The Royal Palace in Polonnaruwa is a must-visit if you visit that must-visit town. Sri Lankan ruins are mostly about imagining what was, and here you can imagine a skyscraper of the day (The late 1100s) and all the court life that surrounded it.
What you see as you enter the ruins is about three stories of brick. In that you can see holes for where (we assume) wooden beams had gone, supporting wooden floors. It is thought that the construction continued upwards for seven stories total. If correct, this would have made it as tall as one of the first skyscrapers, the 7-story Equitable Life Building in New York, built in 1870.
What’s left looks, as the Lonely Planet puts it, like giant molars. The place reportedly had 1,000 rooms, but that seems unlikely. Overall its the size of a decent sized house, just with much more formidable walls. You can imagine the life that must have gone on inside, and you can see all the supporting buildings around. Must have been a truly magnificent royal complex back in the day.
Who’s palace was this? Mainly Parakramabahu I (1123-1186), one of the greatest kings in Sri Lankan history. He was famous for saying “”not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man””. You can see the evidence of his drive in the Parakrama Samudra, the Sea Of Parakrama, a man-made tank which looks like a giant lake. He built this and many more.
During his reign (1153-1186) he largely unified the island, fought off invaders and even staged an offensive assault on distant Myanmar. He also traded with China and the Middle East and built many public works, including much of what we visit today in Polonnaruwa.
From the heights of this palace he could have looked out onto the tanks he constructed, the temples he built or restored, and what was a beautiful, planned city back in the day.
What It Says On The Plaque
This is a direct transcription of what is says on the plaque as you enter:
This is the seven storied Palace named Vijayotpaya or Vijavanta Prasada built by King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186 AD) in Polonnaruva. The name is that of the Palace of God Sakra and the adoption here indicates that there may have been a need at the time to secure the concept that the King and god were equal.
The basic ground plan of the palace is similar to that of the 12th century Vijayabahu palace at Anuradhapura and the palaces at Panduvasnuvara and Yapahuwa. Remains of three stones of the supposed seven stories can still be identified. Revises and sockets on the thick brick walls were to take in large wooden beams. There is evidence that this place may have been destroyed by fire.
Mahavamsa mentions that this had thousand chambers. Around the palace, ruins of many buildings are seen which may have been used as places for rituals and entertainment, and as rooms for palace aides and storage.
This is a beautiful ruin, but you need to use your imagination. Once you do, it ties together the whole complex, the conference hall, the more distant temple where the tooth relic was kept and the surrounding tanks. This would have been one of the tallest occupied buildings in the world at the time and the foundation is still impressive almost 1,000 years later.