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The city of Anuradhapura is situated one hundred and twenty eight miles (205 km) north of Colombo in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka on the banks of the Malwatu Oya.
The largest and oldest of all Sri Lanka's ancient cities, Anuradhapura is a fitting climax to any tour of the Cultural Triangle. Arguably, it takes a bit more effort to imagine it as it was more than 2000 years ago, with palaces and huge dagoba standing up to nine storeys high, a main processional avenue 24km (16 miles) long, and the richly decorated, ostentatious mansions of Sinhalese nobles and wealthy foreign merchants. Founded by King Pandukhabaya in 437BC, by the mid-3rd century BC Anuradhapura's fame had spread as far as the Roman-Hellenistic world of the Mediterranean and by the 1st century AD it had established trade and diplomatic links with China. The Jetavana treasures, unearthed over the past 20 years (some are now displayed in the partially completed Jetavanarama Museum, on site) show evidence of these links to east and west.
Anuradhapura was the royal seat of more than 250 Buddhist and Hindu kings recorded in the royal genealogies, and the preeminent city on the island for some 1400 years. Anuradhapura's proximity to southern India both enriched it and encouraged the kingdom's conversion to Buddhism, but was also its eventual downfall, making it vulnerable to the invading Tamil forces of Rajaraja Chola, who sacked the city in the 11th century AD. The Sinhalese capital then moved to Polonnaruwa. Although attempts were made to preserve its monuments after the overthrow and expulsion of the Chola dynasty, it was never restored to its former glory.
The Mawathu Oya River forms the boundary between the sacred ancient city and the modern town of Anuradhapura, east of the river. To the west are several large tanks, some of them the work of King Mahasena (AD276-303), whose passion for large-scale construction also endowed the city with the enormous Jetavanarama Dagoba.
Anuradhapura has been classed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Anuradhapura or 'the city of Anura', is the earliest capital of Sri Lanka and was home to the royal court from 437 BC to 1017 AD. However it is not only a city, but one of the great centres of Buddhism in South Asia
visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists each year. The site consists of a central ten metre high mound covered in jungle, marking the old urban core, surrounded by over thirty square kilometres of Buddhist monasteries and huge reservoirs. Amongst the most spectacular of the Buddhist monuments are four great stupas, solid domes of earth and brick built over a Buddhist relic, which reach heights of over eighty metres and dominate the landscape of paddy fields and coconut trees.
Anuradhapura, according to legend, was first settled by Anuradha, a follower of Prince Vijaya the founder of the Sinhala race. Later, it was made the Capital by King Pandu kabhaya about 380 BCE.
According to the Mahavamsa, the epic of Sinhala History, King Pandukabhaya's city was a model of planning. Precints were set aside for huntsmen, for scavengers and for heretics as well as for foreigners. There were hostels and hospitals, at least one Jain chapel, and cemeteries for high and low castes.Water supply was assured by the construction of 'tanks', artificial reservoirs, of which the one called after himself, exists to this day under the altered name of Baswak Kulam.
It was in the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BCE) that the Arahat Mahinda. son of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka, led a group of missionaries from North India to Sri Lanka. With his followers he settled in a hermitage of caves on the hill of Mihintale, (literally, Mahinda's Mountain). The new religion swept over the land in a wave. The King himself gave for a great monastery in the very heart of the City his own Royal Park – the beautiful Mahamegha Gardens. The Buddhist principality had but a century to flourish when it was temporarily overthrown by an invader from the Chola Kingdom of South India. The religion, however, received no set-back.
At this time far away on the southeast coast, was growing up the prince who was to become the paladin of Sinhala nationalism: Gamini, soon to be surnamed Duttha, the Undutiful (161 – 137 BCE). The Mirisavati Temple and the mighty Brazen Palace nine storeys high, he presented to them. But he did not live to see the actual completion of the Ruvanveliseya Dagaba (picture at top right), his most magnificent gift
Two more, at least, of the Anuradhapura Kings must be mentioned; if only because some of the greater monuments are indisputably attributable to them.
The earlier of these was Vattagamani Abhaya Valagam Bahu (103 & 89-77 BCE) in the first year of whose reign Chola invaders again appeared and drove him temporarily into hiding. For fourteen years, while five Tamil Kings occupied his throne, he wandered often sheltering in Jungle caves. It is recorded that as in his flight he passed an ancient Jain hermitage, an ascetic, Giri called and taunted him. 'The great black lion is fleeing!' Throughout his exile the gibe rankled.
Winning the Kingdom back at last, he razed the Giri's hermitage to the ground, building there the Abhayagiri Monastery. The name is a wry cant on his own name and the tactless hermit's as well as (meaning mountain of fearlessness) a disclaimer of his cowardice!
Next came the heretic king Mahasena (274 – 301 A.D.). He alienated to the Abhayagiri vast spoil from the Maha Monastery, Devanampiya Tissa's original foundation. But he had more substantial claim to notability than his heresy; not only did he build (for the heretics) Sri Lanka's vastest completed Dagaba the Jetavana Ramaya, – but he was also the greatest irrigationist of the Sinhala Kings, building 16 major tanks and a great canal.