Standing alongside the shimmering expanse of a vast artificial lake, Polonnaruwa is the most compelling of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals. From the 11th to 13th centuries, a succession of ambitious kings developed an immense city here. Enclosed within three concentric walls were fabulous gardens, imposing palaces, temples and thriving monasteries – an astonishing urban creation to which the famous Tooth Relic was brought both as a kind of talisman. It is at its best at sunrise and early morning when, tinged with soft amber light, the site is patrolled by troops of foraging monkeys. Five distinct clusters of monuments demand attention but the Royal Citadel, Quadrangle and Northern groups suffice for most visitors. The ethereal statues, finely sculpted architectural detail, ancient frescoes and murals, colossal Buddha images and immense stupas lend to the site a magical atmosphere.

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