Anuradhapura is one of the greatest monastic cities in the ancient world and is Sri Lanka’s first capital. For well over a millennium, Anuradhapura, imperiously held sway over the fortunes and early history of Lanka and the ruins of its imposing grandeur eternally pay homage to Anuradhapura’s long lost glory.
Today Anuradhapura is essentially two cities; an ancient city whose ruins’ historical worth is comparable to those anywhere in the world, from Athens to Luxor. It evokes memories of a glorious civilization and an unmistakable third world city, adjoining and sometimes tainting it with struggles, to keep pace with modernity.
Places/Activities in Anuradhapura
The sacred Bodhi Tree is the oldest known in the world with a recorded history of over 2000 years. It is a sapling of the tree in India under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment and thus is amongst the most sacred places of worship for Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority. This veneration is evidenced by the numerous solid gilded fences (ran-weta) which has been built around the sacred tree.
Found adjacent to the sacred tree, is the monks’ quarters. The structure got its name from its original copper tiled roof that gave shelter to 3000 monks and the 1000 windowed chambers in nine stories, rising to a height of 150 feet.
This stupa (A dome modeled after a bubble of milk; containing Buddhist relics) found next to the brazen palace, was built by King Dutugemunu, who became king of Sri Lanka after a war in which the Chola King Elara was defeated. It rises to 55m, although this is far less than its original height and is the focal point of the Maha Vihara, the first monastery of Sri Lanka.
Located close to the Ruwanveli Seya is the oldest dagoba (a bell shaped structure) in Sri Lanka and probably the oldest surviving dagoba in the world. It was constructed by King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC, and is said to contain the right collar bone of Lord Buddha. To the south-east of Thuparama dagoba are the ruins of a hospital as is evident by the presence of a medicinal trough – an oil bath cut into a slab of stone.
200m north of the Thuparama, on the opposite side of the road, are the ruins of the Royal Palace dated around the 12th century AD. It was built by King Vijayabahu 1 as the last attempt to restore Anuradhapura, to its former glory and prestige.
The Abhayagiri Dagoba, built over a foot print of Lord Buddha and situated within the Abhayagiri monastery, was built in 88 BC by King Vattagamini Abhaya, and it was the centre piece of a monastery housing 5000 monks. Being 75m high, it is said to be guarding the relics of Lord Buddha enshrined in a figure of a bull made out of gold. The name means ‘Hill of Protection’ or ‘Fearless Hill’. The monastery was part of the ‘School of the Secret Forest’, a heretical sect that studied both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.
Found within the Abhayagiri monastic complex, the 2m tall Buddha statue is a sculpture of Lord Buddha in meditative posture, carved out of dolomite marble in the 4th century. It was one of the four Buddha statues placed around a Bodhi tree facing cardinal directions. The hollow carved eyes were formally inset with crystal or precious stones.
The two ponds were built between the 5th and 8th century for the Buddhist monks at the Abhayagiri Vihara for their daily baths. The larger pond is 132 feet long and 51 feet wide while the smaller pond is 92 feet long and 51 feet wide. The depths of the ponds are 18 feet and 14 feet respectively. The supply of water to the ponds first flows into an enclosure built above the level of the ponds. The enclosure channels the water into the smaller pond through a stone carved Makara (Sinhala: dragon). The smaller pond, in return feeds the larger pond by means of a duct below the ground level. At the northern end of the smaller pond, is a sculpture of a five hooded cobra or naga (benevolent snake spirit) which is the symbol of the guardian of water.
To be found north-west of the Abhayagiri Stupa are the remnants of a 2nd century palace of which only the mighty pillars carved with naga symbols remain.
The museum is situated within the Abhayagiri monastery complex, a gift to Sri Lanka from China in honor of the 5th century Buddhist academic Fa Hien who visited Anuradhapura in 412 AD and wrote an account of his travels. The museum contains relics and archaeological finds, illustrating the ancient connection between China and Sri Lanka.
At 120m, this stupa was the third tallest structure in the world at the time of the Roman conquests. The monastery complex behind this structure was built where it is believed to be the cremation grounds of Mahinda Thera who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
This Stupa was also built by King Dutugamunu. It is said that the king had planted his spear which contained a relic of Lord Buddha on the banks of the Tissawewa (a rain water reservoir). Upon his return he found the spear could not be pulled out. Taking this as an omen the stupa was built around the spear. Once built, he donated the stupa to the Buddhist monks in remorse for partaking of a chilly curry without offering it to the sangha first. The stupa can be found about one kilometre to the east of the sacred tree. What stands today is the renovation done by the cultural Triangle Fund.
Also known as the Park of the Goldfish, it was built during the reign of King Dutugemunu. Covering approximately 14 ha. (35 acres), the gardens are built around ponds and rocks, with views over the Tissa Wewa tank and were intended as a tranquil retreat from affairs of the state.
This rock temple, built into the crevices between great smooth basalt boulders, during King Dutugamunu’s reign, is one of Anuradhapura’s hidden secrets. It is well known for its sensual sculptures of embracing couples, indicating a culture which, while devout, was clearly not prudish. The temple stands beside ponds above which the rock face has been carved with cheerful looking elephants at play.
Also at the temple is a slab of granite that used to support a sculpture called the “Isurmuniya lovers”. The sculpture has now been shifted to Isurumuniya Archeological Museum. The lovers are identified as King Dutugamunu’s son Saliya and his beautiful peasant consort Asokamala. Saliya forfeited his royal titles for the sake of his lover.
Also known as the drip ledge caves, is a series of stone rocks and caves that are located about half a mile south of Isurumuniya. It is surrounded by structural ruins of a monastery (Vihara) which had cells in the 23 caves that had been the abodes of meditative monks. It is thought to be built by King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century B.C. due to the Brahmi script inscriptions carved into the ledge.
This stupa, built by King Valagamba, seems to have had a roof. The rows of stone pillars give the theory credence. The round courtyard of the stupa is about 10 feet above the ground, while the diameter of the stupa is 45 feet.
Located 12km east of Anuradhapura, is the location known as the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This is where the momentous encounter between the supremely enlightened Arahath Mahinda and King Devanampiya Tissa occurred, an encounter that sparked the transformation of the Aryan Sinhalese from essentially hunter gatherers to the creators of a glorious civilization guided by the gentle sway of Buddhism. Geographically Mihintale (meaning Mahinda’s Plateau) is a plateau on top of a mountain range consisting of three main hills called Ambastala (Sinhala: Plateau of the Mango), Rajagiri (Sinhala: mountain of the kings) and Anaikutti (Mountain of the Elephant). The stupa, called the Ambasthala dagaba, was created by King Mahadathika Mahanaga on the flat land just below the peak where apostle and king were supposed to have met and talked.
From the Ambasthala dagaba, opposite the point of entry, a path leads down to a steep sheltered rock overlay, within which is a flat rectangular slab of rock. This place is called “Mihindu Guha” or Mahinda’s cave, where he is said to have spent much of his time in meditation. At the foot of the mountains, are the ruins of what has been called the oldest hospital in the world.
The Archeological Museum on the Ruwanweliseya road is the first of five new museums planned for the Cultural Triangle. The Anuradhapura Archaeological Museum, lies between the Brazen Palace and the Ruwanweliseya Stupa. It contains a range of exhibits discovered on the site along with explanatory displays. Among these is a model of the Thuparama Vatadage and a relic chamber from Mihintale. It also holds the ticket office for the ancient city.
The amazing irrigation network of Anuradhapura (still active and nourishing thousands of acres of paddy fields) is fed by 16 man – made reservoirs or lakes, the greatest of which is the Minneriya reservoir. The city itself is surrounded by three of the larger man – made lakes, Nuwara Wewa reservoir to the east and Tissa Wewa reservoir together with Basawakkulama Wewa reservoir to the west with the two directions of the city being defined by Malwatu Oya that flows through it.
Travel Tips and Planning Information
Anuradhapura sprawls across the central dry plains of Sri Lanka, thus the weather is hot and humid. Sometimes oppressively so, with the temperature rarely falling below 25°C.
The warmest month is April, with an average temperature of 32°C, and the coldest month is January with an average temperature of 25°C.
What to Wear
In places of worships wear long pants or long skirts which cover your knees, and blouses or shirts with sleeves. Cotton clothing would be more comfortable in the often scorching heat of the dry lands. Also, sandals or slippers would serve you well as you will be required to remove your footwear before entering sacred areas.
• The temples are open only from around 07.30 a.m. to around 7.00 p.m.
• An admission fee is payable at the entrance
• If you are travelling to Anuradhapura for the day, leave early morning as it will take 5-6 hours to reach there even in good traffic conditions.
• Carry drinking water, hats, sun glasses and sun block to protect yourself from heat exhaustion.
• Be mindful of areas that ban photography in the sacred areas of Anuradhapura