Though little remains from this era, Kurunegala was the capital of the Sinhalese emperors Bhuvanekabahu II (1293–1302) and Parakramabahu IV (1302-26) for a brief period in Sri Lankan history in the late thirteenth and early 14th centuries. Arriving from the tranquil backwoods of the Cultural Triangle, the modern town will take you by surprise with its closely packed streets and bustling activities.

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Frantic and confused Kurenegala, the largest town between Anuradhapura and Colombo, serves as the capital of the Northwest Province and a major trading center. Because the town is located at a key junction of the roads connecting Colombo, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy, and Anuradhapura, you may need to change buses here. Kurunegala isn’t worth visiting in and of itself, but it’s a good starting point for exploring the sights in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle’s southwest region.

Kurunegala is not included in most Sri Lanka vacation itineraries; yet, many tourists stop here for a break on their hours-long journey from Colombo to Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. Kurunegala’s historical city also has many important historical places in Sri Lanka, such as Ridi Vihara.

Though little remains from this era, Kurunegala was the capital of the Sinhalese emperors Bhuvanekabahu II (1293–1302) and Parakramabahu IV (1302-26) for a brief period in Sri Lankan history in the late thirteenth and early 14th centuries. Arriving from the tranquil backwoods of the Cultural Triangle, the modern town will take you by surprise with its closely packed streets and bustling activities.

Apart from a charming stone clock tower and war memorial from 1922 that silently observes the hustle and bustle of the congested centre, the town’s main attractions are the massive exposed rock formations that encircle the town and give it an oddly lunar atmosphere, and the windy Kurunegala Tank, located north of the town. According to folklore, these are the skeletal remains of a strange collection of enormous animals, including tortoises, eels, and elephants, who were about to drain the lake dry when a demonic entity that lived in the waters turned them to stone.

Spend a few hours walking or riding a tuktuk up to the massive Buddha statue atop Etagala (Elephant Rock), which is located just above town and offers spectacular views.

Approximately Kurunegala

The infrequently visited area north of Kurunegala provides a strange mix of attractions, including the abandoned villages of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara, the interesting woodland monastery of Arankele, and the majestic Kandyan-era Padeniya and Ridi Vihara temples. If you are going alone, you may spend a leisurely day seeing all of these locations, either returning from Kurunegala to Anuradhapura or the other way around. (If you wish to save money by not renting a car all the way to Anuradhapura, request that you be dropped off in Daladagama, where you can easily board a bus.)


The majestic Yapahuwa castle is located 45 km north of Kurunegala, just off the route of Kurunegala-Anuradhapura. Despite its historical importance, Yapahuwa is not packed into most Sri Lanka tour packages, however, it is worth visiting if you have time. It is formed around a big granite boulder and is located around a hundred meters above the surrounding lowlands. One of the short-lived capitals of the thirteenth-century Sinhalese collapse, Bhuvanekabahu I (1272–84), founded Yapahuwa. In response to repeated raids from South India, the King relocated the capital from Polonnaruwa to this location, bringing the Tooth Relic with him. The action, however, was futile. Following their victory over Yapahuwa in 1284, the troops of the Pandyan kingdom brought the Tooth Relic to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Yapahuwa was mostly abandoned after being taken and handed up to hermits and monks; Kurunegala was named as the new capital.

Panduwas Nuwara

Halfway between Kurunegala and Chilaw, in the seldom-visited countryside, lay the ruins of Panduwas Nuwara, one of Sri Lanka’s historical cities. The city’s name, “Town of Panduwas,” is derived from the mythological Panduvasudeva, and it is widely assumed that the city has existed since the start of Sinhala civilization. It is also said to have been the home of the fabled Ektem Maligaya, although, like with much of the area’s early history, the lines between reality and fiction are muddy, if not completely muddled.

The majority of the relics date from the period of Parakramabahu I, the heroic ruler who established his capital here before eventually seizing control of Polonnaruwa. Many people feel that Parakramabahu’s city of Panduwas Nuwara acted as a dress rehearsal for his remarkable achievements in Polonnaruwa. The location has a sense of lost grandeur evocative of Ozymandias, even if the individual ruins of the city are not as notable as they once were. The overall size of the site is impressive.

The fortress

The ruined city covers many square kilometres. The citadel is placed in the heart, with a single entrance facing east and surrounded by solid walls and a dried-up moat. The main ruin is the two-tiered royal residence within the citadel, which is oriented towards the entrance and recalls Parakramabahu’s royal home at Polonnaruwa. The pillar footings that once supported the long-gone timber palace building can still be seen, though not much of it remains. A table with an inscription at the top of the steps on the left commemorates the entrance of the noisy Nissankamalla to attend a dance performance. The ruins of a clever mediaeval toilet, consisting of a water channel leading to a well-like cesspit, may be found to the rear right of this terrace. While there are a few tiny, tastefully repaired remnants of older buildings surrounding the palace, the castle is still mostly covered in woodland, with the mounds of many old structures hidden beneath them.

Monasteries are places of worship.

The huge ruins of three monasteries are located to the south of the citadel. The first is around 200 metres south and contains a shattered brick dagoba, a bo tree enclosure (bodhigara), and the remains of a temple where just the Buddha’s feet remain intact. To the south, there are other monastic structures and two more damaged dagobas. Another monastery with a Tamil inscription on its door is also nearby.

The third, and possibly most significant, of the three is around 250 metres to the south. It has the remnants of a high-walled bodhigara, a tampita (a shrine built on pillars), and a massive stupa on a massive raised square foundation facing a smaller vatadage (on a circular foundation).

Even further south, a fourth monastery, much more recent and still in use, may be found. An old wooden pavilion from the Kandyan era stands in front of the monastery’s main edifice, the tampita. A vibrant array of contemporary buildings surround the tampita.

Ektem Maligaya

Panduwas Nuwara’s most mysterious and fascinating location is only a short distance from the current monastery. It consists of the foundations of a small, round building located exactly in the centre of a vast, round, partially walled depression. Nothing else on the island compares to this structure. Legend has it that the king was placed in the centre of a circular space representing the universe, and that this is nothing less than the legendary remnants of Ektem Maligaya. A more credible historical argument is that this was the spot where Parakramabahu took his oath of fealty.

Museum of Panduwas Nuwara

Before leaving the compound, take 10 minutes to visit the modest Panduwas Nuwara Museum, which houses site antiquities. A unique polished-stone mirror and a little metal sculpture of Parakramabahu positioned in a manner strikingly similar to the famed king statue at the Potgul Vihara in Polonnaruwa are highlights.


Unmadachitra (loosely translated as “she whose beauty drives men mad”), the daughter of the legendary King Panduvasudeva, was one of the best femme fatales in early Sri Lankan history. As a youngster, she received a prophecy that her son would kill his kin and inherit the throne. Panduvasudeva imprisoned Unmadachitra in the round, windowless Ektem Maligaya to prevent this from happening. But, like most young princesses imprisoned in great towers, Unmadachitra wasted no time in falling in love with one specific Digha-Gamini, an eligible young prince. The young couple married immediately and had a child named Pandukabhaya before the latter was driven into hiding. When Pandukabhaya reached adulthood, he approached his relatives and revealed himself. After that, all of them were executed, save for Anuradha, who refused to fight his doubtful nephew. In memory of Anuradha, Pandukabhaya named his new city Anuradhapura.

The Ridi Vihara

Ridi Vihara is a cave shrine located about 20 miles northeast of Kurunegala, set amid a beautiful rolling landscape. If you have your own transport, it’s worth looking into; otherwise, getting there could be problematic. According to legend, the legendary King Dutugemunu constructed Ridi Vihara, also known as the “Silver Temple.” Dutugemunu built the enormous Ruvanvalisaya dagoba in Anuradhapura after uncovering a rich vein of silver ore in Ridi Vihara. As a mark of his gratitude, the king built a shrine near the location of the silver vein.

Varakha Valandu Vihara

The little Varakha is on your left as you approach the compound, past some modern monastery structures and a gorgeous ancient bo tree. The Valandu Vihara, or “Jackfruit Temple,” is a charming little temple tucked against a tiny outcrop of rock. The structure, which was originally erected as a Hindu temple before being converted to a Buddhist temple, was built in the eleventh century and retains its distinctively South Indian appearance, with huge, rectangular columns supporting a seemingly sturdy stone roof.

The Pahala Vihara

The main temple is located just beyond the Varakha Valandu Vihara, beneath a massive rock protrusion that is said to resemble a cobra’s hood. The temple is split in two sections. The ancient Pahala Vihara (Lower Temple) is built beneath the rock in the shape of a cave. A beautiful ivory carving of five ladies stands beside the entrance door, and inside are other large statues that are seriously positioned in the faint light. On the left side of the cave, there is a big sleeping Buddha. In front of it is a platform with inlaid blue-and-white Flemish tiles, allegedly given to the Kandyan court by a Dutch envoy. The images of biblical motifs and Dutch country scenes on the tiles of this revered Buddhist temple are a covert attempt at Christian proselytising. One of the old statues at the temple’s far end is thought to depict an eroded depiction of Dutugemunu.

Uda Vihara

To the right of the Pahala Vihara are steps going up to the Upper Temple, also known as Uda Vihara, which Kandyan emperor Kirti Sri Rajasinha erected in the eighteenth century. The external entry stairs have a spectacular moonstone with elephant-shaped balustrades on either side, and the main room has an exceptional picture of a seated Buddha against a crowded background (the black figures are Vishnus). Take note of the entryway behind it, which leads to a little shrine with an interesting picture of nine females grouped in the shape of an elephant on top. A dagoba can be found outside, practically hidden beneath another section of the jutting rock.

A hundred steps return to the monastery entrance, some carved into the bare rock, and lead to a modest but well-repaired dagoba with stunning views of the surrounding area.

Arankele Hermitage

The deserted forest hermitage of Arankele, located about 25 kilometres north of Kurunegala on a jungle-covered mountainside, is one of the most fascinating and rarely-visited locations in the Cultural Triangle. Despite the fact that many places in Arankele remain unexplored, people lived there as early as the third century BC. The majority of what is visible today dates from the sixth and ninth centuries AD. The monastery at the back of the land still houses a group of pamsukulika monks who have dedicated their lives to a secluded, contemplative lifestyle.

Buddhits monastery ruins

Take note of the magnificent Jantaghara, which means “hot water bath” and could be a monastic hospital comparable to the one at Mihintale, just before reaching the site’s entrance. A magnificent ancient stone bathing tank sits on sturdy rectangular walls.

The primary monastery

The massive ruins of the main monastery can be found just beyond the entryway. It’s almost unbelievable that early Sinhalese engineers and craftsmen were able to transport and shape such massive boulders. They are famous for their superb craftsmanship and the use of extremely huge stone blocks in their construction. A sizable moat surrounds the magnificent chapter house, one of the most noticeable structures here, to help cool the air. There’s a large pond nearby with steps. Nearby lies the monastery’s main receiving hall, which has only four massive granite slabs for flooring, an exquisite stone lavatory, and the only once-covered meditation promenade in Sri Lanka. The footings that once supported the columns that held the roof up are still visible, but the roof itself has long vanished.

Introspection route

Beyond the main monastery, Arankele’s majestic primary meditation promenade begins. It’s a long, straight stone path with a few tiny flights of stairs strewn about. Its tropical flora is wild and arid, a great cry from its mathematical neatness. After about 250 metres, you come to a small “roundabout” on the path. Though it was most likely just a rest space with a long-gone roof, the general assumption is that it was intended to prevent monks from tripping over each other while meditating. The ruins of the main monk’s residence lie nearby. There are remnants of a vast hall, an unavoidable lavatory, and a few partially collapsed pillars that once supported an outdoor meditation platform.

After around 250 metres, the meditation walkway leads to a little cave shrine situated beneath a rock outcrop. This is the most ancient component of the ruins, dating back to the third century BC. It still has the original drip ledge and apertures where a projecting canopy used to be. Inside, there’s a modest Buddha shrine and two smaller meditation chambers.

After this point, the path enters the modern monastery, where a lengthy, covered hallway leads to the rear entrance.

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