sri Lanka.
The 2m tall meditating Samadhi Buddha statue is supposedly one of the finest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. This pose of Buddha is called “dhyana mudra”. This statue carved in stone dates back 4th century.
Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds)
Buddhist monks used these pools for their daily baths. Judging the colour of the water I assume they don’t do it anymore. The architecture dates back 10th century and is pretty genius. The water flows into the larger pond through the mouth of Matara (mythical dragon). Then the water flows into the smaller pond through an underground duct. Look for the five headed cobra which guards the waters since centuries.
This magnificent monument was one of the tallest in the ancient world back in 3th century. It is compared with the Pyramids in Egypt. Today it is maybe not the tallest, but still it is one of the largest for sure. Imagine 90 million bricks! To me it was definitely the most impressive building in Anuradhapura. 90 million bricks!
On the contrary this white dagoba, also built in 3th century, is one of the smallest dagobas. But it is a very important one since it is believed that the collarbone of Buddha is preserved here in an enshrine.
This gigantic white dagoba is one of the highlights not to miss in Anuradhapura. With its 55 meters of height it is the 3rd largest stupa of Sri Lanka, surrounded by a wall with a frieze of elephants.
I was lucky that the day I was in Anuradhapura was an important religious day for the Buddhists and I could witness their rituals. There were crowds of men, women, and children in white cloths and monks in their orange robes singing, chanting, holding flowers and fruits in their hands to make presents for the holy spirits of Buddha.
Even though I’m not a religious person, I had a goose bump moment when I saw the silent march of people in white clothes carrying flowers and fruits as gift for the sprits. The countless monkeys in the area were absolutely the happiest of all.
Brazen Palace – Lovamahapaya
On the way from Ruvanveliseya Dagoba to Sri Maha Bodhi Tree on the right side, there are the ruins of the once glorious Brazen Palace. Today you see the remains of 1600 stone pillars in 40 rows. I didn’t count them myself, it was too hot for it. So I chose to believe the guides.
Sri Maha Bodhi Tree
Bodhi trees (a species of fig) are sacred for Buddhists, because they believe the Great Buddha had his enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree. The Sacred Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura is believed to be a branch of that original tree and it dates back 288 BC.
The highlight of all the religious rituals was here. Everyone was singing holding flowers and fruits in their hands to leave them in the small temple under the Bodhi tree, which is protected with a golden grid. I stayed here quite a while and observed the people spending the holy day with their beloved ones. Some of them made even signs with their arms and smiles inviting me to join them singing, however stupid me was too shy to do so.
Good to know before yo visit Anuradhapura
Is it manageable as day trip?
Yes, it is. If you focus on the main sights it is manageable in 6 hours. I recommend to choose a base from where you can arrange your day trips to Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka (Sigiriya Rock, Pollonaruwa and Anuradhapura). My base for these day trips was in Dambulla which has a really good bus network.
The drive from Dambulla to Anuradhapura takes about 2 hours. Visiting the ancient city is manageable in 6 hours. And the drive back to Dambulla again 2 hours. So if you leave around 8am in the morning probably you’ll be back around 7pm.
Where to stay near to Anuradhapura?
I stayed in Dambulla which fits perfectly as base to visit the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka (Sigiriya Rock, Pollonaruwa and Anuradhapura). I stayed at Sevonrich Holiday Resort. The owner is super friendly and helps with organising the day trips.
How to get to/from Anuradhapura?
From Dambulla to Anuradhapura you can take the bus. The drive takes about 2 hours. One way bus ticket from/to Dambulla costs 90-95 LKR.
Be aware the last bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla leaves around 6pm. You don’t want to miss that one!
How to get around in Anuradhapura?
The sights are too spread out in the hole ancient city of Anuradhapura, which makes it impossible to explore it on foot. We hired a tuk tuk driver, also as guide who could explain a lot about the sights and the culture. For 6 hours tuk tuk drive we paid 2000 LKR. The drivers waiting in front of the bus station will approach you with highest prices. So be prepared to negotiate!
Entry fee & Opening hours
Expensive! Just like other ancient cities in Sri Lanka. The entrance fee costs 3500 LKR (25US$) per person. The opening hours: 7am-5.30pm.
Warning: Buy your ticket yourself! Don't let the guides / tuk tuk drivers buy the ticket for you! It seems like the guides do a lot of illegal business with the security. So if you want to make sure the fee you pay really goes into the fund of research & conservation of the ruins, buy your ticket yourself.
- Take your hat and shoes off when entering the temples. You won’t be allowed to carry your shoes in your hands, so you’ll leave them outside the temple. The floors are really HOT. So, don’t forget to bring socks!
- Wear white light cloths
- Don’t turn your back to Buddha statues. Which means no selfies in front of Buddha statues.
- When you walk around keep the sacred building or Buddha statues on your right side.
Don’t forget to bring!
- Plenty of water
- Light clothes
- Sunglasses & hat
- Steady shoes but Birkenstock will also do
- And socks! Unless you don’t mind burning your feet.
Pollonaruwa vs. Anuradhapura
If you don’t have enough time or short of budget (I mean 25$ is quite a bit of money) I recommend to visit only one of the ancient cities. And when it comes to the decision which one, I clearly recommend to visit Pollonaruwa, because:
- The remains of the ancient city of Pollonaruwa are way better preserved
- The area is smaller and the monuments are arranged closer to each other, which makes visiting the city easier
Read next: Visiting Pollonaruwa
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