Exploring ancient Anuradhapura - First capital city of Sri Lanka


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Published: March 7th 2019
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The drive to Anuradhapura took three hours passing through countryside which was quite pretty, covered in palms and banana plants. and dotted with small brick houses with unpainted wooden window frames and multi paned windows. As well as agriculture there was a thriving terracotta industry as we passed many small factories producing clay roof tiles, cooking and garden pots. The roadside was also lined with people selling cheap T shirts and trousers, all hanging on clothes lines strung between the palm trees. And many stalls selling coconuts - they are everywhere - coconuts seem to be widely used here.

The traffic was pretty chaotic too - we were passed by express buses which barely stopped to let people off - they jumped off at a run. The speed limit in Sri Lanka is a maximum of 70 klms an hour, which seems to be virtually impossible to do unless you’re driving a truck or large bus showing total disregard for all other vehicles.

We were looking forward to visiting Anuradhapura- a sprawling archaeological site comprising of enormous dagobas (stupas), lily covered pools and crumbling temples built over a thousand years from 380 BC. It was Sri Lanka’s first capitol city. We arrived in the modern city, the usual mess of faded old buildings, modern garish semi completed houses and tuk tuks weaving in and out of the road traffic, and headed to our guesthouse. We had a win with our guesthouse - booking online can be a bit hit and miss as there is never a guarantee it will match the photos or reviews. The Heritage Lakeview ticked all the boxes, incredibly peaceful (and it was right on the edge of the lake), clean and friendly.

A quiet afternoon followed, reading and watching all the birds in the garden. The guesthouse provided a fabulous dinner, 8 plates of home cooked food and a large beer for AUD $7 each. All eaten under the stars beside the lake. And surprisingly with no mosquitoes for company.

Up early next morning and full of a tasty Sri Lankan breakfast (again more than we could eat) We set out to start our exploration of Anuradhapur. We stopped first at Isurumuniya Rock Temple, which enclosed a brightly coloured relclining Buddha. The cave was under restoration as a man was repainting the intricate wall art surrounding the Buddha. Despite it being Saturday there were many school children, dressed in the white school uniforms which are worn by all children here. Samand told us they would have gone to private schools as they spend weekends visiting sacred sites around their schools, whereas pupils from government schools are at home with their parents.

Samand drove us to the ticket office to buy our entrance ticket to the main Anuradhapura site. It was thirty Australian dollars each for the ticket (foreign tourists only). We were to discover that the site is massive and you need transport to get between the main areas. We drove first to Mahavihara, the heart of ancient Anuradhapura, and the focus of the principle religious observances. There were hundreds of people heading towards the area. Everybody was wearing white, the sacred colour here and always worn on special religious days. We could see the magnificent white dome of Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba in the distance. There was an amazing atmosphere as we got closer and a lot of traffic. Samand dropped us off and we walked towards the main gate. There were stalls selling cheap plastic children’s toys and many stalls selling religious offerings, candles and flowers, mainly water lilies and lotuses.

We joined the crowds as they walked along a wide footpath towards the Sri Maha Bondi. This tree is central to Anuradhapura in both a spiritual and physical sense. For the last two thousand years it has been tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians and it is said to be the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. Everybody who was there that day would visit this tree before going to the Dagoba. We were surrounded by families, most walking with us, carrying arms of offerings. Even tiny children were holding flowers. I had one as well, handed to me by a stall holder. Some families were enjoying picnics on the grassy areas beside the footpath.

It was a long walk, thankfully able to be done in shoes. You cannot enter religious sites here with shoes on and as many are covered with rocks it can be very hard on our soft feet. It was chaos around the tree. Lots of people chanting, lighting tiny candles in clay bowls and laying their flowers around the shrines surrounding the tree. We could see the top of the tree but the trunk was surrounded in fencing covered in yellow, red and white striped screening. We made no attempt to get closer as people were queuing to lay flowers at the base of the tree. Beside the tree is a field of columns, remains of 1600, which were once part of a nine story story building, housing 1000 monks.

We started walking back towards the Dagoba, removing our shoes as we got closer. The Ruvanveilsaya Dagoba is guarded by a wall with a frieze of 344 elephants, standing shoulder to shoulder. The Dagoba has been extensively rebuilt (originally built in 140 BC) after being damaged by invading Indian forces. It allegedly has a portion of Buddha’s ashes buried under it. There was obviously a ceremony taking place at the Dagoba as people were claiming their little spots of hot cement floor surrounding the dome, laying out blankets and picnic baskets. The smell was wonderful as there were literally millions of flowers being placed in metal troughs surrounding the dome. The only colour was from the purples and pinks of the flowers, the orange of the monks and the red and yellow of the flags. Everything else was white, nearly blinding in the bright sunshine. The cement was very hot to walk on, thankfully they allowed tourists to wear socks which helped our tender feet.

We found out that it was a year since the head monk at the site had died so everybody was there in commemoration of his. At one stage we heard drums and whistles and watched a group of men led by the musicians come up the stairs. One if the group was carrying something covered in a yellow cloth. As he passed by everybody was lining up to touch the cloth. We presume it may have been some of the deceased monk’s ashes. We spent an hour there and thoroughly enjoyed it. The practice of religion in most Asian countries is very fervent, colourful and the air vibrates with spirituality.

We spent the next few hours being driven between the main sites. Most of the sites had moonstones, semi circular carved rocks which were at the base of all the steps. The steps themselves were held up with tiny dwarf figures. Dwarf figures are carved everywhere and we saw some amazing carved Guardstones at the entrance of some of the sites. The carvings were very similar to those at Angkor Wat. During the morning we visited a couple of the museums on site The Anuradhapura complex was where Buddhism began in Sri Lanka and thousands of monks lived, many in very luxurious conditions. The city remained the capital of Sri Lanka until the 11th century.

In the 8th century a breakaway order of monks renounced the luxury of the main monastery, ate only rice, dressed in scraps of clothing taken from the graveyards and lived amongst the lowest castes of people. Today they are known for their carved stone squat style toilets - each toilet had their brother monks’ monasteries represented on the bottom. A great way to show their contempt for the other luxury loving monks. We saw these toilets and urinals in one of the museums we visited.

Our last stop that morning was the massive Jetavanarama Dagoba, built in the 3rd century. Today it stands at 70 meters, having lost approximately 50 metres from the top of the spire. It is unplastered and said to consist of more than 90 million bricks. In it’s day it was the third tallest monument in the world, the first two being the Egyptian pyramids. It was pretty impressive, rising out from the trees.

We returned to our guesthouse for a shower and rest before visiting Mihintale in the cool of the late afternoon to watch the sun set. At this site we climbed Aradhana Gala and watched the sun set from the Ambasthale Dagoba. The Dagoba was built over the spot where, in 274BC, a Sri Lankan king was converted instantly to Buddhism by an Indian prince. Again the site was busy with white clad devotees, many now wearing a green scarf across their chests over their white clothes. First we climbed the steep path up Aradhana Gala. It was a very narrow ‘pathway’ (narrow toe holes carved in the rock) and the same grips were being used by people going up as well as coming down. We climbed barefoot, without socks, on the hot slippery rock which was worn smooth and shiny by the millions of feet that had been before us. Thankfully there was one railing to pull yourself up on (or hold for support on the way down). There were a lot of people climbing and it got quite heated in a couple of spots when people going up wouldn’t let the people coming down through. It was worth it though as the view from the top was fabulous. We could see all the lily covered lakes in the area and had a great view of the white Ambasthale Dagoba behind us and a large white Buddha statue.

The climb to the white Dagoba was easier, up a stone stairway lined with frangapani trees. At the Dagoba monks were preaching to small groups of worshippers gathered around the base of the the Dagoba. We found a spot amongst the other tourists to wait for sundown. We remained vigilant as there were a lot of aggressive monkeys trying to get close to our bags. Nasty creatures... We drove back to the guesthouse after dark, arriving just in time for another Sri Lankan feast beside the lake. Yet another good day.


Additional photos below
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Praying at the base of the Bodhi TreePraying at the base of the Bodhi Tree
Praying at the base of the Bodhi Tree

To actually get to lay flowers at the actualtree you had to join a long queue. It was strictly controlled and only a few people were allowed in behind the screen at a time.
Flowers and more flowers.Flowers and more flowers.
Flowers and more flowers.

They were removing them as fast as they were laid out. So much money spent on them during a 24 hour period I would think.
Ambasthale Dagoba as the sun setsAmbasthale Dagoba as the sun sets
Ambasthale Dagoba as the sun sets

Taken from the top of Aradhana Gala


7th March 2019

Good place.
Would love to know more about this. MOT IN PORTSMOUTH
7th March 2019

Sri Lanka was my favourite country to visit so I’m always drawn to other’s blogs to see what they made of it. You captured some lovely scenes of Anuradhapura, it was such a bustling madness.

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