UNESCO Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka, is not only rich in history but also in culture and heritage. Acknowledged to have no less than eight (08) United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) accredited World Heritage Sites.

  • Ancient City of Polonnaruwa (1982)
  • Ancient City of Sigiriya (1982)
  • Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991)
  • Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications (1988)
  • Sacred City of Anuradhapura (1982)
  • Sacred City of Kandy (1988)


  • Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010)
  • Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988)

Apart from this formidable line up, there are also a few pending entries that are awaiting approval :

  • Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara (2006)
  • Seruwila to Sri Pada (Sacred Foot Print Shrine), Ancient pilgrim route along the Mahaweli river in Sri Lanka (2010)

GetAway Sri Lanka can plan your UNESCO Heritage Tour Sri Lanka with package deals to suit your budget as well as customize it to suit the time period you want to spend visiting these historical attractions as well as any treks you wish to do in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (which includes Adams Peak), or the Sinharaja Rain Forest.

Make sure you stop by the Cultural Triangle and visit the ancient cities of Anuradapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla as well as visit the Lion Rock (or Sigiriya) which is a stone’s throw away from Dambulla.

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa (1982)

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa in the North Central province was vastly civilized and is known to have been the second capital of Sri Lanka following the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993 AD. It is the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms. The Brahmanic monuments were built by the devoted Cholas. The ruins of the magnificent garden-city designed and created by King Parakramabahu I in the 12th century still stand as a monument to its glory.

At present the City of Polonnaruwa is in the throes of a large-scale development project titiled "Awakening of Polonnaruwa", under the guidance of President Maithripala Sirisena. This includes the comprehensive development of roads,agriculture, electricity, health, education,and environment.

Ancient City of Sigiriya (1982)

Lion Rock, or ‘Sigiriya’ is a truly magnificent and unusual ancient palace in Sri Lanka. Located in the Central Province, near the town of Dambulla in the Matale District, this is in fact one location that is a ‘must see’ in Asia. A place of immense archaeological and historical significance, ‘Sigiriya’ refers to the a gigantic column of pure rock that is nearly 200 metres (660 ft) high. It is certainly one of the best preserved examples of historic urban planning.

The Culavamsa, which contains local writings of historical significance states that this site was chosen by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) as his capital. He was extremely paranoid about his enemies and so he fashioned his palace at the summit of the rock – a place where he could observe any army for miles (and days) before they reached him. Of course King Kasyapa, just like any other King, also loved his creature comforts and so he transformed this rock-palace into a place of great beauty and tranquility. He commanded the sides and walls of the rock to be painted with colourful frescoes (known as the ‘cloud maidens’). Halfway up the side of the rock was carved a gateway of an enormous lion, and so this edifice was soon known as ‘Sīhāgiri’ or ‘the Lion Rock’. Sigiriya, as it was later known, was developed into a fantastic complex city and fortress. Archeologists state that the majority of the elaborate constructions on the rock summit and around it, as well as the defensive structures, miniature palaces, and detailed gardens date from this era.

Sadly after the King’s defeat and violent death, the capital and the royal palace was deserted. However, it was later occupied and functioned as a Buddhist monastery up until the 14th century AD.

Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991)

The Golden Temple of Dambulla is a sacred pilgrimage site that has been around for approximately 22 centuries. This unique cave monastery has five sanctuaries and is considered the largest and best-preserved cave-temple compound in Sri Lanka. The mural paintings (covering an area of 2,100 m2 ) are of particular importance, as are the 157 statues that occupy the sacred area. The Dambulla Caves are situated towards the central part of the island, 148 kms (92 mi) to the east of Colombo and 72 kms (45 mi) north of Kandy. The rock looms 160m over the surrounding area. Interestingly, there are also over 80 documented caves in the area. The main attraction however is spread over five caves, which contain statues and paintings of religious significance related to Gautama Buddha and his life. In total we counted 153 Buddha statues, four statues of gods and goddesses and three statues of Sri Lankan kings. The statues of gods include Vishnu and Ganesh.

It is believed that prehistoric Sri Lankans lived in these caves prior to the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Burial sites with human skeletons dating about 2700 years old at Ibbankatuwa, a nearby town, lends further credit to this theory.

Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications (1988)

There is so much to be said about the City of Galle and its fortifications. Founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, Galle’s height of development peaked in the 18th century, prior to the arrival of the British. It is one of the finest examples of a fortified city built by the Europeans in South and South-East Asia, and clearly depicts interaction between European architectural styles and South Asian traditions.

Sacred City of Anuradhapura (1982)

This sacred city was established around a sapling from the 'tree of enlightenment', the sacred Bodhi Tree. The sapling was brought to Anuradhapura by Sanghamitta in 3 BC. Sanghamitta was the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. Anuradhapura became a mostly religious and then political capital that thrived for 13 centuries but was then abandoned due to an invasion in 993. The sacred city was shrouded in a dense jungle for many years, until it was rediscovered. Thankfully, this historical site, with its myriad of palaces, monasteries and monuments, is now accessible to pilgrims and the general public once again.

Sacred City of Kandy (1988)

Kandy, in the Central Province is the sacred site of the Temple of the Tooth Relic (the sacred tooth of the Buddha), which is a renowned religious pilgrimage site and also the organiser of the splendid Esala Perehara in Kandy. This extremely sacred Buddhist site is also popularly referred to in Sinhala Drama and Literature as the city of ‘Senkadagalapura’, which was the last capital of the Sinhala kings.


Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010)

Sri Lanka's highlands are situated in the south-central part of the island. The land comprises the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, Knuckles Conservation Forest and the Horton Plains National Park. These assortment of forests is 2,500 meters above sea-level and are home to a myriad and endemic range of flora and fauna, including several endangered species such as the western-purple-faced langur, the Horton Plains slender loris as well as the Sri Lankan leopard. The region is protected as it is a hotspot for biodiversity

Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988)

The Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve is located in south-west Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is the island’s last viable spread of primary tropical rainforest with more than 60% trees being endemic and the majority of then considered rare. The rainforest boasts a large extent of endemic wildlife, particularly birds. The reserve is also sanctuary to over 50% of the island’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as insects, reptiles and also some rare amphibians.

Apart from this formidable line up, there are also a few pending entries that are awaiting approval :

Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara (2006) Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara is a very old temple which is among sixteen sacred Buddhist shrines located in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, one is able to reach the shrine via land as well as sea.

There are also 13 monuments in the Vihara complex:

  1. Stupa - Origin 2nd Century B.C. was restored in 1920's.
  2. Restored Northern entrance
  3. Western entrance - Evidences of preliminary stages of stone work in its moldings shows exemplary stone jointing methods.
  4. Southern entrance
  5. Eastern entrance
  6. Image house building at the Stupa terrace
  7. Sculptured stone lotus
  8. Bo tree shrine
  9. Ancient pond
  10. Remains of ancient Chapter House
  11. Remains of several monasteries
  12. Remains of a edifice on stone pillars
  13. Natural stone platform and caves with prehistoric paintings

Said to have been built during the reign of Kavantissa (2 BC) the Kingdom of Ruhuna was threatened by hostile invaders. The King was a wise one and was able to solve the problem avoiding military confrontation and as a result he built a Stupa at Seruwila as he used the loyalty and respect the Sinhala nobles had for Buddhism to win over Princes Siva and Abhaya, his ally. The word spread that a Sacred Relic of the Buddha was in the Kings possession and he was the one destined to build a Stupa at Seru (and that Lord Buddha had predicted this). Once the tactical ground work had been laid, Kavantissa marched with his army towards Seru. The Thera who had propagated the story about the Relic of the Buddha had also accompanied him.

“The outcome was, the kinglets of Seru and Soma and their retainers received Kavantissa with honour due to an overlord and assisted him in the building of the shrine. Thus Kavantissa achieved well described as a Dhamma-Vijaya which ultimately was of benefit to all parties concerned'. -Dhatuvamsa-

Thus the Sacred Relic, which was the frontal bone of the Buddha, was enshrined in the stupa which was known as Tissa Maha Vehera.

In the vicinity of the dagaba is an ancient inscription which goes back to 2 BC. "Bata Gutaha Lene Caduke", translated means - "The cave of Lord Gutta is dedicated to the Sangha of the four quarters."

According to the late Dr. R. L. Brohier, Seruwila region was a vast swamp or villu where the flood waters of the Mahaweli Ganga collected. This villu was the home of large flocks of teal (seru) during migratory period. Perhaps this was how the place came to be known as ‘Seruwila’.

Seruwila to Sri Pada (Sacred Foot Print Shrine), Ancient pilgrim route along the Mahaweli river in Sri Lanka (2010) A pilgrimage associated with the cult of relic worship has been prevalent throughout Sri Lanka. According to ancient texts, there are three types of relics; the bodily remains of a Master, the objects worn by a Master, or shrines made in his memory. The route for Buddhist pilgrims begins at Seruwila and runs through Somawathie, Polonnaruwa, Mahiyangana, Kandy and ends at Sri Pada (or Adam’s Peak). These locations hold significant religious memorabilia and shrines as those of the Frontal Bone relic, Right Tooth Relic, Hair Relic and the Gem studded chair, Left Tooth Relic and what is said to be the Foot Print mark of the Great Master, the Buddha


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