Northern Sri Lanka has been known as the Rajarata, or “The King’s Land” for millennia. Nowadays, this traditional name for this region has been surpassed in popularity by a more modern name--the Cultural Triangle. The origins of the name date back to the 1970s and the Sri Lankan government’s attempt to restore and promote the region’s great ruined monuments for the modern tourist industry – perhaps inspired by the “golden triangles” of Thailand and India.

As it goes with all triangles, there are three main points of interest in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle: the first lies at the great Sinhalese capital of Kandy in the south, the second at Anuradhapura in the north and the third in Polonnaruwa in the east. There are thousands of ruins and monuments throughout the triangle, but some areas deserve special attention. We have compiled a guide to some of the best spots to explore and discover the ruins of the Cultural Triangle.

Roam Polonnaruwa

Since 1073, Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s royal medieval capital and acting military base. Eventually, the town was overthrown by Chola tribes and was lost to the jungle once more as the capital drifted south-west. Today, the ancient city’s ruins remain in remarkably good condition and is a fascinating place to visit. The most impressive ruins are the ancient sculptures of Lord Buddha at the Gal Viahara cut into Granite stone dating back to the middle of the 12th century. The entire sculpture consists of four colossal statues of Buddha - a samadhi image in meditation posture, a seated Buddha image inside a cave, a standing Buddha image, and recumbent Buddha image depicting his parinirvana (or nirvana after death.)

Clamber up the giant rock fortress of Sigirya

Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also one of the most dramatic historical locations in the world. It was built in 5th century AD by King Kasyapa as a fortress-palace. Legend says that King Kasyapa murdered his father, Dhatusena, and then claimed the throne for himself. However, Kasyapa was not the direct heir and he was fearful that his half-brother, Prince Moggallana, would return from exile in India and rightfully claim his crown. Despite building an impenetrable stronghold, Moggallana did return and Kasyapa was defeated.

Little did anyone realize that hidden in the caves of Sigiriya’s Rock Fortress were frescoes – including ancient paintings of maidens that date back to the 5th century. While only a fraction of the original frescoes remain, originally the entire western face of the Sigirya rock would have been covered with these frescoes. Researchers believe many of the frescoes met their demise during the time Sigirya was used as a Buddhist monastery. Sigiriya is Sri Lanka’s answer to the Taj Mahal and will astonish anyone with its ingenious engineering and unequalled design.

Discover Dambulla’s cave paintings

Dambulla is another cave-centric ruin, but instead of the frescoes from Sigirya, these caves at first came into use as an escape for King Valagambahu in 1st century BC. Concealed by the local monks the King had the magnificent cave temple built. The cave temple consists of a complex of Buddhist image houses. It has a rock ceiling with one large sweep of colourful frescoes, some of which date back over 2,000 years. The paintings depict Buddhist mythology, and the tales of the Buddha's previous births. In addition to the frescoes, Dambulla is also home to a huge number of Buddha statues, including a 14-metre-long, colossal figure of the recumbent Buddha carved out of the rock.

Experience Vesak in Mihintale

Mihintale is one of Sri Lanka’s most significant religious sites and is where it is believed Buddhism originated on the island. Way back in 247 BC, King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura, was deer hunting on the plains beneath Mihintale, and met Mahinda, son of the Indian Buddhist emperor, and chose the path of Buddhism for the Sinhalese nation following Mahinda’s persuasion.

Watch the elephants in Minneriya

Sitting in the centre of the Cultural Triangle, Minneriya is a good alternative to the busier parks in the south and it's easy to weave in a day here between visiting the ancient cities. It may not have ruins, but it does have plenty of wildlife and natural environments to see. If you can visit during the dry season, preferably from June to September, it will be the best time to visit the park. During this time it is possible to see herds of up to 150 elephants feeding and washing, as well as plenty of other wildlife. Minneriya was recently upgraded from a Nature Reserve to a National Park because of the increased number of tourists coming to see the elephants. If you care for a guided tour of the park and its animal inhabitants, there is a game drive in the park complete with an English-speaking guide and a driver.

Take a wooded walk through the ruins of Ritigala

This cultural site will delight nature lovers who want to escape the main tourist haunts. The Ritigala Buddhist Monastery is nestled deep inside the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve. This reserve can be found just off the Anuradhapura-Habarana road, and it is home to the partially excavated ruins of an extensive Buddhist Monastery. The monastery was abandoned following invasions in 10th and 11th centuries and today holds special appeal to visitors. There is a great blend of a safari adventure along with extensive archaeological dig sites and there is nothing quite like walking up wooded slopes, and almost stumbling across the beautiful ruins.

Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is a treasure trove of some of the island’s finest ancient monuments. Whether you want to get lost in the ruins or want to learn about the collections of Buddhist art and architecture, you’ll find it all encapsulated in the Cultural Triangle. Beyond the major attractions, there are plenty of other little-visited but nonetheless intriguing ancient monuments to explore. Prepare for your time in the Cultural Triangle by protecting your holiday plans and your health by purchasing comprehensive travel insurance from Cover-More Australia.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Arps