Sri Lanka, treasury of world heritage.

The tiny island nation of Sri Lanka, just off India’s southern tip, is about the same size as West Virginia, but it boasts a remarkable six UNESCO World Heritage sites. No surprise, once you know that the history of the island stretches back to the ninth century B.C. (though prehistoric humans inhabited the island 35,000 years ago).

Here’s a quick roundup of the UNESCO sites and their significance.

  • A vatadage is a type of Buddhist structure unique to Sir Lanka. It was built to enshrine a relic or to protect a stupa. Polonnaruwa.

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in A.D. 993. It comprises Brahmanic monuments and breathtaking ruins of a fabulous 12th-century garden-city. Today, hundreds of ancient structures—tombs and temples, statues and stupas—within a compact architectural zone illustrate how the city looked in its heyday. Its quadrangle alone is worth the trip.

Ancient City of Sigiriya. The ruins of the capital built by King Kassapa I (A.D. 477-495) stand at the summit of a granite peak—the Lion’s Rock—that dominates the terrain. A series of galleries and staircases emerging from the mouth of a gigantic lion constructed of bricks and plaster provide access to the site. Sigiriya is perhaps the nation’s single most dramatic site. Climb a series of staircases along sheer walls that take you past remarkable frescoes and colossal lion’s paws carved into the bedrock. There is also an excellent on-site museum. Sigiriya absolutely mustn’t be missed.

Golden Cave Temple of Dambulla. A sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, this cave monastery and its five sanctuaries is the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. Its Buddhist mural paintings are of particular importance. Sanctuary caves contain statues and paintings related to Gautama Buddha, and ancient cave murals depict other religious scenes. Prehistoric Sri Lankans lived in these caves before the arrival of Buddhism, as evidenced by local burial sites with human skeletons about 2,700 years old.

Old Town Galle and its Fortifications. Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese (who built the fort in 1588), Galle reached the height of its development in the 18th century, before the British arrived. Here stands the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South or Southeast Asia. It illustrates the interaction between European architectural styles and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Sacred City of Anuradhapura. This city was established around a cutting from Buddha’s Bodhi Tree of Enlightenment brought here in the third century B.C. Anuradhapura, a Ceylonese political and religious capital that flourished for 1,300 years, was abandoned after A.D. 993. Hidden away in dense jungle for centuries, the splendid site, with its palaces, monasteries, and monuments, is now accessible once again.

Sacred City of Kandy. Locally known as Senkadagalapura, Kandy was the last capital of the Sinhala kings, whose patronage enabled the Dinahala culture to flourish for more than 2,500 years until British occupation. Kandy is also home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic (the sacred tooth of the Buddha), a famous pilgrimage site. During puja (offerings or prayers), the heavily guarded room housing the tooth is open to devotees and tourists alike. However, you won’t actually see the tooth; it is kept deep within a gold casket shaped like a stupa.

For information about a visit to Sri Lanka, contact Kiran Chand at kchand@rcrusoe.com or call 888-490-8013.

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