It must have been quite extraordinary to watch around 1800 monks at the same time taking a bath in the Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura.
Situated about 200 kilometers north of Colombo, the ancient city Anuradhapura was the first capital of the Buddhist Kingdom in Sri Lanka which had lasted for one thousand five hundred years before it was invaded by troops of the Chola Kingdom in Southern India and completely destroyed in 1017 AD. The destruction was so devastating, that it was completely abandoned and entirely covered by jungle for approximately 1000 years, except for some communities of Buddhist monks who had stayed there to protect the sacred Boddhi tree (a sapling of the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened).
Royal and monastic centre
The lifestyle within the Anuradhapura Kingdom was very sophisticated. The kings and nobility, as well as the monks were highly educated and the royals enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Especially after the introduction of Buddhism the kingdom came to a great development. Many generations of kings built prestigious projects, mainly in architecture and irrigation works. Hostels, hospitals and hundreds of monasteries were built by the various rulers, of which the ruins can still be seen all over the area. The city was of huge proportions and could easily be ranked among cities like Babylon and Alexandria in size, number of inhabitants and splendor of architecture. Two giant tanks (artificial lakes), Tissa Wewa and Nuwara Wewa were constructed around Anuradhapura to supply water to the city and the surrounding paddy fields to guarantee the food supply. In the ancient city of Anuradhapura you will get a very good sense of the splendor of this kingdom in bygone days.
Apart from the high level of art and architecture, the crown on the jewel of the Anuradhapura Kingdom was undoubtedly the incredible achievements in irrigation engineering. This was very important in the mainly dry part of the island. Long periods of drought made agriculture difficult. Irrigation started with the farmers in the villages around the 3rd century BC, who made dams in the rivers and created small ponds to collect the water. When the kings started to take over the irrigation management, everything was pulled up to a large scale and the level of hydro-engineering came to a great height in the kingdom. Rainwater collected during the monsoon and dammed rivers provided water to fill big reservoirs, which were built in astonishing numbers. This could only be done with a good knowledge of engineering. Hundreds of large and small reservoirs were constructed and canals were built to guide the water to smaller irrigation channels, controlled by sluices, reaching an extended area in the dry zone. These big reservoirs are called ‘tanks’. Still a large number of these tanks dominate the Northern Central Province. This masterpiece of irrigation-engineering brought great prosperity in the kingdom; the rice harvests increased in volume and the farmers were able to harvest twice a year. A high quantity of vegetables added to the wealth of the agricultural output. More was produced than was needed to feed the local population, so rice was exported to other countries and thus international trade flourished. Tax revenues added to the lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy.
Centre of Buddhism
Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC by the monk Mahinda, the son of the South Indian Emperor Asoka, who was a Buddhist and befriended with the king of Anuradhapura. The king met Mahinda about 10 kilometers east of Anuradhapura, while hunting deer. He was the first Sri Lankan to be converted to Buddhism. The place where Mahinda held his first speech on a high rock is now called Minhintale. A long stairway of 1840 granite steps leads to the summit. Many thousands of pilgrims visit this place annually and especially on Poya Poson day in June the arrival of thousands of Buddhists from all over the island visit Mihintale. The rock is scattered with many shrines commemorating this important event.
The sister of the king of Anuradhapura also wished to be ordained as a nun, but this could only be done by a female monk, which was not available in Anuradhapura, so the king requested Emperor Asoka to send a nun to ordain his sister. Asoka sent his daughter Sanghamitta, who had become a Buddhist nun to execute the ordination, accompanied by several ordained nuns. The important thing was that Sanghamitta also took a sapling of the Boddhi tree under which the Buddha had reached enlightenment to Sri Lanka. The planting of the sapling in the royal palace ground was grandly celebrated and the tree has now become the oldest, officially documented tree in the world, about 2300 years old. From that time onward the city expanded rapidly. Monasteries and dagobas were built in large numbers. The city housed some 10,000 monks in those days, an unprecedented number of religious people within a limited area, the biggest religious community the world has ever seen. Anuradhapura had become the sacred city of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Against the background of all the remains from ancient times, the dagobas have arisen again in their full glory, daily visited by many worshippers and beautifully illuminated during the night.
Originally, dagobas (the Sri Lankan word for stupa’s or pagoda’s) were burial mounds. They have developed to the current bell-shaped masonry constructions, dating back to the 3rd Century BC. The dagobas we see today in Sri Lanka no longer contain bodies of important persons who passed away, but pieces of the remains of the Buddha, part of the ashes or belongings of the Buddha. They are mostly solid structures, plastered and painted white. Before statues of the Buddha were made, dagoba’s were objects to worship the Buddha, their simplicity representing the character of Buddhism. Still they are important objects of worship, just as the statues of the Buddha. The Jethavana Stupa is one of the oldest dagobas in Sri Lanka, it is completely built from bricks; equal to the quantity of masonry used to construct houses for 24,000 inhabitants. The Jethavana Stupa was even bigger than the third pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt and was considered as being one of the world wonders. Up till the completion of the Borobudur in Indonesia in the 9th Century AD, the Jethavana Stupa was the biggest Buddhist structure in the world.
The end of Anuradhapura as the capital
Although the Buddhist kingdom was attacked many times by invading troops from Southern India, still it was the most stable and prosperous monarchy in South Asia. One of the reasons the kingdom could exist for such a long time was its size; the kings didn’t seek for expansion outside the island, so it stayed limited in size. Moreover the food supply was mostly in abundance. Nevertheless the invasion by the Chola’s from Southern India between 993 and 1017 was so destructive under the rule of a weak king, that it meant the end of Anuradhapura as the capital of the kingdom and the seat of the kings was moved to the relatively more securely located Polonnaruwa, some 92 kilometers south east of Anuradhapura.
Re-discovering of the ancient city and restoration
In 1833 the Sacred City was re-discovered by the British, when it was completely covered by jungle. Anuradhapura was made a provincial capital. From 1950 onward the new city started to grow rapidly and in 1980 UNESCO launched a massive restoration scheme of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, which has been completed for a considerable part but is still going on up till today. Anuradhapura is now one of the biggest cities in Sri Lanka and an attraction point for many pilgrims. The city is surrounded by hundreds of monasteries and temples, which are daily being visited by worshippers from all over the country.
Anuradhapura nowadays consists of two major parts, being the New Town in the eastern part of the city, with its residential quarters, banks, offices, businesses and bus stands, while divided from the Ancient Sacred City in the western part of the town, which was surrounded by four walls, each 26 kilometers long. It enclosed a royal and monastic area of 663 square kilometers. Today roads from the New City cross the Ancient City. Therefore the archeological sites are not fenced and openly accessible. Nevertheless foreigners need to buy a ticket to visit the ancient sites (in 2014: Rs. 3,250). At all the various sites within the ancient city, ticket controllers are there to check the tickets of foreigners, while locals can move all over the premises for free.
The Ancient City
The sacred city of Anuradhapura is overwhelming in its splendor. The remains from this ancient kingdom are spread over a vast area and comprise three important monastic parts, being Mahavihara, Jetavana and Abhayagiri. Almost two third of all buildings and the main dagobas belong to one of these monasteries. When you are limited in time, it is recommended to visit Abhayagiri, where you will get to see a diversity of interesting sites, but don’t forget to see the Sacred Bodhi Tree, a shoot of the original tree in Northern India under which the Buddha was enlightened some 2600 years ago (entrance fee 2014: Rs. 200 for foreigners). The Bodhi Tree ticket also allows you to visit the splendid Ruwanveliseya Dagoba, built in the 2nd Century BC. It is painted white every year and therefore still looks like new. Many devotees encircle the huge bell-shaped dome; worshippers bring flowers, light oil lamps, meditate and chant sermons. The entire area, the Bodhi Tree and Dagoba, filled with worshippers and monks is covered by a solemn, spiritual atmosphere. During the night the dagoba and Bodhi Tree are illuminated, which makes the experience even more serene.
In many parts of the Ancient City you can see extended foundations of the different monastic and royal buildings. Several dagobas rise high above the complex, some being considered one of the biggest structures from the ancient world; even today they are still places of worship for many locals.
Roaming around the ancient city can be done either by bicycle or three-wheeler. Bicycles can be hired from many guesthouses, hotels and some bicycle shops (in 2014: around Rs. 350 per day), but they are not available at the entrance of the ancient city. Three-wheelers can easily be found near the entrances and they usually charge Rs. 1,500 for a tour (2014), as well as licensed guides who may accompany you for explanation of the many sight. A guide is highly recommendable, because for only Rs. 1,500 (2014), it brings back to life various interesting points of the ancient city.