Ruwanwelimahaseya, Anuradapura

Anuradapura Historical City

The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders, enormous dagobas (brick stupas), ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. Today, several of the sites remain in use as holy places and temples, frequent ceremonies give Anuradhapura a vibrancy that’s a sharp contrast to the museum like ambience at Polonnaruwa.

History of Anuradhapura

Although people may have lived in this area since as early as the 10th century BC, Anuradhapura became a great city after the arrival of a cutting from the Bodhi Tree (‘tree of enlightenment’), the Buddha’s fig tree, in the 3rd century BC. The sacred branch was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns.

Anuradhapura went on to become a Ceylonese political and religious capital (4th century BC) that flourished for 1,300 years. In its prime, Anuradhapura ranked alongside Nineveh and Babylon in its colossal proportions its four walls, each 16 miles (26 km) long, enclosing an area of 256 square miles (663 km²) in the number of its inhabitants, and the splendour of its shrines and public buildings.

The city also had some of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world. Most of the great reservoir tanks still survive today, and some many be the oldest surviving reservoirs in the world. After an invasion in 993 AD, Anuradhapura was permanently abandoned. For centuries, the site lay hidden in the jungle. Rediscovered by the British in the 19th century, Anuradhapura became a Buddhist pilgrimage site once again.

Historical Places to Visit

Ruwanweliseya – ( Swarnamaalee Dagoba )

The Ruwanweli Seya has a diameter of 90 meters at the base and is 92 meters (300 ft) high. The circumference is 292 metres (950 ft ) high. The original stupa had been about 55 meters tall (about 180 ft) and many kings had renovated the Stupa. Like most Sri Lankan Stupas, the Ruwanweliseya has been built like a bubble floating on water (diya bubula). Some relics of the Buddha are enshrined in it. King Dhutugemunu has had a grand ceremony to enshrine the relics. The Thupavansa describes it in detail.

The Ruwanweliseya is sited in the Ancient Sinhala capital of Anuradhapura in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. It was built by King Dhutugemunu (137 BC – 119 BC) and completed by his younger brother, King Saddhathissa, after his death. The Ruwanweliseya is ranked among the tallest ancient monuments in the world.

Legend has it that King Dutugamunu built the Stupa at a place where he found a rock inscription by Arahath Mahinda. The inscription says “In time to come a great king would establish a great stupa where the stone is established.” The Ruwanweliseya is adjacent to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya in the Mahamevuna Uyana. It was soon after the war with King Elara that King Dhutugemunu started to build the great Stupa. Much money had been spent on the war and times were hard but according to the Mahavansa the materials needed to build the Stupa miraculously sprang up from all over the island.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

The sacred city of Anuradhapura has been nominated by the UNESCO as a World Heritage. The main reason for the historical city of Anuradhapura to become a sacred city was the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

Lord Gautama Buddha is considered as the Greatest Human Being appeared on earth. The esteemed one achieved the eternal bliss of Samma Sambodhi or the Enlightenment, ending the continuous circle of Samsara, the existence. This wonderful event took place 2600 years ago seated with his back against under an Esathu tree by the river Neranjana in the Bodhgaya, India. As the ascetic Siddhartha attained the Sambodhi Gnana under the shade of the Esathu tree, this highly venerated tree came to be known as the ‘Bodhi’.

This sacred tree has been planted in the historical Maha Megha Vana Royal Park in Anuradhapura in the month of ‘Unduvap’ (December), 236 BC, according to the written facts. The sacred Bodhi sapling has been ceremonially brought here by Arahant Sanghamitta Maha Theree, under instructions of Arahant Mihindu Maha Thero. King Devanampiyatissa who ruled Sri Lanka in this period has planted this Bodhi tree with great pageantry in the Maha Megha Vana Royal Park dedicated to the venerable bhikkhus. The present age of the Anuradhapura Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is 2,247 years.

Accordingly, the oldest tree of the whole world with a written history is the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi of Anuradhapura. This tree belongs to the family of trees known as ‘asvastha’ in Sanskrit, ‘asvattha’ in Pali, ‘aesatu’ in Sinhala. Botanists have named it ‘ficus religiosa’ taking into account its religious significance.

Lovamahapaya – The Great Copper Roofed Mansion

The king Devamnampiyatissa, the first Buddhist king of the country build a chapter house in this location on the instructions Mahinda Thero who brought Buddhism to the country. A century later king Dutugamunu (161-131 BC) built a massive structure of which the remains you see today.

According to Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of the Sinhalese, Lovamahapaya was a massive nine storied building with a height of 150 ft (47 meters) and each side with a 150 feet (46 meters) length. The building was supported by 40 rows of stone pillars with 40 pillars which totaled 1600 pillars. In each level there were 1000 rooms and 100 windows. The building of Lovamahapaya was adorned with corals and precious stones. Its roof was covered with copper-bronze plates. Although this description may be a little exaggerated, this would have been a very impressive building at that time looking at what remains today.

Superstructure of the Lovamahapaya probably would have been wood and the height of this building deceased with time. According to Mahavamsa, this building was destroyed by fire during king Saddhatissa (137-119 BC) and it was built to seven stories. King Sirinaga II (240-242 AC) restored this building again to five levels.  King Jettatissa (266-276 AC) once again raised the size of the building to seven levels.


Thuparamaya is considered the oldest Stupa and was built after the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Arahath Mahinda Thero. This bell shaped, visually pleasing stupa was built in the era of king Devanampiyatissa as a result of the request made by Arahat Mahinda, a representative of King Asoka during 250BC – 210BC as a monastery complex enshrining the sacred collar bone of the Lord Buddha. This is the first stupa to be built in Sri Lanka after the arrival of Buddhism to the country.

The temple is located in Mahamewna Uyana, in the sacred city of Anuradhapura which is one of the top must visit places in Sri Lanka. It has been officially identified as an archaeological site in Sri Lanka by the country’s government. The name Thuparamaya stands for a residential complex for monks which comes from “stupa” and “aramaya”. It is believed to be the depository for the consecrated right collar bone artifact of Lord Buddha and some believes that it originally held the sacred tooth relic before it was moved to temple of the tooth in Kandy.

Abhayagiri Dagoba

Abhayagiri Buddhist monastic centre (Dāgeba) by King Vaṭṭagāmaṇi Abhaya during the period of his second reign in 29 –17 BC. It is situated in Anuradhapura, the capital of Sri Lanka at the time, where most of the religious and political power attracted. And due to the sheer number of monasteries congregated in one place the religion made a vast profane influence that changed the future. Abhayagiri Dagoba continues to flourish until Anuradhapura was abandoned in the mid-13th century. 

The dagoba is rising over 75 meters and 106.6 meters in diameter at the widest point of curve. Chinese monk Fa Hiiyun who was also a Buddhist explorer and a researcher had also visited the dāgoba in 412 AD, recorded evidence that there were about 4000 monks in residence at Abhayagiri complex, at the time.

The Abhayagiri Vihara developed as a great institution attracting scholars from all over the world and encompassing all shades of Buddhist philosophy, side by side with the Mahavihara and the Jetavana Buddhist monastic sects in the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura, where its influence can be traced to other parts of the world, through branches established.

According to the chronicles, the name Abhayagiri originated from of King Vattagamani Abhaya and of the Giri priests who lived in the monastery. It was the norm at the time to build monasteries on hillocks (Giri in Sinhala language) symbolizing and embodying the fact that the religion was considered most important and was put above everything. Considering above it is believed that the name could have originated to symbolize the monastery created by Vattagamani Abhaya after his recapture of the kingdom surrounding the hillock known as Digapasana, now inside the Abhayagiri complex.


The Jetavanaramaya is a Stupa located in the ruins of Jetavana in the sacred world heritage city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Mahasena of Anuradhapura 273 – 301 initiated the construction of the Stupa following the destruction of the mahavihara. His son Maghavanna I completed the construction of the Stupa. A part of a sash or belt tied by the Buddha is believed to be the relic that is enshrined here.

The structure is significant in the island’s history for it represents the tensions within the Theravada and Mahayana sects of Buddhism; it is also significant in recorded history as one of the tallest structures in the ancient world; the height of the Stupa is 400 feet (122 meters), making it the tallest Stupa in the ancient world. The structure is no longer the tallest, but it is still the largest, with a base – area of 233,000 m 2 (2,508,000 sq ft). Approximately 93.3 million baked bricks were used in its construction; the engineering ingenuity behind the construction of the structure is a significant development in the history of the island. The sectarian differences between the Buddhist monks also are represented by the Stupa as it was built on the premises of the destroyed Mahavihara, which led to a rebellion by a minister of King Mahasen.

This Stupa belongs to the Sagalika sect. The compound covers approximately 5.6 hectares and is estimated to have housed 10,000 Buddhist monks. One side of the Stupa is 576 ft (176 m) long, and the flights of stairs at each of the four sides of it are 28 ft (9 m) wide. The doorpost to the shrine, which is situated in the courtyard, is 27 ft (8 m) high. The Stupa has a 8.5 m (28 ft) deep foundation, and sits on bedrock. Stone inscriptions in the courtyard give the names of people who donated to the building effort.

Mirisaveti Stupa

Mirisawetiya Dagaba has been built by King Dutugamunu (161-137 BC) and this belongs to Mahavihara Complex. King Dutugamunu is the great king who defeated the Tamil invaders who ruled the country for 30 years and brought the country under one ruler.

The Mirisaweti Stupa is a memorial building, after defeating King Elara After placing the Buddha relics in the scepter he had gone to Thissa Lake for a bath leaving the scepter. After the bath he returned to the place where the scepter was placed, and it is said that it could not be moved. The stupa was built in the place where the scepter stood. It is also said that he remembered that he partook a chilly curry without offering it to the sanga (Monks) In order to punish himself he built the Mirisavetiya Dagoba. The extent of this land is about 50 acres (20 ha). Although the king Kashshapa I and Kashshapa V renovated this, from time to time it was dilapidated.

Lankarama Stupa

The Architecture of Lankaramaya is very similar to the Thuparamaya Stupa  (the first Stupa built in Sri Lanka after the establishment of Buddhism). This Stupa is also built on a stage that is approximately 10 feet above from the ground level. Also, there are some stone pillars which indicate the existence of the “Vatadage” (house built for a stupa). The diameter of the Stupa is 45 feet (14 m). The courtyard is circular, and the width is 1332 feet (406 m).

According to the historical records, soon after prince Walagamba (Wattagamini Abhaya) ascended to be the King, South Indian invaders attacked the Anuradhapura Kingdom. King Walagamba couldn’t contain the attack and had to fallback. While he is fleeing for safety, he was hiding in a place called “Silasobbha Khandaka.” Fourteen years later, King Walagamba regained his throne. Legends state that after regaining his throne, he built a stupa on “Silasobbha Khandaka,” place he took refuge earlier. Some of the Historians believe Lankaramaya maybe the Stupa mentions there.


The Meghagiri Vihara is now commonly known as Isurumuniya Vihara or Isurumuniya. But the real Isurumuni Vihara is located few hundred meters away is now called Vessagiri viharaya. Isurumuniya is most famous for the stone carving of a couple located there. This carved stone was found in the royal pleasure garden and brought here. There are many interpretations for this carving.

The most popular is that this carving shows the prince Saliya (the son of the great king Dutugamunu) and his mistress Ashokamala. Ashokamala was of a lover cast called “Chandala” and the prince Saliya gave up the right to be the king by marrying this girl of a lower cast. Another belief is that this couple represent the god Siva and goddess Parvathi of Hindu belief.

The vihara also has another stone slab which depicts a court scene which is thought to be the court of king Dutugemunu. Both these stone slabs are thought to be originated in the 8th century. The vihara itself is built on a rock and the sacred tooth relic of Buddha has been originally kept here when it arrived to the island from India in the 312 AC.

At the entrance to the rock temple is a large pond. Above the pond there is a carving of bathing elephants and on the top-level of the stairs there is another carving of a man seated in a royal pose and a horse head. The top carving is thought to be carving of Agni and Parjanya. Parjanya is the god for rain. The elephants below represent the clouds. With this interpretation it is believed this place was also used by the king to perform ceremonies for rain God. The Stupa and the Buddha image in this temple are of recent origin. But there are some caves which probably were used earlier but now have become a haven for bats.

Ranmasu Uyana

Ranmasu Uyana was introduced to Sri Lanka in the mid 3rd century BC, parks were a definite feature of city planning. Some of these parks were Mahamegha Park established by king Mutasiva in the 3rd century BC, Nanadana Park and the Jothivana. But with the arrival of the Great Mahinda Thero in 250 BC , all these parks were donated to Sanga Community by King Devanam Piyathissa (250-210 BC). The originator of this garden is lost in the history but Ranmasu Uyana was probably established as an alternate to all the parks donated to the maha sanga.

It is believed that the Prince Saliya, the son of the great hero king Dutugemunu (161-131 BC) met his future bride to be Ashokamala who was of a lower cast of Chandala at this garden. If this is true, this garden would probably been established right after the other parks were donated.

Today this park covers an are of approx. 40 acres and is a fine example of Sri Lankan garden architecture of the pre – christian era. According to an inscription found in Vessagiriya, the water to the park was supplied by Tessa wa va and then released to rice fields around Isurumuniya viharaya. The rocks scattered around the area were used by the architect to create this pleasure garden. In one place two rock boulders have been connected each other with stone slabs. Remains of a small building can be seen on these platforms.

Below the rocks there are three bathing ponds and some smaller ponds which probably held the goldfish and water lilies. The largest is to the northern side with room cut in to the stone. This room measures 7 feet x 6 feet. On the sides of the cave like room are beautifully sculptured elephants bathing on a lotus pond. Each of these ponds are designed with precision irrigation techniques so that the water from Tissa lake passed through all the ponds and tanks in the garden before releasing them for irrigation work.

Rathna Prasadaya – guard stones (Mura Gala)

Rathnaprasada or Gem Palace is the Uposatha garaya (Chapter House) of Abhayagiri viharaya built by king Kavantissa, also known as King Kanitta thissa, during the 192 – 194 AD. To compete with Lovamahapaya (Brazon Palce).

Even though the present Rathnaprasadaya is in ruins the monolithic pillars, guard stones and remaining structure of the building support the theory of the archaeologists have discovered that  the building  was originally 7 stories high with tiered roof and front of the building was completed with beautiful guard stones (Mura Gal) and statue of Buddha made of gold.

The carvings exhibit the architectural marvel present at the time, with a mythical dragon, 7 headed cobra and dwarf servants. These guard stones considered the most preserved and most intricate guard stones found from Anuradhapura era, stands proudly to this day.

Kuttam Pokuna – Twin Ponds

Kuttam Pokuna or the twin ponds are another hydrologist engineering marvels of the ancient Sri Lanka. These two ponds belong to the Abayagiri aramic complex and probably been used by the monks for bathing. The origins of these ponds are not known but it is thought to have been built during the reign of King Aggabodhi I (575-608).

The smaller pond (the northern) one has been constructed first and the larger one at a later stage. They are connected through a pipeline at the bottom. The northern pond is 91 feet (28 meters) long and the other 132 feet (40 meters) .

Water to these ponds have been supplied through underground pipelines and the water is sent through several filtering chambers before it falls on the northern pond through a mouth of a dragon. The water from both ponds is drained from a small outlet in the smaller northern pond. Though the underground pipelines are no more, you can see 4 levels of filtering of the water before it enters the ponds.

Samadhi Buddha Statue

Samadhi Statue is considered one of the best sculptures in the Anuradhapura era. It is thought to be done during the 3rd or the 4th century. It is made out of dolomite marble and stands 7 feet 3 inches (2.21 meters) in height. This statue was found in the present location in 1886 fallen to the ground with damages to the nose. It was then erected and the nose was reconstructed. In 1914, it was found damaged by treasure hunters and re constructed again.

The statue’s eyes are hollow indicating they were impressed with crystal or precious stones. It is unclear whether this and the 2nd statue were brought from another vihara or they were originally kept here.

It is said that when you look at the face of the statue from three sides they show 3 different features. Looking at the profile of the face from left and right they show a slight sadness and a slightly smiling face on the other. Looking from the front, the face shows neutral features.

Today this stature is covered by concrete structure which has somewhat destroyed the beauty of this statue. Even the reconstruction of the nose has not been a success which looks very artificial.

Next to the Samadhi statue is an ruins of an image house which is called Bodhisattva Image House. According to Maha Vamsa, the great chronicle of Sri Lanka, it is said that the King Dhatusena (459-477) has built an  image house for the Maithree Bodhisattva left to the Abhayagiriya Bodhi Tree Shrine and had decorated with royal garments. It is believed these remains are the image house built by king Dhatusena. An limestone Bodhisattva image has been found buried in the rubble which has been dated to the 5th century.

Moonstone – Sandakada pahana

This Pancavasa located in the Abayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura, now commonly known as Biso Maligaya or the queen’s palace for no apparent reason is most famous for the moonstone found in the main flight of stairs on the center building. This Moostone is considered one of the best and most well-preserved Moonstone in this era. This moonstone is believed to be belonging to the 7 – 8th Centuries.

A second moonstone with equal artistic quality can be found on an entrance to a building behind the Rathnaprasadha. The outer edge is designed with a ring of flames and below that is a ring filled with 4 types of animals – The elephant, the horse, the lion, and the bull. The next is a circle of a floral pattern (“liyawela”). Next is a line of swans with a twig of flower and a leaf on their mouth. Next is again a floral pattern and at the center is lotus with petals all around the semi-circle on the moonstone

The meanings of this combination of patterns are debated widely. One interpretation is that the out ring of fire represents the never-ending life and the pains associated with it. The four animals represent the four noble truths (“Chathurarya Sathya”) of Buddha. It is said that the swan can separate out milk from a mixture of water and milk. Therefore once a person realizes the four noble truths they can have the true understanding of good and bad. They are capable of filtering out the good just like the swan filters out milk. Once you do that you are capable of attaining the“Nibbana” represented by the lotus.

Another interesting fact is that the bull in the moonstones was apparently dropped in the Polonnaruwa era (see Vatadage in Pollonnaruwa) . Moonstones in this era lack this symbol and sometimes the bull can be found on a higher pedestal on the sides of an entrance. This is thought to be the influence of Hindus. The bull is a sacred animal to the Hindus and trampling of this symbol was probably disrespectful.

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