The Sacred City of Anuradhapura

Thuaparamaya, the first Dagoba built in Sri Lanka by king Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura in 246 BC.

One day in March this year, I found myself at the Colombo Fort railway station, waiting to catch the Inter City Express (ICE) train bound for Anuradhapura. It was 5.45 AM, and I was with a few others. It was my first rail journey to Anuradhapura and I looked forward to it. The train takes roughly 3.5 – 4.0 hrs to reach the Anuradhapura station with minor delays as per the traffic. As we took leave of the station, the busy early-morning hustle of the commercial capital had just begun. We entered the outer layer of densely populated suburbs just as folks were making their way to work.

It was a Thursday, and our plan was to return on Saturday, with the intention of avoiding the weekend rush. The railway route to Anuradhapura travels through Colombo – Polgahawela – Maho – Anuradhapura, and the final destination of the ICE is Vavuniya, up in the Northern Province. About one-and-a-half hours down the journey we entered the quiet outskirts of lush greenery with long stretches of paddy. It was an uneventful trip, but the downside was that we had not specifically mentioned window-seats when booking the tickets via phone. For that oversight on our part, the train journey was somewhat overshadowed by the lack of a good view, which we had been eagerly looking forward to.


 Google Map image of the route from Colombo to Anuradhapura by road.

I think it was just around 9.30 AM when we arrived in Anuradhapura. At the station park, we hailed an awaiting tuk-tuk to take us to our abode, a quiet, family-run guest house, with basic amenities and a homely atmosphere. After an early lunch we took a quick siesta before we set off to see the country-side. The drought was on full blast, and the trees and grass were scorched dry. But the evergreens were resilient in their deep green suits. Nothing beats the large evergreens in providing a cool refuge from the blazing mid-day sun. The heated ground could easily serve as a hot plate, at no extra charge. Do not brave taking your shoes of to test the ground, for it is sure to be a reminder that would be engraved in technicolour. Believe me, I tried.

As a child, I had traveled to the Scared Land many times with my family. The serene presence of the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi, the majestic Ruwanweli seya and many other historic sites, that are the pride of the nation, are familiar. It must have been those early visits that may have inspired me to fancy myself a career in archeology. Sadly those dreams were substituted with others, but I still feel my imagination running wild whenever I am in the presence of historic sites. The ruins restored into ‘original form’ or as is, are still majestic, offering a lot of ‘scope for the imagination’ as Ann of Green Gables would say. When in their prime, how different the world must have been. It’s easy to think it would have been simpler, but was it easier? I wonder.

As an adult, this was my second visit after about 15 years. Anuradhapura had changed, I noticed. The town and walk-ways were developed to cater to large crowds, but the main sites were in want of better sanitation facilities. The drought had rendered the grounds steaming and bare, but the faithful pilgrims carried on resolutely, engrossed in their devotion. And when evening came, a miracle happened during our sight-seeing trip. We saw the first signs of rain.  This raised much expectations and some uncertainty. But it was a great relief, I’m sure, to the locals of the Sacred Land, and a great joy to us, when heavy torrents of rain began to pour. Sight seeing was temporarily halted, as we enjoyed the heavy shower. The evening brought a wonderfully cool atmosphere and a very comfortable night’s rest. Our chauffeur was a polite and punctual man, and his faithful tuk-tuk took us to through the Atamastana (eight landmarks) which every pilgrim ought to visit when they come to Anuradhapura. There are in fact sixteen sites in all called Solosmastana.

Anuradhapura, the first kingdom of Lanka (377 BC – 1017 BC) according the to great Mahawamsa Chronicle, needs no introduction to most. Sri Lanka boasts of a written history spanning over 2500 years, through the Mahavansa, Chulavansa and Deepawansa, and folklore and legends to fill in the gaps. Being in a geographically strategic position, the island drew many visitors from all around, and as a result, was known to many early civilisations through their merchants, scholars, explorers etc.


Situated within the Abhayagiriya Vihara, the Samadhi Statue is perhaps the most serene impression of the Lord Buddha in Dyana Mudra position, in deep meditation. The statue is believed to have been done in the 3rd or 4th century AD.



The beautiful Mahamegha or Mahamevna Uyana (Garden) – King Mutasiva (367-307 BC), son of king Pandukabhaya and father of king Davanampiyatissa had two royal gardens done. One was Nandana Uyana (also called Jotivana) and the other was Mahamegha Garden.

King Vijaya (544-505 BC)

King Vijaya was the first recorded monarch of the island. His history was tainted before he arrived here from the Vanga country in India. He was banished by his father Sinhabahu, who wanted to rid his kingdom of his notorious son. Thus it happened that Vijaya landed in Thambapanni (Mannar),  on the very day the Lord Buddha passed away in India, as depicted in the Mahawansa. There he met Kuveni, princess of the native Yakka tribe. The story goes on through legends and folklore, but the result was that Vijaya became a powerful monarch and ruled from the city of Thambapanni. It is said that his minister by the name of Anuradha established a village called Anuradhagama.


(R) Artis’s impression of king Vijaya, Jethawanarama Vihara, Anuradhapura.

Anuradhapura kings were responsible for many religious, cultural and  irrigation feats during those times, many of which still stand today as reminders of that glorious past. Four dynasties ruled in Anuradhapura; the Vijayan dynasty started there with king Pandukabhaya I, the Lambakanna dynasty (66 AD)  began with king Vasabha,  King Dhatusena was the founder of the Moriya dynasty (455 AD) and finally the second Lambakanna dynasty began with king Manavamma (684–718 AD). Here is a brief look at some of the monarchs of the Anuradhapura era who have interesting profiles.

King Pandukabhaya I


An artist’s impression of king Pandukabhaya I of Anuradhapura.
Jethawanaramya Viharaya, Anuradhapura.

It was king Vjaya’s grand-nephew king Pandukhabaya I, grandson of king Panduwasdewa’s by his daughter Chitra who established Anuradhapura as his Kingdom in 377 BC. They say Chitra was so beautiful that it drove men out of their mind. She was called Unmada (drives mad) Chitta. Now, there had been a prophesy that Chitra would bear a son who would kill nine of his ten uncles. Abhaya her eldest brother,  spares Chitra’s life from his nine brothers, when the prophesy is announced. Chitra marries her cousin Digha-Gamini, and during her confinement she is locked away in isolation by her brothers. She delivers a boy, and fearing for his safety Chitra secretly exchanges her newborn son with another newborn baby girl, and sends her son away to safety. Meanwhile  Abhaya takes the throne after his father king Panduwasdeva dies, and he is loved by his subjects for he is a just king. Meanwhile his nephew Pandukabhaya, who is disguised as a herdsman’s son, makes many perilous escapes from murder at the hands of other his nine uncles. When he comes of age, Pandukhabaya claims the throne, fulfilling the prophesy. Only one uncle is sparede, that is king Abhaya. King Pandukhabaya founded Anuradhapura as his kingdom. His reign was a prosperous well administered period in history, in which art, culture, education and agriculture flourished. King Pandukhabaya was the longest reigning monarch of the country and ruled for 70 years.

King Devanampiya Tissa (307-267 BC)


(L-R) Artist’s impression of king Devanampiyatissa (307-267 BC) and king Dutugaminu (161-137 BC)

Among them were popular monarchs such as king Devanampiyatissa who reigned from 250-210 BC, during whose reign Buddhism was introduced to the island, with the arrival of Arahat Mahinda, the ordained son of Asoka the Great. King Devanampiyatissa built many important landmarks most of them restored, still stand today. Thuparamaya, the first dagoba of the country, Isurumuniya viharaya, famous for Isurumuniya Lovers (6th Century Gupta style carving), Elephant Pond and the Royal Family to name just a few. The Aluviharaya Rock Temple in Matale, Vessagiri forest monastery which is sadly in ruin today, and Tissa Wewa (tank) which covered 550 acres of land and is a major source of water for farmers in Anuradhapura even today.

The Sacred Bo Tree


Devotees offering milk rice to the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura, at the crack of dawn.

A branch of the Sri Maha Bodhi in Buddha Gaya, India, under whose shelter the Lord Buddha attained supreme enlightenment, the Sacred Bo Tree is perhaps the most venerated site in Anuradhapura. The sapling was delivered by Sangamitta Thera, the daughter of Emperor Asoka in 249 BC for worship, protection, and to extend the Buddha Sasana. King Devanampitatissa had it planted on a 6.5m high terrace in the Mahamevna Uyana (Garden). It was Sangamitta Thera who established the Bikkhuni (priestess) order in the island of Lanka. For the scientifically inclined, the Bo tree (Ficus religiosa) is from the Fig family. It is a deeply religious symbol in the country and you will find a Bo tree in almost every temple is Sri Lanka, if space permits.

King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC)

Rising majestically above the land, the Ruwanweli Seya, beloved stupa of the great warrior king Dutugemunu, dominates the land of Anuradhapura in all its splendour. The king wished to see the stupa on his death-bed, and his brother Saddhatissa, to satisfy the king’s dying wish, had the half-constructed dome covered in white sheets. The king took his last breath with a contented heart, and king Saddha Tissa completed the stupa later.


Ruwanweli Seya rising majestically above the canopy of trees.

King Duttagamini or Dutugemunu stands out in history as a charismatic and brave warrior who united the country under his rule. This he achieved after defeating 32 different rulers across the country and then proceeded to defeat Elara the powerful south Indian ruler who had taken over Anuradhapura itself. The Sinhala Buddhist consider Dutugamunu as a great hero and six chapters of the Mahawansa is dedicated his story. His construction legacy includes the Ruwanweli seya, also known as Sarnamali (Golden) chetiya, Mirisawetiya chetiya and the Brazen Palace or Lohapasadaya – the nine storied building which served the Bikkhus as a Pohoya Geya (or Chapter House) had a bronze roof and gables inlaid in silver. It was completely burnt down by a fire, and king Saddhatissa restored it once again, but this times as a seven storey building. 


What remains today of the Lovamahapaya, the nine-storey Chapter House built by king Dutugemunu in 137 BC.

King Valagamba (103 & 88-76 BC)


Artist’s impression of king Valagamba.

The story of king Valagamba is a captivating one. Five months after his coronation in 103 BC, the king was overwhelmed by multiple rebellions by tamil leaders. He lost a battle in Kolambalaka and fled for cover thereafter. It is said that upon seeing this, a jain priest from the ‘Girivihara cried out “the great black Sinhala is fleeing”. King Valagamba vowed to return and build a monastery in the  spot, which he later fulfilled naming it Abhayagiriya. On his escape, as his chariot was too heavy, his consort Queen Somadevi volunteered to get down to enable the king to flee to safety. The king returned after fourteen years, and recovered his throne and his queen. He built a temple called Somarama, as a tribute to her. He also built the Dambulla Rock Temple, where he had hidden during his escape. Abhayagiriya from that time remains the largest of the five major Viharas in Anuradhapura.


Abayagiriya Stupa 

Queen Anula of Anuradhapura (47-52 BC)

Queen Anula of Anuradhapura was the first female monarch of Lanka for a brief period of five years during a turbulent period in Anuradhapura history. But a shadow casts over the reign of Queen Anula of Anuradhapura, for she acquired a dark reputation for ‘doing away’ with her husbands and consorts by poisoning them, until she herself faced a cruel end. Some say she was burnt alive, in the very same palace she committed her gruesome murders.

King Mahasen (277 – 304 AD)

An artist’s impression of king Mahasen.

King Mahasen was highly revered by his subjects. They called him Minneriya Deviyo (the God of Minnariya). Legend claims that he made a vow to bring rain to his drought-stricken kingdom. His prayers were answered and ever since then he was treated as a demi-god.  His massive irrigation works include 16 tanks in all. The dark chapter during his reign was the discrimination against Theravada buddhists, based on advice given by a monk named Sanghamitta. His citizens rebelled and on the brink of a great battle, the rebel leader, his former chief minister Meghavannabaya, convinced the king to make peace. The king agreed and it restored peace in the kingdom. Those who had opposed him later rallied around him once more, because of his great contribution to agriculture. Jethawana stupa was built by king Mahasen.


Jethawana Stupa.

It is believed that Jethawana stupa is located in the spot where Arahat Mahinda first preached the Dhamma to Lankans. It had been called Nandana Uyana at that time. The land later became a part of the Mahavihara, the Theravada Buddhist Vihara, established by king Devanampiyatissa.


Inside the Jethawana Vihara various devotional offerings to the Enlightened One.


Some youngsters experiencing a of taste history.


The sprawling gardens surrounding Jethawana Vihara.

King Dhatusena (455-473 AD)

The most haunting of Anuradhapura stories is that of king Dhatusena (455 – 473 AD). As a child, I still recall my father relating the tragic tale, which moved me beyond words. King Dhatusena reunited the country after 24 years, and was responsible for building 18 tanks in Rajarata. Yoda-ela was the largest among them. But Kala wewa and Balalu wewa combined made the largest man-made tank in ancient times, until the Senanayake Samuradraya broke that record in the recent 20th century. King Dhatusena’s rightful heir was Mogallana, the son of his consort. But his first son by his concubine Kashyapa, who was encouraged and brainwashed by the king’s estranged nephew Migara, rebelled against his father, usurped him and imprisoned him. Migara further mislead Kashyapa into believing that his father had great wealth and treasures hidden somewhere. When Kashyapa demanded his father’s wealth, king Dhatusena took him to Kala Wewa, cupped a hand full of water in his hands and declared “this is my wealth”. Kashyapa enraged, murdered him and buried him in the wall of Kala wewa. Fearing for his life, because he knew Mogallana would avenge his father’s murder, Kashyapa fled and built himself a massive fortress citadel Sigiriya. Mogallana organised an army from South India and defeated Kashyapa’s army, and the tragic Kashyapa took his own life.


(L-R) Kings Buddhadasa, an unidentified king, Minister Anuradha (who founded Anuradhagama) and king Mahasen. Jethawanaramaya Vihara, Anuradhapura.

King Parakramabahu the Great

King Parakramabahu (1123–1186 AD) of Polonnaruwa was renowned for his massive construction works during his reign. He must be mentioned when one speaks of Anuradhapura. It is said that before he began his construction feats in Polonnaruwa, he first set out to restore Anuradhapura to its former glory. The ancient capital was destroyed by Chola armies. Thuparamaya, Mihintale and Ruwanweliseya were among the sites restored by him in this manner.

This was just a glimpse into Anuradhapura, and a tip of the iceberg as they say. Anuradhapura is a place of immense historic, cultural and religious significance with palaces, monasteries, tanks and monuments that have their own unique story. It is a historian’s treasure trove. The Anuradhapura kingdom came to an end in 993 AD, during the reign of Mahinda V, who succumbed the kingdom to the Chola Emperor Rajaraja I. The capital was then transferred to Pollonnaruwa by the new ruler. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura is a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1982, and the ancient ruins are protected and maintained by the Department of Cultural Affairs, as a part of the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.


Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pond) was built by King Agbo I (517-604 AD) and was used by Bikkhus of the Abharagiriya order in religious rites performed for the Sri Maha Bodhi. Beautiful stone carvings adorn the twin ponds. A medieval engineering feat, it is still a marvel today how the entry and exit of water to the pond happens such that level of water remains constant.


Pilima Geya of Anuradhapura

Pilimageya (Image House) stands west of the Jatawana Stupa. The 27 ft high doorway is believed to have originally been about 35 ft high to allow elephants to pass through into the Image House during Perehera (religious procession) on every Poya (full moon) day.

anu-33-kap-rukaKap Ruka ceremony which involves wrapping the girth of the Ruwanweli Maha Seya with a saffron robe, is a special event. The robe is reverently carried overhead by devotees to the Ruwanveli Seya headed by a Perehera a traditional procession of drums and flute players.


Kap Ruka is held above heads of the devotees, and flowers and other offerings also follow.


Devotees who are listening to Dharmadeshana (sermon) in the Mahanewna Uyana sacred grounds take a temporary break as the Kap Ruka procession passes, in which they all eagerly take part.


Waiting for our journey home at the Anuradhapura railway station, beside a red metal giant on wheels.


Another day is over. The sun setting across the lush village landscapes (through the ICE window).


Passing view of paddy fields (through the ICE window).

Story & Photography | Nilu Rajapakse

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