Anuradhapura, an ancient city that was long hidden and forgotten in the jungles of Sri Lanka. Founded in the fourth century BC, it developed into a religious and political center, was the royal seat of the island of Sri Lanka for more than a thousand years.
The center of the city was the holy Bodhi Tree, an offshoot of the poplar-fig tree in India, under which Siddhartha Gautama experienced his enlightenment and became Buddha. Around this center, Buddhist monasteries and residential facilities were built for the monks, while stupas and temples were built to foster Buddhism.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 people lived in Anuradhapura, highly civilized and modern, on an area of more than 40 square kilometers. For the water supply of this dry region in the north of Sri Lanka, artificial lakes were laid, which saved the monsoon rain and made the irrigation of the rice fields possible. Anuradhapura was a flourishing ancient metropolis – until it was abandoned in the 11th century after a lost war.
Only the Bodhi tree, the root of the Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka, was cultivated and protected. It is considered to be the oldest historically documented tree in the world and is to this day the goal of many pilgrims. The ancient city ruins, monuments and monasteries have been researched, cleared and restored for more than 100 years. But still, this archaeological site of early Buddhist civilization has a lot to unravel.
Facts & Figures
Cultural monument: Holy City Anuradhapura
Unesco listing: 1982
250 v. – 1017 Capital of the sinhala kingdom, then “in the jungle” forgotten
1820 re-discovered by British expedition
1890 archaeological excavations
Buddhism originally came from India. Sanghamitta, the daughter of the Indian ruler Ashoka, is said to have come to Anuradhapura 236 BC with a great entourage. Sanghamitta bore the roots of the new faith and a small offshoot of the sacred poplar-fig tree. A branch of that Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama reached his enlightenment and became Buddha.
Sri Maha Bodhi – the Bodhi Tree
The Bodhi tree which was planted more than 2000 years ago is surrounded by temples and well protected, is the destination of Buddhist pilgrims. They ask for salvation from the eternal cycle of life and redemption from suffering. There seems to be something magical about this place that, despite the unrivaling stream of pilgrims, conveys a feeling of strength and tranquility that keeps the memory of the Buddha alive to this day. It is the oldest historically documented tree in the world. A living symbol of Buddha and the center of worship among Buddhists.
The monks of Anuradhapuras refer to the original teachings of the enlightened, professing to the stricter Theravada Buddhism, whose principles were already written down in the 1st century BC – on palm leaves.
To this day the monks live according to the rules of this old Buddhist canon. Around the oldest district with the Bodhi tree monasteries were built to build the monasteries temples and residential buildings. Gradually grew a stone city. A royal city, well planned, spacious and highly civilized. King Devanampiya Tissa, the ruler of the north of Sri Lanka, promoted the new Buddhist faith. Already in ancient times a close relationship developed between kingship and Buddhism.
“Catussala” – a dining room from the 3rd century BC. In the more than 13 meters long “rice boat”, the faithful population each morning served their food for more than 3,000 monks. The only meal a day before the sun stood in zenith.
The monasteries were simple and functional, had their own water supply, simple, rectangular residential quarters with wooden roofs, which clustered around a courtyard with a central shrine. The monks lived contemplative and needless. But their needs were performed on ornate toilets, so they gave their contempt to the world of luxury.
Stonework at the base or the pillars of temples and relics is not just decoration. They symbolize levels of knowledge on the path to salvation. The oldest exhibits are lotus plants and animal representations, but also dwarfs or snake deities. The monasteries were their own world. Four large plants spread over the ancient city, on an area of over 40 square kilometers. If the funds were available, the kings had a dagoba built. Nothing remained of the dwellings of ordinary people, for their dwellings were made of perishable material, of clay and wood, and not of stone, as the landmarks of Buddhism.
Around the holy city lie the fields, then as now, the rice cultivation ensures survival. Without artificial irrigation there would be no livelihood, even though today there are far fewer people living here. Life in this dry region in the north of Sri Lanka was never paradise. The water on which Buddha’s symbols blossom and which keeps the city alive does not come from natural lakes. As early as 430 BC water reservoirs were created, an early hydraulic high culture. They were immigrants from North India, who brought knowledge of irrigation technology from their home and had the dry zone flourished. To date, these “tanks”, three large artificial dugouts, which catch the monsoon rain and store several months, fulfill their purpose.
Archaeologists have calculated that the water of the former reservoirs was sufficient for over 123,000 inhabitants – and also for the so-called “elephant pond” of the ancient Anuradhapura. 150 meters long, 50 meters wide, 10 meters deep and built entirely from stone blocks. Not a luxury bath for elephants, but the water reservoir of the nearby monastery. In the twilight of the day, the monks used it for washing and swimming.
The ancient bath promised cooling in tropical heat, the basins were fed by underground water pipes.
Ruvanvelisaya – the great Dagoba
The dome is one of the most important stupas of Sri Lanka. Image of the cosmos, architectural symbol for the return of the soul to nirvana. A place of contemplation and devotion. An elephant fence decorates the base of the stupa. This Dagoba, the largest Buddhist building in the world, left Indian models far behind. The elaborate cultic center of almost 100 meters height was financed with proceeds from a silver mine. The client, King Dutthagamani, could no longer orbit Budha’s temple. He died 137 years before Christ and did not experience the completion of Dagoba.
Dhyana mudra … the enlightened one in deep meditation. At that time no ordinary sight, Buddha as a person was not represented. The 4th century Samadhi Buddha is one of the earliest statues. An example for countless sculptures.
Elephant, horse, lion and ox. Geese and lotus blossoms. Halbrunde decorated threshold stones at Tempeleangs, called “moon stones” symbolize the way of life. From birth to rebirth. Guards at the entrance of important monuments are supposed to keep away the evil – like these snake-stone figures.
Anuradhapura was abandoned and abandoned at the beginning of the 11th century. They were overgrown by the jungle, buried by earth, plundered by robbers.
Since the middle of the last century the Sinhalese have been looking for the roots of their culture. One of the largest archaeological sites in the world is explored, uncovered and restored. Stone by stone.
The new, freshly burnt bricks for the Abhayagiri Dagoba are fitted with a special mortar mix. It corresponds to the old recipe. For a long time this Dagoba was considered as the second highest monument in the world, massively made of bricks. No one knows today which holy relics are preserved within the cultic cult. The ancient Anuradhapura will no longer surrender many secrets. In special full moon nights the inhabitants go to the old cultic places. They circle the Bodhi tree and climb the steps to the great Dagoba. Then the city of faith becomes alive again.