This fascinating part of Sri Lanka is located in central northern Sri Lanka. Within this area the most important monuments and archeological sites of Sri Lanka are to be found. It is considered as the cradle of the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture. It is called the ‘Cultural Triangle’ since the major cultural sites are situated within the triangle Anuradhapura in the north west, Polonnaruwa in the north east and Kandy in the southern tip of the triangle. The kingdom covers a continuous period of one thousand years, dating from the 4th century BC. All sites are of a stunning beauty and of global historical importance. Therefore the five main sites being: Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy have been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. A visit to Sri Lanka without having seen at least one of these famous sites is not complete. The Sigiriya Rock Fortress is even considered as an ancient world wonder, rising high above the surface.
Apart from its cultural value the Cultural Triangle is of great natural beauty as well and has an extended population of wild elephants, mainly concentrated in the national parks. You can combine your stay in this area with a jeep safari to one of these parks, such as Minneriya National Park, Kaudulla National Park, Hurulu Eco Park or to the less visited National Parks Wilpattu and Wasgomuwa. You should not miss ‘The Great Gathering’ of wild elephants during August and September (see the header ‘Wildlife, nature, natural parks and reserves’
Between November and May (weather conditions permitted) you can make an amazing and very unusual excursion: a balloon ride in the Cultural Triangle. The crew is very professional, the price very reasonable (US$ 175 per person) and the experience a lifetime one.
Anuradhapura is considered to be the cradle of the first Buddhist kingdoms in Sri Lanka. For 13 centuries Anuradhapura, in the north western corner of the Cultural Triangle, was the undisputed capital of a mighty Buddhist kingdom, one of the longest lasting civilizations in the world from the 4th century B.C. till 1070 AD. The size and level of civilization of this city equaled those of other mega cities in the ancient world, like Rome, Athens, Alexandria and Babylon. Anuradhapura covered an area of 40 square kilometers. Several great kings contributed to the prosperity of the kingdom by building beautiful palaces, monasteries and dagoba’s. Ingenious irrigation systems, connected to huge artificial lakes (tanks), created vast lands to grow rice and other foods, being exported to other countries. These irrigation systems have been in use up till the present time. However, harsh invasions by the Chola’s from Southern India brought the city down and left it behind abandoned. During nine centuries Anuradhapura had been covered by jungle until it was re-discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, exposing its stunning beauty to today’s visitors.
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Despite the brutal attacks by the Chola’s, Polonnaruwa, was chosen as the new capital immediately after the defeat, some 80 kilometers south east of Anuradhapura. It was a considerable smaller city, but in civilization similar and just as magnificent. The capital lasted for two centuries, until invaders from India had driven them south and another beautiful capital, the center of civilization in South Asia, was lost and given to the forces of the jungle for seven centuries.
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After Kasyapa had imprisoned and walled-in his father alive (the king of Anuradhapura) because of a succession dispute, he fled to Sigiriya to build a safe haven to protect himself from his brother, who promised to take revenge on the assassination of his father. He built an impressive palace complex on the top of a 200 meters high monolith, arising from the jungle south of Polonnarua. At the foot of the Sigiriya Rock, King Kasyapa had constructed extended lush water gardens. The Sigiriya Rock is considered to be the 8th World Wonder. Even if you are not interested in history and ancient ruins, you cannot be else than impressed by the beauty of this place.
Thanks to the generous King Valagamba during the 1st Century BC, who found refuge in the caves in Dambula and had been protected for almost 15 years by the monks, visitors can now enjoy the beauty and serenity of this extraordinary cave temple, which towers 160 meters over Dambulla town. It is considered as the largest cave temple in Sri Lanka and contains 157 statues, of which 150 of the Buddha, four statues of Hindu Gods and three of Sri Lankan kings. The entire cave complex consists of 80 caves, of which five containing the statues and the wall paintings. The Cave Temple is of an outstanding beauty and should make part of your tour when visiting the Cultural Triangle.
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Kandy is situated in the heart of the country, surrounded by mountains. It is the lower tip of the Cultural Triangle and considered as the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. As an independent kingdom from the 15th Century, Kandy has withstood many attacks from the colonial rulers until 1815, when it was conquered by the British. It was the last existing kingdom in Sri Lanka. The main attraction in Kandy is the Royal Palace, which is now a museum and the Sri Dalada Maligawa, better known among foreigners as the Temple of the Tooth. The tooth is a relic of the Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th Century BC. The complex is beautifully located on the shores of the artificial Lake.
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All five above-mentioned historic sites have been classified by the United Nations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century B.C. by the monk Mihinda, the son of the South Indian Emperor Asoka, who was a Buddhist and befriended with the king of Anuradhapura. The king met Mihinda about 10 kilometers east of Anuradhapura, while hunting deer. He was the first Sri Lankan to be converted to Buddhism. The place where Mihinda held his first speech on a high rock is now called Minhintale. A long stairway of 1840 granite steps leads to the summit. Many thousands of pilgrims visit this place annually and especially on Poya Poson day in June the arrival of thousands of Buddhists from all over the island visit Mihintale. The rock is scattered with many shrines commemorating this important event.
Aukana Buddha Statue
The Aukana Buddha Statue is a magnificent, undamaged Buddha statue, 13 meters tall (46 ft), situated near Kikirawa, some 51 kilometers south east of Anuradhapura. It was built by King Dutusena in the 5th century A.D. and is one of the tallest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. Nearby is another tall Buddha statue, called Ras Vehara or Sesurawa.
Apart from the impressive historical sites which make this area unique, the Cultural Triangle has so much more to offer to its visitors, especially regarding wildlife and nature.
National Parks, wildlife and nature
There are two parks which draw the attention within the Cultural Triangle, both in the immediate surroundings of Habarana, between Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa: the Minnerya and Kaudulla National Parks, both famous for their numerous elephants which gather between July and September. Up to 200 elephants may be seen on the shores of Minneriya Lake. In September the elephants move to Kaudulla. This big happening attracts many visitors, because it is the biggest gathering of elephants in all South Asia, called the ‘Elephant Gathering’
Scenery and things to do
The Cultural Triangle has very scenic spots, especially off the beaten track with picturesque rice fields bordered with palm trees and rustic villages. It is worth exploring the countryside, as well as the national parks and you can do that in various ways, by motor bike, by bicycle, by bull cart, on foot, on the back of an elephant, on a horse back, by boat, raft, jeep and by van. The ultimate experience is to explore the area from the air, whereas a balloon trip is a life time experience, which you can make against an affordable price from Dambulla.
Ritigala is a very special mountain range, 43 kilometers south east of Anuradhapura, on the main road to Habarana and Polonnaruwa. It has a unique eco-system and biodiversity. There are also ruins of an ancient monastery and there are indigenous tribes in the area.
If your time is limited, what to select?
If you have only a limited time to visit the Cultural Triangle, it is advisable just to visit the Sigiriya Rock and if you have a little more time you may add Polonnaruwa, since all the interesting ancient monuments are within a compact area, while those in Anuradhapura are more spread over a large area, however both sites are equal in beauty, although different.
How to reach the Cultural Triangle?
There are several ways in which you can travel to the Cultural Triangle, usually as a part of a round tour. The most common way is by a rented vehicle. The shortest way to enter the area from Colombo and Katunaike International Airport is via Kurunagala to either Anuradhapura or Dambulla. An alternative road leads partly along the coast northbound via Putalam to Anuradhapura. If you first want to visit Kandy you can take the Kandy road from Colombo or the airport and then north bound via Matale to Dambulla. If you are traveling from the eastern part of Sri Lanka you can approach the area from Mahiyangana and Batticaloa. Habarana and Dambulla are the two places which are suitable as a station from where you can visit all interesting sites in the Cultural Triangle.
The beach resorts Nilavela Beach (near Trincomalee) and Passikudah on the East Coast are easy accessible from Habarana and Polonnaruwa and have beautiful beaches.
Direct bus services are available to the major towns in the Cultural Triangle from Colombo to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Kandy.
Anuradhapura, Habarana, Polonnaruwa and Kandy are also connected with Colombo by rail and there are local trains between Kandy and Matale. However cheap, delays occur frequently on the major lines.
There are also scheduled seaplanes and helicopter services from the two Colombo airports, Katunaike International Airport and Ratmalana Domestic Airport to Anuradhapura, Sigiriya/Dambula and Kandy; the sea planes land on and take off from the lakes (tanks).