The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders enormous dagobas, soaring brick towers, ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. Today several of the sites remain in use as holy places and temples; frequent ceremonies give Anuradhapura a vibrancy that’s a sharp contrast to the fairly moribund ruins at Polonnaruwa.

Current-day Anuradhapura is a rather pleasant albeit sprawling city. Mature trees shade the main guesthouse areas, and the main street is orderly compared to the ugly concrete agglomerations seen in many other regional centers.

This is the heart of ancient Anuradhapura and is often the scene of religious ceremonies, which draw masses of people dressed in their fi nest along with all manner of vendors selling off erings, snacks, toys and refreshments. Relics here date from the 3rd century BC to the 11th century AD.
Sri Maha Bodhi

The Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred bodhi tree, is central to Anuradhapura in both a spiritual and physical sense. The huge tree hasAnuradhapura-00869 grown from a cutting brought from Bodhgaya in India by the Princess Sangamitta, sister of Mahinda (who introduced the Buddha’s teachings to Sri Lanka), so it has a connection to the geographical heart of the Sinhalese religion. The sacred bodhi tree is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world it has been tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians for over 2000 years, even during the periods of Indian occupation. There is not one but many bodhi trees here; the oldest and holiest stands on the top platform. The steps leading up to the tree’s platform are very old, but the golden railing around it is quite modern. The railing and other structures around the trees are festooned with prayer fl ags. Thousands of devotees come to make off erings at weekends and particularly on poya (full-moon) days. April and December are particularly busy months as pilgrims converge on the site for snana puja (off erings or prayers).
Brazen Palace

So called because it once had a bronze roof, the ruins of the Brazen Palace stand close to the bodhi tree. The remains of 1600 columns are all that is left of this huge palace, said to have had nine storeys and accommodation for 1000 monks and attendants.
It was originally built by Dutugemunu more than 2000 years ago, but through the ages was rebuilt many times, each time a little less grandiosely. The current stand of pillars (now fenced off ) is all that remains from the last rebuild that of Parakramabahu around the 12th century.
Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Anuradhapura-00850Behind the Folk Museum, this fi ne white dagoba is guarded by a wall with a frieze of hundreds of elephants standing shoulder to shoulder. Apart from a few beside the western entrance, most are modern replacements for the originals from 140 BC. This dagoba is said to be King Dutugemunu’s finest construction, but he didn’t live to see its completion. However, as he lay on his deathbed, a false bamboo and cloth finish was placed around the dagoba so that Dutugemunu’s final sight could be of his ‘completed’ masterpiece. Today, after incurring much damage from invading Indian forces, it rises 55m, considerably less than its original height; nor is its form the same as the earlier ‘bubble’ shape. A limestone statue south of the great dagoba is popularly thought to be of Dutugemunu. The land around the dagoba is rather like a pleasant green park, dotted with patches of ruins, the remains of ponds and pools, and collections of columns and pillars, all picturesquely leaning in diff erent directions. Slightly southeast of the dagoba you can see one of Anuradhapura’s many monks’ refectories. Keeping such a large number of monks fed and happy was a full time job for the lay followers.
Thuparama Dagoba

In a beautiful woodland setting north of the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, the Thuparama Dagoba is the oldest dagoba in Sri LankaAnuradhapura-9876 indeed, probably the oldest visible dagoba in the world. It was constructed by Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC and is said to contain the right collarbone of the Buddha. Its ‘heap-of-paddy-rice’ shape was restored in 1862 to a more conventional bell
shape and to a height of 19m. The surrounding vatadage’s slender, capital topped pillars, perhaps the dagoba’s most unique feature, enclose the structure in four concentric circles. Impressions on the dagoba pediments indicate the pillars originally numbered 176, of which 41 still stand. Although some Sri Lankan scholars believe these once supported a conical wooden roof, there is no archaeological evidence for this theory, nor does it follow any known antecedent in South India, whose dagobas were the prototypes for virtually all Sinhalese dagobas.
Abhayagiri Dagoba

The huge Abhayagiri Dagoba (confused by some books and maps with the Jetavanarama), created in the 1st or 2nd century BC, was the centrepiece of a monastery of 5000 monks. The name means ‘Hill of Protection’ or ‘Fearless Hill’ (though some local guides mistakenly claim ‘Giri’ was the name of a local Jain monk). The monastery was part of the ‘School of the Secret Forest’, a heretical sect that studied both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Chinese traveller Faxian (also spelt Fa Hsien) visited in AD 412. The dagoba was probably rebuilt several times to reach its peak 75m height. It has some interesting bas-reliefs, including one near the western stairway of an elephant pulling up a tree. A large slab with a Buddha footprint can be seen on the northern side, and the eastern and western steps have unusual moonstones made from concentric stone slabs.

A ruined 9th-century school for monks northwest of the Abhayagiri Dagoba is notable for having the fi nest carved moonstone in Sri Lanka see how many species of animals you can fi nd in its elaborate carvings. This is a peaceful wooded area full of butterflies, and makes a good place to stop and cool off during a tour of the ruins. It is often falsely described as Mahasena’s Palace or the Queen’s Pavilion. Look for the fi ne steps featuring plump little figures.

Follow the loop road a little further from the moonstones and you will find the finest guard stones in Anuradhapura. Dating from
the 8th century, they depict a cobra king and demonstrate the final refinement of guard stone design. You can see examples of much earlier guard stone design at the Mirisavatiya Dagoba. In the 8th century a new order of tapovana (ascetic) monks settled in the fringes of the city, among the lowest castes, the rubbish dumps and the burial places. These monasteries were large but un elaborate structures; ornamentation was saved for toilets, now displayed at the Archaeological Museum. The monks of Ratnaprasada (Gem Palace) monastery gave sanctuary to people in trouble with the authorities, and this led to a major conflict with the king. When court offi cials at odds with the king took sanctuary in the Ratnaprasada, the king sent his supporters to capture and execute them. The monks, disgusted at this invasion of a sacred place, departed en masse. The general populace, equally disgusted, besieged the Ratnaprasada, captured and executed the king’s supporters and forced the king to apologise to the departed monks in order to bring the monks back to the city and restore peace.
Samadhi Buddha

After your investigations of guardstones and moonstones, you can continue east from the Abhayagiri to this 4th-century statue,Anuradhapura-9814 seated in the meditation pose and regarded as one of the fi nest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. Pandit Nehru, a prominent leader in India’s independence movement, is said to have maintained his composure while imprisoned by the British by regular contemplation of a photo of this statue. Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds) WATER FEATURE The swimming-pool-like Twin Ponds, the finest bathing tanks in Anuradhapura, are east of Sanghamitta Mawatha. They were likely used by monks from the monastery attached to Abhayagiri Dagoba. Although they are referred to as twins, the southern pond, which is 28m in length, is smaller than the 40mlong northern pond. Water entered the larger pond through the mouth of a makara (mythical multispecies beast) and then fl owed to the smaller pond through an underground pipe. Note the fi ve-headed cobra fi gure close to the makara and the water filter system at the northwestern end of the ponds.
Jetavanarama Dagoba

The Jetavanarama Dagoba’s massive dome rises from a clearing back towards the Sri Maha Bodhi. Built in the 3rd century by Mahasena, it may have originally stood over 100m high, but today is about 70m similar to the Abhayagiri. When it was built it was the third tallest monument in the world, the first two being Egyptian pyramids. A British guidebook from the early 1900s calculated that there were enough bricks in the dagoba’s brick core to make a 3m high wall stretching from London to Edinburgh. Behind it stand the ruins of a monastery that housed 3000 monks. One building has door jambs over 8m high still standing, with another 3m underground. At one time, massive doors opened to reveal a large Buddha image.
Isurumuniya Vihara

This rock temple, dating from the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (r 247–207 BC), has some very fi ne carvings. One or two of these (including one of elephants playfully splashing water) remain in their original place on the rock face beside a square pool fed from the Tissa Wewa, but most of them have been moved into a small museum within the temple. Best known of the sculptures is the ‘lovers’, which dates from around the 5th century AD and is built in the artistic style of the Indian Gupta dynasty of the 4th and 5th centuries. There is a lovely lotus pond in front.

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