DAMBULLA, SIGIRIYA AND ANURADHAPURA - Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)

Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)


A two-day excursion into the past, driving from the southernmost point of the Cultural Triangle (Kandy) to the northernmost point (Anuradhapura) with trips to the cave temple of Dambulla and the top of Sigiriya.

DISTANCE: 250km (155 miles)

TIME: Two days

START: Kandy

END: Dambulla

POINTS TO NOTE: While starting the route at Kandy makes it easier to visit the northern sights on the same day, you could also start in Colombo and take the A6 to Dambulla, then pick up the tour from there. It leads to Polonnaruwa (route 10) - or if you’ve seen enough ruins you could head back south through Kandy and into the hill country (route 7).

Sri Lanka’s so-called Cultural Triangle - the area between Kandy and the great ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa - served as the birthplace of Sri Lankan civilization and boasts a staggering array of ancient monuments dating back over 2,500 years, including giant stupas , richly decorated cave temples and enormous tanks (man-made reservoirs), capped by the unforgettable sight of the great rock citadel of Sigiriya towering into the sky amidst the arid northern plains.




At Dambulla Cave Temples

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Depart from Kandy (for more information, click here ) after breakfast and drive north through Katugastota to join the A9. Pass through Matale towards Dambulla , 72km (45 miles) from Kandy and 153km (93 miles) along the A6 from Colombo.

Some 3km (2 miles) before Dambulla on the A9, a large car park marks the entrance to Dambulla Rock and Cave Temples 1 [map] (daily 7am-7pm; charge), from where steps climb up 107m (350ft) to the cave temples themselves, passing an enormous gilded Buddha on the way. The temples were created by King Valagambahu, who hid here in the 1st century BC after Indian invaders had seized his capital, Anuradhapura. After regaining Anuradhapura, Valagambahu later built the temples to give thanks for the shelter the caves had afforded him. The most impressive of Sri Lanka’s many cave temples, the five shrines sit side-by-side beneath a huge rocky overhang, filled with a treasure-trove of Buddhist art, including innumerable statues of the Buddha and other deities, plus the finest selection of murals on the island.


Buddhist statues at Dambulla

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Lunch options

If you’re already hungry, the Thilanka Resort 1 [map] , is set off the road around 2km (1.25 miles) south of the temple compound, or try the smart modern cafe at the The Heritage - Dambulla 2 [map] .




It’s 86km (53 miles) from here to Anuradhapura along the A9. Sri Lanka’s first capital, Anuradhapura 2 [map] was founded by King Pandukhabaya in 380 BC and remained far and away the biggest and most important city in the island’s for nearly 1,400 years until the capital moved finally eastwards to Polonnaruwa. Anuradhapura’s 113 kings (and four queens) oversaw a great flowering of the arts, producing magnificent palaces, intricate sculptures, ornate pleasure gardens and a sequence of vast stupas built to protect the most sacred relics of Buddhism. Perhaps the most impressive achievement was in irrigation, with reservoirs constructed to preserve the monsoon rains, and a system of sluices put in place to keep the rice paddies productive.

The Sanctuary at Tissawewa , see 3 [map] , set in what was formerly part of the Royal Pleasure Gardens, is a good place to plan an exploration of the ruins over lunch.


An ancient pool in Anuradhapura

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


You could start by heading south past the Tissa Wewa Tank , created by King Devanampiyatissa who, in the 3rd century BC, made it Anuradhapura’s chief source of water. The Isurumuniya A [map] rock temple, built in the 3rd century BC as part of a monastic complex called Issiramana, is on the right. Here you’ll find the famous 4th-century limestone carving of the Isurumuniya lovers: a man and a woman who are said to represent Prince Saliya, son of King Dutugemunu, and a low-caste maiden whom he loved. The woman lifts a warning finger but the man carries on regardless.


Floral offerings at Anuradhapura

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Sacred Bo Tree

Now drive north to see the Sri Maha Bodhi B [map] , the Sacred Bo Tree (daily 6am-noon, 2-9.30pm; charge), the oldest historically documented tree in the world. Because of security concerns, you will have to park in one of the designated areas about 1km (0.5 mile) north and south and walk.

The tree grew from a sapling of the original bo tree of Bodhgaya in India, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. It was brought to Sri Lanka by Sangamitta, the daughter of Emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BC. Encircled by a gold-plated railing, it stands amid younger trees. Most of the island’s bo trees have been nurtured from the Sri Maha Bodhi’s seeds.

Buddhists consider watering the bo tree an act of devotion, so you might see pilgrims, pots of water in hand, helping to nourish the plant.

Within walking distance of the bo tree is the Brazen Palace C [map] (Loha Pasada), which once had a bronze roof, nine floors and housed 1,000 monks. Only about 1,600 stone pillars now remain of its former splendours.


Prayer flags

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Archeological Museum

You can drive to the Archeological Museum D [map] (daily 8.30am-5.30pm except Tuesdays and public holidays entrance included with site ticket), with numerous fine carvings from the Anuradhapura era displayed in the rooms and garden of a time-warped old British bungalow. Exhibits include an interesting model of the Thuparama Vatadage, showing how it would have looked when still in possession of its old wooden roof.


Towards the north is the huge Ruwanweliseya E [map] dagoba (stupa), rising over 50m above the surrounding scatter of ruins which formerly comprised the city’s great Mahavihara Monastery. The dagoba is said to have been built at the behest of the great King Dutugemunu, whose battered limestone statue stands on the terrace alongside. Huge as it looks, the Ruwanweliseya is actually only the third largest of the three great dagobas which rise above the ancient city, although it is also the best preserved and continues to attract numerous local pilgrims as well as foreign tourists.


Elephants guard the Ruwanweliseya

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Continue driving to the north to the Thuparama F [map] , the oldest dagoba on the island, believed to contain the right collarbone of the Buddha. The dagoba was built by King Devanampiyatissa and stands just over 20m (60ft) high. Constructed entirely out of earth in the 3rd century BC, this dagoba has been embellished by a succession of rulers. Its present ‘bell’ shape is the result of major restoration work carried out in 1862.

Next take a drive along Anula Mawatha, towards the Abhayagiri Dagoba G [map] , which was constructed by King Valagambahu (89-77 BC) and stands 74m (243ft) high. Ongoing restoration is slowly restoring the dagga to its former glory, although much work remains to be done.

King Mahasen’s Palace

Close by at King Mahasen’s Palace H [map] you’ll find the finest moonstone in Anuradhapura: a wonderful semicircular doorstep adorned with finely detailed symbolic carvings. To the west is the RatnapasadaI [map] , built in the 8th century, and which has two of the best-preserved guard stones of the Anuradhapura era. The naga (snake) king sits under a makara (dragon) arch, with a flowerpot and lotus stalk - two symbols Sri Lankans associate with abundance and prosperity. Return to the Abhayagiri Dagoba, turn right at the crossroads and drive straight down to the Samadhi Buddha J [map] , an excellent example of sculpture from the 4th century.



Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Kuttam Pokuna

Back at the crossroads, turn right and visit the beautiful Kuttam Pokuna K [map] twin ponds, once a monks’ bathing pool. Drive along the outer circular road (Vata Vandana) to the Jetavanarama L [map] , Anuradhapura’s largest dagoba. Built by King Mahasen (AD 273-303), it was originally over 122m (400ft) high, with a diameter of 110m (370ft) - in the ancient world, only the great pyramids of Egypt were larger.


A Buddha in the Ruwanweliseya image house

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Just 10km (6 miles) east of Anuradhapura along the A12 is Mihintale 3 [map] , revered as the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (see box). Afterwards, turn southwards along the A9 to drive 58km (36 miles) to Habarana 4 [map] , where you will stay overnight.

Mihintale shrines

According to legend, it was at Mihintale - literally Mahinda’s Hill - that the Indian missionary Mahinda met and converted King Devanampiyatissa in 247 BC, establishing Buddhism as the island’s religion. Mihintale is unforgettable: a sequence of beautiful shrines, stupas and caves strung out across wooded hills and connected by broad flights of frangipani-shaded carved steps, usually clustered with crowds of devout, white-robed pilgrims. Its various shrines are connected by 1,840 steps, all of which must be climbed to reach the summit, where the Ambasthala Dagoba, or Mango Tree Stupa, supposedly marks the place where Mahinda surprised the king as he was hunting.


After breakfast, leave early to avoid the midday heat for the drive to Sigiriya (Lion Rock) 5 [map] . The easiest way is to turn south at the hotels’ exit onto the A6 and after about 26km (16 miles), turn left at the Sigiriya sign and continue along the unmade road which gives glimpses of the 200m (650ft) golden rock sprouting from the jungle.

Museum and gardens

Sigiriya Palace (daily 7am-6pm, last entrance 5pm; charge) was built on top of the huge rock as an impregnable fortress by King Kassapa (AD 447-95), who had killed his father and feared revenge from his brother.

There are licensed freelance guides available close to the entrance to the park surrounding the Sigiriya rock, who can explain the history in detail. There is also a museum (daily 7am-6pm; entrance included in site ticket) dedicated to the Sigiriya story, about a 300m/yd walk northwest after passing through the park entrance enclosure before the Sigiriya complex.

The foot of the rock is surrounded by ornate gardens of contrasting characters. The well-preserved Water Gardens look like a tiny piece of Versailles transported to ancient Sri Lanka, with carefully tended lawns dotted with symmetrically arranged ponds, water channels and diminutive fountains, while beyond lie the wilder Boulder Gardens, comprising a small swathe of picturesque forest dotted with huge boulders and quaint rock arches.


Baby elephant on the approach to Sigiriya

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Sigiriya frescoes

Past the Boulder Gardens, a strenuous climb up a brick stairway and spiral staircase leads you to Sigiriya’s single most celebrated sight, the so-called Sigiriya Damsels . Commissioned by Kassapa in the 5th century, this exquisite mural, perhaps the largest ever attempted, is painted in brilliant colours onto the sheer rock face and features 21 beautiful, bare-chested women, swathed in cloud from the waist down.

No one knows whether the seductive beauties were meant to be goddesses, Kassapa’s concubines or dancers. Impressive as they are today, it is thought that there were originally some 500 frescoes here.

Mirror Wall and the summit

Climb past the Mirror Wall , a dense spider’s web of ancient graffiti left by visitors to the rock over the past 1,500 years, on the way to the summit . This involves scrambling through the mouth of a heavily eroded lion and then up a vertiginous metal staircase cut into the rock - not for the faint-hearted, although the view of the water gardens below and surrounding jungle is breathtaking. Amid the foundations and fragmentary remains of the palace is a large tank cut from the solid rock: water was brought to the summit using a typically ingenious hydraulic system driven by windmills.

Popham Arboretum

Drive back to the main A6 highway and head south in the direction of Dambulla for a further 24km (15 miles), where you will see a road to the east signposted to the Heritance Kandalama Hotel. About 3km (2 miles) along it is the Popham Arboretum 6 [map] (Thur-Tue 6am-6pm; charge), comprising 14 hectares (35 acres) of unspoilt dry tropical forest, criss-crossed by well-maintained walking trails. The arboretum was established in 1963 by British resident Sam Popham as a reaction to the widespread logging of forests. Almost 50 years on, it has sprouted more than 70 species of precious tropical trees such as ebony, rosewood and satinwood, and attracted plentiful bird life and wildlife, making it perfect for a late morning stroll. The Café Kanchana , see 4 [map] , at the Heritance Kandalama Hotel is a good spot for a light lunch.

After lunch, return to the A6 to drive northwards back to your hotel to relax by the pool at the end of a fulfilling day out, or turn south for Kandy or Colombo.

Food and drink


Godawelyaya, Moragollawa, Dambulla [map] ; tel: 066-446 8001; www.thilankaresortandspa.lk ; daily 
7.30-10.30am, 12.30-2.30pm, 7.30-10.30pm; $$$

The open-air pavilion dining room at this suave modern resort around 4km (2.5 miles) south of Dambulla offers a superior spot for lunch, with a mixture of upmarket Sri Lankan mains and fusion cuisine with an oriental twist.


Dambulla [map] ; tel: 066-228 4799; www.chcresthouses.com ; daily 8am-10pm; $$

The smart little modern cafe at this recently upgraded former rest house provides a convenient pitstop when visiting the cave temples, with above-average light meals plus more substantial Sri Lankan and Continental-style mains.


Old Town, Anuradhapura [map] ; tel: 025-83133/5; www.tissawewa.com ; daily 11.30am-3pm, 7.30-9pm; $$

The verandas and dining room of this century-old colonial building retain a sense of rural antiquity. Great for rice and curry, light meals and snacks, although no alcohol is served due to its proximity to the sacred areas.


Heritance Kandalama Hotel, Dambulla [map] ; tel: 066-555 5000; www.heritancehotels.com ; daily 6.30-9.30am, 12.30-2.30pm, 7.30-9.30pm; $$$

One of several excellent cafes and restaurants at this iconic, Geoffrey Bawa-designed hotel, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, Sigiriya rock and the Kandalama tank and above-average food including lunchtime buffets.