The diverse landscapes, cultures and history of this beautiful island nation invites you to explore. With many UNESCO listed world heritage sites, a tour of Sri Lanka cultural history provides plenty of options. Experience evidence of Sri Lankan history dating back over 2,000 years that has only recently been recovered from the jungle. Join one of our bespoke cultural tours and explore the history of Sri Lanka with us, as we trace the various kingdoms that ruled Sri Lanka right up until the British defeated the last kingdom in Kandy. In this article we provide a 101 class in Sri Lanka cultural history to help your travels.
The Golden Triangle
If there’s one region that cultural aficionados won’t want to miss on their trip to Sri Lanka, it’s the famed Golden Triangle. Its three corners are marked by the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, with the majestic citadel of Sigiriya in the middle. This area is home to the country’s most iconic cultural attractions, and has huge historical and religious significance. A typical circuit of the Golden Triangle begins with taking a bus, taxi or train from Colombo through scenic countryside to the starting point of Anuradhapura, three and a half hours away.
Anuradhapura is home to the second most sacred site in all of Sri Lanka – the Sacred Bodhi Tree Temple. At over 2300 years old, it is the oldest surviving tree on the planet! It is said to have originated as a sapling taken from the original Bodhi tree in northern India, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment.
Yet that is only one of the many splendid sights within the “Sacred City” complex. Notable amongst these are the four monumental stupas, and the ornate carvings at the Ratna Prasada or Jewel Palace. You could spend a whole day touring the archaeological park by tuk-tuk and still not see half of it.
Anuradhapura is an especially vivid place to experience during and after Poya or full-moon days, when devotees dressed all in white flock to the temples and stupas to worship and pay their respects.
This city is smaller than Anuradhapura, but its well-preserved historic ruins are contained in a smaller area. Although smaller, you’ll still need a car or the ruins can be explored by bicycle at a leisurely pace. Upon entering the park you will be greeted with the sight of the sprawling Royal Palace ruins. Make sure to find the Audience Hall, whose low walls are lined with uniquely individual carved elephants. For three centuries, Polonnaruwa served as Sri Lanka’s capital, hence why it became so rich with cultural heritage.
Each monument and building is more impressive than the last. Nestled in the forest is Satmahal Prasada, only a short drive from the main site. This is a six layer pyramid, reminiscent of an Aztec ziggurat but with still-visible statues adorning the façade.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Polonnaruwa is that it used to safeguard the sacred tooth of Buddha. While the tooth itself has since been moved to Kandy, the majestic Dalada Maluwa (or sacred quadrangle) that held it still forms the heart of these ancient ruins and is not to be missed.
Lion Rock at Sigiriya is one of the most iconic landmarks in Sri Lanka. The massive red rock stands tall above the lush jungle around it. The top of the rock provides the perfect setting for the elaborate fortress that crowns Sigiriya. It has been described as a triumph of engineering, and you can still see why today – the complex was built in 477 BC, and yet the level of urban planning and craftsmanship is admirable. The entrance to the long, winding staircase is dominated by enormous carved lion paws on either side. Note that there are supposedly more than 1200 steps on the way up to the top of the fortress, so some prior preparation might be necessary. The view at the top is more than sufficient reward for the entry fee and the effort it takes to climb up.
Just 20 minutes away from Sigiriya’s elevated fortress is a different kind of natural wonder sculpted by human hands. The Rock Temple at Dambulla is a monastery dating from 89 BC, which is actually still in use today. It consists of a series of linked caves which have been decorated over centuries with statues and frescoes to form beautiful, serene sanctuaries underground. This destination is somewhat of a hidden gem, as yet underestimated by many tourists.
As mentioned previously, Kandy is the current home of the sacred tooth of Buddha. It sits inside a small temple sanctuary, within an exterior shrine and green lawns. The relic is brought out during the Esala Perahera festival (held in July). The temple itself is a sight to behold with intricate gold décor and architecture. There is also a lot to see and do in Kandy. Kandy is regarded as the last of Sri Lanka’s great Sinhalese kingdoms. You can choose to watch a cultural show of dance and acrobatics at the Kandyan Art Association Hall, visit the British Garrison Cemetery, or wander the halls of the National Museum. Located nearby are the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are spread over 147 acres, and are ideal for relaxing and rewinding after a jam-packed but fascinating trip.
Visitors can easily extend their journey outside the cultural triangle. The seven hour train ride between Kandy and Ella is often hailed as the most beautiful in the world! Surprised at the diversity of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage? This list doesn’t even cover all of it. There are a myriad of fascinating cultural sights and experiences outside of the Golden Triangle zone, such as Galle Fort, the Dutch canals in Negombo, and Gangaramaya Temple.