What are the foreign influences and the multicultural features manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa?

The built environment of Polonnaruwa consisted of the architecture, the irrigation system, and the city itself. The architecture of Polonnaruwa in ancient Sri Lanka also focused on royal patronage, as the structures were built by common people with non-durable materials and have decayed to dust. The royal architecture of Polonnaruwa is divided into two groups, namely, religious and non-religious. Buddhist temples, Buddhist image houses, Buddhist monasteries, stupas, and Shiva temples are included in religious architecture. Palaces, ponds, and state buildings such as the council chamber are evident as non-religious architecture. All of these elements of the built environment of Polonnaruwa indicate the foreign influence and multicultural features of it.

Here, a brief introduction to the background of the foreign influence and the multicultural features manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa will be provided in the first chapter. The second chapter will be for the discussion. The study will be conducted following the academic essays found on the internet. 

A brief overview of the background of the foreign influence and the multi-cultural features manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa

The built environment of Polonnaruwa is highly influenced by south India. It is not only because of the inclination of the south Indian invasions and diplomatic connections with the region, but also because of the chronically increased South Indian influence on Sri Lanka starting in the B.C.E. era.

In the latter half of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, the South Indian invasions became occasional, as did the diplomatic and marriage bonds between Sri Lankan royals and the South Indian royals. Invasions and the use of private military groups consisted of South Indian soldiers building up the South Indians, the contemporary foreign population in Sri Lanka. Those foreigners had their duties under the Sri Lankan king and had their own socio-cultural requirements for livelihood. Most of them weren’t Buddhists and that led to the non-Buddhist religious environment being created in Sri Lanka.

Likewise, the marriages of the Sri Lankan kings with South Indian princesses of royal families also cause the foreign population of Sri Lanka to increase. The South Indian princesses were not settled here alone. They came to Sri Lanka with hundreds of their servant families. All of these foreign groups increased in population with time. At first, they were mostly low-caste people who served under the Sri Lankan king for money. But, later, with the marriages, royal family members were here. Therefore, it appears that their needs have been highlighted. Religious requirements were on top of them. To fulfill those requirements, the socio-cultural space was extended to be multi-cultural. As evident in Polonnaruwa, the Cola invaders took the lead in extending the built environment of Polonnaruwa to be multi-cultural by constructing several Hindu architectural monuments.

Nonetheless, the Buddhist temple architecture and the royal architecture of Polonnaruwa, which were clearly under the patronage of Sri Lankan kings, also evolved according to the South Indian influence. However, the foreign influence and multi-cultural features manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa can be studied through aspects of the built environment.

An insight into foreign influence and the multicultural features in the built environment of Polonnaruwa through the aspects of the built environment.

The built environment of Polonnaruwa, as mentioned above, was influenced by South India mainly due to the geopolitically occurring historical events. As a result, significant multicultural features have been manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa. In the built environment, the foreign influence is very evident in every aspect of it. As it is clear by now, the built environment of Polonnaruwa consists of religious and non-religious architectural traditions. Religious tradition marks the Buddhist and Hindu temples, while the non-religious section contains the palaces, city structures, irrigation structures, ponds, and other state buildings. Among all of them, religious buildings and the common features of both religious and non-religious buildings appear to be more influenced by South India and to contain multicultural features. This can be studied further through aspects of architecture.

Architectural themes

When it comes to architectural themes, the Shiva temple, as a theme, was directly influenced by South India. The Shiva temples 1 and 2 in Polonnaruwa were built by Cola kings for their worship purposes during their rule (Figure 1). Even though there were Hindus living in Sri Lanka prior to the Cola invasion, the impact of the Hindu culture on Sri Lankan architecture was not that great compared to the Cola period. Therefore, the Shiva temple theme was established in Polonnaruwa during the Cola rule. 

Architectural plan forms

When it comes to the architectural plan forms and structural elements, several reforms have been done to the traditional Buddhist architecture and new forms and structural elements have been introduced by the South Indian influence. The Shiva temples are in the form of traditional South Indian Hindu temple architecture in plan. And also, the Shiva temples in Polonnaruwa have been constructed according to the Gedige architectural form, with the with the entire structure, including the roof, being built with one material (Figure 1). Lankatilaka, Thuparama, and Thiwanka image houses were also built as Gedige-type buildings using only brick, which indicates the South Indian influence on prevailing Buddhist architecture (Figures 2, 3, and 4). 

Structural elements of architecture

Regarding the structural elements, the South Indian influence appeared on both newly introduced foreign architectural themes and local architectural themes. Hindu temples have been illustrated as a basic form of contemporary South Indian Hindu temple architecture, including features such as pilasters and vimana. Shiva temple architecture in Polonnaruwa indicates a direct foreign influence, as Hindu temples consist of Hindu temple structure elements (Figures 1–5).

Meanwhile, some changes have been made in Buddhist architecture and state buildings, indicating the gradual foreign influence on the built environment of Polonnaruwa. Some of the structural elements of indigenous architecture have been altered, including decorative elements, according to the influence of South India. The form of the moonstone, the practice of wall decorations, and the use of bull figures in the means of decoration have been altered and evolved, marking not only the influence of Hindu temple architecture but also the influence of Hindu religious beliefs. These structural elements represent the multicultural features manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa. The Vamana (dwarf human) figures have been illustrated to depict various postures of behavior (Figure 6). The animal figures in Moonstone have also been illustrated in various postures, giving them a more live appearance (Figure 7).

Thantrayana Buddhism also had a great impact on the built environment of Polonnaruwa. As it originated in ancient Indian territory, it has also come from India since the 5th century AD. The prevailing Buddhist architecture was already affected by Thantrayana influence by the time of Polonnaruwa. The Buddhist image houses were heavily impacted by both Hindu and Thantrayana architecture. The form of Buddhist image houses in Sri Lanka evolved with that impact. And also, the statue of Lord Buddha himself indicates the Hindu and the Thantrayana impact, as those statues have been built to be in Tri-Bhanga form (Figures 8 and 9).  Not only the Buddha statues of those two image houses but also the Buddha statue in Gal Viharaya and the statue, which is debated to be either King Parakramabahu 1 or Pulasthi Rishi, are in Tri-Bhanga form (figures 10, 11). 

The pilasters of Buddhist image houses in Polonnaruwa indicate the influence of South Indian Hindu architecture. As the false pillar (pilaster) feature had been developed in ancient India, specifically in Hindu architecture, the use of such a feature in Buddhist architecture in Sri Lanka can be detected as a clear multicultural feature as well as evidence of the foreign influence manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa. Shiva temple no. 1, Shiva temple no. 2, Lankathilaka image house, Thiwanka image house, and Thiwanka image house in Polonnaruwa provide a prime example for that (figures 5, 12, 13, 14, and 15). 

The false window feature is also observable in the built environment of Polonnaruwa. Hindu temples have been made with the false window feature as it has been an original feature, while Buddhist image houses such as Lankathilaka and Thiwanka have been influenced to be equipped with the feature. Similarly to the pilaster feature, the false window feature does not fulfill any structural importance. It has been there only for the purpose of fulfilling the aesthetic value of the construction. Perhaps oil lamps might have been lit and kept on the horizontal plain of the bottom of the false windows at night to lighten the premises of the temple. But there is no archaeological evidence to support that theory, even though it seems to be more convincingly practical when thinking of the common oil lamp lighting traditions that could be seen before the completion of electrical power supply in Sri Lanka. Even if this theory is proven, the practice of lighting with oil lamps may have been there as an adaptive use of the false window feature rather than being the primary goal for constructing the feature. Anyway, the false window feature in Buddhist image houses in Polonnaruwa is clearly a multicultural feature, which indicates the foreign influence on Sri Lanka until and during the Polonnaruwa period. 

Within the false pillar feature and false window feature, anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic figures have been created, forming the Vimana feature. Some figures represent the beliefs of Hinduism, while others indicate the Thantrayana influence on Buddhism. Likewise, the space between these features on the outside walls of the buildings has been filled with various figures, making the entire building an eye-pleasing one. Thiwanka image house would be an ideal example of that (figures 5, 12, 13, 14, and 15). 

Material Technology

When it comes to the material technology of the built environment of Polonnaruwa, it is evident that it was also influenced by South Asia in the means of architecture itself. The first Gedige-type constructions of Polonnaruwa were Shiva Shrines built by Cola rulers. Those buildings were entirely constructed using rectangular stone blocks (Figure 16). In the South Indian context, Hindu temples were built in the same way as well as carved out as rockcut structures. In the Sri Lankan context, prevailing Buddhist buildings and other royal architectural constructions were mainly built using stone pillars and brick masonry. Therefore, it is clear that the use of stone blocks and stone block masonry came from South Indian architecture. Meanwhile, the Gedige-type building plans in Buddhist architecture, such as Lankatilaka image house, Thuparama image house, and Thiwanka image house, have been built using bricks (Figure 13). While stone was the building material for South Indian gedige-type constructions, the use of brick as the material for Buddhist image houses in Polonnaruwa shows the adaptive use of Hindu temple architecture. That indicates the foreign influence manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa through material technology. 


The built environment of Polonnaruwa has been greatly impacted by foreign influence. That foreign influence had occurred for multiple reasons. The most popular reason was the invasions that took control of the political power of Sri Lanka in the 10th–11th centuries AD. The rulers of the Cola Empire, Raja Raja Cola I and Rajendra I, invaded Sri Lanka for political power and established a Cola government called Cola Mandalam in the north-central and northern ends of Sri Lanka. As they replaced the capital of Sri Lanka from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, they had the opportunity to design and build their own capital city according to their tradition. That resulted in a city with more than 14 Hindu Shiva temples in Polonnaruwa. Then, after the prevailing indigenous king Vijayabahu I regained power over Sri Lankans, the foreign community, which was a result of the latest invasion as well as former invasions that took place since the latter half of the Anuradhapura era, was still living in the area. And also, the South Indian-origin community in Sri Lanka had increased in number due to the diplomatic war aid that Sri Lankan rulers received from South India as well as due to the marriages that happened between Sri Lankan rulers and Pandyan and Kalinga royal families. Because of this South Indian community, the Hindu culture was influencing the prevailing Buddhist culture. Along with the Cola period, these factors constructed a new socio-cultural tradition in Sri Lanka during the Polonnaruwa period. Therefore, the built environment of Polonnaruwa manifests multicultural features and foreign influence. 

The architecture is the most observable aspect of the built environment, which manifests the foreign influence and the multicultural features. The other aspects of the built environment of Polonnaruwa, such as the irrigation system, appear to be in a state where nothing needs to be added or changed, as the Sri Lankan irrigation system was at its best for years, even before the end of the Anuradhapura kingdom. The architectural plan forms, such as Gedige type, and the architectural elements, such as pilasters and false windows, indicate the multicultural features manifested in the built environment of Polonnaruwa. The dwarf human figures and animal figures were illustrated to look like they were alive with various postures. That also indicates a multicultural feature, as dwarf figures have been used in Buddhist temple architecture and their live postures have been adopted from the dancing figures in Hindu temple architecture. Along with these multicultural features, the emergence of the Hindu Shiva temples and Nandi Bull figures indicates the South Indian influence that occurred in the context of the built environment of Polonnaruwa. Hence, it can be concluded that the built environment of Polonnaruwa was clearly influenced by South India due to several reasons—the main reason being the geopolitical phenomenon that took place since the latter half of the Anuradhapura period—and that led the built environment to manifest multicultural features, including Theravada Buddhist, Hindu, and Thantrayan Buddhist.


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