Anuradhapura: 10 Ancient Sites You Must See In Your Lifetime

Anuradhapura shows you what history looks like while citing a rekindled inclination to modern-day travellers.

Trace the antiquity of one of the most ancient civilisations by darting the oldest standing wheel of the Universe at Sakwala Chakraya or touring colossally sun-baked stupas and Buddhist temples. Stand beneath the umbrae of the Samadhi Buddha at Mahamevnāwa Park and gaze into the eyes of the awakened one; then explore the journey within or ponder over cryptographs that elaborate the desolate landscape of a lost city. Or stay in style at a forested luxury resort, stroll down the local market, and surrender to the legendary Sigiriya and every spectacle of verdant date palms and fascinating relics that depicts the multi-layered heritage of Sri Lanka. 

Veidehi Gite Isurumuniya rajamaha viharaya

Anuradhapura, now a World Heritage Site, is one of the ancientest inhabited cities in the world. I got acquainted with the well-preserved treasures of the ancient Sinhala civilisation during a recent trip I took to this third ancient capital of Sri Lanka. Perched on the banks of the Malvathu River, Anuradhapura, locally known as Rajarata, was the island’s first established kingdom in 377 BC. It is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist culture and has been the epicentre of Theravada Buddhism through various periods. In this day and age, Anuradhapura awaits your engagement with its kingly sagas and enlightening tales of spiritualism. Here’s a list of 10 ancient sites that you must see in a lifetime.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

One of the most ancient trees standing tall in the Mahamewna Gardens in Anuradhapura is Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. This incredible tree is said to have budded from a cutting brought from Bodh Gaya, the same place where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment in India. Being the closest factual link to Gautama Buddha, Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi was tended to by Buddhist monks and royals across all eras. It is one of the holiest sites in Anuradhapura, now shrouded by golden railings, statues and canals.

Sri Maha Bodhi Anuradhapura

Buddhist or not, people of all faiths visit this tree to submerge themselves in its quiet beauty. Every day sermons are arranged! About that time, the aroma of incense sticks and oil lamps fill the atmosphere. Visit Sri Maha Bodhi in the morning to participate in the rituals amidst a spectacular sunrise. Also, visit the sacred Prarthana Bo fig tree, vow, and make offerings to get your wish granted.

Address: Thuparama Dagoba, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Ruwanweliseya, The Mahathupa

Also known as Mahathupa, Swarnamali Seya or Rathnamali Seya – Ruwanweliseya Stupa is one of the largest you will visit in Sri Lanka. I’d say, be oblivious to its monumental layout and go to see the Great Thupa of Ruwanweli Maha Seya only to get closer to two quarts of the Buddha’s vestiges, the most extensive collection of his relics anywhere. This white hemispherical stupa in Anuradhapura will infallibly surprise you with its peaceful energy. On the architecture front, Ruwanweli Maha Seya is cladded by vast courts, broad platforms and a peripheral wall with elephant sculptures.

Ruwanweliseya Anuradhapura

Ensconced in the epicentre of Anuradhapura, this gigantic stupa was brought into being, by the Sinhalese King Dutugamunu in 140BC. For many centuries, several ruling kings tried to keep the original stupa in good order, and then one day, it just went hiding in the dense forests surrounding it. Until, of course, the 19th-century, when a Buddhist Bhikkhu initiated fundraising to have this exemplary stupa renovated. In the early 20th century, it was reinstated and opened to the public. 

Anuradhapura

This most respected Buddhist monument of the world is one of the 16 Solosmasthana and one of the eight Atamasthana in Sri Lanka.

Address: Abhayawewa Rd, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya

Anuradhapura is also home to Isurumuniya, a very intriguing rock-cut compound. Situated near Tisa Wewa, this cave complex with several pools was put in place by King Devanampiya Tissa in the third century BC. I chanced upon this monastery during my recent visit to Sri Lanka, and here I journeyed across its old shrine room, new shrine room, museum, stupa and the sacred Bo tree. Earlier acknowledged as Meygiri or Meghagiri Vihara, Isurumuni came into existence as an ordinance to 500 high-caste children. Later in 473BC, King Kasyapa I reconditioned it and named it Boupulvan, Kasubgiri Radmaha Viharaya after his two daughters.

Isurumunj Rajamaha Viharaya Pool

The entrance to the Rajamaha Viharaya leads the way to the main cave, which further connects to a small white stupa over a cliff. A horse sculpture beautifies the rock, and downwards on either side of the intervening space, you will see carved figures of elephants. A pool sits on the right and a small temple on the left. I enjoyed reconnoitring the optical illusion displayed by the reclining Buddha in this ‘smallish’ temple.

Rajamaha Viharaya Reclining Buddha

Observe the shift in his meditative state as you walk from one end to another. The eyes of the Buddha will appear open as you enter the room and shut as you depart. This part of Isurumuniya left me stunned, okay, and so did its rock-cut vihara. In addition to its caves, Isurumuniya is also famous for ‘The Lovers,’ a Gupta-era stone carving fetched from another place and placed here.

Rajamaha Viharaya The Lovers

Historians propose that ‘The Lovers,’ depict Saliya (son of King Dutugemunu) and his lover Ashokamala for whom he forsook the throne. The other carvings are of the horseman, elephant pond and the royal family. It took several years for archaeologists to reconstruct the life of Anuradhapura by excavating the foundations of this site. Elated that I could see, some of these prized relics that remained, buried under debris for centuries. The royal garden of Ranmasu Uyana is only a few yards away from this vihara.

Address: 89MR+R4J, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Ranmasu Uyana, The Royal Garden

Despite being quiet, Anuradhapura throws you into the best of ancient exoticism, and Ranmasu Uyana is one fine example of its halcyon days. The Royal Garden of Ranmasu Uyana is a 40-acres park neighbouring Isurumuniya. Thriving with various ponds, ruins and Sakwala Chakraya, a map to an ancient stargate portal, Ranmasu Uyana is an eminent illustration of the pre-Christian-era garden architecture. Ranmasu translates to Goldfish, after the fish carvings encircling the Sakwala Chakraya map. This old world map carries sculpted impressions of what monks believe, is a diagrammatic representation of a stargate portal.

Sakwala Chakraya

Tantrik Buddhists who pray here have claimed to have noticed a strange variation in EMF around this rock. Sometimes the EMF is recorded at null, and other times, relatively high for any EMF detector to catch its energy span. The only way to find out was to either sit next to the rock with an EMF detector or to meditate and let my inner self descry the imperceptible laws of the universe. I chose the latter! I meditated in the sacred lotus pose of Padmasana, and those thirty minutes of contemplation, are one of my best memories from Sri Lanka.

Ranmasu Uyana Anuradhapura

While I did not travel to another dimension, I did feel capacitated to the collective energy of the present. This revered rock was quick to pull me into its mystical enigma. The earth beneath my body shook, and my heart trembled. Even if it was imaginary, the experience unleashed the possibility of finding a dimensional traveller within. So I have reasons to believe that Sakwala Chakraya might be what monks believe it to be. But I would love to hear your story. Haven’t been here? I’d say, visit Ranmasu Uyana to explore its 3rd-century architecture and 8th-century pavilions, If not the science and astronomy links.

Address: 89QQ+6WX, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Rock Fortress Near Anuradhapura

A 1.5 hours drive from Anuradhapura will take you to one of the most revered sites on the island. Sigiriya, as entitled, is an ancient rock fortress with a history of being colonised by ascetics and Buddhist monks past the third century BC. About 5000 years ago, in the Mesolithic era, the Aligala shelter towards the east of Sigiriya was the earliest to be occupied. Inscriptions around its drip-ridges depict 3rd-century (BC) to 1st-century (AD) illustrations. From that time, many Buddhist monastic settlements lived in the slanting boulder-strewn hills surrounding the rock. This rock fortress also enjoys a royal past.

Sigiriya Sri Lanka

Culavamsa, an ancient Sri Lankan chronicle, implies that King Kashyapa picked this forested area as his new capital in the fourth century. He built a palace atop the towering rock and embellished its sides with kaleidoscopic frescoes. Halfway up the rock, a lion gateway was set in place, after which the rock takes its name. While the sculpted head of the lion collapsed years ago, the claws remain as it is. When the king drew his last breath, the lion-rock Sigiriya or Sīnhāgiri was signed away. It continued to function as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.

Sigiriya Lion Claw

In the present day, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient metropolitan design. If you are up for a climb, then 1200 stone-carved steps will take you to the uppermost floor that holds the ruins of the 5th-century ancient citadel of King Kashyapa. The lower palace clutches to the slopes beneath the rock, giving prominence to gardens, moats, and walls outstretching the ground. In between the two floors is the most-spoken-about mirrored wall with old frescoes.

Address: Northern Matale near Dambulla

Abhayagiri Vihāra

Stupas are great energy vortexes because they upheave karmic benefits! In the olden days, stupas fed the poor, healed the sick, imparted education to children and even held-out shelter for passing travellers. This intellectualization allures me to visit stupas in all shapes and sizes. It’s a known fact that Anuradhapura is one of the best places in the world to see and experience some of the most incredible Buddhist shrines. Abhayagiri Vihāra, for instance, is one of the largest stupas in the world, apart from being the original custodian of the tooth relic. At first sight, this stupa left me amazed by the size of its stone stronghold.

Abhayagiri vihāra

Abhayagiri Vihara makes reference to the solidarity of the Buddhist Sangha and their modest lifestyles. This 5th-largest Buddhist pilgrimage site sets the ball rolling by reintroducing history in the form of existing old city walls, bronze gilts, burnt clay roofs, carved moonstones, bathing ponds, and ancient elements alike. Moreover, the monastic centre is belted with awesome walls, handrails, bathing ponds, and intricately carved moonstones. Abhayagiri Dagaba, however, remains the centre of its interest.

Abhayagiri Vihāraa

Even in this day and age, Abhayagiri Vihara draws scholars and Buddhist devotees from every place. Irrespective of your beliefs, visit Abhayagiri Vihara to admire its expansive architecture, meditate and surrender to the teachings of Buddha, and get spiritually inspired!

Address: Watawandana Rd, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Lovamahapaya, Anuradhapura

A short walk from Sri Maha Bodi to Ruwanweliseya will take you to the Brazen Palace of Lovamahapaya in Anuradhapura. It gets its name Brazen Palace after the bronze tiles shielding its roof. King Dutugemunu built Lohaprasada as a nine-story tower containing a Simamalake, a refectory and an Uposatha house. The story goes that the plan loomed in from the heavens, and the construction took nearly six years. Later the tower was entirely demolished during the reign of King Saddhatissa.

Lovamahapaya Anuradhapura

Today, nothing remains, only the lone stone pillars, which stretch out around the main structure. Lovamahapaya has 40 rows, each with 40 stone pillars, for an aggregate of 1600 pillars. At the time of its raising in 155BC, Lovamahapaya was the tallest building on the island, and each of its stone pillars was drest in treasured gems. It retained the status of the tallest building until 993AD.

Address: 89WX+95G, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Eth Pokuna or the Elephant Pond

Excepting stupas and monasteries, Anuradhapura is also home to a few beautiful ponds. The first pond I looked up is close to Lankaramaya, and it’s also the most oversized ‘man-made’ reservoir in Anuradhapura. Eth Pokuna, Elephant Pond, so anointed because of its giant size compeering six modern-day Olympic swimming pools combined. Eth Pokuna with 32 ft depth and 520 ft length provided for the 5000 residing monks of the Abayagiri monastery.

Eth Pokuna Elephant Pond

Many years later, archaeologists discovered a network of underground tubes on-site that appear to be bringing water from Periyamkulama Tank. During your visit, take note of the water lines built out of stone blocks. These underground canals work fine even after thousands of years, and locals will tell you about 1982 rainfall that set the testimony by streaming Periyamkulama tank water through these stone inlets.

Address: Eth Pokuna, Watawandana Road, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds of Anuradhapura)

Kuttam Pokuna, known as twin ponds, was the second. Bordered with granite rock, this pond-duo forms part of the Abhayagiri vihāra complex and is one of the well-preserved specimens of bathing tanks in the whole of Sri Lanka. Kuttam Pokuna is the Sinhalese achievement of hydrological engineering and exceptional architectural innovation of ancient times. Set side by side, these two ponds vary in size but share the common purpose of reserving a place for the Buddhist monks to bathe. The one in the north is older and smaller than the southern pond.

Kuttam Pokuna Twin Ponds

The larger pool is 132 feet long, the smaller thirty feet shorter and shallower. Through its undubbed history, ‘Twin Ponds’ have managed to find a few linked retellings. If sources are to be, believed, then Kuttam Pokuna was built in 575AD under the reign of King Aggabodhi I. Other stories imply that twin ponds were a work of the 26th-century kings. Nonetheless, building these large water-filled pools without any aid of modern resources was a remarkable accomplishment by the ancient civilisation. This monumental reservoir also signifies that, in remote times, Abhayagiri Viharaya was often contributed to and remodelled.

Twin Ponds Anuradhapura

A walk around the ponds reveals the flight of steps on which the monks stood to bathe. Granite pots of Punkalasa, signifying prosperity, are carved around both pools whereas, the bottom exhibits crab and dancing woman carvings. Uniformly to Elephant Pond, Kuttam Pokuna also acquires its water through underground pipelines. However, this water ushers through diverse filtration chambers to become suitable for the monks to wash. Visit this site to see four levels of water filtration before the water enters the ponds.

Address: 9CC2+8MF, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Vijayabahu Maligaya or The Royal Palace

Once the royal palace of King Vijayabahu I, in 1070, Vijayabahu Maligaya is now in ruins. All that remains are two guard stones at the entrance followed by wreckages of a lost era. Two eminent figures on either side of the guard stones display attendants of Kubera, the god of wealth. One with a conch shell hood and the other with lotus on his head. Even though nothing remains of Vijayabahu Maligaya today, it is still one of the best places in Anuradhapura to understand the glories of the ancient Sinhalese capital layout.

Vijayabahu Maligaya Royal Palace

Exceeding its ring are three giant stupas mapped in three directions, pursued by a series of water tanks and outermost monasteries. When Vijayabahu Maligaya was cast, elite individuals were the first to occupy the neighbourhood. While here, I learnt that Vijayabahu Maligaya broaches the inner city, and I was standing in the centermost part of the Anuradhapura. A close scrutinization of the desolate rubble also helps appreciate the craftsmen and construction skills of the ancient society. I visited this site during November when it wasn’t too hot or too busy. A guide could easily make your visit more rewarding.

Vijayabahu Maligaya

Address: Sangamitta Mawatha, Anuradhapura

Sri Lanka’s first Buddhist capital may trace its roots back to the fourth century BC, but Anuradhapura is so much more than just an ancient relic. Cocooned by lush wildernesses, Anuradhapura has many spectacular sites to see. Visit this incredibly different city to embark on a dramatic journey that gets you acquainted with the Ceylonese values and lets you enjoy a sightseeing adventure to some of the most explicit sites in South Asia. The other treasures include the Dambulla Golden Cave temple, Mahasen Palace and the peaceful Samadhi Buddha.

Where to Stay:

Habarana Village by Cinnamon Hotels

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