Polonnaruwa, North-Central Province

A troop of Langur monkeys scamper past the Reclining Parinirvana Buddha at Gal Viharaya, Polonnaruwa.
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Map of Polonnaruwa
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Polonnaruwa took over from Anuradhapura as the capital in the 11th Century and it contains many ancient ruins and monuments including the huge reclining Buddha, Parinirvana, and a smaller seated Buddha, Dhyana Mudra, at Gal Vihara, and the fourth largest dagoba, at Rankot Vihara (Golden Pinnacle Dagoba). Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Polonnaruwa we were based at the Hotel Sudu Araliya, where we had nine rooms.


Reclining Parinirvana Buddha &
standing figure, thought to be a mourning monk,
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa
Detail of reclining Parinirvana Buddha,
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa
Seated Dhyana Mudra Buddha,
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa
Detail of seated Dhyana Mudra Buddha,
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

We made several visits to the various monuments at Polonnaruwa.

At Gal Vihara, a 12th Century rock temple dedicated to Buddha, there was suspicion about our motives for filming because the authorities had recently been rightly appalled by an Italian film company shooting a soft-porn movie on the Parinirvana reclining Buddha, but once bitten, twice shy, so it was difficult to get permission to film there.

Watadageya ruins, Polonnaruwa
Possible hospital ruins, Polonnaruwa

In the evening we searched around the various sites for reptiles and amphibians and captured a Common wolfsnake (Lycodon aulicus) crawling along the base of a wall. Other reptiles and amphibians recorded at Polonnaruwa were: Indian skipper frog (Euphlyctis cyanophylectis), Common house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus - not photographed), Sri Lankan termite-hill gecko (Hemidactylus triedrus lankae), Green garden lizard (Calotes calotes), Common garden lizard (Calotes versicolor), and two Brahminy blindsnakes (Ramphotyphlops braminus). We also sighted a Parker's black turtle (Melanochelus trijuda parkeri) basking on a rock in a Polonnaruwa 'tank' between a cormorant and a heron.

Herps from Polonnaruwa
Parker's black turtle, Melanochelys trijuga parkeri
between a cormorant and a heron
Indian skipper frog, Euphylectis cyanophylectis
Brahminy blindsnake, Ramphotyphlops braminus
Sri Lankan termite-hill gecko, Hemidactylus triedrus lankae
Common garden lizard, Calotes versicolor
Green garden lizard, Calotes calotes
Common Asian wolfsnake, Lycodon aulicus


Carvings of Russell's viper (Tith Polonga) trail
Rocks containing snake carvings, Polannaruwa
Mark with carving of cobra he located

Anslem de Silva is not only an expert herpetologist, he is also an expert on the customs and culture associated with snakes in Sri Lanka. He told us that the name of the city, Polannaruwa, was in part derived from the Sinhalese name for the Russell's viper (Daboia russelii), which was Tith Polonga or Tic Polonga.

In some rocks Anslem found a large carved trail which resembled the belly scales of a large viper passing over the rock and behind this location I found another carving, a distinct coiled, hooding cobra, which Anslem said he had not seen before in his search to document all reptile related petroglyphs in Sri Lanka.

Rankot Viharaya (Golden Pinnacle Dagoba), Polonnaruwa, location of the monk's 'medicine boat'
Monk's 12th Century medicine boat, Polonnaruwa
Mark in 800 year old 'medicine boat'
Mark in 800 year old 'medicine boat'


Our third purpose to visit Polonnaruwa was for me to experience the large resort for snakebite victims in times gone by. At the Rankot Viharaya site there is an 800 year old (12th Century) monk's 'medicine boat'. The medicine boat is shaped like a topless sarcophagus and carved from hard stone that would not absorb the herbs used in the ayurvedic treatment. Surrounded by incense and oil-lanterns, a seriously ill snakebite victim would be placed into the medicine boat which would then be filled with water, coconut milk, oils and over 50 herbs which were supposed to counteract the effects of the snake's venom.

It was strange lying in the water, soothing liquid in the late evening, in a medicine boat dating back 800 years, but as it cooled and filming was completed I was pleased to be able to do what a genuine snakebite victim probably could not do, get up and out myself. My mind also went back to the ayurvedic physician we had visited near Anuradhapura and his metal medicine boat which had contained snakebite victim on our first visit, but which had been empty on our second.