Anuradhapura: The Ancient Civilization of Sri Lanka

with 31 Comments

 

The ancient civilization of Anuradhapura thrived as the political and religious capital of Sri Lanka over the course of 1300 years until an invasion abruptly ended its reign in 993. With its dagobas (stupas) and temples dating back to the 4th century BC, it’s one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites found in Sri Lanka.

But….the entrance fee of $25USD is really steep and, bluntly put, I didn’t think it was worth the price (which also includes entrance to the museum). The grounds are extensive but the ancient ruins are few and far between (a tuk-tuk or bike is needed which is an added expense though not very expensive). I really do enjoy stepping foot on ancient grounds and marveling at architectural ruins but, unfortunately, Anuradhapura fell short mostly due to the price/value ratio.

 

 

I’ll admit the grounds were very verdant (we visited during rainy season) and it was the first time I saw dagobas so those were positive aspects. Two of the highlights of our visit actually had nothing to do with the site. Our very engaging, friendly and knowledgeable tuk-tuk driver made our visit much more interesting. The second highlight was the bride and groom we encountered while strolling among the ruins; their gorgeous, lavishly designed traditional wedding outfits were almost more appealing to me than some of the ancient ruins. Just sayin’.

So enough of my critique, let’s explore this ancient civilization shall we?

 

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With our very engaging & friendly tuk-tuk driver

 

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I felt slightly under-dressed

 

Jaya Sri Hama Bodhi is one of the most sacred relics in Sri Lanka. The bodhi tree is highly sacred in Buddhism; the story goes that Lord Buddha himself attained enlightenment under such a tree in Bodh Gaya – an important religious site in India which attracts Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. Legend has it that Jaya Sri Hama Bodhi was propagated from the original bodhi tree in India and is considered the oldest tree in the world planted by a human.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi isn’t part of the ancient city so foreign visitors are expected to pay an entrance fee of about 200 rupees. Our awesome tuk-tuk driver took us to a gate where we didn’t need to pay (I know the fee was probably very minimal fee but free is always good!). There were guards at the gate but the only thing they checked was if we had removed our shoes and if my shoulders were covered (this is a sacred site therefore women are expected to cover their shoulders – a simple scarf will do).

 

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This semi-circular architectural element usually found at the bottom of steps leading to a religious structure is a feature unique to Sinhalese culture. Made of moonstone and decorated with finely-carved depictions of animals including elephants, this one at Anuradhapura is apparently the most elaborate and well-preserved in Sri Lanka. And did you notice those gorgeous steps? Wow!

Guard stones can be seen at the entrance of many of the ruins. Some represent pot-bellied dwarfs and others graceful nagarajas – a mythical cobra/human species.

 

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A dagoba (or stupa) is a dome-shaped structure erected as a shrine to house relics of Buddhist monks or nuns and is also used as a place to practice meditation. Non-Buddhists are not permitted to enter the dagobas but you can take as many pictures as you like of the exterior.

And so I did!

 

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During your visit, you’ll notice many colorful flags adorning certain statues or specific areas (like around the Bodhi tree). These are prayer flags which originated in Tibetan Buddhism. Sri Lanka is mostly a Buddhist country therefore the presence of prayer flags is a common scene in temples and sacred sites.

Contrary to common belief, the prayer flags aren’t used to carry prayers to gods or other deities. Rather, prayer flags are used to carry wishes pertaining to peace, wisdom, luck, happiness, compassion, prosperity, health and longevity which are then blown by the wind and put forth into the universe.

 

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Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds) were bathing pools made of solid cut granite slabs where monks used to, well, bathe. These pools are considered the most significant hydrological achievement in engineering created by the ancient Sinhalese. The water was transferred from underground ducts (some of which are visible throughout the site) and properly filtered before reaching the pools. Fascinating how such ancient civilizations could achieve so much with so little!

Nowadays, the mossy green waters are mostly enjoyed by a few elegant gold fish.

 

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As in most Buddhist temples, the ones at the ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura were elaborately painted in vibrant colors with several murals depicting religious rituals involving Lord Buddha and life as it was back then. The workmanship and minute details are impressive – I can’t imagine how long it took to paint just one mural. Patience is a virtue and while admiring all this intricate work I thought to myself how these talented artists must have been extremely virtuous! Obviously many of these paintings have been retouched but that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that the original work was done thousands of years ago.

 

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The Samadhi statue depicts Buddha meditating in the posture he was in when he was first enlightened. Our tuk-tuk driver told us it was okay to take pictures but when we did some Buddhists (not monks) who were there at the same time got offended and scolded us (I don’t understand Sinhala but their tone and frowns were enough).

Not sure what the protocol is now but if it’s clearly forbidden (which it wasn’t when we visited), I strongly suggest respecting the regulations put in place. I know it can be tempting to take pictures (I mean you traveled so far!) but as visitors we should always be respectful of local culture and beliefs.

End of speech.

 

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Visitors can climb to the top of Isurumuniya Temple to take in the views of the sprawling grounds of the ancient sacred city. With the pretty pond at the entrance complete with elephant carvings (can you spot the other carving?) and the viewpoint, this was my favorite part of our visit.

 

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A few more unexpected (and less ancient) things you’ll see during your visit are dogs lazying around, mischievous monkeys hanging around tree tops, non-chalant buffalo grazing, lots of roosters and chickens and the occasional armed policeman which all make for a very diverse and interesting landscape.

 

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Hope you enjoyed your virtual visit to Anuradhapura – the ancient civilization of Sri Lanka!

 

 

Read all about my travels in Sri Lanka

 

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Enjoyed this post? Please pin it!

 

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Has anyone been to Anuradhapura? Did you find it was worth the price?

 

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  • It is amazing how the tree from Bodh Gaya which is miles away, got transferred here. A lot of these traditions are quite similar to India and can so well identify with them. How far is this from Colombo?

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Ami! Yes it’s quite fascinating how Buddhism traveled so far with the simple seed of a tree! We took the train from Colombo and it took just under 4 hours.

  • How unfortunate that it wasn’t worth the price! I’ve definitely felt that way about some tourist destinations. Have to admit that the bride and groom look amazing though! It’s always interesting to see different global wedding traditions.

  • Wow $25? It seems worth the price though. I like that non-Buddhists can’t go into the dagoba. It seems to maintain some integrity to the religion.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      That’s true – it does render it much more serious and genuine. Hopefully they won’t be influenced by mass tourism to change their ways.

  • Looks like you had a gala time in Sri Lanka.It looks more like Cambodia/Thailand than India. 🙂
    When I was traveling slow in Cambodia, I also got to see some local weddings and was part of a few local activities..

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      That’s because Buddhism is the most practiced religion in Sri Lanka just like Cambodia & Thailand. I always enjoy seeing local weddings and the different traditions!

  • Looks like an enlightening cultural experience! The bride and groom have such ornate outfits – so neat they let you take a picture with them. I would love to visit this beautiful country one day!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      The bride and groom were so kind although I felt like I was cramming their style…lol! Sri Lanka is a wonderful country – hope you get to visit one day!

  • Wow the bride and groom look incredible. I always thought they wore red for weddings in this part of the world so it shows how little I know. $25 does seem pretty steep though

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I saw another bride in Galle Fort (Sri Lanka) and she was wearing a red dress. Unfortunately, most popular sites in Sri Lanka are expensive.

  • Only SLIGHTLY underdressed to stand with that bride and groom! hahaha That first paragraph had me feeling bad that you took the time to go there, but the stupas look pretty impressive even if they were all spread out. I’d probably like to have a nice slow day walking those grounds. ^^

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I’m only missing a bit of glitter! 😉

  • This seems like such a great place to go and learn more about the local culture and history. I hate when you find out that taking photos is frowned upon AFTER already taking them! It wasn’t your fault at least since the driver, who is also a local told you it was okay!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It was an interesting place, I just thought the entrance fee was really steep! I felt so bad when I heard them scolding us but I think they were just a little too sensitive as there weren’t any signs advising otherwise. Oh well!

  • Fairytale Studios

    This is really nice. Photos are very good. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kathy James

    Looks like an amazing place with all the animals and history. The admission fee is quite steep but you have shown that it is worth it. Thank you for sharing a great post.

  • raghavmodi

    Even though we have a lot of temples in India and our own history, i’m always fascinated by different countries and their past, especially in the form of how religion and art merge together. Sri Lanka is obviously a lot similar to what we have in South India, but still there are minor differences that make it unique. As for the steep entrance price, I can understand your issue with that because in India too they have different pricing for foreigners and locals. Thank you for a wonderful post and something to look forward to when I do visit Sri Lanka.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I thought Sri Lanka would be a lot like India but it’s actually quite different in many ways notwithstanding the fact that it’s primarily a Buddhist country. I admit I sometimes do get a little pissed off when as foreigners we pay about 1000% (just a quick guesstimate) more than locals. I understand why this is so but the difference in prices is often ridiculous.

  • Neha Verma

    I can invision you on your private tuk-tuk enjoying the ride 🙂 The price does look on the higher side. Is there a hard bargaining to be done? That oldest tree, the architecture and all other snaps are pretty cool though

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      No bargaining on entrance fees as they’re all official sites but we bargained on the tuk-tuk ride! 😉

  • I love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites! There is something so charming about places steeped in so much history. This palace looks fascinating (although it does sound pricey!) Have pinned this to read again before our Sri Lanka trip!

  • Probearoundthe Globe

    I love the prayer flags story. I know many people misunderstood the meaning of it but I’ve always loved the idea. Still very happy with the prayer flags I bought on my travels.

  • Hair to There

    I kind of felt this way about Sri Lanka as a whole. I’m having a difficult time working through my blog post recaps of our visit there, because I’m unsure how to articulate my feeling for the place. I know a lot of countries depend on tourism as an industry, but there is a right way and a wrong way to capitalize on it. Almost every day in Sri Lanka presented us with another unexpected expense. I’m glad I spent time in Sri Lanka, but it is not a place I ever plan to return to.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Actually, Sri Lanka is one of my favorite countries and I wouldn’t hesitate to return. Of course, the second time around I wouldn’t pay to see all these sites again which were way overpriced. 🙂

  • Jennifer Morrow

    I love seeing the wide variety of architecture. The monkeys and other animals are pretty cool, too. I am not sure it would be worth the price, either, but it does look interesting.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It was interesting and riding around in a private tuk-tuk was fun but our wallets didn’t appreciate it as much…lol!

  • This looks a like a really cool site, but you’re right–$25 is a bit pricey, especially in that part of the world. BUT it is what it is and you got to see some neat things. I love the statues you posed with and the story about the tree–how it’s the oldest ever planted by a human. And geez, it looks like you visited a zoo!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Unfortunately, all the sites in Sri Lanka are pretty expensive. I enjoy learning about a country’s history but sometimes the price just isn’t justified. :
      I was excited to see some monkeys though! 🙂

      • Yeah! There were monkeys at Tikal in Guatemala while I was there earlier this year and I was obsessed with them!

        • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

          Monkeys are the best! 🙂