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Cultural Tourism Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a well known destination to tourists for its the fascinating cultural tourism attractions of ancient cities and world heritage sites. The magnificent, centuries old historical ruins and monuments of the ancient cities in the island interior reveal the advanced culture of ancient civilizations of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is one of those places where history seems to fade into the mist of legend. Is not Adam’s Peak said to be the very place where Adam set foot on earth, having been sent out of heaven? Isn’t that his footprint squarely on top of the mountain to prove it? Or is it the Buddha’s footprint on Sri Pada? And isn’t Adam’s Bridge (the chain of islands linking Sri Lanka to India) the very series of stepping stones Rama, aided by his faithful ally, the monkey god Hanuman, stepped across in his mission to rescue Sita from the clutches of the Rawana,King of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana?

The first entries in the Mahavamsa – or “Great History” – date back to 543BC, which coincides with the arrival of Prince Vijaya in Sri Lanka. Some 300 years later, commenced the early Anuradhapura Period, with King Devanampiya Tissa as the first ruler. It was in this period that a sapling of the sacred Bo Tree, under which the Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, was brought to Sri Lanka. The late Anuradhapura Period, which began in the year 459, saw the reign of King Kasyapa, and the construction of Sigiriya. The Polonnaruwa period, witnessed the transfer of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa in 1073. Famed explorer, Marco Polo, arrived in Sri Lanka in the period between 1254 and 1324, and, in 1505, the Portuguese landed, and occupied the island’s coastal regions.

The Portuguese Period

At this time Sri Lanka had three main kingdoms – the Kingdom of Jaffna in the north, the Kingdom of Kandy in the central highlands and Kotte, the most powerful, in the south-west. In 1505 the Portuguese, under Lorennco de Almeida established friendly relations with the king of Kotte and gained, for Portugal, a monopoly in the spice and cinnamon trade, which soon became of enormous importance in Europe. Attempts by Kotte to utilize the strength and protection of the Portuguese only resulted in Portugal taking over and ruling not only their regions, but the rest of the island, apart form the central highlands around Kandy. Because the highlands were remote and inaccessible, the kings of Kandy were always able to defeat the attempts by the Portuguese to annex them, and on a number of occasions drove the Portuguese right back down to the coast.

The Dutch Period

Attempts by Kandy to enlist Dutch help in expelling the Portuguese only resulted in the substitution of one European power for another. By 1658, 153 years after the first Portuguese contact, the Dutch took control over the costal areas of the Island. During their 140-year-rule the Dutch, like Portuguese, were involved in repeated unsuccessful attempts to bring Kandy under their control. The Dutch were much more interested in trade and profits than the Portuguese, who spent a lot of efforts spreading their religion and extending their physical control.

The British Period

The French revolution resulted in a major shake-up among the European powers and in 1796 the Dutch were easily supplanted by the British, who in 1815 also won the control of the kingdom of Kandy, becoming the first European power to rule the whole island. But in 1802, Sri Lanka became a Crown Colony and in 1818 a unified administration for the island was set up. Soon the country was dotted with coffee, cinnamon and coconut plantations and a network of roads and railways were built to handle this new economic activity. English became the official language, and is still widely spoken. Coffee was the main crop and the backbone of the colonial economy, but the occurrence of a leaf blight virtually wiped it out in the 1870s and the plantations quickly switched over to tea or rubber. Today Sri Lanka is the world’s second largest tea exporter. The British were unable to persuade the Sinhalese to work cheaply and willingly on the plantations, so they imported large number of South Indian labourers from South India. Sinhalese peasants in the hill country lost land to the estates.

With its own traditional and cultural values dating back to before BC, and the cultural values brought in by the European rulers, Sri Lanka has plenty to provide for those culturally interested tourist who want to explore this wonderful Island...

Sri Lanka cultural tours

Sri Lanka contains an astonishing seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites within its compact shores - the same number as heritage-packed Egypt. Six cultural sites are testament to a civilization with over 2,000 years of recorded history, while a seventh natural site boasts some of the highest biodiversity found outside the Amazon basin.

From colossal ancient monuments and serene rock carvings in sprawling ruined cities, to a 5th century AD king's palace in the clouds, the World Heritage Sites showcase the island's rich history and contribution to civilization. The largest and most dramatic of these are located in the so-called Cultural Triangle, the area formed by linking the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. It's a living heritage, where the visitor will see Buddhist monks and reverent devotees and hear the hypnotic murmur of religious invocations - all of which bring the crumbling brick temples, granite statues and towering dagobas of Sri Lanka's ancient cities to life.

Through the heritage sites the visitor can re-live some of the seminal episodes in the island's past - the introduction of Buddhism, which inspired kings to undertake astounding feats of engineering; the complex palace intrigues; the repeated invasions and conquests; and ultimately, the capitulation to the European colonial powers.

Experiencing Sri Lanka's heritage sites takes you on a spiritual journey that will uplift and amaze, inspire and refresh. The island's compact dimensions mean that it is possible to combine a visit to several of these marvels in the Cultural Triangle during even the briefest of visits.

Sacred city of Anuradhapura

Located in the North Central Province, 206km from Colombo, the sacred city of Anuradhapura is a magical place. Featuring some of the most ancient archaeological treasures in Sri Lanka, this vast heritage site is an impressive reminder of an ancient civilization.

Once one of the grandest monastic cities the world has ever seen, it was established in the 4th century BC, rising to prominence with the arrival of Buddhism, a pivotal event that saw the city transformed into a major centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and learning. The great kings of Anuradhapura oversaw a golden age in the island's history, building colossal dagobas that rivalled the pyramids of Egypt in scale, and developing a sophisticated irrigation system consisting of vast reservoirs and canals. The city's fame spread afar and features in writings from ancient Greece, Rome and China. But enduring frequent invasions from South India, Anuradhapura eventually fell into decline in the 10th century AD.

You will feel overwhelmed at the scale of ancient Anuradhapura. The centre of the ancient city is the Mahavihara, the oldest of the city's monasteries. Worshippers still come to meditate here, drawn to the Sri Maha Bodhi Bo-tree, grown from the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in Northern India. The Thuparama dagoba, erected in the 3rd century. BC, was the first dagoba to be built in Sri Lanka and enshrines the Buddha's right collarbone. Standing before the red-brick Jetavana dagoba 'once the third tallest structure in the world', is an awesome experience. The Abhayagiri dagoba is still covered in earth and vegetation, while the more famous Ruvanvalisaya dagoba, fully restored, is beautifully illuminated at night.The magnificent Kuttam Pokuna or twin baths - with their stone steps are well preserved but all that remains of the Brazen Palace - once a nine-storey structure with 1,000 rooms - is 1,600 granite columns. The Isurumuniya rock temple houses a famous 5th century AD Indian-style sculpture known as the lovers.

Anuradhapura is nestled between three vast reservoirs known as tanks - the Basawakkulama, Tissa Wewa and the Nuwara Wewa. Part of a sophisticated irrigation system developed from the 4th century BC onwards, these still carry life-giving water to the fields in the dry zone, living testament to the engineering skills of the ancient rulers. The raised bunds of the tanks are perfect for an evening stroll and some bird watching, while also offering great views of the city's dagobas.

Medieval capital of Polonnaruwa

In the 12th century AD, the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa was one of the great urban centres in South Asia. Today, the well preserved ruins give you the chance to experience the grandeur of this period and marvel at the artistry of the island's early craftsmen.

Located 142km from Colombo, Polonnaruwa was the island's second ancient capital. Many of the existing ruins owe their construction to Parakramabahu the Great, the last in a sequence of warrior-kings, who developed the city on a lavish scale. He is also credited with the massive artificial lake that lies to the west of the city, The Sea of Parakrama.

At the heart of the ancient city are the remains of the Royal Palace and Council Chamber. Nearby is the vatadage or relic house, a beautifully decorated circular structure with an uncanny resemblance to Stonehenge. Among the other sites are the gal potha (stone book) - a 9m-long granite slab inscribed with the feats of a king - the Lankatilaka shrine and the supremely graceful Buddha statues at Gal Vihara, the pinnacle of Sri Lankan rock carving. The site also hosts many distinctly South Indian-style Hindu temples.

Polonnaruwa's ancient splendour cannot fail to inspire. Set amongst gently undulating woodland, the monkeys, giant lizards and birdlife in abundance seem tamer than elsewhere in the island. Even 1980s pop group Duran Duran were obviously impressed, featuring Polonnaruwa in their music video, Save a Prayer.

Cave temples of Dambulla

Hewn into a 160m granite outcrop are the remarkable cave temples of Dambulla. Located at the centre of the island, 116km from Colombo, and on the main route north to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the cave temples are masterpieces of Buddhist art. Each is filled with murals depicting scenes from the Buddha.s life, and gilded statues of the Buddha in various poses.

In the 1st century BC, the caves provided refuge to a king who fled a South Indian invasion. On reclaiming his throne, the grateful king had temples constructed in the caves that had sheltered him. These were embellished by subsequent rulers, especially during the Kandyan period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Altogether, there are five caves. Cave 2, the Maharaja Vihara is the largest and most spectacular at over 50m long, 7m high and almost 25m deep. The spiritual energy at Dambulla is palpable and the Buddhist art on display is unparalleled in Sri Lanka. An added bonus is the majestic view from the top of the rock.


Part hedonistic pleasure palace, part fortress and part sacred complex, Sigiriya is one of the island's most awe-inspiring archaeological sites and a leading tourist attraction. In fact some consider it to be one of the oldest tourist attractions in the world with visitors recording their impressions in some of the earliest-known graffiti. Located north of Dambulla, 116km from Colombo, the site consists of a sheer rock that rises over 200m with the ruins of a palace on the top and a vast pleasure garden complex at the foot. For just two decades in the 5th century AD, Sigiriya rose to prominence following a power struggle between two brothers, and an act of patricide that saw the then king walled-up alive by his son, Kasyapa. Fearful that his defeated brother would return from exile to extract vengeance, Kasyapa shifted the capital to Sigiriya.

The megalomaniac yet spiritual Kasyapa clearly had an eye for beauty. The pleasure gardens include a series of symmetric pools, channels and fountains that still spurt water after 1,500 years. Partway up the rock are the famous Sigiriya frescoes, featuring 21 bare-breasted damsels that may represent celestial nymphs, but were surely modelled on Kasyapa's own consorts. Halfway you'll encounter a pair of giant lion's paws, part of the original entrance, which required visitors to pass through the open mouth of a lion. The summit yields a dramatic vista of the surrounding jungle and contains the foundations of the palace complex, replete with bathing pool. But all this was to be in vain.

Royal City of Kandy

Nestled amidst lush mountains in the north of the island's hill country, the Royal City of Kandy, 116km from Colombo, was home to Sri Lanka.s last independent kingdom, surviving two centuries of colonial incursions by the Portuguese and the Dutch before falling to the British in 1815. The legacy of this proud tradition lives on today in the form of the city's distinctive architecture, art and dance.

Home to the sacred relic of the tooth of the Buddha, a visit to the Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth, is an experience no tourist should miss said to have been snatched from the Buddha's funeral pyre and smuggled to Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess, the tooth relic is of great spiritual significance. Each year in July or August is the Kandy Esala Perahera (perahera means 'procession') a spectacular display of medieval pageantry that includes caparisoned elephants, fire dancers and Kandyan drummers.

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