Anuradhapura – The First Capital of Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura Sinhala: අනුරාධපුරය ; Tamil: அனுராதபுரம்; was the first capital of Sri Lanka established in the 4th century BC. It was the royal capital for 119 successive Singhalese Kings and lasted for about thousand five hundred years. Many historic monuments and buildings still remain in the acres of this sacred land.
Table of Contents
- 1 History of Anuradhapura
- 2 Anuradhapura – Points of Interest
- 3 Activities in and around Anuradhapura
- 4 Other Points of Interest Close to Anuradhapura
- 5 Kings of Anuradhapura
- 6 Map of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is revered as one of the greatest monastic sites on this planet.
The historic city of Anuradhapura is an essential stop on any tour of Sri Lanka. This city, located around 205 kms north of Colombo, is one of eight World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Anuradhapura currently serves as the capital city of the North Central Province, and is considered the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Its vast network of ancient Buddhist temples, monasteries and places of worship which cover over 40 sq kms has made it a sacred site to Buddhists around the world.
Located on the banks of a river, Anuradhapura is now a picturesque ruined city, filled with mystery and steeped in a rich Buddhist culture. Tour groups and pilgrims alike visit this city, and this diverse and versatile city caters to a locals and visitors alike. The ancient city lies adjacent to the modern, and ruined buildings, ancient temples, cobbled streets, and even crumbling fort walls are spread out and interspersed with all signs of modern life in this bustling and thriving city.
History of Anuradhapura
Sri Lanka’s historical chronicle, the Mahavamsa, records that Anuradhapura first became the capital of ancient Lanka in 4th Century BC, during the reign of King Pandukhabaya. The King is attributed with designing the city, developing a core town and even surrounding suburbs based on a highly complex plan.
Anuradhapura came into prominence after Buddhism was introduced to the island in the 3rd Century BC during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa. He built the country’s first stupa here, the Thuparama, which is said to house a relic of the Buddha, his right collarbone. King Tissa also arranged for the planting of the sacred Bo sapling brought to the country by Princess Sangamitta, daughter of Emperor Asoka of India. This is today the venerated Sri Maha Bodhi, which is considered the oldest living tree in the world.
King Devanampiya Tissa was also one of the first Kings to build irrigation tanks to develop inland agriculture, especially the growing of rice. He is credited with building the Tissa wewa (also known as Tisa wewa), which covers an area of approximately 550 acres and the embankment alone is measured at around 2 miles long. This man-made lake continues to be a major irrigation tank even today, and has become an essential resource to rice farmers in the area.
This ancient capital city fell many times to invading armies from India, but was famously recaptured and established as the pinnacle of the country’s development and culture by King Dutugemunu in the 2nd Century BC. During his reign in Anuradhapura, he embarked on a massive construction project which created many of the magnificent monuments which are visible even today, chief amongst them the Ruwanweliseya stupa (built to house the begging bowl of Lord Buddha), the Mirisavetiya temple and the Lohapasada or Brazen Temple.
There were many among King Dutugemunu’s successors who added on to the city through construction of religious buildings, gardens and parks as well as irrigation tanks. The city became not only the centre of commerce and religion, but a place of learning and cultural expression.
King Valagamba, who reigned towards the end of the 3rd Century BC, built the 230ft high Abhayagiri stupa, while King Mahasena is credited with having built 16 irrigation tanks which created a thriving agricultural community in Anuradhapura and its environs. King Mahasena also built Sri Lanka’s tallest stupa, the Jethavanaramaya, which at 400 ft is one of the highest stupas in the world, as well as one of the oldest brick buildings of the ancient world.
Anuradhapura continued to be the seat of power from the 4th Century BC to 11th Century AD. During this period, there were intermittent invasions by armies from India, but it remained the stronghold of the King of Lanka until King Vjayabahu I declared Polonnaruwa the capital city in 1070.
Anuradhapura – Points of Interest
Sri Mahabodhi Tree
It is hard to believe; but without a shadow of doubt—that this small tree with limbs so slender that they must be supported on iron crutches, is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world (2,200 years).
A branch of the very Bo beneath which (at Buddha Gaya in North India) the Buddha himself found Enlightenment, was brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century B.C. by the Princess/religieuse Sanghamitta; a sister of the saint Mahinda.
It has never since been without its hereditary attendants and the care, to the very end, of the country’s kings. As lately as the reign of the last of them (Sri Vikrama Rajasingha, whom the British captured and deported); a wall was built by royal command to repair the platform on which it grows. In 1966 it was enclosed in a golden railing.
Loha Prasada – The Brazen Palace
A roof of copper over this primordial skyscraper bestowed upon it, its name. This work of Duttha Gamini is known to have burned down only 15 years after its building; which leads to the surmise that it was largely a wooden structure.
The 1,600 pillars (40 x 40) that now mark the site are historically ascribed to king Parakrama Bahu the Great (1153—1186 A.D.) of Polonnaruwa. The original building was of 9 graded stories and is said to have had one thousand rooms.
Mahathupa – Ruwanweli Dagaba
The Mahathupa (Great Thupa) is today known as the Ruvanveliseya Dagaba. This is the centre piece of The Maha vihara (Great Monastery). The Maha vihara, because of it’s long history of guarding the traditions of Theravada Buddhism, and because its monks kept the most sacred shrines at Anuradhapura, was the most important monastery of the city. Although not it’s true height and original form, the fine white Ruvanveliseya Dagaba, guarded by a ‘wall of elephants’, still looks magnificent.
A dagaba or thupa (relic chamber), is a dome which is built over sacred relics, the bodily remains of the Buddha. King Duttha Gamini had already built the Mirisavati and his magnificent Brazen Palace, but he wanted something bigger and better for his greatest work.
It is said that this cost the king 6.4 million coins in wages, and that the workers received food and clothing and a considerable ‘extras’ for the work.
On top of this beautiful ‘bubble’ shaped Mahathupa was a ruby as big as a man’s fist, and today the Burmese people have donated a rock crystal, which is 2 feet high (60cm) to replace it.
The Thuparama was the first Buddhist building at Anuradhapura. It was built by King Devanampiya Tissa to enshrine the Buddha’s collar bone. Originally of the “paddy heap” shape, its present “bell” shape dates to reconstruction in the 1840s. The graceful monolithic pillars surrounding it once upheld a circular roof making the shrine a Vata Dage (Circular—Relic—house) a characteristically Sinhala architectural feature.
To the east of the Mahathupa lies an enormous brick dagaba, the Jetavana. The dagaba was originally built to a height of 400 feet (120 Metres), making it the 3rd largest building in the world at that time. The two taller buildings were the biggest of the Egyptian pyramids, built two thousand years before.
Mahasena built this massive dagaba in the 3rd Century AD, in a apparent show of strength and support to the Sagaliya sect of the Buddhist order which he followed. This was against strong opposition from the powerful and established orthodox Maha vihara order.
The dagaba is recorded to having a concrete base, and foundations of brick 26 feet deep (12m).
Abhayagiri Vihāra, Monastery & Dagaba
Established by King Vattagamini in 88 BC, the Uttravihara (Northern Monastery) is now known as the Abhayagiri Vihāra, (Monastery). This was a result of the King being jeered by a Jain hermit, while fleeing from from the South Indians, after losing his throne. He spent 14 years ‘in the wilderness’.
When he returned to power, he destroyed the Jain Monastery, and around the the Jotiya shrine, he built a Buddhist monastery.
Abhayagiri Vihāra was the largest monastery in Sri Lanka for about 600 years. It housed 5000 monks in its grounds of more than 500 acres (235 hectares), and was at the time the most powerful institution in the country after the king.
Here in the grounds of the Abhayagiri you will see some of the most beautiful architecture and sculpture in Anuradhapura. Since the chronicle of the Northern Monastery has not survived. and the Great Chronicle does not devote much space to it’s rival monastery (the Great chronicle was written by an orthodox Maha vihara monk – the monks of the Abhayagiri were labeled as ‘Heretics’).
The Abhayagiri Dagaba itself was the work of King Gajabahu (114 – 136). and it reached a height of 370 feet (115m), and although rather smaller than the Jetavana dagaba, was the second largest stupa in the world. It is one of the eight holy shrines of the Buddhists.
Samadhi is a state of deep meditation, and the Lord Buddha is represented in this position after gaining enlightenment. This 4th Century AD statue of the Buddha in meditative pose is acknowledged worldwide as a masterpiece. The Indian Nationalist leader, Nehru, derived strength from contemplating his statue, during his imprisonment by the British.
Kuttam Pokuna – The Twin Ponds
The twin ponds are a magnificent example of landscape architecture built on a grand scale. The ponds are in fact not twins at all, pond (b) being longer by 40 feet than pond (a). The stone molding of the baths and the flights of steps leading to the water are graceful and austere, but above all natural. Apart from their beauty, the twin ponds are very functional. Water which is fed through an inlet is cleaned and purified several times over; before the cool water gushes out into the pond through a lions-head spout.
Besides this spout is a Naga stone, perhaps the best in Sri Lanka. The water eventually drains away from pond.
King Duttha Gamini celebrated the seventh day after his victory with a water festival at the Tissa tank. Nearby on the shore he planted his spear (the King’s spear, generally containing a Relic of the Buddha, was the royal standard in battle) and laid his clothes.
Here he built his first Dagaba, enshrining in it his spear with its Relic—in expiation, as he himself explained, of his impiety in having once eaten a relish (miris) “without a thought of the Brotherhood”. The Vahalkadas (frontispieces) are particularly striking.
Major archaeological research, conservation and excavations are being conducted in Anuradhapura by the Archaeological Department and UNESCO in a project known as the ‘Cultural Triangle’.
Activities in and around Anuradhapura
Bicycle Tour of Anuradhapura
For the more independent and adventurous of you, we can organize a 2.5 hour bicycle tour of Anuradhapura ancient city. Once you reach Anuradhapra in one of our private tours, your guide will organize your bicycle. You will receive your map of the city along with a bicycle and entrance ticket. You are free to explore the recommended places of interest at your will, and you will be informed of where to return and the time. Your guide will brief you of the important site, do’s and don’ts and other local tips prior to the tour.
Other Points of Interest Close to Anuradhapura
Buddhism in Sri Lanka is understood to have been introduced in the year 247BC. It is believed that Mihintale is the site of the meeting between Arahat Mahinda and then King, Devanampiyatissa took place on a Poson Poya Day.. You may also visit the Meditation Rock where it is assumed that Arahat Mahinda preached his first sermon. You can make this visit, a relaxing climb to an extremely prominent site in Sri Lanka; you may also catch a glimpse of a sunrise and a stunning sunset.
Isurumuniya is a Buddhist Temple situated close to the Tisa Wewa. Isurumiuniya is famous for its stone carvings of the ‘Isurumuniya Lovers’, ‘Horseman’, ‘Elephant Pond’ and the ‘Royal family’. Most famous are the statues of the lovers. It is believed that the statues of the lovers are that of Prince Saliya Raja Kumara who was the son of King Dutugemunu the Great, gave up his throne for the ‘low caste’ Chandala maiden Asokamala. The stone statue depicts the two lovers in a 6th century Gupta style carving.
Located in the village of Avukana in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, this is a standing statue of the Buddha which has been cleverly carved out of a great rock face. This piece of sculpture depicting the standing Buddha stands at 42 feet (including the base) and was done during the reign of King Dhatusena. Every detail of the body and robe have been intricately carved, with the left hand holding the robe at the shoulder and the right hand held up to the shoulder in a position known as the Asisa Mudra.
Yapahuwa Rock Fortress, Yapahuwa
Yapahuwa is a rock fortress complex situated between the cities of Kurunegala and Anuradhapura. Yapahuwa was founded in 1273 by King Bhuvenakabahu in the face of Pandyan invasions from Kalinga, South India. Yapahuwa was the capital city of Sri Lanka for just over a decade between 1273–1284.
Also known as ‘Subha pabbata’ (or ‘Subha’s rock’), Yapahuwa was initially established as a military outpost against the advanving Pandayans by Subha, a general of King Bhuvenakabahu. From here Subha was able to check Magha’s (1215 – 1236 AD) forces from proceeding southwards. Magha of Kalinga led an invasion of the Island with nearly 24,000 solders. Later (1272-1284 A.D) Bhuvanekabahu made Yapahuwa his capital and transferred the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha from Dambadeniya to Yapahuwa.
The fortress is surrounded by moats and ramparts. Archeologists say that many other traces of battle defence can be seen around the site. It is built on a 90 meter high rock boulder to the same style as the Sigirya rock fortress. What you will notice here is the enormous rock that rises about 300 feet above the land that surrounds it. The land to the south is equipped with two moats and ramparts. Within the compound there are remains of a number of buildings.
Kings of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura, according to legend, was first settled by Anuradha, a follower of Prince Vijaya the founder of the Sinhala race. Later, it was made the Capital by King Pandu kabhaya about 380 BCE.
King Pandukabhaya – 437 BC – 367 BC
According to the Mahavamsa, the epic of Sinhala History, King Pandu kabhaya’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.
Water supply was assured by the construction of ‘tanks’, artificial reservoirs, of which the one called after himself, exists to this day under the altered name of Baswak Kulam.
King Devanampiya Tissa – 307 BC to 267 BC
It was in the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BCE) that the Arahat Mahinda. son of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka, led a group of missionaries from North India to Sri Lanka. With his followers he settled in a hermitage of caves on the hill of Mihintale, (literally, Mahinda’s Mountain).
The new religion swept over the land in a wave. The King himself gave for a great monastery in the very heart of the City his own Royal Park – the beautiful Mahamegha Gardens.
The Buddhist principality had but a century to flourish when it was temporarily overthrown by an invader from the Chola Kingdom of South India. The religion, however, received no set-back.
King Dutugamunu – 161 BC to 137 BC
At this time far away on the southeast coast, was growing up the prince who was to become the paladin of Sinhala nationalism: Gamini, soon to be surnamed Duttha, the Undutiful (161 – 137 BCE). For all his martial prowess, King Duttha Gamini must have been a man of singular sensibility. The lives he had had to take weighed heavily upon him, for slaughter-in any cause- is repugnant to the sincere Buddhist; and the better part of his regime was devoted to expiatory service to the Sangha.
The Mirisavati Temple and the mighty Brazen Palace nine stories high, he presented to them. But he did not live to see the actual completion of the Ruvanveliseya Dagaba (picture at top right), his most magnificent gift .
Two more, at least, of the Anuradhapura Kings must be mentioned; if only because some of the greater monuments are indisputably attributable to them.
King Valagamba (Vattagamani Abhaya) – 103 BC, 89 BC – 77 BC
The earlier of these was Vattagamani Abhaya Valagam Bahu (103 & 89-77 BCE) in the first year of whose reign Chola invaders again appeared and drove him temporarily into hiding. For fourteen years, while five Tamil Kings occupied his throne, he wandered often sheltering in Jungle caves. It is recorded that as in his flight he passed an ancient Jain hermitage, an ascetic, Giri called and taunted him. ‘The great black lion is fleeing!’ Throughout his exile the gibe rankled.
Winning the Kingdom back at last, he razed the Giri’s hermitage to the ground, building there the Abhayagiri Monastery. The name is a wry cant on his own name and the tactless hermit’s as well as (meaning mountain of fearlessness) a disclaimer of his cowardice!
King Mahasena (Mahasen) – 277 to 301 AD
Next came the heretic king Mahasena (274 – 301 A.D.). He alienated to the Abhayagiri vast spoil from the Maha Monastery, Devanampiya Tissa’s original foundation. But he had more substantial claim to notability than his heresy; not only did he build (for the heretics) Sri Lanka’s vastest completed Dagaba the Jetavana Ramaya, – but he was also the greatest irrigator of the Sinhala Kings, building 16 major tanks and a great canal.
Anuradhapura was to continue for six hundred years longer as the national capital. But as the protecting wilderness round it diminished with prosperity, and internecine struggles for the royal succession grew, it became more and more vulnerable to the pressures of South Indian expansion. The final blow came when the Chola King Rajaraja I invaded Sri Lanka, burnt and looted the city. Anuradhapura was finally abandoned and the Capital withdrawn to more secluded fastness.
But the monuments of its heyday survive, surrounded by such beauties as become the past: the solemn umbrage of trees, the silence of cold stone, and the serenity of the sheltering sky.