Day 4 (1of 3).
100km southeast of Anuradhapura stands the ruins of Sri Lanka’s second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. For two hundred years, Polonnaruwa served as the centre of the nation after Anuradhapura was sacked by the invading Chola Kingdom from Southern India in the 10th century. The Chola Tamils destroyed Buddhist monuments and monasteries, and established a new capital in Polonnaruwa. In 1070AD, Vijayabahu I of Ruhuna Kingdom (southeast of the island) drove the Chola out, unified the country, and established the second major Sinhalese kingdom and restored Buddhism as the national religion. Polonnaruwa flourished as the most important medieval city in Sri Lanka until the 13th century when the island was again invaded by the Tamil Pandya Dynasty from India.
Today, the archaeological ground of Polonnaruwa is a popular tourist destination in the Cultural Triangle (marked by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy), the region on the island dotted with ancient capitals and World Heritage sites. To save time, we hired a private car from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, with a detour to Polonnaruwa. At Polonnaruwa, our driver took us first to the visitor centre for the admission tickets and a brief visit to the museum, before driving us to the five highlights in the archaeological park: Royal Palace, Quadrangle, Rankot Vihara Stupa, Lankatilaka Monastery and the Buddha statues of Gal Vihara.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ) in the 12th century, the Royal Palace was once seven storey tall in its heyday.
The Royal Palace of King Parakumba was said to contain 1000 rooms. Now only a few dozens remain.
Much of the crumbling ruins is covered with lush green moss.
The Royal Bathing pool (Kumara Pokuna) near the Royal Palace was a delightful treat for visitors.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ), water would enter the pool through the two dragon mouths, and could be drained out after use.
The Audience Hall of the Royal Palace is another feature at the Royal Palace.
The Audience Hall is famous for the frieze of elephants, each has a unique pose.
Two stone lions guard the entrance of the Audience Hall.
The stone pillars of the Audience Hall have some amazing details.
The second highlight we visited at Polonnaruwa was the Quadrangle. On a raised platform, Quadrangle encompasses a cluster of religious structures erected by different rulers of Polonnaruwa. Atadage is the oldest building among them all. Built by King Vijayabahu the Great (1055 – 1110), Atadage is believed to house the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha. Adjacent to Atadage, Hatadage built by King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) was also a shrine for the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha.
Built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196), Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is an interesting structure with unique columns and a small stone stupa. The building was used for the king to listen to Buddhist chanting.
Built by Parakramabahu I to house the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha, or by King Nissanka Malla to hold Buddha’s alms bowl, Vatadage was an essential structure at the Quadrangle.
Because of its circular form and well preserved carving details, Vatadage is also the most famous building in Polonnaruwa.
Vatadage has two stone platforms and a small stone stupa atop. Steps and statues were constructed at the four cardinal directions. Stone pillars suggest that a wooden roof might have once covered the circular structure.
Monkeys are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
At all temples or ruins, including Vatadage, tourists would be reminded that taking selfies with their backs toward the statue of the Buddha is prohibited.
Completely built with bricks, Thuparama is about 84 ft long and 56 ft wide. Its brick walls are about 7 ft thick.
Inside Thuparama, the central seating Buddha statue was long gone. Yet the adjacent limestone statues survive till the present day.
Day 3 (4 of 4).
Mirisawetiya Stupa was just five minute walk away from our hotel Sanctuary at Tissawewa. As we left the ruins of Abhayagiri Monastery, it was still a little early for supper, so we decided to check out Mirisawetiya Stupa before sunset. The road leading to the stupa was decorated with colourful Buddhist banners and flags. Large group of people, some dressed in traditional costumes, gathered at the entrance parking lot. Red carpet was laid on the ground leading into the forecourt of the stupa. We were excited to see the scene, despite we couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on. We figured that there must be a certain kind of religious ceremony taking place. And so we followed the red carpet, took off our shoes at the forecourt, and entered the stupa complex.
It was still too early to call it a day, so we asked the tuk tuk driver to drop us off at Mirisawetiya Stupa.
A long red carpet led us into the stupa forecourt. A large TV screen was broadcasting the speech of a monk.
The vivid Buddhist colours and traditional costumes stand out extremely well from the white wash stupa.
The costume looks like to be some kind of ceremonial costumes.
Shrines at the Mirisawetiya Stupa was full of offerings.
Monks also gathered at the stupa with their offerings.
Crowds sat down at various locations around the stupa.
A parade of ceremonial procession walked right by us.
Followed by a number of people dressed in white.
Because of the crowds and security control, we could not move freely around the stupa.
We stayed with a group of worshipers for a while.
And admired the stunning Mirisawetiya Stupa below the setting sun.
Unfortunately we didn’t understand the language so we didn’t stay for long at the scene.
Later at night, we found out that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka came to Mirisawetiya Stupa for a visit. What we saw was part of the ceremony associated with his visit.
Due to the close distance, we could still hear the speakers of Mirisawetiya‘s ceremony from our hotel until late at night. The event perhaps gave us an insight on how a Buddhist event might have look like in Anuradhapura over a millennia ago. The next day we would move on to Polonnaruwa and then Sigiriya, two other popular attractions in the Cultural Triangle.
Day 3 (3 of 4).
From 399 to 414AD, Chinese monk Faxian traveled to India and Sri Lanka in search for Buddhist scriptures. In his travelogue A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, he documented the places he visited in his journey, including Anuradhapura where he stayed briefly in 412AD. Faxian gave the following account on Abhayagiri, the largest Buddhist monastery in Anuradhapura: “A monastery, called the Abhayagiri, where there are five thousand monks. There is in it a hall of Buddha, adorned with carved and inlaid works of gold and silver, and rich in the seven precious substances, in which there is an image (of Buddha) in green jade, more than twenty cubits in height, glittering all over with those substances, and having an appearance of solemn dignity which words cannot express. In the palm of the right hand there is a priceless pearl…”
Founded in the 2nd century BC, Abhayagiri Vihara was once a world renowned Buddhist monastery and learning institution attracting monks from all over Sri Lanka and surrounding countries including Java, Burma and India. In the 4th century, the Buddha’s tooth relic was brought to Sri Lanka from India. Abhayagiri was selected as the shrine and designated venue to showcase this precious relic in public veneration. Supported by different rulers, Abhayagiri continued to serve as the main hub of Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism until the 12th century, when Anuradhapura was sacked and abandoned, and the national capital was moved to Polonnaruwa. The magnificent monastery fell into ruins for 800 years until late 19th century and early 20th century when excavation and restoration work began. Today, Abhayagiri has become one of the largest clusters of ancient ruins in Sri Lanka, where gigantic stupa, stone pools, brick walls, foundations of multi storey buildings, and exquisite stone carvings in the midst of lush green jungle reveal the bygone glory of Anuradhapura two millennia ago.
After lunch at Sanctuary at Tissawewa, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Abhayagiri Dagoba, the largest monument in the monastery vicinity.
Although not as crowded as Ruwanwelisaya and Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, Abhayagiri Dagoba is popular among local worshipers.
Believed to reach a height of 115m, Abhayagiri Dagoba was once the fourth tallest monument in the classical period, behind the Egyptian Pyramids in Giza and the Jethawanaramaya Dagoba.
The shrine in front of the stupa houses a reclining Buddha.
Abhayagiri Dagoba just went through a 15-year restoration at 2015 as a UNESCO project.
Devoted worshiper praying at the stupa.
The majestic stupa was the main focus of the entire Abhayagiri Vihara Monastery.
A group of Western Buddhists sat down and listen to the teaching of their mentor.
Another highlight at Abhayagiri Vihara is the ruins of Pancavasa palace hidden in the woods.
The Pancavasa was famous for its exquisite carvings.
Interesting carvings of Buddhist guardians at Pancavasa.
All these exquisite carvings are not the reason why tourists flock into the woods in search for the ruins of Pancavasa.
All tourists come here for one thing, the moonstone carving on the ground.
Moonstone is a unique architectural feature in Sri Lanka. It usually appears as a base landing at a set of steps. Moonstones symbolize samsara, the endless cycle of reincarnation and the path to nirvana. Each ring of animals represents a successive phase of one’s passage through samsara.
The last thing we checked out in the monastery area was the Samadhi Buddha Statue. The statues is believed to be part of a sacred Bodhi tree shrine.
The 7′-3″ Samadhi Buddha Statue was carved out from a dolomite marble. Sculpted in around the 5th century, the statue is considered one of the nation’s finest.
Day 3 (2 of 4).
In ancient times, two Buddhist monasteries dominated the religious scenes in Anuradhapura, the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri. Both monasteries were home to thousands of monks and represents the two competing sects of Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Their sectarian conflicts led to destruction of the Mahavihara, the main monastery of Theravada Buddhism built by the King Devanampiya Tissa. Upon destroying the Mahavihara, King Mahasena (reigned 273-301AD) constructed the Jetavanaramaya Dagoba to house the relic of the Buddha’s belt. Some also believed that the dagoba was built upon the place where Mahinda, the eldest son of Emperor Ashoka who first introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka, lectured Buddhism. Reaching a height of 400 feet, the original Jetavanaramaya Dagoba was the third tallest structure in the ancient world, behind the two Egyptian pyramids in Giza. After Anuradhapura was abandoned in the 11th century, the stupa fell into ruins and subsequently renovated to its current height at 233 feet in the 12th century. The stupa was gradually covered by shrubs until 1909, when conservation and clearing works began.
Towering above the horizon east of Ruwanwelisaya, the Jetavanaramaya Dagoba was the second great stupa that we visited in Anuradhapura. On Google Map, Jetavanaramaya Dagoba appeared to be less than 1km east of Ruwanwelisaya. We were too lazy to walk under the scorching sun, so we hopped on a tuk tuk for Jetavanaramaya. Upon arriving at the famous stupa, we were surprised by the lack of visitors. Unlike Ruwanwelisaya where the white stupa was surrounded by worshipers, Jetavanaramaya Dagoba appeared quite empty with only a handful of locals and foreign tourists.
Once again we had to take off our shoes before entering the stupa platform.
It was hard to imagine the imposing prominence of the original 400 feet tall stupa.
A handful of local worshipers put down their offerings on the stone pedestals in front of the stupa.
Beautiful statues of Buddha made of pink stone stood out prominently against the stupa wall.
Dressed mainly in white, local worshipers circled the stupa in clockwise direction.
Another Buddha statue is made with translucent white stone.
Pieces of fine statues and relief carvings were placed in front of the brick stupa walls.
At one side of the stupa stands a small worship hall.
The Jetavanaramaya was constructed with special bricks made with 60% fine sand and 35% clay.
In early 20th century, Jetavanaramaya was covered with dense shrubs.
We left Jetavanaramaya after walking a full circle around the monument.
No tuk tuk could be found at the entrance of Jetavanaramaya. We decided to walk back to Ruwanwelisaya where we might be able to flag down a tuk tuk.
On our way, we walk by Silachetiya (Kujjatissa) Stupa, another 2000-year-old historical structure built in the era of King Saddhatissa (137 – 119 BC).
Near Ruwanwelisaya, we bumped into a group of tufted gray langur hanging around in the archaeological park.
From Ruwanwelisaya, we decided to walk back to The Sanctuary at Tissawewa via Basawakkulama Tank, where locals enjoyed picnic lunch by the water .
Day 3 (1 of 4).
At 400BC, the great thinker and religious teacher Gautama Buddha passed away. His body was cremated and the ash was divided into eight portions given to eight different kingdoms as sacred relics. During the reign of Ashoka the Great (268-232BC), relics of the Buddha was dug up and further subdivided into 84,000 portions. Stupas were erected across the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia to house the relics. As time went by, only a small number of relics remain in the original two-thousand-year-old stupas, while most have been transferred to different temples around the world along with the spreading of Buddhism. Today, Buddhist relics can be found in many Asian countries, and even as far as in Russia and the United States. As one of the earliest countries where Buddhism was introduced, Sri Lanka has some of the oldest stupas in the world. Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka where Buddhism first arrived at Ashoka’s time, was home to the oldest and grandest stupas, also called dagobas, in the nation. While Buddhism in India has long declined, the religion continues to flourish in Sri Lanka until the present. Today, a number of ancient stupas in Anurādhapura remain as popular pilgrimage sites for worshipers, just as they were 2000 years ago.
Built by King Dutugamunu in 137BC, Ruvanvelisaya is the stupa believed to house the largest amount of the Buddha’s relics anywhere in the world. With a diameter of 300 feet and a height of about 350 feet, it was once one of the largest monuments in the ancient world. As the nation’s political and cultural centre shifted away from Anurādhapura, the stupa fell into ruins during the Medieval time. Restoration work of the great stupa began in early 20th century. Since then, the stupa has once again become a religious and historical icon for the ancient capital.
A short walk from our hotel brought us to the archaeological museum, a well established museum housed in the former district secretariat building. We stayed briefly at the museum to learn a bit more about the history of the city and its famous stupas. A museum staff was kind enough to show us around at a number of exhibition rooms. Then we walked over to the ticket office adjacent to the museum to purchase our one-day cultural heritage tickets.
After obtaining the cultural heritage tickets, we continued to head north to Ruvanvelisaya Stupa.
Ruvanvelisaya Stupa was the most crowded stupa we visited in Anuradhapura.
Before reaching the stupa, we arrived at glass building designated for candle and incense offerings.
It was interesting to see so many worshipers dresses in white and dogs resting on the floor inside the candle offering building.
Ruvanvelisaya’s famous elephant wall was originally built by King Dutugamunu’s brother Saddhatissa two thousand years ago. It was said that the original 344 elephants were coated with gold dust.
The actual stupa is washed in white paint, and wrapped at the base with a multi coloured band resembling the Buddhist flag of Sri Lanka.
Around the stupa stand offering tables and stone counters. Beautiful lotus flowers once again are the most popular offerings.
Some worshipers prefer to leave their offerings at the base of the stupa.
At each cardinal directions, a splendid shrine with Buddha’s figure known as vahalkada attract worshipers to leave offerings and chant prayers.
Once again lotus flowers are the most popular offerings.
Other than the white paint on the stupa and white clothing of worshipers, almost everything else is vivid in colours.
Other than lotus flowers, rice and sweet good are also used as offerings.
Somehow each worshipers would know where to place their flowers in order to create the fantastic flower patterns.
It was hard to imagine how abundant lotus flowers are in the nation to allow so many worshipers to leave their offerings.
At one end, we reached a small and crowded shrine.
Inside the shrine there is a mini stupa protected by transparent partitions.
Ruvanvelisaya was undergoing an extensive restoration.
Before leaving, we passed by an area full of incense smoke and devoted worshipers.
We left Ruvanvelisaya from the same path we came, where worshipers dressed in white continued to enter and pay their respect to the magnificent stupa.
Day 2 (5 of 5).
Since most attractions in Anurādhapura are covered by the one-day Cultural Heritage Ticket, we decided to visit the two obvious exceptions on our first day: Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, and the rock temple of Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya, and leave the rest covered by the day ticket for the following day. On the east coast of Tissa Wewa, the reservoir built by King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC, stands a group of giant granite boulders, where for the past two thousand years had been served as a small Buddhist temple, the Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya. Constructed under the reign of Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC, the vihara was used as a Buddhist monastery to the house 500 ordained children. Renovations and additions in later centuries continued to transform the temple into its current form, which is consisted of the old rock shrine, the new shrine, the lily pond, and the rock cliff on which visitors can climb atop to check out the stupa and a rock engraved footprints of the Buddha. The temple is famous for its stone carvings, but unfortunately much of the complex, including the small museum, was under renovation during our visit.
From Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, we followed Google Map and walked towards Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya. On our way, we passed Dakkhina Stupa, a brick stupa constructed in the 2nd century BC.
Unlike the ancient stupas in town, Sandahiru Seya near Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya is in fact a modern construction commissioned by President Rajapaksa in 2010. Once completed, the modern stupa will reach a height of 85m. Slow funding and construction means Sandahiru Seya won’t be completed anytime soon.
Near the entrance of Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya, we passed by the Buddhist monastery Sri Sarananda Maha Pirivena.
Beyond a bridge over a beautiful lotus pond, we arrived at the entrance of Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya.
Lotus ponds are common all over Sri Lanka.
It was almost sunset when we reached the magnificent rock temple. Just like the shrine of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, we had to take off our shoes before entering the compound of Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya.
Set in front the backdrop of granite boulders, the Isurumuniya Temple and the adjacent pond are the most prominent features in the complex.
Splendid stone carving of Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya is one of the main reason why foreign visitors come.
The shrine of Isurumuniya Temple contains a Buddhist image behind glass.
Unfortunately the small museum on site was closed for renovation. We left the temple and walked over to the stair at the back side.
Behind the Isurumuniya Temple, a series of steps led us to the top of the granite boulders.
Top top of the boulders is dominated by a stupa and rocks with carvings.
The white stupa is actually a relatively recent addition to the complex.
Late afternoon sun cast a peaceful aura onto the stupa.
At the top, ancient carvings, including a pair of Buddha’s footprints.
What seems to be a designated area of money offerings at the top.
Looking down, we could see the pond and more incoming visitors.
Behind us to the west, the sun sett over the peaceful reservior Tissa Wewa. It was time for us to head back to the hotel for a Sri Lanka supper to conclude the day.
Day 2 (4 of 5).
In 288BC, a sapling of Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred fig tree in Buddha Gaya of India under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, was brought to Sri Lanka by Sangamitta Theri, the eldest daughter of Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great. The sapling was brought to the island in a golden vase on the ship, and planted by King Devanampiya Tissa on a 6.5m high terrace in the Mahamevnawa Gardens of Anuradhapura. Sangamitta stayed in Anurādhapura and established the nun-lineage of Bhikkhunī with several other Indian nuns. Along with his elder brother Mahinda, Sangamitta was a vital figure for spreading Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The ancient capital Anuradhapura continued to flourish and develop into a hub for Buddhist teachings that lasted for many centuries.
Today, the sacred tree Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi continues to thrive and has become one of the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world. The amazing 2308-year-old tree is also known as the oldest living tree planted by human hands on record. Given the significance of the tree, the Sri Lankan government banned all construction within 500m from it. Walls were also erected in the 18th century to protect the tree from wild elephants. Golden fence around the tree was later added in 1969. Buddha statues were placed at four sides of the sacred tree by different ancient kings. Ceremonies are held at the site to celebrate new year and several other festivals every year.
After a light lunch, we ventured out the Sanctuary Tissawewa and head east. Following the instruction given by the hotel staff, we found our way towards the legendary fig tree.
From the main road, we followed a pedestrian only path for about 10 minutes towards the sacred tree. At one point, we passed by a tree full of monkeys.
Most worshipers arrived at the sacred tree with lotus flower as offerings.
A green garden mat surrounds the terrace where the sacred Bodhi is located.
From the semicircular Moon stone (Sandakada pahana, a floor feature unique to Sinhalese architecture), worshipers would go up the steps to the shrine at the second level of the platform.
At each cardinal direction, a shrine is built for worshipers to leave their offerings and receive blessing from the monk.
The shrine is relatively simple, with an offering table and small Buddha statues.
Offerings of lotus flower can be seen at all Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, including Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
Some shrines are more popular than the others.
Dressed in white, worshipers would leave a handful of lotus flower at the shrine, and receive blessing and a white string wrist bracelet from the monk of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
At the platform, monks and worshipers interact and chat prayers towards the sacred Bodhi tree.
Behind the shrine further up the platform, we could see what must be the 2300 year old sacred Bodhi tree.
The lush green crown of the sacred tree provides a perfect backdrop for the golden features of the shrines and colouful Buddhist flags. The golden sunlight, peaceful aura, and sounds of rubbing leaves in the gentle breeze convey a strong sense of spirituality.
Structures painted in gold are erected to support certain branches of the sacred tree.
A small temple is located at one side of the platform.
Inside the temple, a decent sized worship hall houses a Buddhist statue.
Apart from the sacred Bodhi tree on the highest terrace, younger fig trees are planted at the lower platforms. These trees are meant to provide protection to the sacred tree against storm and animals.
We enjoyed the spiritual atmosphere of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. After checking out the shrines at all four sides of the sacred tree, we left the compound at the south gate.