The ancient capital of Anuradhapura reigned supreme for over a millennium as one of the greatest monastic cities of the ancient world famed for Buddhist culture and architectural achievements across Asia and Europe.
Ruled by 113 successive kings and four queens, Anuradharpura was a majestic sprawl of magnificent palaces, ornate pleasure gardens, exquisite sculptures and vast Buddhist temples. The three main ‘dagabas’ are amongst the biggest architectural creations of the ancient world smaller in size only to the pyramids at Giza. The ancient rulers also created impressive feats of engineering, building great reservoirs to preserve the monsoon rains and irrigation systems to produce great harvests of paddy. Anuradhapura was founded in 377 BC by the third king of the Vijaya dynasty, Pandukabhaya, and was much fought over. Abandoned in 1073 when the capital was transferred to Polonnaruwa, it was ‘reclaimed’ by the jungle and rediscovered by British explorers in the 19th Century. Today, the surviving ruins are still spectacular even after thousands of years, and the ‘sacred city’ of Anuradhapura remains on the ‘must visit’ list of locals and tourists alike.
Abhayagiri and Jetavana Stupas
Often mistaken for each other, the Abhayagiri Dagoba and Jetavanarama Dagoba are two very distinct ancient Buddhist temples, both of which have very interesting stories behind them. The Abhayagiri Dagoba was built in the 1st or 2nd century BC and was once the focal point of an extremely large monastery which is said to have included 5000 monks. The monastery was established by King Vattagamini Abhaya but the Abhayagiri Dagoba was built by King Valagamba during his second reign. An excellent example of ancient large scale construction, the dagoba was said to have been 115m in height and 110m in diameter. Ancient Chinese traveller Faxian (also known as Fa Hsien) is said to have visited this stupa in 412AD.
Jetavanarama Dagoba was built in the 3rd century by King Mahasen and is said to have originally been over 100m in height with a diameter of 114m. At the time of its completion, Jetavanarama Dagoba was said to have been the third tallest monument in the world behind the Great Pyramids of Giza. However, this vast religious monument, which is a true testament to the quality and expertise of ancient labourers, had fallen in to disrepair and was covered by scrub jungle until 1909. Today the dagoba stands at 70m which is similar to the Abhayagirl Dagoba.
The Thuparama Dagoba is the oldest dagoba in Sri Lanka and has great historical significance. It was built by King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd Century BC shortly after the teachings of Lord Buddha were brought to the island by Mahinda Thera, an envoy sent by King Ashoka of India. The Thuparama Dagoba is a sacred place of worship to Buddhists the world over as it is said to contain the right collarbone of Lord Buddha - a gift from India and a testament to cordial relations between the two countries at the time. The Dagoba was destroyed on many occasions during the islands illustrious history and was restored in 1862AD to the more conventional bell shaped stupa which is seen today.
Lovamahapaya or the Brazen Palace is said to have had a bronze roof, which is how it got its name. It is located close to the Sri Maha Bodhiya and Ruvanaveliseya and was built by one of Sri Lanka’s greatest leaders, King Dutugemunu, almost 2000 years ago. This amazing structure was said to have been 9 stories high with the ability to house a 1000 monks and attendants. Unfortunately, the building was completely destroyed during the reign of King Saddhatissa, who was King Dutugemunu’s younger sibling, and was renovated on several occasions during the illustrious Anuradhapura period. The Great King Parakramabahu I of the Polonnaruwa period restored it last in the 12th century and all that remains to be seen today is 40 rows each with 40 stone pillars for a total of 1600 pillars, which is still a pretty spectacular sight.
The Ancient Bridge of Stone
The Ancient Bridge of Stone in Anuradhapura or Gal Palama as it is known in Sinhalese, is located close to the Kuttam Pokuna or Twin Ponds and belongs to the Anuradhapura period. The remains of two such Gal Palama’s can be seen and are simply known as Gal Palama 1 and Gal Palama 2. The first Gal Palama or stone bridge is the one across the place where the ancient Yoda Ela used to run. This by no means is the great waterway of yesteryear, but is now in fact a small newly built waterway for irrigation of nearby paddy fields. A short distance down the same road is Gal Palama 2 which is a more impressive bridge crosses the Malwattu Oya. What you see today is possibly only a partial area of the bridge with a series of stone slabs across rows of three stone pillars.
Situated a short distance from the banks of Tissa Weva is Mirisavatiya Dagoba which is the first Dagoba built by King Dutugemunu following his successful capture of the Kingdom of Anuradhapura in the 2nd century BC. Mirisavatiya Dagoba is smaller but similar in structure to another of the King’s great creations, Ruvanveliseya, which ironically was the last religious monument he constructed.
There are two legends associated with the building of this wonderful Dagoba. The first is that King Dutugemunu went to bathe in the Tissa Weva tank leaving his ornate scepter, which contained a relic of Lord Buddha, implanted in the bank. When he returned, he was unable to retrieve his scepter and saw this as an auspicious sign and thus had Mirisavatiya Dagoba built over it. The alternate story is that King Dutugemunu failed to offer Buddhist priests a chilli (miris) spiced curry as it was spilt by mistake. Thus he built the Mirisavatiya Dagoba as a form of compensation for this misdeed.
Lankaramaya or Lankarama stupa was built by King Valagamba in the 1st Century BC and is situated at Galhebakda in Anuradhapura. This was built during the Anuradhapura period although not much is known about the ancient form of this stupa as it has undergone renovation. However, ruins indicate that there has undoubtedly been an encircling Vatadage as is the custom, but all that remains are rows of stone pillars.
Located nearby is the Eth Pokuna or Elephant Pond, an ancient man made pond which is approximately 150m in length and 53m wide. Amazingly, the water to this tank is still supplied through a network of underground canals from the Periyakulama Tank and continues to function after many hundreds of years.
There appears to be quite a bit of confusion and controversy regarding the true identity of this structure. For years it was believed that Dakkhina Stupa was in fact Elara Sohona, a tomb built by the King Dutugemunu in honour of the slain Dravidian King Elara who was said to be a very just king. However, in the mid 19th century a Scottish architect and writer named James Fergusson having studied the history of Indian and Eastern architecture claimed that this was not King Elara’s tomb but a Stupa. Based on this, the Archeological Department of Sri Lanka reclassified this structure as a stupa. In 1946, Professor Paranavitana identified this to be Dhakkina Stupa and believed this to be the site of the cremation of King Dutugemunu. He believed that initially it was a small stupa which contained the remains of the great King which was then expanded at a later date. It is thought to have been constructed by Uttiya, a Minister of King Valagamba.
Isurumuniya (Meghagiri Vihara)
Isurumuniya, which is also known as the Meghagiri Vihara, is a historical Buddhist temple that was built during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (247-207BC). King Devanampiya Tissa was the ruler at the time Buddhism was brought to the island courtesy of a special envoy from King Asoka of India. Located in close proximity to the Tisa weva tank, Isurumuniya is renowned for its spectacular rock carvings. The most famous of these sculptures is that of the Isurumuniya “lovers” which has been moved from its original location and is now housed in a small museum within the premises. This rock carving dates back to the 5th century AD. Some carvings still remain at their original position on the face of the rock. You will have to remove your footwear, so be mindful of the time you visit as it does get very hot during the daytime. Furthermore, ensure that you are appropriately attired. Shorts and sleeveless tops although ideal for sightseeing in the dry heat may not be well accepted.
The Archaeological Museum of Anuradhapura is situated in what was an old British colonial administration building within the ancient city. Within these walls are an interesting array of historical artefacts consisting of artworks, carvings and other everyday items from Anuradhapura and other historical locations within Sri Lanka. These artefacts are made from stone, metal and terracotta. There are also ancient coins and drawings. The museum grounds also contain carved squatting plates from Anuradhapura’s western monasteries as well as urinals illustrated with the god of wealth showering handful of coins down the hole. All in all, this makes for an interesting visit. The museum is closed on Tuesdays and Public holidays.
VESSAGIRIYA (ISSARA SAMANARAMA)
Vessagiriya or Issara Samanarama as it is also known is a series of stone rocks where you will find the remains of the Vessagiriya cave monastery complex. This is situated to the South of Isurumuniya and is said to date back to a similar period as the Isurumuniya Vihara. Details uncovered in chronicles reveal that the first eight saplings of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi Tree were planted at this location. The chronicles further state that King Vasabha, who ruled Anuradhapura from 65 to 100AD, built a chapter house and that King Voharika Tissa (214 to 236AD) was responsible for building a wall circling the monastery. Furthermore, the site boasts of 23 caves, some of which have inscriptions written in early Brahmin script of the 2nd century BC.
The ancient ruins of the Toluvila Monastery are so named due to its proximity to the hamlet of Toluvila, which is below the bund of the Nuwara Weva in the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura. The ancient monastery once consisted of nearly a hundred buildings which were shaped in a rather unusual manner. The Dagoba in the north east corner was once a beautiful structure but has sadly fallen into disrepair and since been gutted of its splendour. The image house which is situated in front of the Dagoba was once home to a seated image of Lord Buddha which is said to be one of the finest and best preserved sculptures found in Sri Lanka. Carved entirely from a block of granite, it was discovered in 1900 and is thought to date back to the 4th or 5th century. In order to preserve this artistic and historical treasure, the Buddha statue has since been moved to the Colombo Museum where it can be seen at the entrance.
The Abhayagiri Museum is located in close proximity to the Abhayagiri Dagoba. The museum commemorates the arrival of the Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian’s to the island and his visit to Abhayagiri Dagoba in 412AD. Therefore, this museum is funded by the Chinese. Faxian, also known as Fa-Hsien, was also a Buddhist explorer and researcher who spent some time living in the Abhayagiri Monastery translating Buddhists scriptures. He later took these translated scriptures with him when he returned to China. The museum contains extensive ancient treasures unearthed during the excavation of the Abhayagiri Monastery. These items include ancient sculptures, jewellery, pottery, ornaments, glass, tiles and handicrafts.
Arguably one of Sri Lanka’s most famous historical sites, the Ruwanweliseya Dagoba is sacred to Buddhist pilgrims the world over. Commissioned to be built by King Dutugemunu, who is the first Sinhalese king to rule the entire island, legend has it that he did not live to see the completion of this glorious structure. As he was ailing, his brother arranged for it to be draped in white cloth so that he could see what the completed masterpiece would look like from his deathbed.
Ruwanweliseya is said to be King Dutugemunu’s finest construction. Today it is visited by thousands of pilgrims and travellers from the world over. It is also a sacred place of worship for many Sinhalese Buddhists. The sheer size of the Ruwanweliseya Dagoba is breathtaking, and you really get a feeling of history when you gaze at this magnificent structure through the walls guarded by a freeze of hundreds of elephants. There is a statue within the premises which is popularly believed to be a statue of King Dutugemunu.
As at any place of Buddhist worship, visitors must remove footwear and dress appropriately as a sign of respect. Therefore plan ahead and visit Ruwanweliseya at a time when the sun is not too hot, especially if you plan on walking the circumference of the Dagoba in your bare feet..
Seated in the meditation pose, the Samadhi Buddha is considered one of the best sculptures from the Anuradhapura period. The statue is situated in the middle of the historical Mahamevnawa Park (Mahamewna Uyana) which is to the East of the Abhayagiri Dagoba, to the south west of the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi, in close proximity to Tissa Wewa. Thought to be sculpted in the 3rd or 4th century, the statue is carved out of dolomite marble and considered to be one of the finest Buddha statues in all of Sri Lanka. Discovered in its present location in 1886 it was then re-erected and repairs carried out to reconstruct its destroyed nose. Today, the statue is covered by a concrete structure in order to help preserve its beauty for generations to come. The statue itself is sculptured in a manner which appears to show varying profile features from different angles.
The Kuttam Poukuna or Twin Ponds are yet another example of excellent hydrological engineering and breathtaking architecture from the ancient Anuradhapura period. The Kuttam Pokuna was thought to have been built as a bathing tank for the monks from the monastery at the Abhayagiri Dagoba. Although called the Twin ponds, one pond is in fact larger than the other. Both ponds consist of staged staircases which last to the bottom of the pool. There are many sculptures which adorn the Kuttam Pokuna including the five headed cobra which is said to be the guardian of the water.
The pools of the Kuttam Pokuna were filled with water through a network of underground pipes from the nearby man made Basawakkulama or Abhaya Weva as it was once known, and has a regulated inflow and outflow. Water entered the larger pond through the mouth of a mythical creature known as the “Makara”, and then passed through to the smaller pool. It is said that there was also a sophisticated water filtering system. The construction of this beautiful and yet thoroughly practical ancient pool is amazing considering the fact that the ancient Sinhalese engineers were not privy to any of our modern technology but were able to construct such wonders which have lasted so many generations. Although the design and lines of the Kuttam Pokuna are simple, the effect is nothing less than impressive.
Sri Maha Bodhi
The Sri Maha Bodhi is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. However, for Sri Lankans’ the Sri Maha Bodhi has a far more significant meaning, both rich in historical and religious value. A sapling from the historical Bodhi tree from Bodhgaya in India under which the Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment, the Sri Maha Bodhi has grown into a luscious tree having been nurtured by Sri Lankan Kings and Buddhists pilgrims from ancient times. It was brought to Sri Lanka by Sangamitta Thera, the daughter of Emperor Asoka, who was later the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka. The Sri Maha Bodhi was planted by King Devanampiya Tissa in 288BC on a high terrace about 6.5 m above the ground in the Mahamevna Uyara or Park in Anuradhapura. The Sri Maha Bodhi has been a revered place of worship for over 2000 years and thousands of pilgrims gather to offer prayer and worship. Poya days (Full moon days) which are public holidays in Sri Lanka are particularly busy and probably best avoided as crowds of Buddhist worshippers converge from all over the island to offer their prayers.
Anuradhapura Folk Museum
Located within the historic city of Anuradhapura is the Anuradhapura Folk Museum which is a short distance from the Archaeological Museum. This museum was established in 1971 with the aim of collection, conservation and exhibition of cultural and religious objects used by the folk community in the Nuwara-Kalaviya area. Following the decline of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, the capital city of the country moved away from this area. However, several families remained in the region and as they were unable to communicate with the outer world due to living in dense jungles, they had to produce all their daily needs. The objects they used illustrate their traditional knowledge. There is a good collection of these traditional objects as well as several life size models relating to folk culture which can be seen within the premises of the museum. The Folk Museum is closed on Sunday, Monday and all Public holidays, so make sure you plan ahead.