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Must Visit Locations

Island of temples

The Ruins

Archaeologists have recorded over 200,000 ruined Buddhist Monasteries and Temples in Sri Lanka. Of them, over 70,000 were in the North and the East.

The development of temples in Sri Lanka

Throughout the 2550 years of unbroken & recorded civilization of the Sinhalese, the Buddhist temples have been built all over the island. Two great events in the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka contributed to the continuous development of temples in Lanka. Those were the transplantation of a branch of the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree from India & the arrival of The Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha from India. Today there are over 8,000 temples in Sri Lanka. These could be categorized according to the period of construction.
  1. Anuradhapura Period-3rd Cen. BC-9th Century
  2. Polonnaruwa Period 10th - 13th Century
  3. Dambadeniya Period Mid. 13th-Mid 14th Century
  4. Gampola Period-Mid. 14th-Beg. 15th Century
  5. Kotte Period-Beg. 15th-end 16th Century
  6. Kandy Period-(End 16th Cen-1815 )
  7. Modern Period-Since1815

The range of temples

Sri Lankan Buddhist temples (viharas) exist in a broad range of shapes or sizes, ranging from temples Golden Dambulla Rock Temple, Mulgirigala (Mulkirigala) rock monastery to the enormous monastic complexes of the great kingdoms of Anuradhapura & Polonnaruwa.

Three basic elements: image house, dagoba (stupa) & bo tree enclosure

In spite of the variety of the temples throughout the island, the temples comprise of three basic elements: an image house, a dagoba & a bo tree enclosure. The image house (pilimage or pratimagahara) houses the temple's Buddha statues along with statues & paintings of deities. The image house is often preceded by an antechamber or surrounded by an ambulatory. The bo tree enclosure (bodhighara) is a uniquely Sri Lankan feature. Most of the island's bo trees are grown from saplings taken from Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, which has been grown from a cutting taken from the very tree under which the Buddha achieved supreme enlightenment. Bo tree enclosures are often surrounded by railings & raised on terraces with tables set around them for the offerings of flowers. The trees & the railings are draped of colourful strings of prayer flags.

Subsidiary shrines

Some of the temples have subsidiary shrines called "devales" devoted to deities from the Sinhalese Buddhist pantheon, such as God Vishnu, God Maha Sumana Saman & God Upulvan.

Refectories & dormitories

Temples have dormitories & refectories for the Buddhist monks, as well a poyage ("House of the Full Moon") in which monks assemble to recite Buddhist scriptures on poya (full moon) days.

Drummers's hall

Digge (Drummers hall) is a product of Kandyan-era. It is an open-sided columned pavilion, where drummers perform during temple ceremonies.

Buddhist temple iconography

Buddhist temples are adorned with wealth of symbolic decorative carvings & paintings.


Sri Lanka's moonstones, the step stones to temples, dagobas & other important buildings are among the world's finest artistic achievements. Polished semi-circular slabs of granite are carved in concentric semi-circular rings ("half-moons", about 1m in radius). The first ring depicts flames of fire, through which one must pass to be purified. The next ring shows animals which represent the four stages of life: 1 Elephant-birth; 2 Horse-old age; 3 Lion-illness; 4 Bull-death & decay. These continue in an endless cycle symbolizing the continuous rebirths to which all beings are subjected to. The third row represents the twisting serpent of lust & desire, while the fourth is that of swans carrying lotus buds, representing purity. The lotus in the centre is a symbol of nirvana. Moonstones are designed for the soothing of mind & concentration of the devotees.


On both sides of the moonstones are beautifully carved guard stones with makara (dragon) designed to incorporate feature from eight symbolically significant creatures: the foot of the lion, the crocodile's mouth & teeth & elephant's tusk, the body of a fish, the peacock's feather, the serpent's tongue & the monkey's eyes. The bases of stairways & other entrances into temples are often flanked by guardstones (doratupalas), depicting low-relief carvings of protective deities who are believed to ward off malign influences.


The fact that the Lotus, the pure white flowers blossom directly out of muddy waters is considered symbolic of the potential for Buddhahood which everyone is believed to carry within them. Buddha figures are usually shown seated on lotus thrones.


Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka characteristically have all the surfaces-walls, ceilings & doors decorated with murals of varying degrees of sophistication, ranging from primitive daubs to the great narrative sequences.

The Kandyan style

A distinctive architectural tradition which developed during the Kandyan era (17th-18th century). With the fall of ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura & Polonnaruwa (of rainwater reservoirs & vast networks of irrigation), the prosperity of the Sinhalese waned. Sinhalese Buddhist architecture became small-scale & intimate, as exemplified by the dozens of beautiful little temples in the city of Kandy & the surrounding countryside. Architects often made use of wooden pillars to erect open sided pavilions, topped with the elegant hipped roofs. The Kandyan era saw a great flourishing of mural paintings too.

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Photo Gallery

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Abhayagiri Dagoba

Golden Dambulla Rock Temple

Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Ruwanweliseya Stupa

The Holy Temple of the Tooth



Murals inside a Temple House

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