UNESCO’s Sri Lanka World Heritage list currently stands at 6 cultural and 2 natural sites. The 6 cultural entries are predictable and logical and include the ancient city sites of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, the cave temples at Dambulla and the rock fortress of Sigiriya with the historic towns of Galle and Kandy completing the compliment.
Anuradhapura, in the north-central part of the island, is considered to be one of the longest, continually occupied cities in the world. According to historical records, the city was founded sometime between the 5th and 3rd-centuries BCE, although archaeologists have dated certain remains to as far back as the 10th-century BCE. The date of Anuradhapura’s fall is more precisely known and, after existing as a largely independent religious and political capital for an astonishing 1,500 years or so, was finally destroyed by the army of the Chola kingdom of southern India in 993 CE.
The Chola king established a new capital at Polonnaruwa, to the southeast, which became an independent chiefdom after the defeat and removal of the Cholas in 1070. Between them, these 2 sites then cover some 2 millennia of history. They’ve been listed by UNESCO since 1982 and today the collections of ruined palaces, stupas and temples – both set in picturesque parkland – are exceptional sites for visitors to explore. Though extensive they lend themselves perfectly to bicycle tours and the lush vegetation, plentiful birdlife and resident leaf-monkeys are just the icing on the historical cake.
Also listed in 1982 and lying slightly to the west (the area is predictably known as the Cultural Triangle) is the iconic 5th-century site of Sigiriya. The ruins of a combined fortress, citadel and palace lie atop a sheer-sided, mesa-style rock formation while remarkably well-preserved rock paintings – the famous Maidens of the Clouds – can be found on the cliffs. Further remains, as well as terraced, water and boulder gardens, cluster around the rock’s base. A truly spectacular sight.
Also in the Cultural Triangle, just a short hop further west, are the spectacular cave temples of Dambulla. Walls and ceilings of these shallow caves are covered with wall paintings and lined with statues and are said to have been in use for over 2,000 years.
Sri Lanka is extremely fortunate to have so many fabulous sites in such a small area and the next site on the list, Kandy, is just a couple of hours drive south from here. The mountain city represents a later period of the country’s history having been founded in the 14th-century. It remained the capital of an independent kingdom – resisting both Portuguese and Dutch efforts at conquest – until finally falling to the British in 1815. (A good year for the British army!) The town’s home to the celebrated and highly prestigious Temple of the Tooth, which seems to be UNESCO’s main criteria for listing it, although the remaining colonial-period buildings of the town centre and lake area also merit some TLC. (The temple, of course, is thought to contain a tooth of the great man himself.)
Moving on, geographically and historically, picturesque Galle, initially founded by the Portuguese in the 16th-century, displays the influence of Moorish/Arab traders as well as Dutch and British colonists. Consisting of a walled city constructed on a rocky promontory, UNESCO considers Galle to be the best example of a European fortified town in Asia.
A fantastic array of cultural sites then, although once again Sri Lanka’s natural listings are sadly more limited. These currently stand at the Sinharaja Forest Reserve – an area of primary tropical rainforest on the southern edge of the Hill Country – and the Central Highlands which combines the 3 widely-spaced protected areas of Horton Plains, Peak Wilderness and Knuckles Conservation Forest. 2 vitally important biodiversity hotspots and essential listings but, we feel, considering all the other natural candidates on offer, a bit limited in scope.
While the Sri Lanka World Heritage list represents an admirable start we can’t help but feel that UNESCO’s tentative list is a very unambitious affair. Most of the above sites have been listed for some time so, not surprisingly, the 3 tentative sites are all to be found in the northeastern area which was off-limits during the recent civil war. These are the Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara – a 2nd-century stupa plus associated structures near Trincomalee – plus an adjacent Seruwali pilgrimage route which also seems to include the old port of Trincomalee itself. The 3rd entry, also in the northeast, is another 2nd-century religious site, Ariyakara Viharaya.
As we said, unambitious and much as we like the town of Trinco it’s hardly comparable to Galle. There are myriad pilgrimage routes in Sri Lanka, including the famous Adam’s Peak, while there’s also no shortage of ancient stupas either. It almost seems like a sop to the neglected Tamil inhabited northeast in which case perhaps the authorities would do better to emphasise the Tamil heritage of already listed sites such as Anuradhapura? (As is often the case, in Sri Lanka ancient history is also contemporary politics.)
Not on the List
Everywhere you look in Sri Lanka there seems to be an ancient temple, ruined city or sacred site and looking at the tentative list other historical sites such as Ritigala or particularly Mihintale might have equal or better claims. Again, if Trincomalee is to be considered, the ancient port of Jaffna might have something to say about it. Following our common UNESCO series theme though we would once again point to the paucity of natural sites and suggest the addition of a few more national parks could be in order. Minneriya, with its awe-inspiring elephant gathering. Yala West, Udawalawe and the vast Wilpattu spring immediately to mind. All are very fragile areas housing rich and diverse wildlife.
On our tours
While some country’s sites are fairly far-flung the Sri Lanka World Heritage sites are conveniently grouped so our itineraries have no problems including the majority in 2-week time frames without too much travelling. Galle, Kandy, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Horton Plains appear on all our Sri Lanka tours while we swap jeep safaris in the national parks according to the season. Our May to October version – Ancient Cities and Hill Country features Minneriya and Wilpattu while our November to April, Island of Serendipity tour, includes Yala National Park. The former also includes the ancient forest ruins of Ritigale, while the latter features Trincomalee as well as Mihintale.
Sharp-eyed readers may note the one obvious exception, Sinharaja. While we have in the past incorporated it into tailored tours, the Forest Park doesn’t fit quite so conveniently into our 2-week itineraries. Frankly, we were simply running out of days and we felt the site was perhaps better suited to specific birding and wildlife tours. Otherwise, we’ve got pretty much all bases covered.