Of the many artistic and architectural marvels that evidences the glory and grandeur of Sri Lanka’s 2500 year old history, most of the more celebrated ruins and temples stem from the eras of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms, which are the acknowledged Golden Ages of the ancient civilization before repeated foreign invasions precipitated its eventual decline. However, one of the significant historical relics showcasing the intricate craftsmanship and fortification technology of the post-Polonnaruwa period appears in the form of the Yapahuwa Fortress. Some historians consider this an underrated heritagescape that yet easily stands up to the magnificence of its forebears.
Located in the Wayamba province of the island, midway between the cultural and historical hubs of Anuradhapura and Kurunegala, lies the ancient ruins of Yapahuwa, which are centred around its magnificent fortress. The steep outcrop of rock joins together the semi-circular walls that fan out from either side, forming the main enclosure. The outer ramparts are formed of 20 foot earthen walls which run on for half a mile; evidence suggests that this was topped by a brick wall. It is surrounded by a moat through which entrance was granted via three causeways that led to the three gates appearing between the ramparts. The inner walls are made of solid stone and stand at a height of 12 feet, spanning a length of 500 yards. This too is protected by a moat which could be crossed only by two gateways. Historians theorize that the commoners must have resided between the outer and inner ramparts, as the ruins of the royal residence and the Temple of the Tooth Relic appear within the inner fortifications.
Apart from the impressive artistry and construction of the fortress, that which draws the eye of the historian to this stop-gap period between kingdoms is the part it has played in the saga of the Tooth Relic. Considered the most precious treasure belonging to the predominantly Buddhist nation, the left canine of the Buddha was delivered into the custody of the Sri Lankan king during the Anuradhapura era by the King of Kalinga, and has since been considered to symbolize the right of sovereignty over the Sri Lankan populace.
After the decline of the Polonnaruwa kingdom, King Buwanekabahu I retreated from the island’s political disarray to establish a much more modest capital at Yapahuwa, which could be more easily defended by the numerous factions vying for power. As was the custom, he took the Tooth and enshrined it in a temple near his palace. However, after his death, the city was sacked by invading forces of the Indian Pandya Kingdom and the Tooth was stolen and taken to India, much to the despair and consternation of the Sri Lankan people. It was at this juncture that his successor made haste in person to the Pandyan court to negotiate its safe return back to the island, as much to secure his own legitimacy as ruler as to prevent the sacred relic from being auctioned off to any one of the Buddhist Asian powers who would covet it. Having successfully returned it back to his people amid much rejoicing, he then left Yapahuwa to re-establish this administrative base at Kurunegala.
The ruins of the ancient temple from which the Tooth was stolen can still be seen upon a natural terrace atop the lower slopes of the Yapahuwa rock. A great stone stairway, ornamented by majestic elephants, lions and graceful female figures carved intricately from stone, leads up to the imposing entranceway of the temple. This sweeping stairway is segmented into three parts, only two of which survive in their original form, and is the central architectural showpiece of the citadel. Beautifully decorated cave-temples appear at the top of rock, evidencing the presence of ascetic monks long years before the rock was thought to be used as a military fortification. The view from the top of the rock is truly breathtaking, as the landscape stretches out in a panoramic vista for miles on either side.
The monastery and small on-site museum that appears nearby are also must-visits for the visitor. The museum houses a collection of excavated relics found in the area, among them a hoard of ancient Chinese coins and artefacts that point to a flourishing trade between the Yapahuwa kingdom and China.
Yapahuwa is only one of the many fascinating holiday destinations in Sri Lanka that opens up to the exploration of travellers who wish to learn more about Sri Lankan culture and history. For more information on historical sites in the island, visit the travel portal Truly Sri Lanka, a website that is designed to assist you in planning your ideal Sri Lankan holiday trips.
About the Author
Pushpitha Wijesinghe is an experienced independent freelance writer. He specializes in providing a wide variety of content and articles related to the travel hospitality industry.