One of Asia’s most evocative sights, a sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders.
One of our favourite things to do when exploring a new country is to get a better understanding of its history and culture. In Sri Lanka, there is no better place to start than the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura. It’s cultural significance to the country has been recognised by UNESCO, who have listed it as a World Heritage site.
Here is some history of this city.
Anuradhapura was first settled by Anuradha, a follower of Prince Vijaya the founder of the Sinhala race. It was later made the Capital by King Pandukabhaya around 380. According to the Mahavamsa, the epic of Sinhala History, King Pandukabhaya’s city was a model of planning. Precincts were set aside for huntsmen, for scavengers and for heretics as well as for foreigners. There were hostels and hospitals, at least one Jain chapel, and cemeteries for high and low castes. A water supply was assured by the construction of tanks, artificial reservoirs, of which the one named after the king itself exists to this day under the altered name of Baswakkulam.
It was during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (250 – 210 BC) that the Arahat Mahinda, son of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka, led a group of missionaries from North India to Sri Lanka. He, along with his group of followers, settled in caves on the hill of Mihintale. The new religion swept over the land in a wave and the King donated land for a monastery in the heart of the city which was also his own Royal Park.
This was our first temple, at least Buddhist temple, on our trip to Sri Lanka (we’d be seeing many more along the way). This a charming rock temple, dating from the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (307–267 BC). There is a splendid lotus pond (there were no lotuses during our visit – out of season) which has in it corner carved images of elephants playfully splashing water.
The central temple has some particularly fine mural paintings.
There is a little museum attached to the temple that houses some artefacts, the most famous being the Isurumuni Lovers. This dates from the 6th Century and depicts a woman, seated on the man’s lap. She is lifting a warning finger, probably as a manifestation of her coyness; but the man carries on regardless. No #Metoo movement in the 6th Century. The figures are said to represent Dutugemunu’s son Saliya and the low caste (Sadol Kula) maiden Asokamala whom he loved.
From the museum, we went to the back of the rock and climbed to its summit where you can see the bell-shaped stupa and a pair of Buddha footprints etched into the rock.
Just a short walk from Isurumuniya Temple is the site of the former royal gardens, Ranmasu Uyana (translated means “park filled with fish”). This place is quite large, about 40 acres, and is largely overgrown and the haunt of monkeys (which are quite cute at first!). In the park, there are various ponds, the remains of small buildings. According to legend, it is believed that Prince Saliya met Asokamala in this garden.
Behind one of the buildings that line the former royal bathing pools is a carving known as the Sakwala Chakraya. There are those who believe that that this is an interface or stargate “between humans and some intelligent species from outer space” – ridiculous of course but archaeologists do believe that this could be one of the earliest examples of a World map.
The Stupa we had seen at the Isurumuniya Temple had been quite modest in size, that cannot be said of the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, one of the world’s tallest monuments, standing at 103 m (338 ft) and with a circumference of 290 m (951 ft). Before visiting Sri Lanka I was ignorant of Stupas. They are usually mound-like or hemispherical in shape and are used as a place of veneration by Buddhists. These Stupas usually house a relic of or associated with the Buddha or another significant figure. One thing I did find surprising is that the Stupas are solid, you cannot go inside and see some amazing lofted ceiling.
The Ruwanwelisaya Stupa is important, being one of the Solosmasthana (the 16 sacred sites of veneration) – it is believed to have been visited by Buddha during one of his trips to Sri Lanka. It was built by King Dutugemunu around140 BC but fell into disrepair but was refurbished in 1940 after Buddhist monks raised money to fix it up!
The complex is large and when we visited it was packed with devotees (it was school holiday time in Sri Lanka). It was lovely to see everyone so joyous.
Around the base of the Stupa, there was an orange band of material. We were lucky enough to see a large group of people, apparently from a local village, carrying a new cloth wrapping they had collectively bought to decorate the Stupa. They marched in procession, holding up the cloth, looking from a distance like a giant orange millipede. Once the human chain reached the Stupa they handed the cloth to the attending monks who lovingly proceeded to wrap the cloth around the base.
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
Set in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, is the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree. This is no ordinary Bodhi tree, this tree is said to be the southern branch from the historical Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gaya in India under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment. t was planted in 288 BC and is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date. Today it is one of the most sacred relics of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and respected by Buddhists all over the world.
This is one of the most sacred places in Sri Lanka and draws Buddhists from all over Sri Lanka (and the rest of the world) to visit and pay homage. The pilgrims travel and bring their offerings to the Sri Maha Bodhi believing that these will bring blessings to the families.
It was very busy when we visited but it was lovely to receive the gift of food prepared by local people and be able to share the love and devotion of the pilgrims who were there to pay homage to the Sri Maha Bodhi. All around the area close to the tree individuals and family groups were sitting in prayer or at least deep contemplation. Sometimes when we visit temples and places of worship if feel voyeuristic but here I felt very at home and peaceful.
We did a very quick pitstop at the Jetavanaramaya Stupa before heading out of Anuradhapura. It is one of the eight sacred places in Sri Lanka, and was once the tallest Buddhist Stupa in the ancient world, with a height of 400 feet. It was later reconstructed at a lower height of 232 feet.
It is believed that this monument was built upon the enclosure where the monk who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Mahinda Maha Thero, was cremated.
There is a relic in the stupa which is believed to be a part of a belt tied by Buddha. However, no data is available concerning when it appeared here and how.
Originally this Stupa would have been covered in plaster and painted white – today all that remains is the red bricks.
Today, the Stupa is going through a very slow renovation.
Our final destination in Anuradhapura was Kuttam Pokuna. These twin ponds are totally built from granite and are as large as a large tennis court.
The belief is that these pools were constructed by ancient kings for local Buddhist monks. The ponds are bordered by lows walls and there are steps down to allow easy access to the waters. Water to the pools was transferred through underground ducts and filtered before flowing to the pool, which was very sophisticated for the time.
These days the pools are not used for bathing but make an interesting place to visit and admire the skill of the architects of ancient Sri Lanka. There are no monks here just a lot of very cheeky monkeys.
…. In summary
We spent a day and a half in Anuradhapura exploring the cultural and historical sites. It was a great introduction to Sinhalese and Buddhist culture, but we had definitely had our fill of visiting temples and Stupas by the end of this time.