We highly recommend a day excursion from Dambulla to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa during your Sri Lanka trip. A scenic two-hour drive through lush countryside passes numerous lakes along the way, which are actually the remnants of a vast network of thousands of human-made ancient irrigation tanks.
These represented sophisticated cultivation practices at the time of development. Many have silted up, but those that remain provide habitat for wildlife and a plethora of bird species. You may need to stop the car for elephants crossing the road in search of refreshment; a delightful diversion and a great photo opportunity.
Polonnaruwa was the second capital city of Sri Lanka, built in the 11th and 12th centuries A.D., and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its ruins are better preserved than the older city of Anuradhapura. As you tour Sri Lanka, spend a tranquil day exploring all the sites, either covering the short distances between them by car, or better yet, by bicycle.
Gal Vihara (Cave of the Spirits of Knowledge) contains four splendid statues of the Buddha in "Upright," "Sedentary" and "Recumbent" postures carved out of the granite outcrop. The imposing standing image is 23 feet tall. This is a sacred pilgrimage site for devotees of Buddhism.
The Royal Palace is at the center of the complex. The wooden upper stories have not withstood the test of time, and all that remains is the first floor, made of stone. Superbly rendered elephant carvings and seated stone lions grace the Audience Hall, which was used by the ancient kings to hear petitions and meet with foreign rulers. The remnants of the Royal Bathing Pool are also in evidence.
The Shiva Devale (Shiva Temple) celebrates the Hindu god of destruction. It dates from the 13th century Indian conquest, and evidences the precise stonework for which India is famous. The Khiri Vihara makes for an interesting stop on any tour of Sri Lanka. Khiri means "white," and this aptly named dagoba's whitewashed plaster survived seven centuries of abandonment to the jungle.
The area known as the Quadrangle houses the richest collection of ancient buildings in Sri Lanka. Explore the circular Vatadage reliquary, with four entrances leading to a central shrine which contains four seated Buddha images.
The Thuparama exhibits strong Hindu influences, while the Latha-Mandapaya, a miniature dagoba, displays the classical Buddhist lotus buds. The Khiri Vihara formerly housed the sacred Tooth Relic, since moved to Kandy where it is currently housed.
The Hatadage is another former tooth reliquary. The Gal Pota, or Stone Book, was used to record Buddhist texts and royal genealogies. The Satmahal Prasada is a six-story, pyramid-like structure, unlike anything else in Sri Lanka, and appears to exhibit Khmer influences.