AMONG the anonymous clusters of stone, he is the one splash of colour in the whole of the ancient, deserted city. Beard, bright eyes and a burgundy and mustard robe that blazes in the sunlight, he is unavoidable. This is the guru, the fortune teller, the soothsayer of Polonnaruwa, and his predictions are fantastically incorrect. Full marks for costume, nice line of patter, sorry about the accuracy. The oracle's customers are earnest, fossicking visitors, drawn to the one-time capital of Sri Lanka by curiosity and few come away from their brief session with him any the wiser. This is partly because of a language barrier. Not that the clairvoyant's Dutch, German and English vocabulary is limited. It's just that he mixes the three together and serves them up in cosmopolitan paragraphs regardless of the punter's nationality. Given that they may only understand one word in three, it's no wonder that repeat clients are a rarity. There's a remarkable thread of similarity too. Men tend to be told they will get rich, women - always beautiful - will get married to a rich man. Everybody is coming back to Sri Lanka at some unspecified future date. The inference is that - happily married and infinitely wealthy - they will meet up with the personage who first guided them on the path to such bliss and want to share some of their largess with him. First instalment - amount open to negotiation - payable immediately. Every destination has its hallmark - a Noon Day Gun or an Eiffel Tower. In Polonnaruwa, a former fortress where so much of the past lies hidden, the icon is an endearingly incompetent charlatan who thinks he can kid you about what's happening next week. In many ways Polonnaruwa is the archetypal monument in Sri Lanka. Dambulla and Sigiriya have their caves and jolly frescoes, the monasteries and gardens at Anuradhapura are extensive yet more decrepit, but Polonnaruwa stands out on its own. After a fry-up on the beaches, visits to the spice and tea plantations, oohing and ahhing at the elephant orphanage, and buying some genuine (''guaranteed!'') gems in Kandy, it's time for the obligatory dose of culture. No spoonful of sugar is required to make this medicine go down, however. Live history emanates from the remnants and carvings which were once the ornaments of Sri Lanka's premier city. And if history has a habit of repeating itself, it is nowhere more evident than here. Just as Sri Lanka faces problems with Tamil separatists today, so a millennium ago it was riven by internal strife. Polonnaruwa was the prize in a long drawn out, King-of-the-Castle feud that saw its religious and secular face metamorphose through the influence of successive faiths and rulers. Polonnaruwa started life in the seventh century as a holiday hideaway, when Sri Lanka royalty tired of its seat of government at Anuradhapura. But in the centuries that followed, successive invasions from India turned Sri Lanka into an obvious and vulnerable prey for her powerful neighbour. Exactly 1,000 years ago the King of the Cholas, Rajaraja I, head of the most powerful dynasty in India at the time, struck and made Polonnaruwa his capital. Local influence and the local religion - Buddhism - were subjugated for the next 70 years. Sri Lanka won back its pride and its capital thanks to the valour and tactical genius of Prince Vijayabahu, who besieged Polonnaruwa for six weeks in 1066, driving out the Indian usurpers and bringing peace again to his country. The quarrels which followed his death, and the destruction they entailed, were offset by the coming of Prince Parakramabahu, whose advent marked the golden age of Polonnaruwa. For this prince was the first and greatest of a regal trio which was to turn Polonnaruwa into the marvel it is today. His magnum opus is still plainly obvious in the Parakrama Samudra, the reservoir which borders the city. Under his orders workers used 10 ton blocks of stone to throw up an embankment 12 metres high stretching for 14 kilometres to create a ''tank'' which irrigated fields and quenched the thirsts of an entire city's population. Parakramabahu had two successors who improved on but never equalled his designs, before the country fell into war again. By the end of the 13th century, the temples and palaces and the great tank of Polonnaruwa were abandoned to the jungle. To which might be added the rider - ''thank goodness!'' What was absorbed and torn down by nature in the intervening 600 years was at least not improved or otherwise vandalised by man and changing fashions. When Polonnaruwa was rediscovered in the 19th century, it represented a unique treasury of medieval architecture, with some of the best carvings and sculpture of any ancient civilisation. Spread out along the shore of the reservoir, the ruins are divided into the city itself, the citadel, and a monastic complex. While buildings which were once seven storeys high are now little more than a pile of neatly hewed stone, it is the small, intricate detail which points to what must have once been a glorious culture. At the bottom of a flight of steps lies a semi-circular moonstone, criss-crossed with lines of mythical beasts and foliage. Lions and mythical dragons are carved on to the panels or sculpted from the rock to guard doorways and stairs. Other remains are more imposing. Vast conical shrines contain sacred relics buried deep within their interiors. A nine metre long stone ''book'' is covered with praise for its maker, one King Nissanka Malla. A footnote adds that all 25 tons of it was dragged to its current position from 100 kilometres away. And at the northernmost extremities of Polonnaruwa, away from the Hindu deities brought by the Cholas, stands the rock shrine consisting of four Buddhas carved straight from the granite cliff face. Two Buddhas sit meditating, the third stands in an unusual pose with arms crossed, while the fourth, 14 metres long and stretched out with a smile on his lips, head pillowed, radiates peace. It is a similar tranquility on offer at the Polonnaruwa Rest House, situated on a promontory right by Parakrama's tank. Sit here at sunset with a glass of freshly squeezed lime juice and consider Polonnaruwa's rise to fame, near extinction and subsequentresurrection. That history is beyond the wildest prognostications of any fortune teller, which only goes to make it even more remarkable. Cathay Pacific flies to Sri Lanka twice a week.