Top attractions in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
The Cultural Triangle is known for its perpetual European spring and rich history.
The Sri Lankan Hill Country offers tangled, misty mountains with carpets of tea plantations and forests, waterfalls, raging rivers, and the most stunning train ride in the world. The cultural hub of Kandy and the sheer drop at the World’s End. The most dramatic of mountains, Adam’s Peak, which attracts worshippers of all the major religions.
On the fringes of the Hill Country, you will find Sigiriya rock fortress and the beautiful ancient cave temple of Dambulla and the ancient Sri Lankan capitals, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura.
Kandy, the Ancient Capital
Kandy, the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings, flourished for more than 2,500 years, resisting numerous attacks by the Portuguese and the Dutch until the British occupation in 1815. It’s the island’s cultural capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple of the Tooth Relic is the main attraction and the most holy pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka. The sacred tooth of the Buddha attracts hundreds of white-clad pilgrims, bearing lotus blossoms and frangipani, every day.
Another popular attraction of the old capital is the Kandyan dance, a highly sophisticated and colourful spectacle involving fire-walking, mask dance, and acrobats accompanied by drumming. Kandyan dancing flourished under the Kandyan kings, and today it’s the national dance of Sri Lanka.
A short drive out of town you will find Peradeniya Royal Botanical Garden. The garden is the finest of its kind in Asia, dating back to 1371. It showcases more than 10,000 trees, including the large Banyan tree, the Giant Bamboo of Burma, and the century old giant Javan Fig tree, claimed to be the largest tree in the world. Peradeniya is also renowned for its collection of orchids.
Adam’s Peak is also known as Sri Pada (sacred footprint) because of an indentation at the summit, which rises at 2,243 metres above the surrounding hills. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians all consider Adam’s Peak a holy place.
It’s a strenuous climb of 4,800 steps to the top. You leave by night in order to make it in time for the extraordinary sunrise and the unforgettable views of the peak’s enigmatic shadow on the clouds below. The views are weather permitting, and we recommend not doing the climb during religious and public holidays, as the route and summit get extremely crowded.
World’s End is a spectacular viewpoint at the very edge of the hill country, a sheer cliff with a drop of about 1,200 m (4,000 ft), where the Sri Lankan highland meets the tropical lowlands and the Indian Ocean can be seen on clear days. World’s End is located in Horton Plains National Park, a windswept plateau at an altitude of 2,100–2,300 metres, with greenery that resembles that of Ireland and mountains that feel like Norway. Horton Plains is covered by wild grasslands and interspersed with patches of thick forest, rocky outcrops, filigree waterfalls, and misty lakes. The landscape is bounded on two sides by Sri Lanka’s second-and-third-highest mountains, Totapola and Kirgalpotta. The park offers some excellent hikes, the most popular being the 9 km (5.5 mile) round trip to World’s End.
Sigirya Rock Fortress
Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most dramatic sight. perched on the summit of a massive rock column rising from the central plains of Sri Lanka, it contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation and is surrounded by an extensive network of gardens and reservoirs. Built in the fifth century AD, it is a wonder of ancient engineering and irrigation skills. You pass a pair of colossal lion’s paws carved into the bedrock before you reach the summit with the fortress overlooking the tropical forest.
Anuradhapura, the longest serving capital
Of all the ancient cities of Sri Lanka, the most famed and exquisite is the Kingdom of Anuradhapura. Sri Lanka’s first and longest serving capital, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is also one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists. It was the capital of Sri Lanka from the fourth century BC up to the turn of the eleventh century – and was one of the most stable and durable centres of political power and urban life in South Asia. In its heyday, tens of thousands of people lived in the city of royal palaces, monasteries, temples topped by glittering jewels, houses of two or three storeys, shops, pleasure gardens, bathing pools, and wooded parks.
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is a sacred fig tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. It is said to be the southern branch from the historical Bodhi tree, Sri Maha Bodhi at Bodh Gaya in India, under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment. It was planted in 288 BC, and is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date. Today it is one of the most sacred relics of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and respected by Buddhists all over the world.
Polonnaruwa, the second most ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka, boasts irrigation systems that are far superior to those of its time and they still provide irrigation water to the farmers in and around Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa was established as the capital after Anuradhapura had been invaded in the late tenth century. Under King Parakramabu, Polonnaruwa became a magnificent walled city. He built the vast reservoir, Parakrama Samudra (the Sea of Parakrama), still in use today, and ordered the construction of monasteries, temples, palaces, bathing pools, and Buddhist statues – all set in a forested park surrounded by moats.
One of the most striking of the many sites is Polonnaruwa’s Gal Vihara or Rock Shrine; the reclining Lord Buddha is near another statue showing him seated in deep meditation, his throne adorned with lions and thunderbolts. Don’t miss the Aukana Buddha, the most perfectly preserved ancient statue in Sri Lanka; standing 13 metres (43ft) high, the imposing image was carved out of a single rock.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla is located in the central province of Sri Lanka. It’s a beautiful ancient temple dating back to the first century BC. Five separate caves contain about 150 stunning Buddha statues and paintings. Religious images were first created in Dambulla more than 2000 years ago, and are considered some of Sri Lanka’s most important religious art.