Anuradhapura: the Soul of Buddhist Sri Lanka


Hunting for World Heritage Sites has gone beyond just visiting and seeing sites. Rather, it has become more of experiencing them. Hence, in the Anuradhapura vs Polonnaruwa debate, clearly, I would have to give it to the former. Yes, I am in the minority block.


The first capital of Sri Lanka remains very much alive today, attracting more faithful pilgrims than tourists. Its significance appears to outlive most of the other later historic sites. While most of the key monuments here are dagobas (local term for stupas) and the variety of architecture is not as diverse as that of Polonnaruwa’s, there is a great amount of history in each of them that is made more special by the reverence that the people have continuously attach to them. In fact, the age of the original monuments here would rival those Buddhist monuments in India, which was really surprising to find out. Not only are these dagobas some of the tallest monuments ever seen in the ancient world, moreover, they also stand as pillars as to why Anuradhapura is given the title “Sacred City”, and not just “Ancient City” as in the case of Polonnaruwa and even Sigiriya. There are two other sacred cities in Sri Lanka which we were fortunate to check out: the Sacred City of Kandy — also a WHS– and the Sacred City of Tissamaharama.


The 2,000-y.o. Sri Jaya Mahabodhi tree is the most sacred component of the city and it sits right at the center. It is a direct descendant of the Mahabodhi tree in Bodhgaya where the Buddha sat under as he attained enlightenment. From there, the glaringly white Ruwanwelisaya dagoba is a short walk away, passing through the Mahalohapaya ruins. Currently, it stands as the tallest dagoba in the country after the finial of the more massive, red brick Jetavana dagoba broke off. To see the rest, it was, however, wise to hire a tuk-tuk.



As a place mostly composed of dagobas, it is perhaps the best area to study this architectural style — from the ruined remains of the Dakhina dagoba to the carefully restored Mirisawetiya dagoba nearby, from the vatadage-styled Thuparamaya dagoba (the oldest and one of the smallest) to the ongoing construction of the modern Victory stupa, which will be the tallest once it will be finished.


We also managed to visit some of the farthest sites such as the Isurumuniya vihara, which required a separate entrance fee. This vihara is considered as one of the oldest monuments in the city and we enjoyed talking to one of the resident monks there about the history of the site. He even kindly tied pirith nulas around our wrists, wherein I was able to record on video the chanting performed along with it.


Half a mile away is the Vessagiri, an ancient rock shelter for monks. It features Brahmi inscriptions and faint traces of ancient frescoes that can only make sense with the help of a guide.


A pleasant bonus was when our driver also took us inside the former citadel to check a few ruins including the Dalada maligawa, the former shrine housing the sacred tooth relic. That time, there was also a local herbalist who was gathering various plants for his concoctions. A photo I took of him while doing his thing among the ruins is probably one of my favorite shots.


It took us a little less than 6 hours to see most of the sites included in this World Heritage Site, and I cannot say I was not impressed.




Old and Sacred: The Bodhi Tree


The Bodhi tree was the old fig tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment in 623BC in Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India. While the original tree does not exist anymore, there are several trees that are believed to have directly come from the sacred Bodhi tree. Among them, two trees play very central roles in the Buddhist faith and are highly revered by devotees for their close connection to the life of the historic Buddha. These ancient sacred trees are the Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

The Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya is regarded to mark the same spot where the original Bodhi tree used to stand. It is regarded as the Axis Mundi, or the Navel of the World, among Buddhists, and it is their holiest site. While the age of the tree is not certain, inscriptions nearby reveal that Emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism in 263BC after the Kalinga War, installed the Diamond Throne beside the sacred tree and erected a stone fence around them in 250BC.



The Mahabodhi tree encased in stone railings at the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, India


The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, on the other hand, is considered to be the oldest documented planted tree by a person. The cutting from the original Bohdi tree was brought to and planted in Sri Lanka by the daughter of Ashoka, Princess Sangamitta, in 288BC. Anuradhapura, the capital of the first Kingdom of Ceylon, eventually developed and grew around the sacred tree.



The Sri Jaya Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka


Spreading Buddhism has always been accompanied by the distribution of Bodhi trees, as symbolic bridges in bringing the believers closer to the faith and to the Buddha. A direct descendant of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree was also planted at the southeastern side of the Borobudur temple in Java, Indonesia. The sapling was brought and planted by Narada Mahathera, a visiting Theravadan Buddhist monk from Colombo, in 1934 as part of his mission to revive Buddhism in the now predominantly Islamic country.



The Bodhi tree beside the Borobudur temple, Indonesia


The earliest representation of the original Bodhi tree can be found at one of the ornate gates (toranas) of the Great Stupa of Sanchi in Mahadya Pradesh, India. Created in 100AD, the rock carving also shows the structures built around the tree that were commissioned by Ashoka. The Great Stupa is the oldest standing stone structure in the Subcontinent and is part of a bigger Buddhist monastic complex believed to have been constructed on the orders of Ashoka himself.



The Bodhi tree depicted at the Great Stupa in Sanchi, India


The Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya, the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, the Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi, and the Borobudur Temple Compounds are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.