The Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Anuradhapura – Part One

Last revised on October 12, 2022.

This post is one of two on the ruins of ancient Anuradhapura, the capital of a Sinhalese kingdom which once controlled north-central Sri Lanka. Following my tuk-tuk driver’s itinerary, it will cover our morning visits to the great dagoba of Jetavana and the Abhayagiri Monastery district on the northern end of the ancient city.


Table of Contents:

The Abhayagiri Monastery District

Next Post: The Ruins of Ancient Anuradhapura – Part Two

Part Two will deal with the afternoon tour of the rest of the site, including more amazing stupas and the Sri Maha Bodhi.  It is the temple complex built around what is believed to be the tree which grew from a transplanted branch of the Bo Tree. It was under the Bo Tree in northern India that  Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.


Why Visit The Site of Ancient Anuradhapura?

Abhayagiriya Stupa - pilgrims approach

Abhayagiriya Stupa – pilgrims approach

Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” represents the core of the once-impressive Sinhalese kingdoms which flourished in Sri Lanka before external forces (first from southern  India and then from western Europe) overwhelmed them.  Spanning two millennia, the ruins and the still-intact statues and reconstructed stupas are an introduction to a little-known yet impressive cultural achievement.

Sri Lanka's

Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” – see here for an interactive Google map

Anuradhapura, located on the plains of what is now called North Central Province, was the capital of the first of these Sinhalese kingdoms.  At its peak, the wealth generated by the kingdom’s economy was such that it could support a community of more than eight thousand Buddhist monks and surround them with massive religious structures which, next to the pyramids at Giza, were the largest human-made structures of the ancient world.

The city was also one of the great centres of Buddhist learning. Visitors came from throughout the Buddhist world, from Kashmir to China, searching for copies of canonical texts and scholarship.  To visit Anuradhapura is not only to enter a major tourist attraction but also an ongoing archaeological site and a living pilgrimage destination for Buddhists worldwide.

For non-Sinhalese visitors to the site, the sheer span of the history – from the 400’s B.C.E. to about 1100 C.E. and their almost total unfamiliarity with it – will occasionally result in feeling completely overwhelmed.  It’s a feeling I will admit to as I wandered around the site – and I say that as one who earned a living trying to make history come alive for mid-to-late teenagers for thirty-five years.


Transportation Options – By Foot, Bicycle, or Tuk-Tuk

The grey area is the ancient city to the west of New Town

The ancient city is the greyed area is  to the west of New Town

Another issue you have to deal with is the size of the actual site.  Given the oppressive heat after 10:30 a.m. It is too large to be tackled on foot.  There are two better options. The first is renting a bicycle. There is little traffic on the roads joining the various parts of the ancient city, and you can make your way at your own pace. As the morning passes, however, it gets very hot, and cycling loses much of its allure!  Having spent the day cycling around the ruins of Polonnaruwa three weeks before,  I was not too keen on doing the bike option again!

Ruwanwelisaya from the walkway

Ruwanwelisaya from the walkway

Mahinda and his tuk-tuk had taken me to Mihintale the afternoon before.  Now his offer of a day’s worth of driving me around the twenty square kilometers of the ancient Anuradhapura site for 2000 SL rupees was accepted. This allowed me to focus entirely on the various locations and leave the navigation to Mahinda, who has visited the site hundreds of times over the past twenty years.

He picked me up at the guesthouse – The French Garden Tourist Rest in New Town – at 8:00 a.m. For the next six hours, we zipped along from one end of the site to the other – he knows the place intimately, so no time was lost trying to figure out where we were or how to get to where we (that should probably read “he”!)  wanted to go.  He would sit in the cab or do some socializing while I walked around the stupas or through the remains of monks’ residences or dining halls, or other structures.


Should You Buy An Entrance Ticket – Or Not?

Anuradhapura entry ticket

Our first stop was the ticket office, where I paid the $25. U.S. for the day pass.  It certainly isn’t cheap, and its cost has encouraged budget travellers to resort to ways around it. One way is not paying at all and just bicycling around and pleading ignorance if stopped by the occasional uniformed guard.  Another popular way is hiring a tuk-tuk driver who will assure you that he can deliver you to all the sites for less than the ticketed price.

Isurumuniya Vihara site

Mahinda and his tuk-tuk – top left – wait as I ramble around the Isurumuniya Vihara site at the end of the day

When faced with a situation like this, I ask myself this question – How much would I feel is a fair entry fee?  In this case, $15. sounds reasonable. So – we are now really arguing about $10. ($25. – $15.)  When I think about the $2000. in airfare I spent to get here and all the other expenses, this $10. fades into relative insignificance.

I am also assuming that most, if not all, of the money goes to the upkeep and continued uncovering of the site – so with my entry ticket, I am making a contribution to something positive. One issue that annoys non-local visitors is that Sri Lankans do not pay to get into the site; forgotten is that they also earn one-tenth of what the typical foreign tourist does.

A fellow traveller at the guesthouse assured me that the entry ticket was only necessary if you wanted to visit the various museums on the site.  If that were so, the US$25 entry fee would indeed be a rip-off, given their so-so quality. The fact is he was dead wrong about what the ticket pays for.  In the end,  visitors will do whatever they feel is right for them.

my generous contribution to develop and maintain the world heritage sites

my “generous contribution to develop and maintain the world heritage sites”  –  four or five guards would scribble on it during the course of the day


My Guides For the Day – Mahinda and The Rough Guide

The ticket purchased, I hopped back into the tuk-tuk and Mahinda headed for the north end of the site; over the next six hours, we would work our way down to the south end and get to see most of the major sites and a lot of things I still can’t identify!

My guide for the day was my copy of The Rough Guide To Sri Lanka.  Reading the relevant sections while seated in the shade gave me a rough idea of what I was looking at.


First Stop: Jetavana Dagoba 

As we drove up to the Abhayagiri Monastery area, we passed by the first of the many stupas I would be walking around that day – the Jetavana Dagoba. (Dagoba is a Pali term which can be traced back to the Sanskrit root words dhātu (relics)  and garbha (womb, inside).  As for stupa, it is a Sanskrit term meaning heap or mound.  What Anuradhapura certainly has is some of the finest examples of colossal Buddhist relic mounds anywhere. The relic believed to be contained within the Jetavana Dagoba is a piece of the Buddha’s belt.

Amazing to think that when it was completed, it was, other than the great pyramids at Giza, the tallest man-made structure in the world – and yet few (including me) before my visit have even heard of it.  it was the focal point of a monastic community which not only preserved Buddhist doctrine but helped spread it through southeast Asia.

Jetavana Dagoba

Jetavana Dagoba – front view

All day it would be a challenge to frame the various stupas from up close without introducing distortion into the images by tilting the camera up to get it all in the viewfinder. I made frequent use of the electronic spirit level in my Sony A57 to make sure that things were level; the Tamron 10-24mm lens also helped. I was usually shooting at the ultra-wide 10 mm end (the equivalent of 15mm on a full-frame sensor). As you can see, I was still left with some bad composition choices!

Jetavana Dagoba - the rear view

Jetavana Dagoba – the rear view …  I really needed to walk back another fifty meters and then perhaps crop the brick out of the image when I got home!

Do note that visitors must leave their shoes or flip-flops at the bottom of the steps before they walk onto the base terrace of the stupa – or many other sites.  The earlier in the day you do your clockwise-direction walk around the stupa, the cooler it will be on your feet! I did notice some western tourists with sensitive feet leaving on their socks.

stray dog enjoying the cool of the morning at Jetavana Dagoba

stray dog enjoying the cool  tiles at Jetavana Dagoba’s side temple

a Buddhist narrative brought to life

a Buddhist narrative brought to life

elaborate figures on the outside of Jetavana's side temple

elaborate figures on the inside of Jetavana’s side temple – Buddhism goes Baroque!

Before I left the Jetavana Stupa, I used my thirty-word Sinhala vocabulary to say good morning to a young woman and the boy she was taking care of. They were waiting for the rest of the wedding party to arrive at the back of the dagoba for pictures.

I did something I rarely do in my travels – I took a shot of her and the boy, having asked her, mostly in sign language and with a smile, if she would mind. More people shots would definitely add an extra dimension to my portfolio of pix!  Looking at my effort, I really should have had the stupa as the backdrop instead of what you see!

young Sihalese woman and boy at the Jetavana Dagoba

The Citadel and Original Temple of the Tooth

Before we drove up Vata Mandana Road to the first of the Abhayagiri Monastery district sites, we stopped within the confines of what was once the Citadel, the high wall and moat-protected royal palace area. None of this is evident now.   Rambling through the ruins does require a bit of imagination and previous knowledge if the visitor is to be successful in reconstructing the scene as it was fifteen hundred years ago. I supplied my imagination and used the guidebook to help me understand what I was looking at.   Here is what you’re given to work with –

Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

the Citadel – ruins in the vicinity of the Temple of the Tooth

Abhayagiri ruins - lintels and doorposts

Citadel ruins – lintels and doorposts repositioned

Temple of Tooth signIncluded in the Citadel zone was the original Temple of the Tooth – the Tooth being one which belonged to the Buddha.  It is believed to have been brought to Sri Lanka in the early 300’s C.E.  Along with the Buddha’s footprint on Sri Pada and Sri Maha Bodhi Tree in the Mahavihara district about two kilometers to the south, the Tooth is one of the most prized talismans of Sri Lankan Buddhism.  Over the centuries, the Tooth became a visible political symbol of Sinhala sovereignty.

This makes sense of its location in the Citadel area and helps explain why its current home in Kandy was a justifiable target in the minds of Tamil Tiger bombers in 1998.  Twenty people died when a truck bomb exploded near the temple.

the original Temple of the Tooth

presumed ruins of the original Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa)


The Abhayagiri Monastery District


Next, we were off to the north end of the ancient city to the ruins of the Abhayagiriya Monastery area. At its prime, there were apparently as many as 6000 monks living here in one of the ancient city’s three main monastic centers. If you are really big on doing things in chronological order, then the way to approach the ruins is by doing the monastic areas in order of age – first comes the Mahavihara area with the Sri Maha Bodhi, then the Jetavana Monastery district, and after a brief diversion the ruins of the Citadel district, a visit to the latest addition to the ancient city – Abhayagiri. I put my tour in the hands of my charioteer Mahinda and trusted him to hit all the high spots in the most logical order!

Abhayagiriya Monastery Area map created by Philg88 and found at Wikipedia

Abhayagiri Monastery Area map created by Philg88 and found at Wikipedia here


Kuttam Pokuna (The Twin Ponds)

The Twin Ponds at Abhayagiri

First up on our list were the Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds), used by the monastic community for ritual bathing. Built in the 700s C.E., they show the Sinhala mastery of channelling and storing water. This came from centuries of refinement of the irrigation systems that were the reason for Anuradhapura’s rise as a centre of civilization.  As the overview map of the city found above illustrates, the city itself was surrounded by man-made water reservoirs (tanks or wawas) that allowed the dry plains to produce two crops a year.

one of the two bathing ponds at Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura

one of the two bathing ponds at Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura

the steps of one of the Kuttam Pokuna

the steps of one of the Kuttam Pokuna

looking over both of the ponds

looking over both of the ponds

I eventually made my way back to the tuk-tuk you can see at the far end of the ponds and we were off. We pulled up in front of the everyday bathhouse, a decidedly less elaborate structure than the Twin Ponds.


Bathhouse Ruins:

Abhayagiri bathhouse ruins

Abhayagiri bathhouse ruins

Abhayagiri Bath House detail - purpose unclear to me

Abhayagiri Bath House detail – purpose unclear to me


The Monastery’s Residential Quarters

Nearby were the stone remains of the sleeping quarters – anything made of wood had obviously burned or rotted away long ago.  Walking through the site reminded me of looking down on Machu Picchu and seeing the stone walls of the weekend retreat that the Sapa Inca Pachacuti had constructed there.  Both require a bit of imagination to reconstruct in one’s mind. Perhaps one day, there will be a 3D virtual reconstruction map of the ancient city to help visitors as they walk around? There’s got to be an app for that!

a small section of the residential complex ruins

a small section of the residential complex ruins

Abhayagiri Residential Quarters

Abhayagiri Residential Quarters

residential area - a tree has found a home in the center of one buidling

residential area – a tree has found a home in the center of one building


The Samadhi Buddha Statue 

Samadhi Buddha (early 1900''s) - note the broken nose

Samadhi Buddha (early 1900”s) – note the broken nose – click on to enlarge …no, not the nose!

Next up was a visit to the Samadhi Buddha, a stone sculpture of the Buddha in the Dyana meditation pose. It dates back to the 300s C.E. and was originally out in the open. It now sits under a concrete shelter built to protect it but spoiling the effect somehow. Also interesting to note is that the statue was apparently painted upon completion.  As with those beautiful paint-free marble statues of Greek antiquity, we forget that the ancients saw something a bit different! Another thing to be pointed out is the crude job done of creating a new nose for the Buddha.

The Samadhi Buddha at Anuradhapura's Abhayagiri Monastery

The Samadhi Buddha on Anuradhapura’s Abhayagiri Monastery grounds

flower offerings in front of the Samadhi Buddha

flower offerings in front of the Samadhi Buddha

During the course of the day, you will occasionally come across reminders on proper behaviour.  The two signs below point out important things to keep in mind as you approach or enter various areas –

no hat/no shoes sign in Anuradhapura ancient city

no hat/no shoes sign in Anuradhapura ancient city

No Photograph with Back To The Buddha sign at Anuradhapura

No Photograph with Back To The Buddha sign at Anuradhapura – well, so much for “selfies”!


Abhayagiri Dagoba

Next was the focal point of the Abhayagiri Monastery district of the Ancient City – the stupa or dagoba. Thanks to the legends promulgated by the Mahavamsa, a chronicle of the various dynasties of ancient Anuradhapura, local pilgrims believe that the relic mound is built on top of the spot where the Buddha (in one of his supposedly three visits to the blessed island of Lanka)  left a footprint.

Abhayagiri Dagoba in Anuradhapura's ancient city - see the first pic of this post for another view

Abhayagiri Dagoba in Anuradhapura’s ancient city – see the first pic of this post for another view

abhayagiri dagoba during reclamationTo the left is a shot found online which shows the dagoba before it was reclaimed from the grass and bush that had found holds in the spaces between the bricks.  After the ancient city was abandoned about eight hundred years ago, the jungle filled any space it could, and the site was forgotten. (I’m not sure how that fits in with the story about the Sacred Bodhi tree, which you think would never be abandoned.)

When the British stumbled upon the site in the early 1800’s it did not take them long to realize they had “discovered” a major archaeological site – and this during the golden age of archaeology from Greece to Mesopotamia to India. Thanks to the end of the twenty-five-year civil war in 2009, Sri Lankans can now focus on building their country and, if they are Sinhalese, reconstructing the glorious past of Sinhalese civilization.

Bringing ancient Anuradhapura back to life is also a political statement by the Sri Lankan government that says – “This island is fundamentally Sinhalese.”

new brickwork on the Abhayagiri Dagoba

Abhayagiri dagoba - new plant growth






As I walked around the dagoba – clockwise is the conventional way – I noticed the new brickwork, which helps restore the stupa to most of its original glory.  Visible in some places,  however, was new plant growth in the cracks between the bricks.  Short of spraying the exterior with some sort of herbicide, there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution in this battle between man and nature!

Abhayagiri dagoba - shrine room at main entry point

Abhayagiri dagoba – shrine room at the main entry point

Entering the shrine room on the side of the dagoba at the end of the main entry walkway, I found a Buddha figure in the parinirvana pose (the reclining Buddha just before he died at the age of 80):

the Buddha in paranirvana position inside the shrine room

the Buddha in parinirvana pose inside the shrine room

close up of the Buddha's face in the Abhayagiri shrine room

close up of the Buddha’s face in the Abhayagiri shrine room

the paranirvana Buddha's feet

the parinirvana Buddha’s feet


The Second Samadhi Buddha Statue

Nearby was another statue of the Buddha in the samadhi (meditation) pose. Time has not been quite as kind to it as to the one shown above in this post.

Abhayagiri Monastery- the second Samadhi Buddha statue

Abhayagiri monastery the second Samadhi Buddha statue

close up of Abhayagiri's second Samadhi Buddha statue

close up of Abhayagiri’s second Samadhi Buddha statue – click on images to enlarge

view of the back of the second samadhi statue

second samadhi staute - upper half






Shrine House Ruins:

guardstone in front of Abhayagiri shrine

guardstone in front of Abhayagiri shrine house

nagaraja guardstone with seven-headed cobra crown

Nagaraja (mythic snake king) guardstone with seven-headed cobra crown

Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

remains of another structure in the Abhayagiri district

remains of another structure in the Abhayagiri district

Abhayagiri buidling foundation and pillars

Abhayagiri building foundation and pillars

Abhayagiri moonstone with elaborate carving

Abhayagiri moonstone with elaborate carving

moonstone detail

moonstone detail

A bit further along the foundation and little else of another shrine room.  However, the finely detailed dwarves holding up the steps leading to the shrine have survived, has the moonstone in front of them.

dwarves supporting the stone steps up to the shrine

dwarves supporting the stone steps up to the shrine

moonstone in front of the above steps

moonstone in front of the above steps

walking through the ghostly pillars in the ruins of Abhayagiri Monastery

walking through the ghostly pillars in the ruins of Abhayagiri Monastery

the third of four Abhayagiri Buddha in Samadhi pose statues

the third of four Abhayagiri “Buddha in Samadhi pose” statues

Burrow's Pavilion sign

Burrow’s Pavilion information sign

Burrow's Pavilion (Stone Canopy)

Burrow’s Pavilion (Stone Canopy)







Abhayagiri’s Et Pokuna (Elephant Pool)

Abhayagiri's Et Pokuna (Elephant Pool)

Abhayagiri’s Et Pokuna (Elephant Pool)


Abhayagiri monastery refectory

the foundations of the refectory with stone food troughs on the right

the foundations of the refectory with stone food troughs on the right

the larger of the food throughs at the Abhayagiri monastery refectory

the larger of the food troughs at the Abhayagiri monastery refectory


Abhayagiri Museum

the Abhayagiri Museum

statuary on display at the Abhayagiri Museum

guardstones from one of Abhayagiri's buildings

guardstones from one of Abhayagiri’s buildings

the fourth of Abhayagiri's Samadhi Buddhas

the fourth of Abhayagiri’s Samadhi Buddhas


The Lankarama

Lankarama sign

Before we headed south to the rest of the site, we had one more destination – the Lankarama. The pillars, some still standing, are taken as evidence that the dagoba was once the core of a vatadage which stood here. If this is so, it would have looked something like this model recreation of another vatadage that we would visit in the afternoon – the Thuparama pictured below. What is sometimes not clear as one walks around the ruins is what has been reconstructed in the past one hundred years and to what extent the modern work truly reflects the original structure.

A model of the Vatadage of Anuradhapura's Thuparama

A model of the Vatadage of Anuradhapura’s Thuparama

Lankarama from a distance

Lankarama from a distance

another view of the Lankarama from afar

another view of the Lankarama from afar

Lankarama and pillars

Lankarama dagoba and pillars

We had started our whirlwind tour of ancient Anuradhapura at about 8:30. Now it was a bit past 11:00 a.m., and we had only visited the northernmost district of the old city.  Even then, it had been a bit of a rush.

You really could spend an entire day just rambling around the ruins of Abhayagiri – but, given the steep entrance fee, you move on and try to see as much as possible.  The energy-sapping heat of the mid-day was starting to make itself felt.


Next Post: The Ruins of Ancient Anuradhapura – Part Two

For other posts on sites in the “Cultural Triangle,” see also:                                            

Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple – A Buddhist Treasure Trove   


Before Machu Picchu Was – There Was Sigiriya

This entry was posted in Sri Lanka. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Anuradhapura – Part One

  1. Jane Chu says:

    Hi, I am writing a paper to introduce the Art of Sri Lanka, and just ran into your blog when searching for the Buddha images on line, I also went to Sri Lanka last September and took some photos for my paper, but the photos that you took were so fascinating. So I wonder if it is possible to have your permission to use some of the photos in my paper? If you agree, the blog link will be specify in the paper. And I will send you this article if you like. Thank you very much.

    And, I like biking too, and wish I would go abroad biking in the near future. It seems there a lot for me to read on your blog. Thanks for the good work and sharing.

    • true_north says:

      Jane, nice to hear that someone reads my posts! Of course you can use any pix you find useful. The offer of a chance to read your article sounds like a fair deal!

      I really enjoyed my three weeks in Sri Lanka and hope to return – this time with my bicycle as I visit the more Tamil areas of the Island. It sounds like you have a lifetime of travel and adventure ahead of you – what you’re learning now will all be useful later on!

      Happy trails!

      • Jane Chu says:

        Thanks for reply and the permission of using the photos, may I ask what title would you like to use for the copyright? Oh and, sorry to let you know that the paper will be in Chinese, even though it’s not been published yet.

        My first try for biking abroad will be in Okinawa, next year hopefully!!! already very excited. Thanks for your nice saying.

      • true_north says:

        Jane, I enjoy taking pictures and am always happy when other people like them too! There is not need for copyright although if you want you can put a link to my site. That would be fine.

        Do send me a digital copy of your paper when you get it done! While I am a retired teacher, I promise i will not grade it!

        A bike tour of Okinawa sounds perfect. If you post some pictures online next year after your trip, do send me the link to your site! i’d love to see Okinawa.

        “Bon voyage” both through school and in life.

      • Jane Chu says:

        To feedback the Sri Lanka album(with the pics not for paper use) first.

        Some one will grade me anyway,though I’m out of school for a while, but in life long social school. Thank you, teacher.

      • true_north says:

        In the Tao Te Ching we read (poem 47) –

        Without opening your door,
        you can open your heart to the world.
        Without looking out your window,
        you can see the essence of the Tao.

        The more you know,
        the less you understand.

        The Master arrives without leaving,
        sees the light without looking,
        achieves without doing a thing.

        And yet, as the legend goes, had Lao Tzu himself not left his world and gone on that journey into the mountains, we would never have his words. To see the cultures of other people, to see how they answer the same questions that you ask – what a great opportunity!

        By the way – your Facebook photos of Sri Lanka brought back nice memories. Thank you!

  2. Jane Chu says:





    Chewing and digesting…..

  3. Pingback: The Ruins of Ancient Anuradhapura – Part One | ปลุกเสกตน

  4. N says:

    A very informative and nicely done article and photos! Your narrative is very good too, great job (-a Sri Lankan).

    • true_north says:

      Thanks for the positive review! My blog is a way of making use of the photos I take on my travels. It also gets me to think a bit more after my return home about what I took pictures of and the history behind them. A retired teacher is still a teacher!

  5. Hemi says:

    Thanks a lot for this great article. This is a very informative and detailed article with nice photos!

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.