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Abhayagiriya - a remnant of a monastery

A seat of learning in South Asia, the temple complex Abhayagiriya influenced greatly the political, economic and social life of the ancient hydraulic civilisation.

by Ranga Chandrarathne

According to the chronicle Mahawamsa, a Niganta named Giri who lived in a Jain Temple had reportedly called out when King Walagamba was retreating in the face of mounting attacks from the invaders that " Great king of the Sinhalese is fleeing ". The fleeing king heard the sarcastic utterings of the Niganta and made up his mind to build a temple on the land where the Jain Temple was.

Subsequently the king won the war and chased away the Niganta who ridiculed him and built a temple complex now known as Abhayagiriya. Abhayagiriya together with the other archaeological sites in the historic city of Anuradhapura are now being preserved under the UNESCO aided Cultural Triangle Project.

A seat of learning in South Asia, the temple complex Abhayagiriya influenced greatly the political, economic and social life of the ancient hydraulic civilisation. It has also occupied a unique position in the country's history of Buddhism as a seat of learning with a community of over 500 resident Buddhist monks who enriched the order with their teaching and kept alive the monastic tradition of imparting knowledge.

The temple complex, which spreads over a landscape of over 500 acres, is located to the North of the historic city of Anuradhapura. Till 1909 the identity of the exact location of the Temple complex was polemical as the location of the Jetavana Viharaya was erroneously identified as Abhayagiriya Vihara complex. The exact identification of both sites of Abhayagiriga and Jetawana Viharaya was done after the discovery and readings of the inscriptions.

Evidence has been unearthed of the existence of a Jain Temple in the present site of Abhayagiriya since the reign of king Pandukabhaya (5th BC). King Walagamba destroyed the Jain Temple and built the temple complex, Abhayagiriya, with 12 dwelling quarters for Bhikkhus. It has been now proved beyond doubt that king Walagamba started the construction of the Abhayagiriya Stupa (the Pagoda) as it was named Uttara Maha Ceitiya of Abhaya Gamini (the Pagoda to the north of the city).

According to historical evidence it was Mahatissa thera who helped the king to defeat the invading army and became the head of the temple complex. At the time, there were over 500 resident Bhikkhus in the complex and the travelogues by explorer Chinese monk Fa-hsien who visited the temple in the 5th century AD had made notes on the monastery. The complex was made up of four mulas (Institutions of education); Uttara Mula, Kapara Mula, Mahanetpamula and Vahadu-mula.

It was also established that Abhayagiriya had maintained extensive links with foreign lands such as South India, China, Java and Kashmir. Both Mahayana and Heenayana tradition of doctrine were taught at Abhayagiriya.

Facilities to teach not only Buddhism but also other subjects like astrology and oriental languages would have been available to Bhikkhus studying at the monastery. Following the South Indian Sect of "Dhammaruci" the Abhayagiriya Bhikkhus named them "Dhammaruci" and taught Buddhism to kings, Jetthatissa and Mahasen.

They also maintained contacts with China and it was reported that Chinese Bhikkhunis (nuns) were ordained at Abhayagiriya. By the 8th Century AD, Abhayagiriya had a branch in Java for Sinhalese Bhikkhus belonging to "Dhammaruci" sect.

For some time the king of Kashmir and royal family members learnt Buddhism at Abhayagiriya living in Kaparakulla. There was a doctrinal conflict between Abhayagiriya and Mahavihara.

However, since the collapse of the Anuradhapura civilisation, no excavation was carried out until the Britisher S.M. Burrows published a report in 1885 on the excavations done by him. J.G. Smither, a British architect conserved the pavilion of Abhayagiriya and published a report on monuments at Abhayagiriya with plans. H.C.P Bell the first Commissioner of Archaeology had showed an interest in Abhayagiriya.

The conservation project

The present Conservation project was started in 1981 under the UNESCO World Food Programme.A special mixture of cement made of Paddy Husk Ash, white Ant Hill Clay, slate lime and tile powder was injected into voids of the Abhayagiri Stupa by a pressure machine to conserve the pagoda.

The process of conservation of the pagoda was a complex one as the officials had to ensure the quality of the conservation cement they used to fill up the cracks. The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO), Central Cultural Fund Laboratory and Industrial Technological Institute extensively tested samples of the cement before they were being used for conservation.

The conservation of the Stupa or the pagoda was started in 1997 on an experimental basis and the method had been tried and tested in conserving the Jetavana project.

This mixture of cement was made to overcome the drawbacks and to suit the warm environment and the cement has a high level of porosity. It is also compatible with the original plaster. The conservation cement, which is being used in other countries, could not be used due to high expenditure. The project is to be concluded in two years.

However, the progress depends on the available resources, especially labour force and material strength. By the time the project started in 2004, it has completed 12 percent of the work. The project was given priority status and youth council directed about 250 per day from time to time youngsters to work in the project.

A new concept

A new concept was introduced to get the necessary labour for the project. Under the concept where devotees could work in the project on a voluntary basis. Volunteers are invited through media. With the help of volunteers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and other organisations, 32 per cent of the work was completed.

The contribution by the armed forces is commendable. At the progress evaluation meeting, it was revealed that no shortcomings were identified so far. Up to now the 32 per cent of the conservation of the dome and 18 per cent of the Hataras Kotuwa and 70 per cent of the Koth Karalla were successfully completed.

The project is being handled under the Ministry of Cultural and National Heritage and the officials appreciated the interest taken by the President, the Prime Minister and the Ministry Secretary to see that the project achieve progress.

The conservation effort however, is adversely affected by the lack of labour and lack of funds after the Tsunami disaster. As it is a world heritage designated site, it is the duty of the volunteers and voluntary organisations to extend their support for this worthy cause that helps to protect it for posterity.

Volunteers and Organisations could contact the Project Officer-in-Charge, Abhayagiriya conservation Project, Anuradhapura (025) 2220944, (025) 2222351.

(Special thanks go to the staff of the project for making available information and photographs).

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