Polonnaruwa is one of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, and was the second capital after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. The archaeological park at Polonnaruwa has hundreds of ancient tombs, temples, statues and stupas. These are the reason most people come to Polonnaruwa, an otherwise unremarkable town.
We weren’t sure whether we wanted to see more ruins, but Polonnaruwa was on our route around Sri Lanka and we had found an interesting place to stay. A place I was very excited about visiting … the Primate Centre Lodge. This is primarily a research centre that has been conducting studies into three types of monkeys around the Polonnaruwa ruins for over 47 years. Their mission statement is to “advance scientific knowledge for conserving wildlife, and for a better understanding of the evolution of primate society and man’s place in nature.”
My degree was in biology and I find monkeys fascinating so I was looking forward to some interesting discussions. As soon as we started walking down the long drive to the Primate Centre we noticed the monkeys lazing around in the trees. I later learnt that the monkeys around the Centre are toque macaques (Macaca sinica) which are indigenous to Sri Lanka.
We were shown to our room, which was was very spacious and one of the cleanest places we stayed, before being served lunch. All meals on site are made by the male cook, Ukka Banda, who has worked at the Centre since 1978 and makes the most amazing vegetarian food. Already, I loved this place!
At about 4.30pm the monkeys came to life and had a mad half hour, racing around the trees, ricocheting across rooves and scampering over cars. I had to bring our washing in as the monkeys were playing with the line and knocking it off. They were very entertaining, especially the baby ones, and we watched them for a while. Later we went for a walk alongside the tank (a massive lake) to watch the sunset and saw lots of wildlife, birds (including a peacock), a tortoise and a big mongoose.
There were four others at dinner that night, a British couple and two American men. One of the lovely things about the Primate Centre is that everyone eats at the same big table so you get to chat to your fellow guests. Another is that after dinner one of the researchers plays a video about monkeys. The first night we watched a fascinating BBC wildlife film about the ‘Temple Troupe’ of monkeys who hang out at the Polonnaruwa ruins, and the second night we watched another documentary called ‘Clever Monkey’.
You can do a monkey tour of the Polonnaruwa ruins with a researcher from the centre, but it’s fairly expensive (US$30 for the monkey tour plus $25 for entry into the monuments) and as it had given out heavy rain the next day we decided not to do it. Also the Director, Dr Wolfgang Dittus, was away when we visited and the other researchers seemed very shy.
The next day we were woken early by the birds singing in the trees. We ate breakfast with the guests we’d met last night plus a Brazilian couple who had arrived later, then hired bikes from the Primate Centre. We rode beside the lake in the other direction to our walk last night to two nearby free ruins, a monastery and a statue. There were lots more monkeys here, many with babies. Then we cycled on towards the main ruins. By this time, the sky was looking ominous so we ducked into a nearby hotel called the Lake House and ordered a pot of coffee and a pot of tea.
We sat outside under the shelter of a verandah and watched the rain sheeting down into the lake. It was difficult to tell sometimes whether the water was going up or down! It rained heavily for two hours. By this time we’d decided that it wasn’t worth going in to the ruins as we’d only have a few hours and it looked like there was more rain to come. Instead we cycled along the little lanes beside the river, where we saw a big water monitor swimming up river.
The owner of a little roadside shop where we bought some bananas told us there were some ruins about 1.5km further down the road on the other side of the river where the locals went. We took the second bridge over the river, which brought us to a big stupa, but this turned out to be an entrance to the northern group of ruins, for which you need a ticket. A guy on a bike offered to take us in for $50 (the normal price!) but we turned him down and carried on along a little track then across a patch of grass and through a gate.
We weren’t sure where we were, but it soon became apparent that we had got into the ruins. As we were there we decided to have a look around. My favourite of the ones we saw was the roofless Lankatilaka Temple with 17 metre high walls and a huge headless standing Buddha. But after about an hour there was another downpour.
We sheltered under a tree and watched a troupe of Grey Hanoman Langurs for a while, but there was no sign of it stopping so we decided to cycle back in the rain. As we walked back to our bikes we had the ruins to ourselves.