The city of Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been the center of Theravada Buddhism for several centuries. It is located 205 km north of Colombo in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province. Standing on the banks of the historic Malvathu Oya, this city is one of the world’s ancient cities which has been continuously colonized by different rulers and is famous for its storied remnants of ancient Sri Lankan civilization which draw millions of tourists. The city is rich in archaeological and architectural wonders with elevated brick towers, ancient pools, mammoth dagobas, and crumbling temples. The city also has palaces, monasteries and monuments (all in ruins) that are fascinating to visit.
Anuradhapura is also a major part of the cultural triangle, which is significant to the Buddhist devotees in particular and most importantly, is the sacred city of the Bhodi tree of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in India, under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, was planted. The Sri Maha Bodhiya is the oldest documented tree that is still living. The city also has palaces, monasteries and monuments (all in ruins) that are fascinating to visit.
Dating back to the 1st century BC, this colossal dagoba was the ceremonial focus of the 5000-strong Abhayagiri Monastery. Originally over 100m high, it was one of the greatest structures in the ancient world, its scale only matched by the pyramids of Giza (and nearby Jetavanarama). Today, after several reconstructions, Abhayagiri Dagoba soars 75m above the forest floor. Visually, it's stunning, and your first glimpse of this brick monument through a gap in the surrounding forest is breathtaking.
The Jetavanarama Dagoba’s massive dome rises above the entire eastern part of Anuradhapura. Built in the 3rd century by King Mahasena, when it was built it was almost certainly the third-tallest monument in the world, the first two being Egyptian pyramids.
This area was once part of an ancient pleasure park called Nandana Uyana, said to be the site of the first sermons on Buddhism preached by Mahinda in the 3rd century BC.
This old British colonial administration building has recently been renovated and has an interesting collection of artwork, carvings and everyday items from Anuradhapura and other historic sites around Sri Lanka. Exhibits include a restored relic chamber, found during the excavation of the Kantaka Chetiya dagoba at nearby Mihintale, and a large-scale model of Thuparama Dagoba’s vatadage (circular relic house) as it might have been if a wooden roof had existed.
This charming rock temple, dating from the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (r 307–267 BC), is set around a lovely lotus pond, the corner of which is carved with images of elephants playfully splashing water. The central temple has some particularly fine mural paintings. Climb around the back to the rock summit to see the bell-shaped stupa and a pair of Buddha footprints etched into the rock.
The small museum features the famous ‘lovers’ sculpture, which dates from around the 5th century AD and is carved in the artistic style of the Indian Gupta dynasty of the 4th and 5th centuries.
Sandahiru Seya Victory Stupa
Two thousand years after the first of the great dagobas was constructed, a huge new stupa, the Sandahiru Seya, is rising on the south side of Anuradhapura, commissioned by President Rajapaksa in 2010. Designed to reach 85m in height, with a circumference of 244m, it will eventually rise above the ancient dagobas of Jetavanarama and Abhayagiri (but will not surpass their original heights). Sandahiru Seya is being constructed from over 30 million bricks and will be plastered and then whitewashed when finished. This is being constructed as a mark of respect to all those who died in the 30 year long civil war of Sri Lanka which ended in 2009.
Sri Maha Bodhi
The sacred bodhi tree is central to Anuradhapura in both a spiritual and physical sense. It was grown from a cutting brought from Bodhgaya in India and is said to be the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians for over 2000 years. Today thousands of devotees come to make offerings, particularly on poya (full moon) days and weekends. Sunset is a magical time to visit.
Royal Pleasure Gardens
Known as the Park of the Goldfish, these extensive 2000-year-old royal pleasure gardens cover 14 hectares and contains two ponds skilfully designed to fit around the huge boulders in the park. Look out for the fine elephant carvings.Carved onto the backside of a rock face in the southwest corner of the park is an intriguing geometric mandala design of circles and crosses that some have suggested is one of the earliest ever depictions of a world map.
It was here that Prince Saliya, son of Dutugemunu, was said to have met the low-caste Asokamala, whom he married, thereby forsaking his right to the throne, a story captured in the 'lover's' sculpture in nearby Isurumuniya Vihara.
The 2m tall Buddha statue, popularly known as the Samadhi statue is a masterpiece of Sinhalese sculpture of Buddha in meditative posture carved in stone during the 4th century. It was one of the four Buddha statues placed around a Bodhi tree facing the cardinal directions. Belonging to the Abhayagiri monastic complex, the statue is sculptured out of dolomite marble seated in virasana and displaying the pose known as dhyana mudra. The hollow carved eyes were formally inset with crystals or precious stones.
Excavations conducted at the site revealed that the statue belonged to the fourth century and was one of the four statues originally placed around a Bodhi tree growing there.Late Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who had visited the site was so taken up with the serenity of the statue, that it made a lasting impression on him for the rest of his life. It is said that during the period of his imprisonment by the British colonialists, Nehru found solace in meditating upon an impression of the Samadhi statue.
Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds) in Anuradhapura
Kuttam Pokuna or the twin ponds, a monument of great beauty and superior engineering, was built for Buddhist monks at Abhayagiri Vihara for their daily baths. On architectural grounds, the ponds are assigned to the period between the 8th and 10th centuries. The supply of water to Kuttam Pokuna first flows into an enclosure built above the level of the ponds. The enclosure channels the water into the smaller pond through a stone carved Makara (Dragon). The smaller pond, in return, feeds the larger pond of Kuttam Pokuna by means of a duct below the ground level. At the northern end of the smaller pond is a fine sculpture of a five hooded cobra carved in stone. The cobra or Naga is a symbol of the guardian of water.
The Mirisawati Dagoba
Mirisawati Dagoba was built by King Dutugamunu (161-137 BC), “The Hero of the Nation”, following the water festival held on the seventh day of the victory of the Great War that rescued the nation from the Southern Indian Kingdom of Chola. Mirisawati Dagoba was the first monument built by the king following his consecration.
Opened for public display in 1996, the Jetavana museum is located within the ancient monastery complex of Jetavana in Anuradhapura. The museum building has been used as a town hall in 1937 during the British period, and was later used as a museum. Artefacts from the Jetavana monastery complex in Anuradhapura, which existed from 3rd - 10th centuries AD are displayed in the museum.
The Abhayagiriya Museum is located within the ancient monastery complex of Abhayagiriya in Anuradhapura. It was opened for public exhibition on 13th June 1992. The museum, which was designed in ancient Panchavasa monastery plan was constructed by the Central Cultural Fund under financial aid from the People’s Republic of China. The Abhayagiriya Museum is named as ‘Mahatissa-Faxian Cultural Complex’ in order to commemorate Ven. Kupikkala Mahatissa, the first incumbent of the Abhayagiri Maha Vihara, and Ven. Fa-Xian, the Chinese Buddhist monk who studied Buddhism at the Abhayagiri Maha Vihara from 411 to 412 AD. It centers upon the Abhayagiriya archaeological complex.
The main purpose of this museum is to manifest through artifacts that were recovered from Abhayagiriya that Sri Lanka was a prosperous country which flourished through international relations, and a country where arts and technology harmonized remarkably.
Artefacts at display at this museum exhibit a wealth of information on ancient metallurgy, writing, religious customs, sculpture and art, ancient architecture, art techniques, hygiene, environmental conservation methods, hydrological technology, monastic administration, and time management that existed at the ancient Abhayagiri Vihara from 1st century BC to 11th century AD.
Sitting northwest of the Abhayagiri Dagoba, this ruined 9th-century residential complex for monks is notable for having the finest carved moonstone in Sri Lanka; many species of animals can be found in its elaborate carvings. This is a peaceful wooded area full of butterflies, and makes a good place to stop and cool off during a tour of the ruins as there are drink and snack stands close by. You can also notice the fine steps held up by jovial gana’’ (dwarfs).
Tissa Wewa - Lake
The 160-hectare Tissa Wewa is the southern tank in the old city. The dirt road around the lake makes for a nice bike ride. It's easily accessed from the behind the Isurumuniya Vihara or Royal Pleasure Gardens.