This ancient capital was built in the middle of the northern plains of Sri Lanka. It is honoured today as the greatest Buddhist site on the island. The story of how the gentle religion of the Buddha came to the island begins more than two thousand years ago at a place (even kilometers east of Anuradhapura) called Mihintale or the mountain of Mahinda (Mahindra), son of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who had traveled all the way from the eastern Gangetic plains of India bearing with him the Buddha's message of peace. To mark the place where the Sri Lankan ruler was converted to the way of the Buddha, the lovely Amba (mango) Sthala (place) dagoba was constructed in the third century BC and all around it other religious structures were built. Nearby is the Aradhana Gala from where Mahinda is said to have offered his first sermon, and high above the Dagoba is a huge flat-topped boulder referred to as Mahinda's Bed where the pilgrim ambassador from India is believed to have slept and meditated. At the summit of the Mihintale Kanda is the large first century BC Maha Seya Dagoba where a strand of the Buddha's hair is said to be enshrined. From here one can get a superb view of the plains of Anuradhapura and its magnificent dagobas.
After the Buddha's death, according to sacred Buddhist scriptures, his bodily remains (saririkas) were divided and enshrined in various places in artificially created funerary mounds that came to be called stupas. The great stupas of Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh, India) and the now extant one at Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh, India) follow a pattern of development from enormous solid hemispherical earth mounds that were sheathed with stone slabs. Around the earth mound was constructed a protective fencing. Since the stupa was solid, ritual circumambulation of the holy relic was performed by entering the fencing gateways built at the four cardinal points and walking around the circular path keeping the right shoulder always closest to the stupa. The entire stupa acquired symbolic meaning. The round earth mound, which carried in its hidden mass the 'seed of dharma', the relics of the Buddha or a saint, the finial on the stupa a square fence with the symbolic tiered umbrella of dharmic protection pointing the way to the steps of heaven and salvation. In Sri Lanka the stupa is called a dagoba, derived by combining two Sanskrit words dhatu, relic and garbha, womb chamber, and carries the same import of meaning and symbolic significance. It is believed that the most sacred dagobas in Sri Lanka do actually contain the body relics-hair, bone, or tooth of the Buddha-which arrived on the island in mysterious and miraculous ways. A typical Sinhalese dagoba has three parts, representing the three planes of existence, set on a circular mandala ground plan. The moulded base or platform, the earth mound, the evolved into poetic forms: the bell-shape, bubble shape, the lotus shape, and the rice mound shape. Above this solid mass rose the finial, a condensation of the harmika railing and the umbrella into a compact stepped (the thirteen steps to salvation) abstract form. The four cardinal points were often guarded, in a manner similar to the Amaravati stupa, by pillared shrines into which were added images of the Dhyani Buddhas who protect space and project the spread of Dharma and wisdom. The entire stupa was enclosed by a railing which provided space between the railing wall and stupa body for circumambulation by the pilgrims. This space could be filled with concentric circles of pillars that support a roof around the dagoba, and the structure was referred to as a vatadage. Apart from these supreme religious Buddhist structures, there were viharas (vihares) in which the monastic order could live in accordance with the Buddha's philosophic attack on the abominable caste system. 'Just as rivers follow into the ocean leaving behind their various identities, so do various castes and classes form a single community when they join the order.' The best and oldest examples of Buddhist architecture in Sri Lanka are to be found at Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura served as the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka for nearby 1400 years and was ruled by more than 250 kings. Today the township is dominated by the Tissa Wewa to the south and the huge Basawak Kulama Tank just north of it. The ancient monuments of Anuradhapura are aligned in a great arch around these waterscapes. The Tissa Wewa is believed to have been built by the newly converted king Devanampiyatissa in the third century and served as the major source of drinking water for the town.
To the south of the Wewa is the Isurumuniya Rock Temple, jammed between boulders of rock containing some exquisite sculptures of lowers and embracing couples. Nearby is a group of ponds, tow of which are decorated with playful relief sculptures of elephants frolicking in a lotus pond. The thick growth of lotus flowers pushed about by the enormous elephants are reminiscent of similar scenes to be found in the painted murals of Ajanta and the bas-reliefs at Sanchi (India). It's those smiling elephant eyes that are unforgettable: a snatch of humour so characteristic of early Buddhist art in the subcontinent.
Today the vast expanse of ruins at Anuradhapura has been fenced off and preserved as a sacred relic of the past, but a few areas are still the center of active worship. Most honoured amongst them all is the sacred Shri Maha Bodhi Tree. This pipal tree with delicate heart-shaped leaves has grown from a sapling brought to the island in the early centuries of the pre-Christian era from Bodh Gaya (India), from the very tree under which the Buddha meditated and attained nirvana twenty-five centuries ago. The Shri Maha Bodhi Tree is a sacred symbol of the teaching of the Buddha, of the need for meditation and discipline, for the human animal, unlike any other species on this planet, is ruled by greed and lack of self-restraint. The key to eternal joy and freedom from this endless cycle of desire was found by the Buddha under the Bo tree. He asserted a powerful positive belief in human beings, 'that no god can do anything for humankind, salvation [moksha, nirvana] can only be attained through education, self realization, self-conquest and self emancipation', thereby leaving us the masters of our lives, the protectors of this planet.
The Shri Maha Bodhi Tree is enclosed by gold-plated fencing and a platform, the bodhighara, around which many young shoots have taken root. Pilgrims come from far and near not to worship but to honour this tree, offering it flowers, incense, and water. It is after all the tree of wisdom (bodhi), reminding us that the onus of salvation lies entirely within ourselves.
Just north of the Maha Bodhi Tree is the Loha Prasada, a mass of 1600 granite columns laid out in neat rows of 40 by 40. This is all that remains of a magnificent nine-storey residence for monks who attended on the Bodhi Tree. It was originally built in the second century BC and had a thousand rooms, possibly built like a terraced pavilion with diminishing storeys not unlike the Dharmaraja Ratha of Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu, India). The pillars were sheathed in metal plates studded with gems or covered in plaster and painted; the roof had copper tiles which gave it its nature: Brazen (loha) palace (prasada). West of this graveyard of columns is the former British residency, beside the Basawak Kulama Tank, now converted into the Archaeological Museum.
North-east of the museum is the great Runwanweli Seya Dagoba, a second century BC stupa. Each of the four cardinal points is marked by a gateway, and the dagoba is held up above the ground by a ring of sculpted stone elephants who, according to mythology, carry the weight of the world on their reliable shoulders. Scattered around the monument are stone images of the Buddha and the ruler Dutugemunu, who is credited with having started building the Dagoba in his lifetime (through it was incomplete when he died in 144 BC).
Directly north of the Ruwanweli Seya is the oldest stupa on the island, the Thuparama Dagoba. It is the oldest for it is believed to enshrine the collarbone of the Buddha, a holy relic brought by Mahinda as a gift from Emperor Ashoka to Devanampiyatisssa who enshrined it here. This third century BC dagoba was further renovated in subsequent centuries and enclosed with a ring of wooden, and later stone, pillars as a vatadage. Its bell shaped form and whitewashed appearances are a result of later-day reconstructions.
Most magnificent in physical size and concept is the Jetavanarama Dagoba. Its gigantic earth mound is nearly 122 meters high with a diameter at the base of over 113 meters, making it almost as enormous as the pyramids of Egypt and certainly the largest Buddhist structure in the subcontinent. Nearby are some ruined monasteries, palaces, and the ancient Temple of the Tooth, Dalada Maligawa.
Further north is another complex of monasteries and dagobas. The most intriguing is the Abhayagiri Dagoba, the earth mound (literally, with grass and scrubs growing out of its immense hemispherical form). This dagoba was created under the instruction of King Vbhaya in 88 BC and reconstructed in subsequent centuries to its present height of 110 meters with an equal diameter. North-west of this grand dagoba is the Ratna Prasada, the Gem Palace, a monastery of enormous pillars built in the second century, and guarded by a lovely sculptured naga king holding the auspicious pot of plenty, flowing over with floral branches of prosperity. Nearby is the Queen's pavilion at the entrance of which is the loveliest moonstone is Sri Lanka. The entrance to Buddhist and Hindu homes, religious buildings, and ritual areas was considered an important architectural feature. The doorway leads men and gods into the building, and keeps evil forces outside. It is therefore not unusual to find entrance-ways, the floor in front, the door-jambs, and the lintel above elaborately adorned with auspicious signs and symbols. Here the steps descend to the ground in a series of horizontal planes, the wide, sweeping area before the first step paved with a semicircular (hence moon) stone. This stone was carved, in accordance with its circular form, with a series of concentric panels carrying the usual symbols of good fortune and spiritual well-being radiating out from the central hub of the sacred lotus flower, the supreme symbol of purity and goodness. There are ringed processions of cheerful creatures-the mighty elephant, the swift horse, the loyal hard-working bull, the gentle deer and the hansa, aquatic birds-who can distinguish good from evil.
East of the Abhayagiri Dagoba is one of the loveliest water pools in the area, called the Kuttam Pokuna or the twin ponds, believed to be third century ritual bathing pools for monks. The smaller of the two ponds is fed by water that flows dramatically through the gaping mouths of mythical creatures. The larger pond, almost twice the size of its twin, is similarly surrounded by moulded, stepped embankments and the sheer geometry the tanks are poetic.
What's in the neighbourhood
Mihintale, eleven kilometers east of Anuradhapura, is a dramatic walk up a great rock site, which marks the introduction of Buddhism into the island. Thirty-two kilometers south-east of Anuradhapura is the magnificent fifth century, 13 meter (second tallest in the island) standing Aukana Buddha figure in a brick shelter. The Buddha statue carries many of the characteristic features of Sinhalese Buddhist sculpture which had, quite early in its historical development, broken away and synthesized many stylistic traits from the Indian prototype.
The Buddha stands serene and straight with feet firmly on the ground. The size and proportions are such that there is little in India that even matches the awe-inspiring grandeur of these Sri Lankan Buddha images. As in Buddhist images at Sarnath and Mathura, the Buddha wears a single piece of cloth draped around the body leaving one shoulder bare and the other covered so that the cloth falls in great folds from the left shoulder. The folds of the garment in the Buddhist Gandharan school (north-western region of the subcontinent) where depicted realistically in accordance with the Graeco-Roman tradition. In Sarnath the artist treated the cloth as if it were a veil, revealing the pulsating warmth of the body below; and the flexed relaxed posture of the Buddha was almost feminine in its gracefulness. In the Aukana image the folds are like a decorative pattern, rising in a precise sweep of waves bunched at the left shoulder and falling again like a sheet over the arm.
How to get there
Anuradhapura is 206 kilometers north-east of Colombo. There are trains, cars, and bushes that ply this lap of the route of the cultural triangle. There are a few guest-houses and hotels in which to stay overnight. Anuradhapura is a 101 kilometer journey from Polonnaruwa via a center point rest-cum-hotel complex at Habarana where you could base yourself for day trips to both these sites. The beautiful city of Kandy, via the rock-cut caves of Dambulla, is 138 kilometers south of Anuradhapura.