The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: enormous dagobas (brick stupas), ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. Today, several of the sites remain in use as holy places and temples; frequent ceremonies give Anuradhapura a vibrancy that’s a sharp contrast to the museum-like ambience at Polonnaruwa.
Attraction In Anuradhapura
- ABHAYAGIRI DAGOBA
Dating back to the 1st century BC, this colossal dagoba was the ceremonial focus of the 5000-strong Abhayagiri Monastery. Originally over 100m high, it was one of the greatest structures in the ancient world, its scale only matched by the pyramids of Giza (and nearby Jetavanarama). Today, after several reconstructions, Abhayagiri Dagoba soars 75m above the forest floor. Visually, it’s stunning, and your first glimpse of this brick monument through a gap in the surrounding forest is breathtaking.
- SRI MAHA BODHI
The sacred bodhi tree is central to Anuradhapura in both a spiritual and physical sense. It was grown from a cutting brought from Bodhgaya in India and is said to be the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians for over 2000 years. Today thousands of devotees come to make offerings, particularly on poya (full moon) days and weekends. Sunset is a magical time to visit.
- ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
The old British colonial administration building has recently been renovated and has an interesting collection of artwork, carvings and everyday items from Anuradhapura and other historic sites around Sri Lanka. Exhibits include a restored relic chamber, found during the excavation of the Kantaka Chetiya dagoba at nearby Mihintale, and a large-scale model of Thuparama Dagoba’s vatadage (circular relic house) as it might have been if a wooden roof had existed.
- ROYAL PLEASURE GARDENS
Known as the Park of the Goldfish, these extensive 2000-year-old royal pleasure gardens cover 14 hectares and contain two ponds skilfully designed to fit around the huge boulders in the park. Look out for the fine elephant carvings.
Carved onto the back side of a rock face in the southwest corner of the park is an intriguing geometric mandala design of circles and crosses that some have suggested is one of the earliest ever depictions of a world map.
It was here that Prince Saliya, the son of Dutugemunu, was said to have met the low-caste Asokamala, whom he married, thereby forsaking his right to the throne, a story captured in the ‘lover’s’ sculpture in nearby Isurumuniya Vihara.
- KUTTAM POKUNA
These swimming-pool-like ponds were likely used by monks from nearby Kaparamula residence hall. Water entered the larger pond through the mouth of a makara (a mythical hybrid beast featuring the body of a fish, the mouth of a crocodile and the trunk of an elephant) and then flowed to the smaller pond through an underground pipe. Note the five-headed cobra figure close to the makara and the nearby water-filter system, both at the northwestern end of the ponds.Although they are referred to as twins, the northern pond, which is 28m in length, is smaller than the 40m-long southern pond.
Sitting northwest of the Abhayagiri Dagoba, this ruined 9th-century residential complex for monks is notable for having the finest carved moonstone in Sri Lanka; see how many species of animals you can find in its elaborate carvings. This is a peaceful wooded area full of butterflies, and makes a good place to stop and cool off during a tour of the ruins (there are drink and snack stands close by). Look for the fine steps held up by jovial gana (dwarfs).It forms part of a structure often mistakenly described as Mahasena’s Palace or the Queen’s Pavilion.
- ANURADHAPURA WORLD HERITAGE SITE
The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: enormous dagobas (brick stupas), ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years as capital of Sri Lanka.