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?
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hope you enjoyed your virtual visit to Anuradhapura – the ancient civilization of Sri Lanka!
Read all about my travels in Sri Lanka
Enjoyed this post? Please pin it!
Has anyone been to Anuradhapura? Did you find it was worth the price?