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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 as well as the Abhayagiri Monastery district on the northern end of the ancient city.
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?
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 serve as an introduction to a little-known yet impressive cultural achievement.
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 was able to 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 and visitors came from throughout the Buddhist world from Kashmir to China in search of 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 from around the world.
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 result in occasionally 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
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 the 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!
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?
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.
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.
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 put a name to! My guide for the day was my copy of The Rough Guide To Sri Lanka; reading various relevant sections while seated in the shade provided me with a rough idea of what I was looking at.
First Stop: A Little-known Wonder of the Ancient World
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 south-east Asia.
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!
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.
Before I left the Jetavana stupa, I made use of 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 a 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!
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 the imagination and used a guide-book to help me make some sense of it all. Here is what you’re given to work with –
Included 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 in a truck bomb explosion near the temple.
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!
First up on our list were the Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds), used by the monastic community for ritual bathing. Built in the 700’s 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.
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.
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 week-end 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!
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 300’s 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 on creating a new nose for the 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 –
Next up was the very 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.
To 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, 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 wouldn’t figure would be abandoned.) When the British stumbled upon the site in the early 1800’s it did not take them long to figure out that 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 on the part of the Sri Lankan government which says – “This island is fundamentally Sinhalese.”
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!
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):
Nearby was another statue of the Buddha in samadhi (meditation) pose. Time has not been quite as kind to it as to the one shown a few images above.
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.
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.
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 northern-most 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: