Ancient cities don’t get much bigger than Anuradhapura, and few capitals around the world have ever been as long lasting. Dating back to the fourth century BC, Anuradhapura was the spiritual and secular capital of the island for well over a millennium. Despite numerous assaults from South Indian invaders, the city flourished and endured until 993 AD when a final attack brought it to its knees. At its height, the city was dotted with monasteries and home to over ten thousand monks. The clavicle of the Buddha – a sacred relic – was safeguarded here and the colossal dagobas constructed in the city were some of the greatest archaeological feats of the time. It’s little surprise that the city is a World Heritage Site.
Anuradhapura contains some of the island’s most sacred Buddhist shrines and was established around a cutting from the fig tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Tissa, grandson of the founder of Anuradhapura, became the island’s first Buddhist sovereign 2,400 years ago when Emperor Ashoka – Buddhist King of India – sent his son Mahinda to the nearby rocky summit of Mihintale to convert Tissa and his followers to Buddhism. Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta visited the city a little time later with the sacred fig tree cutting and started the order of Buddhist nuns. This cutting – the Sri Maha Bodhi – is Anuradhapura’s spiritual heart, and is thought to be one of the world’s oldest trees. Cuttings of this sacred ‘mother tree’ have been successfully planted in temples all over the island.
The extent of Anuradhapura’s ruins, historical sites and monasteries – over 40 square kilometres – are overwhelming and often too much to explore in one day. Peddling your way around the sacred precinct by bicycle is often the best way to cover more ground and actually appreciate just how extensive this fascinating city once was. More important historical landmarks litter the rocky hills of Mihintale some 12km from Anuradhapura where Mahinda converted Tissa to Buddhism. The full moon in June – known as Poson Poya – is dedicated to the birth of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and sees thousands of white clothed devotees descend on Mihintale from all over the island; a sobering sight but best to avoid unless you’re a big fan of crowds.
An Insider's Perspective
Charitha Pathirana has been a guide in Anuradhapura for fourteen years. In accordance with his Buddhist beliefs he feels that sharing knowledge with others is meritorious. Having grown up in the city, he knows it incredibly well, which is some feat considering it spans over 1100 years of history.What is your favourite part of the area?
The Abhayagiri Monastery because the monks who were living there in the 1st century BC wrote the history of Buddhism and recorded it for the world with the support of King Watta Gamini Abhaya.What is your favourite activity?
Doing meditation and being in nature.What is your favourite restaurant?
Family Super and the Grand Restaurant in the town, which are good for traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry.Top Tip?
Visit Kalu Diya Pokuna & the Mihinthale Complex.