The same act of abdication of the throne of Britain by the King-Emperor Edward VIII to marry Mrs. Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite, in December 1936, was done by King Dutugemunu's son, Saliya for his beloved, low-caste maiden, Asokamala, many centuries ago in Anuradhapura. Saliya and his wife, Asokamala, are immortalised in a granite stone carving kept in a museum (‘The Lovers’) by the side of Isurumuniya Temple, located near the Tisawewa (Tisa tank), next to the Royal Pleasure Gardens.
The temple was built by King Devanampiyathissa (307 BC-267 BC) to house the 500-odd children of high-caste who were ordained in the Buddhist order. A richly-carved stone archway welcomes you. You remove your shoes and buy your tickets there. An array of imposing black stones greets your eyes the moment you enter the temple premises. On your left is a museum housing a fine collection of stone carvings. The signboard reads, ‘The Lovers’, referring to the granite stone carving. Next to the musuem is a passage leading to the top of the shrine formed by two huge boulders, seemingly without support. Notice the exquisitely-carved moonstone and the two guard stones. As you go up the steep steps, the carvings on the rock surface may quite surprise you with their intricate details of elephants cavorting in a pond and of horsemen. You will also come across an image of a recumbent Buddha and of a stone impression of Buddha’s footprint. A white-washed stupa stands by the side of the black rock. From the top of this rock you can view the Tisawewa (Tisa tank) in the front and plenty of vegetation at the rear. Also, you will notice the large rectangular pond in front of the structure.
Once you descend, visit the shrine just opposite the museum. There again you will see another reclining Buddha. Before you depart, go to the corner of the rock where another shrine is located on top of the stairs. You may sit beneath the trees and rest awhile, taking in the tranquillity of the spot.
We paid LKR 200/- per ticket (Dec. 2011).
The famous Bo-Tree is on an elevated pavilion with a strong iron grill right round it. As you approach the peepul tree, you will notice its right branch supported by long brass poles at different levels. This is the tree that the Buddhist nun, Sanghamitta, the daughter of Ashoka the Great, brought as a sapling in the 3rd century BC from Gaya, India, the same tree under which Gautama Buddha sat and gained Enlightenment. It is the oldest authenticated tree in the world (2,250 years).You will also notice the four statues of the Buddha, one on each side of the railing. By its side is the Bodhigara or Bodhi tree Shrine. Be careful of the monkeys within the premises of this Bo-Tree. Thereafter, you can view the artefacts in the museum located across the road from the Bo-Tree complex. Quite a few rare treasures are housed in this modest one-storied building.
We paid LKR 200/- per ticket for the Bo-Tree, Museum & Library(Dec. 2011)
Our next stop was 16 kms away at Mihintale. This is the place where Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda first preached Buddhism to King Devanampiyatissa (307 BC-267 BC) in 247 BC. A pilgrimage is held here on the full moon day in June every year to commemorate this event. A very broad staircase of 1840 stone steps lead to the summit (300 m; 1,000 ft). Though the rise of the steps are hardly 6 inches, it is quite a tiring climb. At the top is a huge stupa built by King Mahadathika Mahanaga (7-19 AD), the base of which is 41 m (136 ft) in circumference.
To round off the day, we then went to the Archaeological Museum, a treasure trove of artefacts. Established centuries ago in 437 BC, it remains closed on Tuesdays and on all Sri Lankan holidays. The timings are 8.30 am to 5.30 pm. It houses terracotta objects, paintings, coins, beads, statues and a plethora of miscellaneous items. Outside the museum there is a large collection of stone toilets used in ancient times. If you see closely, you will notice reliefs of some monasteries at the bottom of these toilets – a sardonic reference to their brother monks who liked more luxury than was warranted by Buddhism. The urinals show the god of wealth pouring coins down the outlet. Next to the ticket counter are other items, including ancient Brahmi script.
Thereafter, you may visit Asoo Atariyan Buddha statue and Len Vihariya a short distance away. There is a huge statue of the Buddha in the classic lotus pose here. Within this complex is also the Sri Gunarathana Pilgrim’s Rest.
Our last stop for the day was the Jetavena Stupa and Monastery built by King Mahasena (276-303 AC) in the Nandana Pleasure Garden where the son of Emperor Asoka of India, Mahinda, preached Buddhism. Subsequently, the place was named ‘Jotivana’ meaning, ‘the place where the true doctrine shines’. The present monastery covers an area of 5.6 hectares with the stupa built on a raised platform with flights of steps on all four sides. When built, it was the third tallest monument in the world, the other two being the pyramids at Giza, Egypt. At a height of 120 m (400 ft.), it is the tallest brick dagoba in the world, with exceptional engineering skill being displayed by the workers of the ancient world. Its layout, though smaller, is identical to that of the Abhayagiri monastery with the refectory revealing it was home to about 3,000 monks. The attached museum is a treasure trove of artefacts which establishes beyond doubt the close ties that Sri Lanka had with far-flung nations like China, Rome and India. It is said that it took over 25 years to build the structure and that over 90,00,000 specially-designed bricks were used in its construction.
Next to this ruin, on the other side of the road is the Ratnaprasada or the Chapter House, earlier a five storied structure built during the reign of King Kanitthatissa (164-192 AD). Like the Lovamahapaya (The Great Copper Roofed Mansion) or the Brazen Palace used by the Mahavihara monks for confession and rectification, the Abhayagiriya monks put the Ratnaprasada or Gem Palace to similar use. A very well-preserved guard stone is placed at the entrance to this ruin. The plaque alongside reads, “Two lovers emerge from the dragon’s mouth above the cobra king, who has in his hand the pot of abundance signifying prosperity. This is said to show that fertility generates prosperity. Indulgence in worldly life is like entering the mouth of the dragon is another interpretation. It belongs to 7-9th. Century AD”.
The Queen’s Pavilion by the side of the road and within the Abhayagiriya complex, has the finest example of a moonstone, its shape resembling a half-moon with intricate carvings. It is supposed to symbolise the endless cycle or birth-death-rebirth (outer circle) as well as a way to escape this and attain salvation (innermost circle). There are quite a few shops selling replicas of the moonstone as you descend to the Queen’s Pavilion. On your way back, they will again tout the same artefacts to you.
Our next stop was the Abhayagiri Stupa said to have been built on top of Buddha’s footprint. It is about 370 feet high. It is a part of the Abhayagiri Monastery founded by King Valagamba or Vattagamini Abhaya, a full century Before Christ, after driving out the foreign invaders from South India and regaining his throne. Legend has it that the monastery was built after demolishing a Jain temple whose chief priest had insulted the King while he was fleeing from the invaders more than a decade ago. It has an area of over 2,000 acres. The king gifted this monastery to the Buddhist monks who had helped him during his adversity.
The Kuttam Pokuna or Twin Ponds are a marvel of ancient engineering skill, built during the reign of King Agbo I (576-608 AD). They served the bathing purpose of the monks of Abhaygiri Monastery. The two ponds are not exactly of the same dimension. The southern one is 132 feet by 51 feet while the northern one is 91 feet by 57 feet. The northern one feeds the southern pond. There are steps leading to the ponds. Also, there are sculptures of ‘pun-kalas’ (pots of abundance) made of stones at the entrance to each pond as well as a carving of a cobra, a symbol of the guardian of water. The water supply is unique in that it is underground, with one chamber for filtration before the water falls into the pond. The two ponds are interconnected by means of an underground duct.
The Buddha Samadhi is also not very far off. A row of shanty shops, selling flowers, garlands and incense sticks, line the way to the 2 m (6.5 ft.) Buddha statue, carved during the 4th century. The hollow eyes suggest an inlay of some precious stones which may well have been taken out over the years. Behind the statue is yet another one, headless this time, in the lotus pose. Its head appears to have fallen off or may have broken or damaged and lies is on the ground. A sign warns tourists from standing with their backs to the statue while being photographed. The air is serene, tranquil, calm and quiet. A lady meditates undisturbed under a tree totally oblivious to her surroundings, a group of monks, with shaven heads, recite from a holy book nearby, a bunch of tourists click away while their guide quietly rattles off fact interspersed with fiction.
A short distance away is the Ruwanveli Seya or Ruwanveli Dagoba. It is a huge white dome, built in the shape of a bubble of water by King Dutugamunu (101-77 BC). Legend has it that the construction of this monument was prophesied by Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, the man who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka when King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BC) ruled over Sri Lanka. It is said that after the benevolent King Dutugamunu declared that no work in the building of the stupa would go unrewarded, silver was discovered in a village, which was fittingly renamed Ridigama or village of silver.
The dagoba stands at a height of 180 ft and is 370 ft in circumference. The king’s statue is at the eastern entrance to the stupa. For a detailed history of the monument, look to your left, past the statue of the king as you walk towards the dome. The front portion of the row of stones is in Sinhalese; go to the back of the stones for the English translation.
After you remove your shoes and walk towards the Bo-Tree, the Lovamahapaya (The Great Copper Roofed Mansion) or the Brazen Palace will be to your left. Though in ruins, you will notice its regal appearance and all that goes with royalty. Now, only 1,600 stone pillars in 40 rows remain of the nine-storied structure which, in days of yore rose to a height of 150 feet. A shining copper plated roof slanted down on all four sides housing some 1,000 rooms during the reign of King Dutugamunu. This was the confession hall of the Mahavihara, where the future monks would meet and recite the rules of discipline.
Originally from Sri Lanka, this macaque is also very popular in the archeological sites. Also found in large troops, this macaque is very easy to recognize due to it´s characteristic cap of hair, and it´s blue eyelid, are less aggressive than the Lagurs.
It´s very common to find monkeys in the ancients ruins around Sri lanka. The Grey Lagur with its black face is maybe the most common monkey in the island. They are revered and believed to be incarnations of the Hindu monkey God Hanuman. They are medium-sized monkeys and are found in large troops and can be aggressive (well, this lady really was).