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The Ancient Kingdoms

There are 6 UNESCO world heritage sites of historical significance within the island, however, a significant proportion of these ancient cities are still covered by jungle and it is not uncommon for an adventurous traveller trekking through the jungle to come across the ruins of an ancient monastery or palace. There are several must-see for history buffs in the island as follows: 

  • Anuradhapura (UNESCO World Heritage listed)

One of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world, for over a thousand years the ancient city of Anuradhapura was the seat of power for the mightiest kings of Sri Lanka, this magnificent city is a story is one of great enlightenment and staggering civil works, sharing of philosophy a science as well as one of continuous wars both internal and against the expansionist ambitions of the various generations of Indian kingdoms. Another great feat of these ancient kings was the creation of giant manmade lakes known as “Tanks” in Sri Lanka, there are three spectacular tanks in the region of Anuradhapura the most impressive being the Nuwara Wewa covering 1200 hectares of interest for the engineering feat but also for the abundance of wildlife and fauna that can be found on its shores. 

  • The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa (UNESCO World Heritage Listed) 

A seat of power for over three hundred years and over a thousand years old the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is beautifully preserved and tremendously impressive. The seat of power moved to this city after the fall of Anuradhapura to an invading Indian kingdom known as the Cholas in the 10th century AD, the Cholas moved the seat of power to Polonnaruwa as it was considered a better strategic site to maintain their control of the island. Polonnaruwa tends to be more impressive for a visitor as it is in a better state of repair and easier to get around mainly due to its relative youth and smaller scale in comparison to Anuradhapura and it has some of sites of great interest to the historian. A personal favourite to the Footfalls team is the legend that a replica of a temple from the famous ancient city of Angkor Wat in modern-day Cambodia to be found amongst the ruins was a gift reigning King of Angkor in honour of his daughter’s wedding to the King of Polonnuruwa. 

  • Sigiriya (UNESCO World Heritage Listed)

Built by King Kassapa in 478AD is the staggering rock citadel of Sigiriya (Lion Rock), rising two hundred metres above the plains of the north-central province this giant rock monolith was converted into a pleasure palace and fortress for one of Sri Lanka’s most infamous kings. King Kassapa achieved the mantle of kingship by overthrowing and murdering his father, in fear of his brother's retribution he moved his capital from Anuradhapura to the more defensible Sigiriya. Sigiriya is quite simply a must see by all visitors to Sri Lanka, the beautiful gardens, giant moat and working fountains surrounding the palace are visible today, equally impressive are the Sigiriya frescos depicting beautiful semi nude nymphs or some say the King's concubines these tremendously well preserved and impressive frescos are found halfway up the rock face as you make the climb to the palace compound, it is as interesting to see the poetry and comments left by ancient vandals espousing their thoughts on the beautiful women in the frescos. 

  • Dambulla Rock Temple (UNESCO World Heritage Listed)

Dating back to the 1st century BC the cave temples of Dambulla are built into a rock outcropping about 200 metres from road level, their creation is credited to King Valagamba had to take refuge at this place after being forced to vacate his throne at Anuradhapura, on recovery of his throne he had the interior of the caves carved to the magnificent spectacle that they are today. Other kings of Sri Lanka contributed to the development of this temple complex, including King Nissanka Malla who had the temples gilded, resulting in it being given the local name of Ran Giri or Golden rock. A stunning sight from a historical, religious and artistic perspective Dambulla Rock temple is well worth a visit.

  • The Old Town of Galle (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Located on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. It is known for its well-preserved colonial architecture, influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British who occupied the area over the centuries. The town is enclosed within a fortified wall, built by the Dutch during the 17th century, which still stands today.

  • Kandy (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

This city is recognised for its cultural heritage and enduring traditions, as the last capital of the ancient kings' era in Sri Lanka. Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa), which houses a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, making it an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, the city

Beyond this list, there remain many more magnificent and lesser-heralded historical sites in Sri Lanka that you will discover on any journey trough this magnificent island. 

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