Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Anuradhapura and Theravada Buddhism

One of the intimidating things about learning new cultures and religions is that virtually everything initially read has no meaning or understanding in one's own context. As I begin to delve into Theravada Buddhism and the history of Anuradhapura I realize that I am only barely scratching the surface of something that is really very large and complicated. I do this with some trepidation. 

Theravada Buddhism:

Theravada Buddhism is a form of Buddhism, as are Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. See here for a discussion of differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and here for a discussion of differences between Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism was developed as a distinct school in Sri Lanka and then spread to the rest of Southeast Asia. It is now the dominant religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. It is also practiced by a minority of people in India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal and Vietnam. 

The mythical founders of Buddhism in Sri Lanka were the Indian Emperor Ashoka's son, Mahinda, and Ashoka's daughter Sanghamitta, which helps legitimize Theravada's claims to be the oldest and most authentic school of Buddhism. They arrived in Sri Lanka during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura (307 to 267 BCE) who converted to  Buddhism and helped build the first Buddhist stupas. 

According to Wikipedia, there are no known artistic or architectural remains from the early period except for the cave dwellings of monks which reflect the growth and spread of the new religion.  I don't know if they relegate to legend the Sri Maha Bodi Tree, discussed later, or believe it is of later origin, when making that assertion. Buddhism appears to have established undisputed authority during the reigns of Dutthagamani and Vattagamani from the mid 2nd century BCE to the mid 1st century BCE. The first records of Buddha images come from the reign of King Vasabha (65 to 109 BCE), then after the 3rd century CE history shows a record of growth of Buddha images and Bodhisattavas (people on the path towards Buddhahood, who have received a prediction from a living Buddha that they will become a Buddha, but have not attained it). 

Between the reigns of Sena I (833 to 853) and Mahinda IV (956 to 972) the city of Anuradhapura had a huge building spurt by various kings during a long period of peace and prosperity and a large part of the present architectural remains in Anuradhapura date from that period. 

The Tripitaka is the traditional term for the Buddhist scriptures. It constitutes the Dhamma, the truth or teaching of the Buddha, and the organization of the Sangha, the community of monks and nuns. The canonical version for Theravada Buddhism is referred to in English as the Pali Canon. Mahayana Buddhism also holds the Tripitaka to be authoritative, but includes other literature in its canon as well. The Tripitaka was composed between 550 BCE and the start of the common era and was probably written down in the 1st century BCE. The earliest record of Buddhist scriptures committed to writing anywhere was Theravada Pali texts from the Mahavihara (monastic complex) of Anuradhapura. 

There were three subdivisions of Theravada in the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka: Mahavihara, Abhayagiri vihara and Jetavana, each based in Anuradhapura. Mahavihara was established first, then the other two were established by monks who broke away. A Chinese monk who visited Sri Lanka in the early 5th century noted 5,000 monks at Abhayagiri, 3,000 at Mahavihara and 2,000 at Cetiyapabbatavihara. The Mahavihara ("Great Monastery") school became dominant in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 2nd millennium CE and gradually spread through Southeast Asia. The Abhayagiri Theravadins maintained close relations with Indian Buddhists and adopted many elements from Mahayana teachings. Abhayagiri was an influential university and center for the study of Mahayana from the reign of Gajabahu I (113 to 135 CE) until the 12th century. The Jetavana Theravadins adopted Mahayana elements to a lesser extent. 

During the reign of Parakramabahu I (1153 to 1186), the Mahavihara sect got his political support and he completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavanin traditions. The monks of those two traditions had to either return to the laity or attempt reordination under the Mahavihara tradition as novices. He also rebuilt the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, restoring Buddhist stupas (a mound-like structure containing relics of Buddhist monks or nuns that is used as a place of meditation) and Viharas (monasteries). He appointed a Sangharaja (a monk who presided over the Sangha, which is the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, novices and laity) and was assisted by two deputies. 

Anuradhapura was the capital of the Sinhalese (an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka and about 75% of the population) from the 4th century BCE until the beginning of the 11th century CE. Today Anuradhapura is surrounded by monasteries covering 16 square miles and the ancient city is considered sacred to the Buddhists.

Jetavanaramaya (Stupa in Ruins of Jetavana Monastery)

The Jetavanaramaya is a stupa located in the ruins of the Jatavana monastery. A part of a sash or belt tied by the Buddha is believed to be the relic enshrined there. It was the first ruin we visited in Anuradhapura. It was built by King Mahasena of Anuradhapura (273 to 301 CE) and at 400 feet was the third tallest structure in the world when it was built (the Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet and the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria which is listed as taller, was between 333 and 387 feet, actually shorter).  It has foundations 28 feet deep. Elephants were used to stamp down stones which were used to fill in fissures. The stupa was constructed using 93.3 million baked bricks, engineered by Sri Lankans and composed 60% of fine sand and 35% of clay and could withstand a stress ten times more than what they are withstanding. The bonding material was crushed dolomite, limestone, sieved sand and clay and the stupa was then covered with a lime plaster that included seashells, sand, clay, pebbles, plant resin, oils, glues, coconut water, egg whites and sugar syrup.  When Anuradhapura was destroyed and abandoned in the 11th century the stupa was covered by jungle. King Parakramabahu (mentioned above) tried to renovate this stupa in the 12th century and it was rebuilt to the current height of 232 feet, much smaller than its original height. 
The top of the stupa from a museum we visited.
The stupa from where we parked our car. The red-roofed structure at the base housed an internal museum or worship area devoted to Buddha, pictures of which follow.
Small bits of the lime plaster that covered the stupa remain. 
Carving of a Nagaraja. Naga is a Sanskrit word which refers to a serpent, especially the King cobra, and denotes divine or semi-divine deities that reside in the heavenly netherworld and occasionally take human form. They can be represented as wholly human with snakes on the heads and necks; the serpents themselves, like this one, or as half-human half-serpent beings, like a guardstone shown below. 
An elephant carved into stone, I believe from a moonstone in front of the stupa.
King Mahasena, under the influence of monk Sanghamitta, brought a campaign against orthodox Mahavihara Theravadins and they pillaged the Mahavihara complex at this spot until it was eventually abandoned and the valuables of that monastery were transferred to another area. This stupa was built to replace what had been there previously. 
Inside the stupa is this large reclining Buddha. 
I'm not sure if this place is a museum or a place of worship, or both. We did see people coming in to worship while we were there. 

We found the Buddhist images to be highly colorful.
Above the door leading into the reclining Buddha.
A closer view of the scene above the entrance.

The beautiful tiled floor.
This structure was covered by jungle until 1909 when approvals were obtained to uncover it, using funds from ticket sales to foreign tourists. Bricks were burned using the same kind of mixture used by the original builders. 

When we visited we had to take off our shoes to approach and we had no socks. We burned our feet on the hot pavement and it severely dampened my desire to do any more barefoot adventures into other stupas we visited. As a result, this is the only stupa I visited the inside of. Suggestion to future visitors: take a pair of thick socks when visiting Anuradhapura. 

Kuttam Pokuna or Twin Pools

The Kuttam Pokuna or Twin Ponds/Pools are part of the Abghayagirya Monastery complex and are one of the best specimens of bathing tanks or pools in ancient Sri Lanka. The larger pool is 132 by 51 feet and the smaller pool is 91 by 51 feet with depths of 18 feet and 14 feet respectively. We encountered our first Toque macaques at this site and they, not the pools, occupied most of my attention. 
One of the twin pools.
One online site represents these pools as the second oldest swimming pools in the world, built in the 4th century BCE. Another site, I think more correctly, represents them as 8th and 9th century ritual baths used by Buddhist monks. 

Samadhi Buddha

The Samadhi Buddha statue in Mahamevnawa Park is part of the Abhayagirya Monastery complex and depicts Buddha in the Dhyana Mudra position, the posture of meditation associated with his first Enlightenment. The Buddha sits cross-legged with upturned palms placed one over the other on his lap. The statue is seven feet, three inches tall and carved from dolomite marble. It is believed it was made in the 3rd or 4th century. The statue's eyes are hollow, indicating they were impressed with crystal or precious stones. 
The Samadhi Buddha
We had to take our shoes off to approach the statue and my feet were burned from the first stupa, so I walked across this uneven ground very gingerly. I was distracted here as well by an animal, our first and best view of a Sri Lanka gray hornbill

Abhayagiri Dagoba

The Abhayagiri Dagoba is a stupa that was part of the Abhayagiri Vihara monastery complex. It was restored and renovated by a UNESCO project that cost $3.9 million and it was unveiled in June 2015. We stopped briefly to look at it from the car, then continued on. 
Abhayagiri Dagoba
This stupa was the original custodian of the tooth relic, the left canine tooth of Gautama Buddha. According to Sri Lankan legend, when Buddha died in 543 BCE, his body was cremated in a sandalwood pyre at Kushinagar and his left canine tooth was retrieved from the funeral pyre by his disciple, Khema. Through a series of circumstances it ended up in Sri Lanka (although places in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and California also claim to have the tooth relic).  It moved around in Sri Lanka until it ended up in Kandy where it is now held in the Temple of the Tooth, which we also visited later. 

The Abhayagiri Vihara was a major monastery site for Theravada as well as Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. 

Eth Pokuna or Elephant Pond

Eth Pokuna, or Elephant Pond, part of the Abhayagiriya Monastery complex, was 522 feet long by 173 feet wide and 31 feet deep. It had a holding capacity of 2,648,600 cubic feet of water. It was used by the monks of the monastery that numbered over 5,000. 
Elephant Pond
Ratnaprasada or Jewel Palace

The Ratnaprasada of the Abhayagiri Monastery Complex was built by King Kanitta Tissa from 192 to 194 CE. It was rebuilt in the 8th century and was seven storeys high. It was the Uposatha house. Buddha taught that Uposatha was a day for "the cleansing of the defiled mind" and lay and ordained members of the sangha were supposed to intensify their practice, deepen their knowledge and express communal commitment through monastic reciprocity. Apparently the house was somehow used for that purpose. 
These stone columns and the foundation are what remain of the house. 
The Ratnaprasada entrance has one of the best examples of a guardstone which depicts the Cobra King, his head framed by a cobra hood, holding a vase with a dwarf attendant at his feet. 
The Naga at the first stupa we visited above, was a full cobra. This is a part cobra, part human. 
Near the guardstone is a moonstone, or sandakada pahana, which is a carved semi-circular stone slap placed at the bottom of a staircase. In Anuradhapura the moonstones were all the same. A half lotus was in the center, enclosed by concentric bands. The first band was decorated with swans, followed by a band with a foliage design, followed by a band with four animals: elephants, lions, horses and bulls. These animals follow each other in a procession symbolizing the four stages of life: growth, energy, power and forbearance. The fourth and outermost band had carvings of flames, representing a fire altar. 
The moonstone.
An elephant from the moonstone.
A figure in the outer part of the foundation.
Another figure, something that looks very similar to things I've seen in England. 
Thuparamaya Stupa

Thuparamaya was the first Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. As alluded to in the introduction of Theravada Buddhism at the beginning of this post, Mahinda Thera, an envoy sent by King Ashoka, introduced Theravada Buddhism to Sri Lanka. At his request, King Devanampiya Tissa (247 to 207 BCE) built Thuparamaya in which he enshrined the right collar-bone of the Buddha. However, this stupa was destroyed on a number of occasions and then restored. The present construction, therefore, only goes back to 1842.  The stupa is built in the shape of a bell. 
Thuparamaya Stupa
A buddha shrine right next to it. My photo does not reveal it, but Judy's photo shows a moonstone at the foot of the stairs and two guardstones, one on each side of the entrance. 

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

Ruwanwelisaya is a stupa built by King Dutugemunu around 161 BCE who became king over all Sri Lanka. It is 338 feet tall, shorter than the original 400 feet of the Jetavanarama Dagoba, but much taller than the existing rebuilt Jetavanarama Dagoba which is now 232 feet high. It was a ruin in the 19th century and renovated in the early 20th century until fully restored in 1940. It is one of 16 places in Sri Lanka said to have been visited by Buddha himself. It is said to house relics of Buddha, but the relics are not specified. 

The compound of the stupa is surrounded by four walls with elephant figures incorporated into them. The dome of the stupa signifies the vastness of Buddhist doctrine. The four facets above it represent the Four Noble Truths. The concentric rings indicate the Noble Eightfold Middle Path and the large crystal at the pinnacle represents the goal of enlightenment. 
Monks wrapping the stupa in orange cloth.
We visited on a Poya Day, one of 12 or 13 each year. Each Poya Day marks a different historical event in Buddhism, such as Buddha's birth or his first visit to Sri Lanka. We witnessed part of a flag-wrapping ritual where huge ribbons of colorful cloth are transported by lines of pilgrims to the foot of the stupa. It is accompanied by flag-bearers, the sound of trumpets and the beating of drums. Eventually the monks gather the cloth and wrap it around the base of the stupa. 
A procession bringing in the orange cloth accompanied by people with horns and drums. 
People would rush over to touch the cloth. 
Near the stupa, in a building, were colorful representations of Buddha similar to those we saw at the Jetavanaramaya Stupa and people inside appeared to be worshiping or meditating. 
These wonderful elephants, in bronze, were over the doorways into the building. 
A similar looking reclining Buddha.
Note the doorway reflected in the glass.
Similar figures off to the side.

A representation of Buddha's footprint.
Sri Maha Bodi Tree

Our final destination was the Sri Maha Bodi Tree, purported to be the southern branch of the tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment, planted here in 288 BCE. It was brought to Sri Lanka by the now familiar, Sangamitta, daughter of Indian Emperor Asoka, who founded an order of Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka. It was planted by King Devanampiya Tissa on a terrace 21 feet above the ground and surrounded by railings. This act signals the beginning of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and this is probably the most sacred site in Anuradhapura, a city full of sacred sites.  
It seems pretty clear that the tree limb supported by the iron supports is the bodi tree. After that, for me, it is a mish-mash of confusion. 
The walls and the golden fence are visible.
More perspective as we back away.
Various developments have been made to the site over the years. The most obvious were: the 10 foot high and 5 foot thick wall constructed in the mid-1700s to protect the tree from elephants, the golden fence around the tree constructed in 1969 and an iron fence below the golden fence. 
Judy and some worshipers around the side. 
In 1907 and 1911, branches of the tree were broken in separate storms. In 1929, an individual cut down a branch. And in 1985, in what is known as the Anuradhapura massacre, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam shot and killed a number of Buddhists on the upper terrace. 

A wonderful white elephant gate.
After an intimidating beginning for this post, I'm already starting to feel a little more comfortable with Buddhism and some of its different branches. 


  1. Wow, great background for the uninitiated! I am especially glad you figured out the orange sash that they were wrapping around the stupa. It's amazing to think they do that 12-13 times a year! I loved the ritual feel surrounding that.

  2. It is interesting how religion works, I often in my head clump Buddhism in one big religion but it really is more complex than that.

  3. Buddhism and Buddha sculptures inspire me tremendously. I'm looking for information about the Anuradhapura sculpture and came across your website. It has a great deal of significance. Thank you for submitting .