According to the Mahavamsa, the ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura was established by one of the followers of Vijaya, the prince who was exiled from his kingdom in India and established a kingdom in this island. Anuradha, the founder of the city came up Kadamba Nadee, which is called Malvathu Oya, and established a village by his name at the site of the current city.
However, the chronicles are silent about any settlement beyond the founding of this Anuradhagrama (Village of Anuradha) in the 6th Century B.C. However, archeological excavations have revealed that Anuradhapura area was a thriving settlement where people knew of farming, animal husbandry, pottery and even metallurgy several centuries before the ‘founding’ by Anuradha. If the ancient chronicle is to be believed word by word, it raises questions as to what happened to a thriving community. Such a civilization cannot ‘vanish in to thin air.’
To return to the chronicle Mahavamsa, it was king Pandukabhaya who made Anuradhagrama his capital and expanded it to a modern city, Anuradhapura. This was in the 4th Century B.C. Anuradhapura was to remain the capital city of ancient Sri Lanka and also of Rajarata (The Abode of Kings) for around 1400 years. Rajarata was one of the three regions of ancient Sri Lanka. A number of invaders overran the city and either plundered it or chose to rule the part of the country they occupied from it. But, there were no reasons to abandon it. The Chola invaders occupied the city and Rajarata in 993 A.D. and moved the capital to Polonnaruwa, South East of Anuradhapura, for security reasons. Even after this event, the Sinhalese people had a spiritual attachment with the city as it was home to many sacred religious sites including the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and Ruwanweliseya. After the invaders were driven out, the Sinhalese kings chose to keep Polonnaruwa as the capital for practical purposes. But Anuradhapura, the spiritual capital of the Sinhalese people, was not totally abandoned until the Sinhalese kings chose to leave the North Central plains altogether in the 13th Century.
The Capital of All Buddhists
Anuradhapura can be considered to be the capital of all the Buddhists in the world until the 13th Century A.D. The ancient chronicles tell us that Emperor Asoka sent his son, Arhat Mahinda Thero, as an emissary from his capital to Sri Lanka. It is said that Arhat Mahinda’s mission brought Buddhism to the country. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that the ancient Sri Lankan people had at least some knowledge of Buddhism before this event. Nevertheless, according to the chronicles, it is with this event that Buddhism found royal patronage in the country.
Not long after, according to the chronicles, a sapling of the sacred Bodhi Tree was brought to the island from Bodh Gaya by Emperor Asoka’s daughter Ven. Sanghamitta. It was planted in Anuradhapura and still stands as the living symbol of Lord Buddha. The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya was destroyed subsequently and it was a sapling from the sacred tree in Anuradhapura which was taken there to be planted thereafter.
In 4th Century A.D., during the reign of King Kirthi Shri Meghavanna, the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamala and Prince Dantha from Kalinga in India. It was placed in a “Dalada Maligawa” (Temple of the Tooth) in Anuradhapura and became a symbol of kingship. As such, it was taken from capital to capital by Sinhalese kings, ultimately ending up at Kandy (Temple of the Tooth, Kandy) during the 16th Century. But, until the 10th Century, it resided in Anuradhapura.
With these two symbols of Lord Buddha residing in the City, Anuradhapura was the unrivalled capital of the Buddhists in the entire world.
A City of Monasteries
Anuradhapura was a city of monasteries. The sheer size of the monasteries can be imagined by the ruins in the sacred city seen today. For instance, when King Dutugemunu built it as the chapter house of the monks of Mahavihara, the Lovamahapaya (The Brazen House) had thousand rooms in its nine stories. It was covered with gilt bronze sheets, giving it its name. At that age, it was a gigantic building by scale. Later it was demolished by fire and was subsequently rebuilt and was repaired and enlarged from time to time. Today, there are 1600 stone pillars at the site.
Mahavihara was the early centre of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Ruwanweliseya, built by King Dutugemunu (161-137 B.C.), was its main stupa and even today it is known simply as the Mahathupa or the Main Stupa. Rising majestically in pristine white, it is a sight to relish. At night, it is even more beautiful.
There were many smaller stupas in Mahavihara, including the Thuparama, the first stupa said to have been built in Anuradhapura.
However, two main schisms occurred in 1st Century B.C. and 3rd Century A.D. which established two more monasteries. The first of these schisms occurred when King Wattagamini Abhaya or Walagamba established Abhayagiriya and offered it to Kuppikala Thissa Thero. Usually, donations and offerings of anything from alms to monasteries to Mahasangha were not offered privately to a particular monk. But the fact that Kuppikala Thissa Thero accepter this private offering prompted the Mahavihara from expelling him. Thereafter, he established his own order of monks at Abhayagiriya.
In 3rd Century A.D., King Mahasen, who had a grudge with the Mahavihara, expelled its monks and destroyed much of it and reportedly turned the land into farmland. He also burnt heaps of books which were in the Vihara. He established a new monastery, Jetavanaramaya, and built a stupa, rivaling both Abhayagiriya and the Maha Stupa in size and height. With a height of 400 feet, Jetavanarama Stupa is regarded as the tallest building made of brick in the ancient world. It is also the third highest building made in the ancient world. Only two of the Pyramids in Giza are higher than it.
Mahavihara was later rebuilt by King Mahasen, who realized his mistakes. But, it most probably did not reach its past glory ever. By early 5th Century, when Ven. Fa Hsien, a monk from China, arrived in Sri Lanka, Abhayagiriya had 5000 monks and Mahavihara 3000. Ven. Fa Hsien arrived to study the Thripitaka (Pali Canon) which includes Buddha’s teaching. This shows that Anuradhapura was a famous centre of learning in the ancient world, although little is said about that aspect. It is one of many facets of life in ancient Anuradhapura in need of further studies today.
Not a Fortress Town
Although Anuradhapura is said to have its own walls, gates and defences, it never was subjected to prolonged sieges. It suggests that Anuradhapura was not a fortress city in its true meaning. Battles for the kingship were usually waged outside the city, elsewhere in the country. If it was decided in Anuradhapura itself, it was through a palace coup. For instance, by the time King Dutugemunu reached Anuradhapura to oust King Elara, the bulk of the latter’s armies had been already decimated elsewhere in a protracted war of sieges and open battles.
Obviously, with so many monks within the city, it was never a fortress city, but a place of monasteries and learning. Only through totally abandoning the monasteries could the city be defended in a prolonged siege, even if there were sufficient defences built around it. However, it is obvious that there were some defence mechanisms and tight defences for the royalty residing in the Inner City. However, the Kings of Anuradhapura were confident enough to move among his subjects when the political situation was stable, especially during religious events. Religious sites were sacred places not to be desecrated even during war.
Irrigation to Support the Population
Ancient Sri Lanka was undoubtedly the irrigation centre of the ancient world. Not anywhere in the world will you find such a huge number of manmade reservoirs as in Rajarata and Ruhuna in Sri Lanka. Some of them are still hidden in the jungles, especially in Ruhuna. These reservoirs used a unique technology and cannot be equaled to any other reservoir in the world. Hence, its more appropriate to use the Sinhalese word for them, wewa.
The first wewa built by Sri Lankans is said to be Abhaya wewa, also known today as the Basavakkulama. Reportedly built by King Pandukabhaya in the 4th Century B.C., it is located near Ruwanweliseya. Today, its area is 225 acres. Therefore, it is smaller than the gigantic wewas built by ancient kings of Sri Lanka. However, the multitude of smaller wewas performed a crucial role in the irrigation network which has not been sufficiently appreciated. Furthermore, there are accounts in the chronicles that claim the existence of reservoirs even before Pandukabhaya became the king. However, enough details about them have not been unearthed, at least for now.
Ancient Sri Lanka was self sufficient in the basic needs of its people. Enough food was produced to support a large population especially during politically stable times. There are accounts of droughts but the majority of the people managed to survive them. Obviously Anuradhapura was not self sufficient in food, as any city would be. But with a very advanced irrigation system and flat land to grow paddy, the surrounding areas were able to feed the city with little difficulty.
Abandonment and “Rediscovery”
In the 13th Century, Anuradhapura and the Rajarata as a whole, was abandoned. There is no consensus as to what the exact reason was. Yet, it was political instability which was the root cause. Even after the ‘abandonment’, a small number of people lived there, protecting the Maha Bodhi through sheer dedication. Pilgrims still arrived, bringing in firewood to light fires at night to protect the Sacred Tree from elephants. In the 18th Century, a stone wall was built around the Boghi Tree with the patronage of the King, Kirthi Shri Rajasingha (1747-1782).
Anuradhapura attracted the attention of archeologists including H. C. P. Bell, who subsequently became the first Commissioner of Archeological Department of Sri Lanka, in the late 19th Century. Archeological excavations have unearthed many ruins of the ancient city. Meanwhile, repairing the ancient irrigation works and establishment of settlements were carried out throughout the early part of the 20th Century. A new town was established to administer the growing population.
Some of the more known sites were renovated. Ruwanwaliseya was renovated by 1940. Renovation of Jetavanarama was finished a few years back and work at Abhayagiriya is still in progress. Excavations are continuously carried out in several places at the ancient city. But, even in Anuradhapura itself, let alone the other parts of Sri Lanka, there are many secrets still hidden beneath the earth, waiting to be unearthed.