Nestled within the Indian Ocean, the island of Sri Lanka boasts a documented history of over 3,000 years to explore. Sri Lanka’s location has made it strategically important from the earliest days of the ancient Silk Road trade route right up to today’s so-called maritime Silk Road.
Beyond its rich history of trade, many of Sri Lanka’s incredible historic sites reflect the island’s Buddhist heritage, as well as the legacies of vast and powerful kingdoms from the Anadhurapura and Sinhalese periods.
So what are you waiting for? From the Temple of the Tooth to the Dambulla Cave Temple, these are our 10 best historic sites of Sri Lanka.
Polonnaruwa contains the awe-inspiring UNESCO-listed ruins of what was the medieval capital of Ceylon. It comprises, besides the Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas, the monumental ruins of the fabulous garden-city created by Parakramabahu I in the 12th century.
Polonnaruwa was initially a temporary royal residence. However in the late 10th century, it became a capital city of Ceylon (the former name of Sri Lanka) after the ancient capital of Anuradhapura was conquered and destroyed by King Chola Rajaraja I. The Chola dynasty favoured Polonnaruwa over Anuradhapura as it was thought to be easier to defend.
Anuradhapura is a sacred ancient city in Sri Lanka founded in the 4th century BC, whose beautiful ruins are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over time, Anuradhapura became one of the great capitals of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), garnering both political and religious significance.
In around 250 BC, Anuradhapura gained its first Buddhist sovereign, Tissa, and in the same century, the city was gifted a highly sacred object in the shape of a tree cutting.
The fig tree from which the cutting originated is believed to be the same one under which Siddharta – the founder of Buddhism – became enlightened…
Sigiriya is a vast rock used over time as a Buddhist monastery and as a 5th century royal fortress. Comprised of a vast red rock mound rising over 660 feet, it is thought that Sigiriya (meaning “Lion Rock”) was originally inhabited during the 3rd century BC, when a Buddhist monastery was founded there.
The ruins of Kashyapa’s castle can still be seen at Sigiriya today, and include the remnants of a city at the foot of the rock. From these ruins, it is evident that the king’s city was grand, with gardens, monuments and of course, his palace.
The Temple of the Tooth is a colourful temple which is said to hold the tooth of Buddha – one of the most important Buddhist relics.
The subject of fierce fighting, it is said that the tooth – one of the Buddha’s teeth and therefore one of the most important Buddhist relics – was first brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD and has been part of the politics of the local region ever since. Legend has it that whoever owns the tooth has governance over the local area.
The Temple of the Tooth was part of Kandy, a royal city founded in the 14th century that became the capital in the 16th century. Subject to various colonial invasions, Kandy fell to the British in 1815.
The Dambulla Cave Temple, often known as the Royal Rock Temple, is a cave temple complex in the centre of Sri Lanka. It is made up of series of 5 caves instilled with over 20 centuries of history and imbued with religious significance. The temple contains a wealth of Buddhist art, including numerous statues and murals of Buddha.
The Dambulla Cave Temple is also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in the country, with the rock towering 160m over the surrounding plains. Inhabited since prehistoric times, it was in the 3rd century BC that a monastery was initially constructed at Dambulla.
The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, or the Great Stupa, is a magnificent Buddhist sacred site in the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. Today, the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is the most prominent of the “Atamasthana”, the 8 holy places Buddhists should visit on pilgrimage to Anuradhapura, UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba was built in 140 BC by King Dutugemunu, who later became King of all Sri Lanka after defeating the Chola King, Ellalan.
The stupa was constructed in a hemispherical shape, its purpose to hold the relics of the Gothama Buddha. However, King Dutugemunu died before its completion, his brother Saddhatissa ascending the throne.
The Jetavanarama Dagoba is a vast Buddhist shrine, and at the time of building was the third tallest monument in the world. The stupa is located in the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and is believed to hold part of a sash worn by Buddha.
With its huge dome and reddish-copper hue – accounted for by the millions of burnt bricks used to build it – Jetavanarama Dagoba remains an incredible structure.
Together with its sister stupa, Ruwanwelisaya, the Jetavanarama Dagoba remains one of the best-preserved monuments to the ancient city of Anuradhapura. The stupa towers over 89 metres, shorter than its original 121 metres, and you can see on stone inscriptions the names of those who contributed to the building effort.
The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka is one of Anuradhapura’s most important Buddhist sites and is a sacred place of pilgrimage. It is thought the tree grew from a cutting of the fig tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment, making the tree almost 2,000 years old. Pilgrims continue to flock to see the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree.
The tree lost two branches to storms in 1907 and 1911, as well as having one stolen in 1929. In 1985, during Sri Lanka’s civil war, the sacred site also witnessed the massacre of Sinhalese-Buddhists by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam in what is known as the Anuradhapura Massacre.
The Brazen Palace in Anuradhapura was once a magnificent structure initially built during the reign of King Dutugemunu of Sri Lanka (161 BC-137 BC).
Rebuilt on several occasions, at its peak, it would have had over a thousand rooms and would have risen nine storeys.
Today, the sole remains of the Brazen Palace are 1,600 neatly aligned granite columns arranged in forty rows.
Lankatilaka Vihara was a large sacred building known as a “gedige” in the medieval city of Polonnaruwa which would be used to house images of Buddha. One such impressive sculpture of Buddha remains in the ruins of Lankatilaka, albeit without its head.
The Lankatilaka Vihara is believed to have been built during the reign of Parakramabahu (1153-1186) and to have been restored by Vijayabahu IV (1513-21).