Today, because of its outstanding architecture and rich, ornate ruins, Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Particular standouts include brick, domed structures called dagobas, which served as repositories of Buddhist relics; myriad, ornate monasteries dating back to the first kings of the area; and pokunas, the highly complex water tanks which were crucial to the survival of the city.
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Visit the Archaeology Museum of Anuradhapura, which contains relics excavated from nearby Dagobas, such as coins, pottery, and even ancient toilets. Within is also an interesting dioramas and reconstructions of several structures in Anuradhapura’s streets.
Housed at this temple is a descendant of the Bodhi tree, the famous tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment, and the oldest known tree planted by human hands. A walled complex, the temple features a series of fig trees around the Bodhi, a form of protection from storms, monkeys, and other hazards. Because of the Bodhi, this temple is the second holiest site in all of Sri Lanka, behind the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
Six miles (10 kilometers) east of Anuradhapura is Mihintale, a mountain peak that is home to a temple, several stupas, a Buddha image, and even a hospital that dates back to ancient times. Because of its elevation, Mihintale’s peak offers sweeping views of Anuradhapura’s ruins.
The monasteries of Anuradhapura can be roughly separated into two categories by location: the more ornate, intricate temples lie clustered to the east, while the simpler, plainer monasteries are gathered to the west. All the monasteries contain moonstones, placed at the entrances to signify following the path of enlightenment, moving from the secular to the sacred worlds. Interestingly enough, the only decorated items in the western monasteries were urinal stones – a sort of statement on the actual importance of wealth and precious jewels.
The center of the old, secular city, the Citadel contains the old city walls, a number of palaces, and several pokunas, or water tanks. The Citadel is particularly impressive at sunset, when the sun’s falling rays cast long, looping shadows through the ancient stones.
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Whether your trip to Sri Lanka includes the stunning beaches in the south, the lush highlands terraced with tea plantations or a wildlife safari in one of its national parks, it’s worth making the effort to venture into the country’s heart to explore the Cultural Triangle to get a deeper sense of history.
The tiny island of Sri Lanka has endured a lot, both in the past and in recent memory. Torn apart by civil war and a devastating tsunami, this strong and determined little country has fought its way through the hard times and come out on the other side not only with its beauty and culture intact, but also with its eyes on bigger rewards.
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