Royal Palace Group
This group of buildings dates from the 12th-century reign of Parakramabahu I. The walled enclosure is the logical place to start a tour of Polonnaruwa, before continuing north to see the other principal monuments.
Only a short stroll north of the Royal Palace ruins, the area known as the Quadrangle is literally that – a compact group of fascinating ruins in a raised-up area bounded by a wall. It’s the most concentrated collection of buildings you’ll find in the Ancient Cities – an archaeologist’s playpen. Over time, the Atadage, the Vatadage and the Hatadage all likely housed the Buddha tooth relic, each one built by a successive king to show his personal devotion.
As well as the major ruins here, also look for the recumbent image house, chapter house, Bodhisattva shrine and bodhi tree shrine.
Around the Quadrangle
Dotted around the fringes of the Quadrangle are a number of structures, including Shiva devales (Hindu temples), relics from the South Indian invasion of the 10th century.
These ruins, all north of the city wall, start about 1.5km north of the Quadrangle. They include the impressive Alahana Pirivena group (consisting of the Rankot Vihara, Lankatilaka, Kiri Vihara, Buddha Seema Prasada and the other structures around them). The name of the group means ‘crematory college’ – it stood in the royal cremation grounds established by Parakramabahu I.
Further north is Gal Vihara, probably the most famous group of Buddha images in Sri Lanka.
A bike makes exploration of the Northern Group a lot easier.
The small Southern Group is close to several top-end hotels. By bicycle, it’s a pleasant ride on Potgul Mawatha (Lake Rd) alongside the shores of the Topa Wewa (Parakrama Samudra) tank. It's particularly lovely at sunset. You’ll likely find more cows (and their friends, the cattle egret) than you will people here.