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 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.