Yapahuwa kingdom is located in Mahawa, better known as Maho in Kurunegala district, Northwestern province. This ancient city is the 4th kingdom of Sri Lanka. Historians make parallels between Yapahuwa and the more popular Sigiriya. However, both are extremely fortified rock fortresses situated in isolation. The two cities are so similar that Yapahuwa is sometimes referred to as ‘Sri Lanka’s second Sigiriya’. This is also a less populated attraction for those who are looking to explore history without being bombarded by large crowds.
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♦ A brief look at the history of the Yapahuwa Kingdom
The first mentions of the Yapahuwa kingdom in Mahawamsa (The famous ancient text that record the history of Sri Lanka) refer to the fortress as a military stronghold. According to stories, the place was ruled by a provincial king called Subha. This warrior trained and gathered soldiers for the wars against both local provincial kings and foreign invaders from South India.
These attacks were mainly targeted at the central cities like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Eventually, the rulers of these kingdoms weakened and it became necessary to move the capital city to a safer place. Yapahuwa was already a strong fortress at the time and the rulers naturally decided to move the kingdom there.
One of the main reasons why the rulers had to move was to protect the tooth relic of Lord Buddha from getting into the hands of the attackers. In the past, it was believed that whoever owned the tooth relic was the king. So, all local attackers were very interested in taking the tooth relic for themselves. Bhuvanekhabahu I built elaborate palaces out of stone for the tooth relic and it was safely stored in Yapahuwa.
~ The Fall
However, this kingdom was short-lived due to the continuing attacks from invaders. And, the tooth relic was later taken away to South India for safekeeping by Pandyan kings who were allies of the Sinhala kings. After the attacks died down, the tooth relic was returned to Sri Lanka peacefully. The kingdom was eventually moved to the hill country in the south of Sri Lanka.
After being abandoned by the kings, Yapahuwa was mainly used by monks, and later bandits. The fortress was finally renewed by the Kandyan King, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe during the Buddhist restoration period of the 18th century. While this is the recorded history of Yapahuwa, archaeologists have also found signs of pre-historic civilization around the region.
♦ The iconic architecture of the Yapahuwa Kingdom
As a military stronghold, Yapahuwa does not lack its share of fortifications. The whole kingdom is surrounded by two rings of ramparts and moats. The city is divided into two parts as the inner city and outer city. Also, the outer city is said to have been inhabited by noblemen and traders. The royal palace and the Temple of tooth relic were situated in the inner city.
At the base level, there is a typical Buddhist cave temple with beautiful murals depicting the stories of Lord Buddha’s past lives. Visitors can also see the remains of the courtroom where King Bhuvanekabahu I discussed court matters. At the top, there are smaller caves where monks used to meditate. You have to climb three stairways to reach the top of Yapahuwa. From the entrance, you will get to see the first two stairways. The third is not visible until you climb up to the second. The original first stairway disappeared over time and has been reconstructed with cement in recent years.
The second stairway is the most challenging of the three, being the longest and the steepest. The specialty of this stairway is that the narrow stairs have been built at a 70-degree angle. This has been done intentionally to exhaust attackers before they reach the top. Another architectural highlight that can be seen with this second stairway is the railings. They are made of stone boxes that decrease in size. This is a visual illusion to make the stairway appear longer than it actually is. There are similar structures in Khmer temples. Considering the trade relations between the two countries in the past, the builders may have been inspired by Khmer architecture.
~The Lion Appearances
The third stairway is the most ornamental and iconic of the three. It has been elaborately carved with beautiful images all over. The most striking statues here are the lion statues on either side of the stairway. One of these two lions was used in Sri Lankan 10-rupee notes until the 10-rupee coin was introduced. These lion statues stand out because of the way their faces have been carved to resemble Chinese dragons. In the Yapahuwa era, Sri Lanka had strong trade relations with China as well. A large number of ancient Chinese coins have been uncovered through excavations in the ancient city. So, Chinese architecture may have had some influence on these sculptures as well.
In addition to the two lion statues, many other carvings here reflect the unique architecture of the Yapahuwa kingdom. These include the carving of elephants just behind the two lions on the third stairway, sculptures of dancers, and goddess Lakshmi getting bathed by elephants. All these statues are elaborately detailed and reflect the fine talent of the stone sculptors of the time.
Yapahuwa is the only ancient site in Sri Lanka with an entrance constructed out of one rock. And, this is beautifully carved with a variety of designs. Usually, the entrance to ancient palaces is through a dragon arch. However, in Yapahuwa, the entrance resembles a moonstone (A beautifully designed half-circle of stone usually placed at the foot of a staircase) than a dragon arch. Yapahuwa is also known for its ornamental stone windows that were placed on either side of the entrance. The two windows can now be seen in the National Museum in Colombo and Yapahuwa museum.
♦ To the Yapahuwa summit
The hike up to the Yapahuwa summit is relatively steep but well worth it. At the top, you will get to see the ruins of a small stupa and a tree temple where the Bodhi tree was planted. You can also find rare rock shelters where monks used to live in. However, the most striking of all is the gorgeous view from the top. The Yapahuwa summit offers a panoramic view of the whole Kurunegala area. The sea of greenery is sure to recharge your spirits after the tiring climb to the top.
Although the Yapahuwa Kingdom was one of the shortest-lived kingdoms of Sri Lanka, it still offers so much to see. From beautiful sculptures, ancient ruins, to unique architecture, this fortress ticks all the boxes making it the perfect stop for anyone interested in historical sites. Even if you are not into history, the view from the top is definitely going to make your visit worthwhile.