Anuradhapura is definitely Sri Lanka’s most significant ancient city. It is a pride of the island for at least two reasons. To begin with, Anuradhapura was the capital for the first 1300 years of altogether 2300 years Sinhalese history and is now one of Asia’s vastest and most important excavation sites. Additionally, Anuradhapura is a Sacred City for Buddhists till the present day. Besides Kandy, Anuradhapura is the major destination for Buddhist pilgrimages in Sri Lanka. One reason for this is the oldest remaining Sacred Bo-Tree of the Buddhist world, a 2300 years old sappling of the original tree of enlightment in Bodhgaya, India, where the historic Buddha Shakyamuna found salvation. This original tree does not exist any more, the Botree venerated in Bodhgaya today is a sappling from Anuradhapura planted in India in the late 19th century. Furthermore, Anuradhapura’s Dagobas keep sacred relics of the Buddha and Buddhist saints. Thuparama, the earliest stupa (dagoba) in Anuradhapura, as well as the three largest ancient hemispherical stupas are still places of Buddhist worship. Besides Kandy, Anuradhapura can be called the spiritual capital of Sri Lanka.
Anuradhapura had been an important settlement even in the pre-Sinhalese period. Excavations date first settlings already to the 10th century BC. Though founded by comrades of the first Sinhalese king Vijaya in the 5th century BC, Anuradhapura became the capital in 377 BC under King Pandukabhaya. When Buddhism was officially introduced by Indian missionaries one century later, Anuradhapura embraced the new religion enthusiastically and was the place where the first relics were buried on the island and where the first monastery was established with the support of a Sinhalese ruler, Devanampiya Tissa. In the following centuries Anuradhapura became one of the most important centers of Buddhist learning attracting Buddhist scholars from all parts of Asia.
The city flourished as the centre of cultivation, boasting the world’s largest brick buildings. But Anuradhapura regularly suffered foreign invasions. In the second half of the first millennium, the South-Indian kingdoms became increasingly powerful and gained more and more influence in Anuradhapura, until finally the city came under direct control of the Tamil Chola Empire in 993 AD and was almost abandoned soon afterwards.
So for almost thirteen centuries, Anuradhapura was the capital of the Sinhalese civilization and a real megalopolis, the largest settlement south of the Gangetic Plains. Anuradhapura has lost its political significance during the Polonnaruwa period, though it was considered to be the official capital of the first Sinhalese kings then residing mainly in Polonnaruwa. Due to neglect in times of civil war and foreign invasions, Anuradhapura became a forgotten city reconquered be the jungle. But due to British archaeology and the rediscovery of ancient chronicles scientific research started in the mid-nineteenth century. Finally the Buddhist revival in the late 19th century restored the ancient glory of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. The south-eastern parts of Anuradhapura outside the archaeological zone, now called New Town, were resettled by Sinhalese Buddhists thrilled to have recovered a milestone of their heritage.
One full day will not be enough to visit all ancient sites in Anuradhapura. We highly recommend to spend three nights in this area to explore Anuradhapura more thoroughly and also spend at least half a day in the neighbouring Mihintale.
After we completed our first Kandy series last month, we are going to publish a series of six articles about Anuradhapura in May and June.
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