Discovering the Lost City

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
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Trip End Dec 15, 2007


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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Monday, December 10, 2007

For well over a thousand years, the history of Sri Lanka was essentially the history of Anuradhapura.  Situated almost at the very centre of the island's northern plains, the city rose to prominence very early in the development of Sri Lanka, and maintained its pre-eminent position for over a millenium until being finally laid to waste by Indian invaders in 993 AD.  At its height, Anuradhapura was one of the greatest cities of its age, functioning as the island's centre of both temporal and spiritual power, dotted with dozens of monastries populated by as many as ten thousand monks - one of the greatest monastic cities the world has ever seen.  The kings of Anuradhapura oversaw the golden age of Sinhalese culture, and the temples and the enormous dagobas they erected were amongst the greatest architectural feats of their time, surpassed in scale only by the pyramids at Giza.
Following the collapse of the great northern Sinhalese civilisation, Anuradhapura was reclaimed by the jungle, and largely forgotten by the outside world, except by the communities of reclusive monks who continued to live here.  The British [cue fanfare] "rediscovered" the city in the nineteenth century, making it a provincial capital in 1833, after which Anuradhapura slowly began to rise from the ashes.  In 1980, a huge UNESCO programme started with the goal of effecting a complete restoration of the ancient city.  The programme continues to this day, and has assumed enormous national significance for the Buddhist Sinhalese, who see the reclaimation as a powerful symbol of national identity and resurgence.  As with Polonnaruwa, there are far too many individual sights to detail so again I'll pick put a few highlights.
At the spiritual and physical heart of Anuradhapura stands the Sri Maha Bodhi or Sacred Bo Tree.  According to popular belief (and who am I to argue!?), this immensely venerable tree was grown from a cutting taken from the original bo tree in Bodhgaya, India, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.  The original bo tree in India was destroyed not long afterwards, but the Sri Maha Bodhi survived.  Cuttings from it have been grown all over the island, and indeed throughout the Buddhist countries of south-east Asia.  The Sri Maha Bodhi sits at the centre of a large and elaborate enclosure, dotted with numerous younger bo trees and festooned with prayer flags.  Far more interesting is the general scene in the enclosure, which is full of rapt pilgrims (the ladies dressed neatly in white saris) contemplating the tree and praying.
North of the Sri Maha Bodhi stands the huge white Ruvanvalisaya.  Unlike the massive stupas at the Jetavana and Abhayagiri monaastries, which are still being excavated and rebuilt, the Ruvanvalisaya dagoba is fully restored, painting a gleaming white (although it does need the planned fresh lick of paint in 3 years time), and busy with pilgrims throughout the day.  The dagoba - now standing 55m high - is popularly believed to enshrine various remains of the Buddha, and thus is the most revered in the city.
The last of the three great monastries built in Anuradhapura, was the Jetavana monastery founded towards the end of the third century.  The centrepiece of Jetavana is its monumental red-brick dagoba.  In its original form the dagoba stood 120m high, and was at the time of its construction, the third-tallest structure in the world, surpassed only by the two great pyramids at Giza.  It was also the world's biggest stupa and is still the tallest and largest structure made from brick anywhere on earth.  UNESCO-sponsored restoration began in 1981 but is still far from finished, parts of the structure are still encased in scaffolding, with rubble lying around.  The dagoba has now lost its topmost portion, including the summit of its pinnacle, but still reaches a neck-wrenching height of 70m - similiar to the Abhayagiri dagoba.
The Abhayagiri monastery lies on the northern side of the city, and was founded in 88 BC.  In many ways, Abhayagiri is the most interesting and atmospheric quarter of Anuradhapura.  The sheer scale of the monastic remains is prodigious, while their setting, scattered amidst light woodland, is a little magical.  As at the Jetavana and Mahavihara, Abhayagiri's most striking feature is its great dagoba.  It formerly stood around 115m tall, though the loss of the pinnacle has now reduced its height to around 70m.  As you can see from the photos, it's still largely unrestored, and rather resembles a gi-normous porcupine with its complete covering of metal scaffolding.
Many visitors to Sri Lanka only have the time or the archeological enthusiam to visit one of the island's two great ruined cities (Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura).  The two cities are sufficiently different, and it's difficult to call decisively in favour of either.  The ruins at Polonnaruwa cover a smaller area, are better preserved - and there is nowhere at Anuradhapura to match the artistry of the Quadrangle and Gal Vihara.  However, the sheer scale of the site at Anuradhapura is for me, more impressive, and its status as a major pilgrimage centre gives it a certain vibrancy and magic lacking at Polonnaruwa.
Back at the hotel, I once again had the rather depressing and slightly unnerving experience of eating in the restaurant where there were more staff than guests - apparently there were ten guests in total, but I only counted five during my two night stay.  Anyone connected with the tourist industry continue to be hard hit, with desperation and concern written on many faces as numbers remain low despite now being well into the 'peak' season.  Unsurprisingly, the recent landmine attack approximately 80km north of Anuradhapura has dented travellers confidence even further, and pushed those in the industry right to the edge.      
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