Ancient Cities


The first capital of Sri Lanka – and remaining so for 1,400 years – Anuradhapura was abandoned and swallowed by the dry-zone jungle two centuries after Vijayabahu I had retaken the country and retained the Cholas capital at Polonnaruwa in the 11th Century.

The only thing that has managed to live – literally – throughout the centuries, carefully attended by guardians all this time, is the sacred Bo Tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi, grown from a sampling of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The original Bodhi tree has since died, but the Sri Maha Bodhi survives and has been worshipped for 23 centuries, making it the oldest tree in the world.

The significance of this tree attests to the widespread influence of Buddhism, of which the surviving shrines of the ancient city provide more visible evidence. These dome-shaped monuments of worship are known as dagobas or stupas, and notable ones include the Ruwanweli Seya, Thuparamaya and Jetavanarama and Abhayagiri Dagoba.

Monks resided in the Brazen Palace (Loha Prasada), which was first built by King Dutugemunu in the 2nd Century B.C. and which, having suffered two fires, underwent numerous changes at the hands of successive rulers. You’ll have to imagine what this once-magnificent 9-storey high residence must have looked like because all you will see now is a massive space filled with 1,600 pillars in a 40-by-40 grid. Dugutugemunu’s successor Sadhatissa rebuilt a 7-storey building, which was destroyed by the Cholas in the 11th Century, and later restored in the 12th Century by Parakramabahu I, a palace of which only the pillars have survived to the present day.

Other interesting historical sites to visit include the Samadhi Buddha, the work of an anonymous master-sculptor depicting Buddha in deep meditation (an image, in the form of a photograph, which former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought inspiration from while serving a prison sentence); the Awkana, a gigantic granite Buddha statue about 32 miles southeast of Anuradhapura; and Mihintale, the sacred site at which Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka in the year 247 B.C.

Ruwanweli Seya

Otherwise known as the "Great Stupa", Ruwanweli Seya was built under the order of King Dutugemunu, who lived long enough to see through its completion in 144 B.C. - on his deathbed.

Thuparamaya Dagoba

The first dagoba built in Sri Lanka; Thuparama is believed to enshrine the right collarbone of the Buddha, which Emperor Asoka dispatched in acknowledgment and appreciation of the city’s conversion to Buddhism. Restoration over the centuries has altered the original design.

Jetavanarama Dagoba

The largest and tallest brick monument in the world, and only shorter than two Egyptian pyramids, this mighty dagoba was originally 400 feet high (500 feet including the crystal finial) and 370 feet in diameter at its base. Erected in the late 3rd Century A.D. by King Mahasena, it used to house gold plates containing Sanskrit text of a Mahayana sutra. The Jetavanarama has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Abhayagiri Dagoba

Created by King Vattagamani Abhaya in the 1st Century B.C., this 75-meter high dagoba was originally the centerpiece of a monastic complex accommodating 5,000 monks. The Abhayagiri complex had to honor of being the first place in Sri Lanka to house the sacred "Tooth Relic".


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