(206km north-east of Colombo)
Of all the magnificent early cities and capitals that Lanka boasted, Anuradhapura was the finest and most renowned. At a time when European culture was still in its infancy, here was a classical city in which flourished the arts, the humanities, hydraulic technology and, of course, Buddhism. This was no ephemeral civilization either, for it endured some 1,400 years.
The first-time visitor driving into modern Anuradhapura with its spacious roads and concrete buildings would be forgiven for thinking that this could not be the site of an ancient city, in fact one of the greatest ever. Yet a short distance from all this modernity is the impressive ruins of that classical city.
It isn’t easy to imagine from these ruins what the city was like millennia ago, but they do reveal artistic and architectural details of exquisite beauty. The greatest structures, the dagobas, are thankfully mostly intact or restored, so that visitors can more easily appreciate the fact that the Jetavana was the world’s second mightiest mass of masonry after the pyramids at Giza.
Excavations at Anuradhapura have revealed that human settlement began here about 500BC. According to the Mahawamsa, the island’s ancient chronicle, there were three notables named Anuradha who developed the city. However, it was the first, a minister of King Vijaya, so-called father of the Sinhalese race, who established the town. It is not surprising, therefore, that the settlement became known as Anuradhapura, “The city of Anuradha”.
Anuradhapura first became a capital in 380BC, but it was during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (260-210BC) that it rose to great importance, when Buddhism reached Sri Lanka. Soon Anuradhapura became a most magnificent city with some of the greatest monuments to the faith (including the sacred Bo-tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi). It became the greatest monastic city of the ancient world with the largest repository of Buddhist texts.
The city covered some 52sq km and had a population estimated at several tens of thousands. Houses two and three stories high, and perhaps two stories underground, were common. The king, meanwhile, lived in a glorious palace containing hundreds of chambers. Such was the compassionate influence of Buddhism that there were not only hospitals but animal hospitals too.
An image of the city at its zenith is best conjured up in the following description by a traveller of the time: “This magnificent city is radiant from the numerous temples and palaces, whose golden pinnacles glitter in the sky. The sides of its streets are strewed with black sand, whilst the middle is sprinkled with white: they are spanned by arches of bending wood bearing flags of gold and silver, whilst vessels of the same metals are observed on either side. In niches placed for the purpose are statues holding lamps.
“Elephants, horses, carts and multitudes of people are ever to be seen passing and repassing. There are dancers, jugglers, and musicians of all kinds and of all nations; the latter performing on chank shells ornamented with gold. The city is four gaws (a traditional measurement of distance of approximately 6km) in length from North to South, and the same in breadth from East to West. The principal streets are Moon Street, Great King Street, Bullock Street and River Street, all of them of immense extent, and some containing 11,000 houses.”
Such a splendid city proved a magnet for invading South Indian kings and so Anuradhapura suffered repeated harassment from the 3rd century BC. Then, in the reign of Sena 1 (846-866AD), Anuradhapura was sacked. Nevertheless, Anuradhapura had a glorious history, having served as the capital for 1,400 years and witnessed a succession of no less than 113 kings.
For two centuries after the fall of Anuradhapura the kings of Polonnaruwa attempted unsuccessfully to restore some of the destroyed buildings. For the next 800 years the city was shrouded by jungle, the only visitors to the area being those on a pilgrimage to the sacred Bo-Tree.
In the 1820s, a young British civil servant named Ralph Backhaus mounted a private expedition to seek the remains of the great city. What he found set off a wave of interest, although serious archaeological work did not commence until 1875. Two years earlier, in 1873, the site of the ancient and holy city was designated the capital of the newly-formed North Central Province.
The Sri Maha Bodhi heads a list of eight principal places of worship on the itinerary of Buddhist pilgrims visiting Anuradhapura and visitors who wish to take a glimpse at the country’s ancient civilization. Of the other places, Ruwanweli, Thuparama, Jetavana, Abhayagiri, Lankarama, and Mirisaweti are dagobas – large bell-shaped monuments that enshrine Buddha relics. The last, Isurumuniya, is a vihara or temple.
While the dagoba was the outstanding achievement of the early architect and builder, the images of the Buddha – seated, standing and recumbent – were the outstanding achievement of the sculptor. Anuradhapura has a particularly fine Samadhi Buddha Statue, a photograph of which Nehru found of solace during imprisonment by the British.
There are numerous other monuments in the city, such as the Brazen Palace, as well as fine carvings in stone such as moonstones and guardstones, secular sculpture (Isurumuniya), bathing ponds (Kuttam Pokuna), and the Royal Pleasure Gardens.
Over recent decades, extensive excavations and restoration work has been carried out at various locations in Anuradhapura under the Cultural Triangle Project with support from UNESCO.
The hotel is situated by Nuwara Wewa, a vast man-made lake and amidst stupendous monuments surrounded by sub tropical forest, ideal for adventure and wild life tours. Well furnished rooms, well stocked bars and restaurants with tasty dishes served by smiling stewards and stewardesses combine to create the right ambience to make it an out of the world experience.