The grandeur of Anuradhapura | Sunday Observer

The grandeur of Anuradhapura

26 June, 2022
The Jetavanarama dagaba
The Jetavanarama dagaba

Anuradhapura is slowly but surely getting back to its days glory. The Abhayagiri dagaba is the latest to be brought back to its former magnificent status. The Jetawana and Mirisawetiya dagabas have been restored to their former glory. All three were weather-worn stupas not so long ago.

A family trip

For me, going to Anuradhapura was a regular family trip from my childhood. The early trips were by train. During the school holidays we would plan an outing by train. To go to Anuradhapura we got in to the train from Fort and reached Anuradhapura in a few hours.

We used to stay in a hotel – it was the pre-luxury hotel era but there were decent hotels with a few rooms upstairs and the restaurant downstairs.

We got about in a hired car. There were no taxis but private cars were available for hire. Usually, a vehicle was hired to go around the Atamasthana on an agreed fare.


This was in the early 70s and as a child I was amazed by the huge dagabas in the sacred city. While the Ruwanweli Seya was the most attractive having been restored fully, the other dagabas were mounds of earth. Yet, devotees did not want to miss the eight places of worship and visited the Atamasthana every time they visited Anuradhapura.

A few decades ago, transport facilities were nowhere near what it is today. Vandana nades (groups of pilgrim) used the railway for their pilgrimages. The biggest attraction was the dagabas.

The Abhayagiri dagaba

The place where the Abhayagiri dagaba was constructed has been accepted as one of the 16 places visited by the Buddha. Thus, it has been built over a foot impression of the Buddha.

The original height of the Abhayagiri dagaba had been 113 metres in height but over time it had come down to 75 metres. It is only second in height to the Jetavana dagaba at a height of 120 metres and which incidentally, is the world’s third tallest edifice after the two tallest pyramids in Egypt.

World’s tallest stupa

The Jetavana dagaba is the tallest stupa in the world and is also the world’s tallest building built of brick.

Once the ruins in Anuradhapura were restored, the city became the most visited place of worship by Buddhist pilgrims. In addition to the devotion of the pilgrims, the easy accessibility from any part of the country has made Anuradhapura very popular.

King Vattagamini Abhaya

The Abhayagiri monastery dates back to the time of King Vattagamini Abhaya (Valagamba) during his second reign (89-77 BC). The Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle, relates the story of how the king had to flee the capital after ascending the throne in 109 BC when it was threatened by invading enemy forces.

As he abandoned the throne and fled, a niganta (Jain ascetic) named Giri who was in his hermitage is said to have shouted insultingly, “The great black Sinhalese lion is running away.”

The king went into hiding in the hills. Having built up his troops, after 14 years he marched to Anuradhapura in 89 BC and defeated the ruling king Bhatiya and got back the throne.

A token of gratitude

The king remembered the insult and when he returned victorious, he razed the hermitage to the ground and in its place built a dagaba and 12 buildings as residences for bhikkhus.

He named the monastery Abhayagiri by combining his name Abhaya with the niganta’s name Giri and bestowed it on Mahatissa Thera as a token of gratitude for support during his period of adversity.

In the years that followed, the monastery developed as a well-recognised seat of learning.

The Chinese bhikkhu Fa-Hsien who came on a visit to Sri Lanka in the fifth century AC said that he noticed around 5,000 bhikkhus residing at the monastery compared to 3,000 bhikkhus at the Mahavihara, the monastery established earlier.