Travel to Anuradhapura

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Anuradhapura travel guide

Anuradhapura was the greatest monastic city of the ancient world and the heart of Sri Lankan civilisation for over a millennium.

At its height it was home to tens of thousands of monks at dozens of monasteries and served by a lay population which records suggest could have numbered nearly two million. Its flourishing Buddhist culture and architectural achievements made it famous across Asia and as far afield as Europe, while even today the sheer scale of its surviving ruins and stupas is breathtaking.

Anuradhapura's 113 kings

Anuradhapura was the royal capital of 113 successive kings (and four queens) who oversaw a great flowering of the arts, producing magnificent palaces, intricate sculptures, ornate pleasure gardens and a sequence of vast stupas built to protect the most sacred relics of Buddhism.

Wonders of architecture and engineering

The three main dagobas are amongst the biggest architectural creations ever attempted in the ancient world, surpassed in size only by the pyramids at Giza. The gentle sway of the Buddhist faith inspired the kings of ancient Lanka to allow freedom of worship and to build the world’s first hospitals for both humans and animals alike. Perhaps the most impressive achievement was in irrigation, with reservoirs constructed to preserve the monsoon rains, and a system of sluices put in place to keep the rice paddies productive.

From royal capital to lost city

According to tradition, Anuradhapura was founded in 377 BC by the third king of the Vijaya dynasty, Pandukabhaya. It was fought over and finally abandoned in 1073 when the capital was transferred to Polonnaruwa. From then on the jungle enveloped the palaces, monasteries and stupas, which slowly began to crumble – the British explorers who first surveyed the ruins in the 19th century justifiably felt they were rediscovering a “lost” city. 

Places to visit in Anuradhapura

The sacred Sri Maha Bodhi 

The most crowded part of Anuradhapura is around the Sri Maha Bodhi (Sacred Bo Tree). The world’s most revered tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi was grown from a sapling of the original bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment in Bodhgaya in India. It is one of the oldest trees in the world and has been tended devotedly for 23 centuries, even during the long centuries after the rest of the city was abandoned to the jungle. Today it is propped up on a frame of iron crutches and protected by a golden railing swathed in colourful prayer flags offered by the pilgrims.

The Ruwanweliseya's carved elephants

A gigantic white dome denotes the Ruwanweliseya (Great Stupa). It was built by Dutugemunu, the hero king of the Mahavamsa, who was supposedly inspired by seeing a bubble floating on water – the dome itself represents heaven, or alternatively, you could see it as representing the head of Buddha. The stupa is raised above ground level on a huge, stone-flagged terrace, bound by a high wall adorned with an imposing army of near life-size sculpted elephants (nearly all of them modern replacements) standing ear to ear: the elephants seem to support the platform, just as in Buddhist mythology they hold up the earth. 

Thuparama, the oldest stupa

The Thuparama is the oldest stupa in Anuradhapura, and indeed in the island. It may be small, but it is very sacred to Buddhists since it is believed to enshrine the right collarbone of the Buddha. What you see today is not ancient at all, but a reconstruction undertaken in the mid-19th century – and not even the right shape, seeing as the original was built in the slope-shouldered “heap of rice” form, rather than the present bell shape. The crowd of stone pillars that surround it like windblown palms, which would once have supported a roof, have capitals decorated with carvings of hamsas (geese, a protective bird).

The Jetavanarama monastery and stupa

The vast Jetavanarama monastery and stupa is the largest stupa in Anuradhapura, around 122 metres (400ft) in height and 113-metre (370ft) in diameter. Elaborate shrines (vahalkadas) mark each of the four cardinal points, the eastern one depicting the beautiful figures of women posed so elegantly they appear to be moving, even dancing. The stupa was the centrepiece of the great Jetavanarama monastery, founded by King Mahasena, and extensive monastic remains litter the surrounding parkland – including a finely preserved bathing pool and the unusual “Buddhist railing”, a kind of stone fence. 

The Abhayagiri Monastery Complex

On the north side of the ancient city lies the vast Abhayagiri Monastery, founded by King Vattagamini in 88 BC, which once housed as many as 5,000 monks and was the most powerful institution after the king. The monastery flourished under the patronage of King Mahasena (AD 276–303), sprouting palaces, bathing pools and sculpture of the highest standards. The main ruins of the monastery are centred on the Abhayagiri stupa, the third of Anuradhapura’s great stupas, still undergoing restoration; but don’t miss the beautiful Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds), which formerly served as a bathing pool for the monks of the monastery.