Anuradhapura – a historical place in Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura – a historical place in Sri Lanka

The island, now called Sri Lanka, has been inhabited since time immemorial, as evidenced by archaeological finds from the Stone Age. Remains of later monuments and burial grounds testify to ancient and forgotten cultures.

The mythical Prince Vijaya and his follower Pandukabhaya

The written history of Sri Lanka, which Buddhist monks have carefully recorded in their palm chronicles, begins with the legend that Prince Vijaya came to the island with his 700 species. The prince’s home was Sinhapura in northwest India . Vijaya married the demon Kuweni and had two children by her, who later rejected him. According to legend, Vijaya’s children were the ancestors of the Vedas, the original inhabitants of the island. They were already living there when the Indian colonists arrived. The arrival of the legendary founding prince is noted in 543 B.C. His relatives created many small kingdoms after his death, and only a rebellious prince named Pandukabhaya managed to concentrate power in his hands.

Anuradhapura is a historical place in Sri Lanka

The mythical prince Vijaya and his follower Pandukabhaya

In 380 BC he founded the capital of the United Kingdom at the site of Anuradhapura (named after a man named Anuradha). The Sinhalese civilization was born here. According to the ancient chronicle of Mahavamsa, King Pandukabhaya built the city according to a plan, each part of the city was set aside for a particular caste of inhabitants. There were hostels and hospitals, even a Jain chapel and cemeteries . The water supply was ingeniously solved by building artificial reservoirs that held water and from which water was distributed throughout the city.

The arrival of Buddhism on the island

During the reign of the grandson of the Unification King, the famous Devanampi Tissa (307-267 B.C.), Arahat Mahinda, son of the famous Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, arrived on Arahat Island from India. Along with Mahinda came teachers of the Buddhist faith, who settled in caves above Anuradhapura. The new religion quickly established itself in the country. The king ordered a Buddhist monastery to be built in the center of the city, in its beautiful park. Princess Sanghamitta, daughter of the emperor, came from India and brought a branch of the sacred tree under which the Buddha himself came to enlightenment. The tree was planted at Anuradhapura in 288 B.C. and has been under the protection of kings ever since.

Anuradhapura is a historical place in Sri Lanka

The arrival of Buddhism on the island

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The sacred tree, called Sri Mahal Bodhi in Sinhalese, is still visited by crowds of devotees and is considered the oldest tree in the world, over 2,300 years old. It is the sacred sycamore tree, or bip. A staircase leads to the area where the sacred tree and its many descendants grow from its roots, and the sacred site is surrounded by a golden fence. Only the clergy and a special caste of servants called “villidura” have access to it. In the main shrine, under the roots of the tree stand two large statues of Buddha, at which numerous worshippers sit on the ground. Around the sacred tree are sanctuaries of Hindu deities who guard this living Buddhist relic, as on the island of Sri Lanka. The two religions overlap, Buddhism is more of a philosophy of life, and therefore Hindu deities play an important role as protectors in popular beliefs.

Prince Gemunu

The Buddhist kingdom flourished for a century and then was temporarily ruled by the Chola Tamils of southern India. But Buddhism did not disappear. Tamil adventurers succeeded each other in government and then the Cholean king Elar took the throne for 44 years. During Elar’s reign, a prince who was to become a leading figure in Sinhalese nationalism grew up on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka in an autonomous kingdom dependent on the will of the Tamils. Prince Gemunu, soon to be called “Dutu” Gemunu, is among the 200 kings who ruled the Sinhalese kingdom and was the most respected.

Anuradhapura is a historical place in Sri Lanka

Prince Gemunu

After his father died, he ascended the throne and began to gather an army, then went to war on the back of the famous elephant Kandul. He had a spear with a relic of the Buddha. Prince Dutu Gemuna was accompanied by a large number of Buddhist monks. For about fifteen years Dutu Gemunu made his way north through the jungle until he encountered Elara himself at the southern gate of Anuradhapura. Kandula’s elephant pierced Elara’s elephant with his tusks, and Dutu Gemunu killed him with his sacred spear. Then Dutu Gemunu honored Elar with all honors and ordered all to bow at the tomb of the defeated king. This was also the case after two millennia in the early 18th century.

Then King Dutu Gemunu ordered to build an amazing bronze palace in Anuradhapura which had 9 floors and 1000 rooms. But it burned down 15 years after it was built because it was wooden. There are 1,600 stone pillars remaining at the site of the palace, but they date back to the Middle Ages . The giant Buddhist dagoba of Ruanvelisaya, built by Dutu Gemuna late in life, shines in the distance as a giant white bubble. Today it reaches a height of 55 meters, much smaller than the original structure. On top of the building was a ruby the size of a human fist. Today it is decorated with a 60-centimeter crystal given to the sacred site by Burmese Buddhists.

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What is dagoba?

Anuradhapura is a historical place in Sri Lanka

What is a dagobah?

Dagobah, strange, little-understood by Europeans structures, which are built either from stone or from bricks, plastered and painted. It is simply a pile of matter, with no spaces inside, no shrines or corridors, just a monolith that serves as a reminder of the great teacher. The square base on which the dagoba stands resembles the Buddha’s rolled-up robes, the dagoba itself, the upside-down bowl of the Guru, and the turret on top of the dagoba an umbrella of the Buddha. A pinch of ash from the Buddha’s burial ground is kept in the dagobah.

Buildings that reach the sky

Others ruled after King Dutu Gemuna, but King Wattagamani Abhaya was another prominent figure. He ruled for only a year when his kingdom was conquered by the Kols in 103 B.C. For 14 years he wandered the land and hid in caves, and meanwhile five Tamil kings took turns sitting on his throne. One day he passed by a Hinist hermitage, and the ascetic who lived there insulted him. When Wattagamani Abhaya ascended the throne again, he ordered the hermitage razed to the ground and a monastery built in its place, which he named Abhaya Giri. For 600 years it was Sri Lanka’s largest monastery with 5,000 monks, spread over 235 hectares. After the king, this monastery was the most powerful institution in the country. However, the Dagoba, which rose to a height of 115 meters, was not built until the 2nd century by King Gajabahu.

Anuradhapura is a historical place in Sri Lanka

Buildings that reach the sky

The heretic king Mahasena (274-301 A.D.) aroused the displeasure of the Buddhist monasteries because he became a supporter of the Buddhist sect of Sagalia. This made Maha Vihar the powerful orthodox order hostile. Mahasena, however, was a great builder. He built important irrigation systems and built the largest dagoba, Jethawan, up to 120 meters high for his sect’s followers in Anuradhapura. At the time of its creation, it was the third tallest building in the world, and the two tallest were only the largest Egyptian pyramids built two thousand years ago.

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Dagobah has concrete and brick foundations 12 meters deep. It is by far the largest brick building in the world. It took a quarter of a century to build this digi and used 90 million bricks. In 429 there was another invasion from India, and when the Tamils were driven out by King Dhatusen (455-473), he ordered 18 temples and one large tank to be built in the capital to honor the victory. It fell into the hands of his own son Kassapa who then temporarily moved his headquarters to Sigiriya.

Twilight of Glory

Anuradhapura existed as the capital of the Sinhalese kingdom for another six centuries. However, the protective wall of the jungle dwindled and a struggle for succession broke out within the kingdom, which weakened the kingdom and exposed it to traditional horrific aggression from southern India, as many times in history. When King Rajaraja of Bola invaded Sri Lanka in 993, he burned and sacked Anuradhapura. The leaders then moved their capital to a more distant location, Polonnaruwa .

Anuradhapura is a historical place in Sri Lanka

Twilight of Glory.

Anuradhapura was never rebuilt and in 1073 the city was abandoned and deserted. In 1883 the ruins were discovered by the British jungle. After 1950 the New Anuradhapura sprang up to the east of the sacred site. In 1982 Anuradhapura was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and a program of restoration was initiated.

Anuradhapura is one of the largest ruins of a historical city in the world, among which stand out the living, visited and revered Buddhist buildings of enormous size. Anuradhapura, is not just an archaeological site, it is a living sacred place . The 2,500 years of history, so detailed in ancient chronicles, testifies to the beautiful unbroken tradition of the Sinhalese people.

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura is one of the three sacred cities of Sri Lanka that form the Golden Triangle. Of all the former capitals of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura was the most famous and most influential city. While European culture was in its infancy, it was already a developed city where the arts, humanities, hydraulic technology and, of course, Buddhism flourished.

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura. Photo credit: Joseph Clerici, Flick

Modern Anuradhapura consists of two parts – the Old City and the New City. The Old City is actually a huge historic park with ancient ruins of city palaces, gardens, Buddhist temples, monasteries and dagobas and stupas. Hotels, hostels, stores, and restaurants are located for the most part in the new town.

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Allow at least one full day for Anuradhapura Old Town

Not to be missed in Anuradhapura

  • Rent a bike to explore the magnificent Old Town of Anuradhapura.
  • Watch the beautiful ceremonies near the ancient sacred Bodhi Tree, around which Sri Lanka’s second most sacred temple, the Bodhi Tree Temple, is built.
  • Do not miss the magnificent dagobas (Buddhist stupas): Ruwanwelisaya, Thuparamaya and Jetawanarama.
  • Wander around the ancient Abhayagiri monastery in the northern part of the city and admire the royal gardens and the original architecture of the Isurumuniya temple built into the rock in the south of the city.
  • Take a day to drive to Mihintala, one of Sri Lanka’s most sacred sites.

Bodhi Tree

The Bodhi Tree is perhaps one of the most sacred relics of Buddhism. It is said that Buddha meditated and attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in the Indian town of Bodh Haya, which is why Bodhi trees are cultivated in many Buddhist monasteries. The original tree was destroyed. But then again, tradition has it that the Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura was grown from a sprout of the original tree brought from India. Years later a new tree was grown from the sprout of an Anuradhapura tree in place of the original tree cut down in Bodg Khaya.

Given the traditions and stories, it is not surprising that the temple built around the Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura is one of the holiest sites for Sri Lankan Buddhists. It is always crowded with many pilgrims who regularly hold beautiful ceremonies.

Anuradhapura - on your own

The Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura. Photo credit: Mario Feierstein, Flickr

Anuradhapura - guide

Pilgrims to the Bodhi tree. Photo credit: David & Bonnie, Flickr.

The Dagobas of Anuradhapura

Dagobas are ancient Buddhist stupas with an original shape inherent in ancient Sri Lankan architecture. At the base the dagobas are shaped like a huge dome erected on a massive platform, which is topped by a small pointed tower.

The four most important dagobas of Anuradhapura are Jetawanarama, the largest dagoba in Sri Lanka, Thuparamaya, the most sacred dagoba of the island, Ruwanwelisaya, a magnificent white dagoba which is considered the most beautiful dagoba of the island and Abhayagiri, the most atmospheric dagoba on the island, located in the monastery of the same name.

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Anuradhapura - guide

Abhayagiri Dagoba. Photo credit: Chandana Witharanage, Flickr

Anuradhapura - on your own

Sunrays after a heavy rainfall – Dagoba Thuparamaya. Photo credit: lesterlester1, Flickr

A visit to the Old City of Anuradhapura

The cost to visit the Old City and all the sights is about $25, in local currency terms. Tickets are sold at the Archaeological Museum. Anuradhapura does not have one main entrance where tickets are purchased and/or presented, nor is there a wall between the old and new city. In fact, you can walk around the old town without meeting ticket inspectors, but we would still recommend not giving in to the temptation of “free cheese” and still buy tickets).

The best way to see the old city is by bicycle. An alternative is to walk or rent a tuk-tuk. You can rent a bike or tuk-tuk and get a map at any of the city’s hostels. Allocate a whole day to explore the local attractions. Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees, take off your shoes where the locals take off their shoes. There are trays within the park where you can buy food and drinks.

Keep an eye on your belongings – the local monkeys are ferocious thieves, and can easily steal your bag, glasses, camera, and anything else that’s loose or hanging from a person).

Anuradhapura

The little people of Anuradhapura. Photo credit: Nadun Wanniarachchi, Flickr

Anuradhapura - guide

Anuradhapura. Photo credit: lesterlester1, Flickr

Mihintale

The tiny town of Mihintale, 12 km from Anuradhapura, is considered the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Legend has it that the fateful meeting of the Indian monk Mahinda, son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka and King Devanampiatissa, whose reign began the spread of Buddhism on the island, took place here at the top of the mountain.

To climb to the top of Mihintale to the spectacular white dagoba and white Buddha statue you have to overcome 1840 steps. The ascent consists of several levels, and along the way you can see the relics and stupas of the island’s first Buddhist monastery.

From Anuradhapura, Mihintale can be reached by tuk-tuk, bicycle, train, or regular shuttles. Allow a day for the trip.

Anuradhapura - travel guide

The Buddha statue in Anuradhapura. Photo credit: Daniel Kosla, Flickr

Anuradhapura

The ascent to Mihintale. Photo credit: k.dexter fernando kariyakarawanage, Flickr

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