A great opportunity available to any traveler to Ceylon is the chance to explore the country’s rich history and extensive archeology. This post will be the first of several describing my visits to the ancient sites in Sri Lanka and highlights the oldest of these, Anuradhapura (it’s pronounced just like its spelled). The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose prehistory dates back to at least 1000 B.C.
Anuradhapura is one of the points of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, the others being the cities of Kandy and Polonnaruwa (which I’ll discuss in future blogs). For over 1500 years Anuradhapurna’s palaces were home to a string of almost 125 kings ranging from around 400 B.C. to 1200 A.D. The city’s development and rise to prominence coincided with the arrival of Buddhism to the area, a religion/philosophy that was widely adapted and gave rise to many of the ruins and relics one visits today. During its heyday Anuradhapura was a large and important city — probably one of the most advanced anywhere on the planet. It had large monasteries, hospitals, cemeteries for the wealthy and poor, places for visitors to stay, an elaborate water storage and irrigation system, etc. Today it’s hard to appreciate from the ruins and overgrowth of vegetation what a truly great city it once was but I have an active imagination so I always try.
Anuradhapura contains several of the most important Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. While there were some problems with British Colonialism, most Sri Lankans genuinely appreciate the improvements the British left in their wake — tea, trains, roads, government infrastructure, and the beginning of archaeologic restoration. During the 19th century Anuradhapura was mostly abandoned and overgrown by the jungle. The British began restoring the site about 150 years ago, work which has continued until modern times and which is still ongoing. A visit to this huge and well-laid out city is well worth at least a day of your time. Hire a guide to show you around as you visit the sites, or have your driver or hotel help you find one in advance (they’ll probably find the best ones, though these are often their friends and a “kickback” to them is the custom).
The city — currently with around 60,000 residents — lies on the drier northern plains about 200 km northeast of Colombo. I only visited Anuradhapura once, when traveling with friends Lester Thompson and his lovely wife Pam (colleague and friends from Southern California), and Neil McAleer, Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s biographer and our friend (Neil has just finished his revision of Sir Arthur’s biography so be on the lookout for it in 2011). We were fortunate enough to have our visit overlap with the holiday of Vesak, an annual religious and a cultural festival in Sri Lanka held over a period of several days during the full moon in May. Vesak coincides not only with a full moon and but also the birth, enlightenment (nirvana), and passing of Gautama Buddha, father of Buddhism. As such, we were treated to the spectacle of tens of thousand of peaceful pilgrims descending on the sacred Buddhist sites in Anuradhapura, Dambulla and Kandy. During this week there is little commerce in the country (though most businesses that support tourism remain open) and no alcoholic beverages are sold — not a problem for most of us.
As you explore the ruins of Anuradhapura there are four general features of historic interest I’d like to emphasize, with great examples of each available:
1) Dagobas, or stupas. These are large domes with a pointed top, made of many thousands of sun-dried bricks and mortar, painted white, found frequently in Buddhist countries. At their core they contain the cremated remains of great spiritual leaders around which these structures are built. Generally the larger the stupa the greater and more influential the life of the person whose remains are buried within. There are several massive and important stupas in Anuradhapura including:
The Thuparama dagoba, erected in the 3rd century BC, was the first dagoba to be built in Sri Lanka and enshrines the Buddha’s right collarbone. It’s not as large as the others but noteworthy because of its history and that fact that it contains a Buddha relic.
Ruwanweli Seya (also known as the Maha Thupa or Great Stupa) was constructed in the 2nd century B.C. and is one the greatest of the dagobas anywhere, standing 300 ft (92m) tall and having a circumference of 950 ft (292 m). It towers over the surrounding trees and is among the most sacred of sites in Anuradhapura, second only to the Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred Bo Tree). The stupa was modeled in the shape of a “water bubble”. On the south-west side of the compound there is a small dagoba of similar shape. The base is “defended” by a ring of hundreds of restored carved elephants (with only a few originals remaining).
The Abhayagiri dagoba was still partially covered in earth and vegetation and is slowly undergoing restoration. When completed it will be around 350′ tall,
2) Sri Maha Bo (Bodhi) Tree dates to around 250 B.C. and is a very sacred site. It was planted from a branch of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightment in Northern India. The tree and its offshots form a sprawling growth in the heart of the ancient city near Mahavihara, the oldest of the city’s monasteries. A wall was built around the tree centuries ago to protect it from herds of roaming wild elephants
Anuradhapura — detail of the extensive ruins
3) Monastic buildings and other ruins are found in the large numbers in the form of elevated platforms, carvings, stone pillars.
4) Pokunas, water storage tanks used for drinking and bathing. Many are scattered around the site. We visited the Kuttam Pokuna, or twin baths, well preserved structures.
Accomodations in Anuradhapura are limited when compared to most destinations in Sri Lanka. We stayed at the Tissawewa Rest House, a historic rest house with lovely grounds, a professional staff and good food. We had a wonderful dinner and breakfast on its patio. The place is quite old but that’s part of the experience of staying in Anuradhapura. I hear it’s been renovated since we stayed there.
To summarize, we enjoyed our stay in Anuradhapura. I’d recommend it as a first stop for all who are interested in the history of Sri Lanka.