February 2017


Anuradhapura: the First Kingdom of Lanka
February 2017




Ruwanweli Maha Seya, one of the tallest structures of the ancient world

For over a thousand years, the kings of Lanka ruled from one great city in the vast plains and jungles north of the mountains. Anuradhapura establishes itself in the 4th century BC, as the Hellenistic Age begins in the Mediterranean, Alexander the Great conquers the Persian Empire, and Aristotle proposes the division of the sciences.


Words and Photography: David Blacker


During the same time the Romans were building their first aqueducts, and fighting to hold Hadrian's Wall against the Picts. In India, the Mauryan Empire is founded, and in China, the astronomer Gan De divides the year into 365.25 days.


Anuradhapura was to become the largest of Sri Lanka's ancient cities, its kingdom the most important because of the length of its existence. Anuradhapura became the capital of King Pandukabhaya's kingdom in 377 BC, but it was under King Devanampiya Tissa, who welcomed Buddhism to the Island in the 3rd century BC, that Anuradhapura gained its place as the glittering gem of ancient Sri Lanka. It was during his reign that the sapling of the sacred Bodhi tree was gifted to Sri Lanka,  still greatly venerated.


As the kingdom grew in prominence and grandeur, it was however, under regular attack by the Cholas of Southern India, and these invasions were a constant feature of the thousand-year history of Anuradhapura. An invasion at the turn of the 2nd century BC, established a Chola prince, Elara, who ruled for 44 years before he was defeated by the Lankan prince Dutta Gamini, who had raised an army in the far south of the country.


After the Cholas were defeated and the city retaken, King Dutugemunu reigned and the building programme he undertook created some of the most impressive structures visible today.


The Ruwanweli Maha Seya is perhaps his most famous work, taller than the Taj Mahal, twice the height of the Colosseum, and older than both, it was completed shortly after his death. He built the bronze-roofed Brazen Palace, which housed a thousand monks, and the Mirisawetiya Dagoba on the site where his royal sceptre was miraculously rooted to the ground while he was swimming with the royal ladies. In the 1st century BC, King Valagamba lost Anuradhapura to another South Indian invasion, but regained it and built the massive Abhayagiri Dagoba.


In the 3rd century AD, King Mahasen built the colossal Jetavanarama Dagoba, close to the Ruwanweli Maha Seya, but Mahasen's greatest contribution was the extensive system of irrigation he instituted to water the lush rice fields of his kingdom. He built as many as 16 reservoirs, Minneriya Wewa being one of the best known, and they are still used today to water the fields of modern Sri Lanka. Mahasen is considered one of the last great kings of Anuradhapura, and the ruins of his palace can still be seen today.


Anuradhapura was to stand for another five centuries, its reign constantly harried by Indian invasions until, finally, the capital was moved to Polonnaruwa in the 12th century AD.


Anuradhapura In 2 Days

Day 1

Morning

Start off early at the Sri Maha Bodhiya, the world’s oldest recorded tree, a sapling from the original bo (sacred fig) tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

 

  • Start off early at the Sri Maha Bodhiya, the world's oldest recorded tree, a sapling from the original bodhi (sacred fig) tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.
  • Check out the Brazen Palace, with its 1,600 stone pillars.
  • Walk north and see the breathtaking Ruwanweli Maha Seya.
  • And on to the Thuparamaya, Anuradhapura's oldest dagaba, built by King Devanampiya Tissa to house a collarbone of the Buddha.
  • By now, the sun should be high in the sky, and it's time to find some shade and a glass of something cold. Have lunch, and perhaps a nap.

Late afternoon

  • Once the afternoon heat has dimmed, head to the northern part of the Sacred City and visit the gigantic Abhayagiri Dagaba.
  • Spend a little time in the ruins nearby of King Mahasen's palace with its beautifully preserved moonstone.
  • From there, walk to the Ratna Prasada where you can see one of the best examples of a guard stone from the Anuradhapura era.
  • On the way back, stop at the Kuttam Pokuna, or Twin Ponds, which are right by the road.
  • End your day by going for an early evening swim in the Nuwara Wewa and watch the sun set gloriously behind the Ruwanweli Maha Seya and Jetwanaramaya dagabas. 

Day 2

Morning

Wake up early and go for a walk along the bund of the Basawakkulama Tank, and watch the sun rise over the Ruwanweli Maha Seya and Mirisawetiya dagabas.

 

  • Wake up early and go for a walk along the bund of the Basawakkulama Tank, and watch the sun rise over the Ruwanweli Maha Seya and Mirisawetiya dagabas.
  • Once the sun is up, visit the palace of King Vijayabahu I.
  • Finally get a closer look at the colossal Jetawanaramaya Dagaba.
  • After breakfast, it's time to leave Anuradhapura. Head southwest and, on the way, stop at the Mirisawetiya Dagaba, the first of King Dutugemunu's creations.
  • Further south is the beautiful Isurumuniya Temple.
  • Take a walk through the Royal Pleasure Gardens where Prince Saliya, the son of King Dutugemunu, met Asokamala, a commoner who he fell in love with and married, giving up his right to the throne.

 

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    The entrance to the sacred Sri Maha Bodhiya

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    The floodlit Ruwanweli Maha Seya, as dawn lightens the sky over the Basawakkulama Tank

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    Almost 75m in height, the Abayagiriya Dagaba was built in 103 BC by King Valagamba

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    Kuttam Pokuna; the twin ponds of which the southern pond is almost double the length of its northern sister

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    Guard stone at the entrance to the first temple of tooth, next to the Thuparamaya Dagaba

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    The Ruwanweli Maha Seya and Jetawanaramaya at dusk, from Nuwara Wewa

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    The 122m-high Jetawanaramaya, with the Ruwanweli Maha Seya in the distance

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    Ruins of the palace of King Vijayabahu 1

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    The place of temptation – the Royal Pleasure Gardens where Prince Saliya gave up the throne for Asokamala

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