Towering Dagobas and Buddhist Relics of Anuradhapura

The author standing in front of the Jetavana dagoba, the third-highest structure in the ancient world.

Story & photos by Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero

My penchant for visiting Unesco World Heritage Sites (WHS) has gone beyond just seeing well-known, as well as bizarre and dangerous, destinations.

Rather, it has become more about experiencing them and understanding what makes them truly unique and invaluable.

Thuparamaya, the oldest dagoba in Sri Lanka that houses the right collar bone of the Buddha.

Oftentimes, this uniqueness is easy to recognize. However, sometimes, in other sites, it does not come that easy to grasp. In pursuing this interest, it is a recurring realization that not all that has universal importance is visually pleasant.

A sacred city built around a tree

In Sri Lanka, two ancient cities have always been—unfairly—compared: Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The former is the first capital of Ceylon, while the second became its immediate successor. The remains of Anuradhapura are now scattered in a modern, very hectic city of the same name, while the latter is neatly preserved in an open-air museum fashion within a fenced-off manicured compound. The number of people who misses out on Anuradhapura is conversely proportional to that of those who praises the other site. However, as to which I personally found to be better, clearly, I give it to the older one.

Anuradhapura remains very much alive today, attracting more devoted Buddhist pilgrims than tourists. In an age where most attractions are all becoming like amusement parks, there is always an irresistible charm to sites that are still being used the way they should be. While most of the monuments here are dagobas (Sinhalese for stupas), and the variety of architectural forms is not as diverse as that of Polonnaruwa’s; there is a rich amount of history in each of its structures. Moreover, the degree of reverence that the people continuously attach to them up to these days makes it more special. Established as a capital in 380 BC, the ages of some monuments rival even those in India. Not only were those dagobas some of the tallest monuments ever built, they also stand as pillars as to why Anuradhapura is vested with the title “sacred city,” as opposed to just being  an “ancient city” as in the cases of Polonnaruwa and the more popular Sigiriya.

Buddhist pilgrims congregating around the Sri Jaya Maha Bodhi tree, the most sacred spot in the city.

The growth of Buddhism around the globe has always been accompanied by the distribution of Bodhi trees as symbolic spiritual bridges that bring believers closer to the Buddha. In Anuradhapura, the Sri Jaya Maha Bodhi tree is its most sacred element, and it has been standing right in the city center for more than 2,300 years already. Planted by Princess Sangamitta, the daughter of Emperor Ashoka, in 288BC, this well-documented information makes this Bodhi tree the oldest tree in the world with a definitive date of its planting. Anuradhapura eventually developed and grew around the tree.

Unsung wonders of the ancient world

From the Sri Jaya Maha Bodhi tree, the glaringly white Ruwanwelisaya dagoba is hard to miss as it dominates the skyline. Walking toward it, one would pass by the Mahalohapaya palace ruins, now comprising mostly of stone pillars. At 103 meters, the gigantic dagoba currently stands as the tallest in the country. However, it was only able to secure that record after the finial of the 122-meter high red-brick Jetavana dagoba broke off. This Dagoba was the third tallest structure in the ancient world, surpassed only by two of the great pyramids in Giza, Egypt. Even in its current 71-meters height, it is still the undisputed largest brick structure there is to find. 

As the city is mostly composed of dagobas, it is perhaps the best place in the world to study this architectural style. Other noteworthy examples include: the ruined remains of the patina-covered Dakhina dagoba; the carefully restored bubble-shaped Mirisawetiya dagoba; the vatadage-styled Thuparamaya, which, although the smallest, is the oldest; the unplastered Abhayagiri dagoba with its extensive monastic complex; and the ongoing construction site of the Victory Stupa, which, once completed, will be the tallest.   

Most of these dagobas house special relics of the Buddha, which include his collar bone, sash and belt, among others. Anuradhapura, after all, has one of the highest concentration of Buddhist relics. The most important of these relics, the sacred tooth relic, was once enshrined in the Dalada Maligawa temple inside the royal citadel. The visit to that enclosure left in my mind one of the most enduring images from my trip in Sri Lanka: that of an old traditional herbalist, with a long beard and garbed in shabby clothes, gathering plants among the ruins of the temple. The sacred tooth since then got transferred every time a new capital was founded, and is now sitting in the sacred city of Kandy, also a WHS, in the central highlands.

Outlying monasteries and a monk’s gift

Isurumuniya Vihara, one of the more remote sites, is considered as the oldest monastery in the city. My friend and I caught ourselves talking to one of its resident monks where he shared the history of the monastery. When we bade him goodbye, he kindly offered to tie pirith nulas, a white string that is believed to bring luck and protection as it is given in good will and good faith, around our wrists. Half a mile further, is the Vessagiri, a rock shelter of the earliest monks. The site, almost hidden in the forest, features Brahmi inscriptions and faint traces of ancient frescoes that, unfortunately, will only make sense with a guide’s help.

Overall, Anuradhapura does not need to prove anything. Its humility, unpretentious character and lack of hordes of tourists make it the lovely site we truly enjoyed exploring.

Image credits: Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero



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