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Of the eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka, five are in our famed Cultural Triangle, traditionally known as ‘The King’s Land’. Among them are the three most historic ancient Sinhalese capital cities: Anuradhapura in the north, Kandy in the south and Polonnaruwa in the east. All three played vital roles in the development of Sri Lanka as a vibrant and ordered society; not only as centers of culture and learning, but also the cradles of Buddhism on the island.

The history of Anuradhapura, that great city on the plain steeped in antiquity, is home to some of the most amazing Buddhist art and architecture on the planet. At its centre is the sacred tree of Buddhism in Anuradhapura, the Bo tree, grown from a cutting taken 1,000 years ago from the tree in India under which Buddha attained enlightenment. Says the UNESCO World Heritage citation: “The sacred city exerted a considerable influence on the development of architecture during several centuries. “It includes remarkable monuments, particularly the Dagabas [stupas] of colossal size, placed on circular foundations and surrounded by a ring of monolithic columns, characteristic of the Sinhalese stupas.”

The history of Polonnaruwa, the fabulous garden city founded after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993, likewise reveals a treasure trove of historical antiquity: the Lankatilaka, with its huge image of Buddha; the Gal Vihara, the pinnacles of Sinhalese art; the Tivanka Pilimage, where gorgeous wall paintings illustrate the lives of Buddha. And then there is Kandy, “the last capital of the Sinhala kings whose patronage enabled the Dinahala culture to flourish for more than 2,500 years until the occupation of Sri Lanka by the British in 1815” (UNESCO).

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