Anuradhapura, a once-forgotten ancient city hidden in the Sri Lankan jungle, dates back to the fourth century BC. Over time, it evolved into a political and religious hub and remained the royal capital of Sri Lanka for more than a millennium.
The city’s core was the sacred Bodhi Tree, an offshoot of the poplar-fig tree in India, where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became Buddha. Surrounding this spiritual centre, Buddhist monasteries and residential complexes were constructed for the monks, while temples and stupas were built to promote Buddhism.
The area covered by Anuradhapura was over 40 square kilometres, and it was home to more than 100,000 people who lived in a highly advanced and modern civilization. To supply water to this dry northern region of Sri Lanka, artificial lakes were created to store monsoon rainwater and irrigate the rice fields. Anuradhapura thrived as a bustling ancient metropolis until it was abandoned in the 11th century following a defeat in war.
The Bodhi tree, the foundation of the Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka, was the only element cultivated and safeguarded. It is widely regarded as the world’s oldest historically documented tree and remains a significant pilgrimage site to this day. The ruins of the ancient city, monuments, and monasteries have been researched, cleared, and restored for more than a century, but there is still much to learn about this archaeological site that embodies the early Buddhist civilization.
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 in 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
More than two millennia ago, the Bodhi tree was planted and has since been protected and surrounded by temples. It serves as a destination for Buddhist pilgrims seeking redemption from the cycle of life and suffering. Despite the constant flow of visitors, the site exudes a serene and powerful aura that keeps the memory of Buddha alive. As the oldest documented tree in the world, it is a symbol of the Buddha and a centre of worship for Buddhists.
The monks of Anuradhapura adhere to the original teachings of the Buddha, following the stricter Theravada Buddhism. These teachings were first recorded on palm leaves in the 1st century BC and are still followed by the monks today. Monasteries, temples, and residential buildings were built around the Bodhi tree, gradually forming a well-planned, spacious, and highly civilized stone city. King Devanampiya Tissa, the ruler of the north of Sri Lanka, promoted the new Buddhist faith, and a close relationship between kingship and Buddhism developed in ancient times.
One notable structure is the “Catussala,” a dining room from the 3rd century BC. The more than 13-meter-long “rice boat” served food to more than 3,000 monks each morning, who were only allowed to eat one meal a day before the sun reached its zenith.
The monasteries were simple and functional, had their own water supply, and 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.
The stone carvings adorning the pillars of temples and relics are not just for decoration but also serve as symbols of various levels of knowledge on the path to salvation. Some of the oldest carvings depict lotus plants and animal figures, as well as dwarfs and snake deities. The monasteries formed their own self-contained communities within the city, which spanned over 40 square kilometres and was home to four large plants. While the kings could afford to construct dagobas, the dwellings of ordinary people were made of perishable materials such as clay and wood, leaving nothing remaining of their existence as landmarks of Buddhism.
Outside the holy city lay the rice fields, which have been the source of livelihood for centuries. In this dry region of northern Sri Lanka, irrigation is essential, and the ancient hydraulic high culture is evidenced by the creation of water reservoirs as early as 430 BC. These “tanks”, or artificial dugouts, were built by immigrants from North India who brought knowledge of irrigation technology with them and were vital to the flourishing of the region. Three large tanks still exist today, catching monsoon rain and storing it for several months to provide sufficient water for over 123,000 inhabitants, as well as the “elephant pond” – a 150-metre-long, 50-metre-wide, and 10-metre-deep stone water reservoir used by nearby monks for washing and swimming.
The basins of the ancient bath were fed by underground water pipes and provided cooling relief from the tropical heat
Ruvanvelisaya – the great Dagoba
The dome is one of the most important stupas of Sri Lanka. Image of the cosmos, an 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.