The sacred city of Anuradhapura, now in picturesque ruins, was once a major center of Sri Lankan civilization. The fascinating ancient ruins include huge bell-shaped stupas built of small sun-dried bricks, temples, sculptures, palaces, and ancient drinking-water reservoirs.
Although people may have lived in this area since as early as the 10th century BC, Anuradhapura became a great city after the arrival of a cutting from the Bodhi Tree (‘tree of enlightenment’), the Buddha’s fig tree, in the 3rd century BC. The sacred branch was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns.
Anuradhapura went on to become a Ceylonese political and religious capital (4th century BC) that flourished for 1,300 years. In its prime, Anuradhapura ranked alongside Nineveh and Babylon in its colossal proportions—its four walls, each 16 miles (26 km) long, enclosing an area of 256 square miles (663 km²)—in the number of its inhabitants, and the splendour of its shrines and public buildings.
The city also had some of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world. Most of the great reservoir tanks still survive today, and some many be the oldest surviving reservoirs in the world.
After an invasion in 993 AD, Anuradhapura was permanently abandoned. For centuries, the site lay hidden in the jungle. Rediscovered by the British in the 19th century, Anuradhapura became a Buddhist pilgrimage site once again.
The revival of the city of Anuradhapura began in earnest in the 1870s. The modern city (population 40,000) is a major road junction of northern Sri Lanka and lies along a railway line. The headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon is in Anuradhapura.
Today, the splendid sacred city of Anuradhapura, with its palaces, monasteries and monuments, draws many Buddhist pilgrims and visitors.
What to See
There is much to see at Anuradhapura, including the sacred Bodhi tree, eight major palaces, monasteries and monuments.
The Sri Maha bodhiya is perhaps the oldest living tree in the world. Around 245 BC, Sanghamitta Theri brought with her a branch of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightment. The tree was planted on a high terrace about 21 feet (6.5 m) above the ground and surrounded by railings. Today, the tree is one of the most sacred relics in Sri Lanka, respected by Buddhists all over the world. A wall was built around the tree during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, to protect it from wild elephants.
Ruwanwelisaya. After defeating the Tamil king Elara, King Dutugemunu of Sri Lanka built this magnificant stupa. The stupa is known as Ruwanwelisaya, Mahathupa, Swarnamali Chaitya and Rathnamali Dagaba. The compound is supported by stone elephants, and the surrounding wall is decorated with 1,900 figures of elephants – 475 on each side. Successive kings added to the palace over the years.
Thuparamaya. Thera Mahinda himself introduced Theravada Buddhism and also chetiya worship to Ceylon. At his request King Devanampiyatissa built Thuparamaya in which was enshrined the collarbone of the Buddha and is considered as the first dagaba built in Sri Lanka, after the introduction of Buddhism. This chetiya was built in the shape of a heap of paddy. This dagaba was destroyed from time to time. During the reign of King Agbo II it was completely destroyed and the King restored it. What we have today is the construction of the dagaba, done in 1862 AD. As it is today, after several renovations, in the course of the centuries, the monument has a diameter of 59 ft (18 m), at the base. The dome is 11 feet 4 inches (3.45 m) in height from the ground, 164½ ft (50.1 m) in diameter. The compound is paved with granite and there are 2 rows of stone pillars round the dagaba. During the early period vatadage was built round the dagaba.
Lovamahapaya is situated between Ruvanveliseya and Sri Mahabodiya. It is also known as the Brazen Palace or Lohaprasadaya. In ancient times the building included the refectory and the uposathagara. (Uposatha house). There was also a simamalake where the sangha assembled on poya days to recite the formula of the confessional]. The famous Lohaprasada built by King Dutugemunu described as an edifice of nine storeys, was a building of this class. One side of the building was 400 ft (120 m) in length. As the roof was covered with tiles made of bronze, this was known as the Brazen Palace. There are 40 rows, each row consisting of 40 stone pillars and a total of 1600 stone pillars were used for the building. It is believed that it took 6 years for the construction of the building and the plan was brought from the heavens. The building was completely destroyed during the reign of King Saddhatissa.
Abhayagiri Dagaba. King Valagamba ascended the throne in 103 AD. He waged war with the Tamils and was defeated. When he fled, a Nigantha named Giri shouted words of derisive mockery at him. Later the king collected an army attacked the Tamils by slaying the last of their leaders, and recovered the throne he had lost. It is said that he demolished Nigantaramaya (the temple of the Niganthas) and built the Abhayagiri Vihara in the same premises. Shortly after this event, the monks of the Mahavihara took disciplinary action against one of the bhikkus of the Abhayagiri Vihara, for violating a rule of the vinaya. Thereafter the bhikkhus of the Abhayagiri Vihara founded a separate sect there. King Valagamba’s reign is marked by an important event – the first schism in Buddhism in Ceylon. Most learned bhikkhus lives in Abhayagiri Vihara. It consisted of a large library. It is recorded that during the reigns of King Voharakatissa and King Gothabhaya this library was destroyed and the heretical monks driven away. King Parakramabahu renovated Abhayagiri Vihara, then the height is said to have been 140 cubit]s. In the year 1875, Abhayagiri Vihara which had a diameter of 307 feet (94 m) at its base, stood to a height of 231 feet (70 m). The relics of the Buddha are said to have been enshrined in a figure of a bull made out of thick gold.
Jetavanarama. King Mahasen (273-301 AD) built this largest stupa in Ceylon, and possibly the whole world. A part of a sash tied by the Buddha is believed to be enshrined here. Its height is said to be 400 feet (120 m). This is considered as the largest stupa in the whole world. This stupa belongs to the Sagalika sect. The compound of the stupa is 8 acres (3 ha). One side of the stupa is 576 feet (176 m) in depth. The 4 flight of steps at the four sides is 28 feet (8.5 m) in depth. The doorpost to the shrine which is situated at the courtyard is 27 feet (8 m) in height. It is a foot (0.3 m) underground. There are some stone inscriptions in the courtyard with the names of donors inscribed.
Mirisaveti Stupa. King Dutugamunu after defeating King Elara, built the Mirisaveti Stupa. After placing the Buddha relics in the scepter, he had gone to Tisawewa for a bath leaving the scepter. After the bath he returned to the place where the scepter was placed, and it is said that it could not be moved. The stupa was built in the place where the scepter stood. It is also said that he remembered that he partook a chilly curry without offering it to the sangha. In order to punish himself he built the Mirisavetiya Dagaba. The extent of this land is about 50 acres (20 ha). Although the king Kasyapa I and Kasyapa V renovated this, from time to time it was dilapidated. What stands today is the renovation done by the cultural Triangle Fund.
Lankarama was built by King Valagamba, in an ancient place at Galhebakada. Nothing is known about the ancient form of the stupa, and later this was renovated. The ruins show that there are rows of stone pillars and it is no doubt that there has been a house built encircling the stupa (vatadage) to cover it. The round courtyard of the stupa seems to be 10 feet (3 m) above the ground. The diameter of the stupa is 45 feet (14 m). The courtyard is circular in shape and the diameter is 1332 feet (406 m).
Isurumuniya is situated near Tisawewa and was built by King Devanampiyatissa to house 500 newly-ordained children of high caste. King Kasyapa I (473-491 AD) renovated this viharaya and named it as “Boupulvan, Kasubgiri Radmaha Vehera”. This name is derived from names of his 2 daughters and his name. There is a viharaya connected to a cave and above is a cliff. A small stupa is built on it. It can be seen that the constructional work of this stupa belong to the present period. Lower down on both sides of a cleft, in a rock that appears to rise out of a pool, have been carved the figures of elephants. On the rock is carved the figure of a horse. The carving of Isurumuniya lovers on the slab has been brought from another place and placed it there. A few yards away from this vihara is the Magul Uyana.
The ancient Magul Uyana is situated close to Isurumuni Vihara and Tissawewa and contains several ponds. There are remains of small cells, seats made of stone steps, and taps of aesthetic sense. According to legend it is believed that Prince Saliya met Asokamala in this garden. The largest pond in this garden is 31 x 55 ft (9.5 x 17 m) in length and breadth. This is not a place of worship.  Vessagiri About half a mile (1 km) to the south of Isurumuniya is situated Vessagiri on a mountains region. Scattered are 23 caves made of stone. Above the caves are inscribed the names of donors. These are the oldest inscriptions in Ceylon written in Brahmi script.
Rathna Prasadaya was built by Kng Kanittha Tissa who ruled Ceylon from 167-186 AD. It is known that during the 8th and 10th centuries Mihindu II and Mihindu IV renovated that building. The bhikkhus of the Tapovana belonging to the Pansakulika sect resided here. Beautiful guard stones of the Abhayagiri Viharaya were found here. The Queen’s Palace, containing the largest and the most beautiful moonstones, is near Ratna Prasadaya.
According to an inscription, the Dakkhina Stupa was constructed by Uttiya, a Minister of King Valagamba. For sometime by an error it was considered as Elara’s tomb. King Kanittha Tissa had build an alms hall, King Gottabhaya built an uposathagaraya, where the bhikkhis assembled for the ceremony of confession, while King Agbo I constructed a large building. The Bhikkhus of the Sagalika sect resided here. The most popularly known fact is that this stupa was constructed on the tomb of King Dutugemunu. Human bones that were collected were sent to France and according to the scientific analysis it was revealed that these ashes belong to King Dutugemunu.
Sela Cetiya is one of the 16 main places of worship and is situated to the west of Jetavanaramaya. This was constructed by King Lajjitissa who ruled in the first century BC. The diameter of the base of the stupa is 37½ feet (11.4 m). This stupa has been given this name as the platform and stupa has been constructed in stone. A moonstone and guardstones can be seen here.
Naka Vihara is a square-shaped stupa built of bricks. This is constructed according to an unusual model and would have been similar to the 7 storeyed building (Satmahal Prasadaya) in Polonnaruwa. Excavations done in this place reveal that there were several clay caskets.
Kiribath Vehera. The remains of this vihara shows that it is 30 feet (10 m) in height and the circumference is 425 feet (130 m). The date of construction and the king who built it, is unknown. In close proximity to this are the ruins of an image house. There is controversy whether the Pattamaka Chetiya built by King Devanampiyatissa is one and the same.
The most magnificent specimen of bathing tanks is the pair known as Kuttam Pokuna at Anuradhapura, near Abhayagiri Vihara. The garden which separates these 2 ponds is 18½ ft (5.6 m). The larger of this pair is 132 ft in length and 51 ft in breadth (40 by 15.5 m), while the smaller is 91 feet long, the breadth is the same (28 by 15.5 m). The depth of the smaller pond is 14 feet (4.3 m) and the larger pond is 18 feet (5.5 m). The sides and the bottom of the ponds were faced with well cut granite slabs. Round the pond is a magnificent wall. Leading to the pond are a beautiful flight of steps on both sides, and decorated with “punkalas” and scroll design. There were underground ducts bringing water into these ponds and others emptying them. A wall is built to enclose the ponds, and inside it is a small compound.
Samadhi Statue, in the Mahamevuna Park, is one of the best pieces of sculpture on the site. The statue is 8 feet (2.4 m) in height and made of granite and the Dhyana mudra is symbolished – The posture of meditation in which Buddha sits in the cross-legged position with upturned palms, placed one over the other on the lap.  Toluwila Statue Which has a close resemblance to the Samadhi statue at Anuradhapura, was found among the ruins in a temple at Toluwila in Anuradhapura. It is 5’9″ (1.75 m) in height. The gap between the knees is 5’9″ (1.75 m). The width between the shoulders is 3’5″ (1.04 m). At present this statue is placed near the main entrance to the Colombo Museum.
In the sacred city of Anuradhapura and in the vicinity are a large number of other ruins. These have not been identified properly and many have been destroyed either by Tamil invaders or by vandals. Neither tourists nor pilgrims havepaid much attention to these ruins and information regarding this is meager.