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Echoes of the Past – Anuradhapura’s Ruins

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The only thing more abundant in Anuradhapura’s Sacred City than monkeys, is ruins. Pools, prayer halls, refectories, temples, residences; ruins great and small, in varying states of decay. These vestiges of the past serve as silent testaments to the former glory of Anuradhapura.

Guard Stones of Sri Lanka

The former capital of Sri Lanka was defined by three great Buddhist monasteries. The Mahavihara was the first and sits in the center of the Sacred City, around the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. Just to the north is the Jetavana, founded in a petulant rage during the 2nd century BC after the king fell out with the monks of Mahavihara. Further north is the Abhayagiri, founded in 88BC and known as a liberal center for new Buddhist ideas — a stance which earned it the ire of the other, conservative monasteries. All three were home to thousands of monks, who needed buildings in which to live, eat and worship.

The traces of those buildings are what we see today when touring Anuradhapura. Most of the walls have crumbled and many of the ruins are nothing more than scattered stones, outlines of the foundations, or an odd column planted crookedly in the ground. But an amazing amount has survived the passage of two millennia in excellent shape. Guardstones with serpent kings, or moonstones which depict the levels of human existence in exquisitely carved patterns. Long troughs which were once filled with rice for the resident monks. Ancient baths now inhabited by turtles, and key-shaped wells used for fresh water.

Roughly situated in the middle of Anuradhapura’s three great monasteries is The Citadel, a large secular area, protected by a moat. Here, we found the Royal Palace and the ruins of the first Temple of the Tooth — nowhere near as large as the relic’s current house in Kandy. A large tent covered an archaeological dig, at least six meters deep, which revealed buried roads and layers of construction. And, blending into the scenery, an innumerable number of ruins lend the Citadel an ancient, romantic atmosphere.

Wandering through the forests spotted with decayed temples, while water buffalo are grazing to your left, monkeys are playing to your right, and shimmering paddy fields stretch off in front of you… it’s hard to remain unmoved. One can only envy the British explorers who first discovered the Sacred City. But when there are no other tourists around, and you’re pushing through shrubbery to arrive at an ancient temple half-covered in plants, it’s not hard to imagine that you’re the intrepid adventurer who’s discovered it.

Location of the Royal Palace
Location of the Temple of the Tooth
Budget Accommodation in Anuradhapura

Monk Troth
Rice For The Monks
Guard Stone
Face Of Sri Lanka
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March 12, 2012 at 5:14 am Comments (0)

Anuradhapura’s Sacred City

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Hotels in Anuradhapura

I’ve never been in a city as schizo as Anuradhapura. Its two sides are basically equal in size, but opposite in everything else. East/West. New/Old. Secular/Religious. Chaotic/Serene. Humdrum/Magical. New Town/Sacred City.


The Sacred City stretches out for five kilometers along the west of Anuradhapura, and contains approximately [let me do a little napkin math] seventeen million ruins. Seeing everything in the Sacred City would take about [scribbling, scratching head, checking equations] 642 hours. Rough guess. The number of ruins is mind-boggling, but not altogether surprising. After all, Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka for about a thousand years; the cradle of one of the world’s most enlightened religions and advanced civilizations. And for most of modern history, it was abandoned. Its buildings, temples, monasteries and stupas were left alone to fend for themselves against monkeys and the encroaching jungle, and protected from the interference of humanity.

Tourists in Sri Lanka

It’s impossible to see the entire Sacred City in one day, though that doesn’t stop people from trying. One of the more common sights is a huge bus stopping in front of a stupa and unloading forty harried tourists wearing safari hats, who climb on top of each other to snap identical pictures and then scurry back onto the bus. Off to the next sight, no time to waste! Needless to say, it’s not the best way to see the Sacred City, as you get no sense of its grandeur or mystery. (But if your schedule only allows a few hours to see Anuradhapura, make a beeline for the Abhigiriya zone, which is the most atmospheric and offers a little of everything that makes the city so amazing).


No, the best way to see Anuradhapura is over a couple days, and on bikes. Which is the way we did it [pats back, uncorks tiny bottle of champagne]. Perfectly flat, largely free of traffic and spread out over a great distance, the Sacred City is made for bikes. Most guesthouses rent them for the day, and we found a shop (here) which lets bikes for 350 Rs, and is open to haggling for multiple-day rentals.

Another important tip is that, unless you’re going to a museum, you don’t need tickets to visit the Sacred City. Officially, you’re expected to shell out about $25 per head, per day, as a foreigner. We spent five days exploring the Sacred City, which would have cost us $250. It’s ridiculous and completely discriminatory: anyone who looks like a Sri Lankan is free to come and go as they please. Again, the fee is part of the government’s maneuverings to capitalize on tour groups, who pay the inflated entrance charge as a part of their package deal. Luckily, independent travelers can easily skip it, since tickets are rarely checked. Over the course of five days, we were asked to show our tickets once. We just said, “don’t have them”, turned around and reached our destination from a different route.

During most of our ticket-less days in the Sacred City, we passed by the Sri Maha Bodhi. One of the most venerated objects in all Sri Lanka, this large Bodhi was grown from a slice of the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. It stands near the center of the Sacred City and, at any time of day, worshipers surround its pavilion, chanting, praying or just standing there looking at it. After his enlightenment, Buddha spent seven days staring at his Bodhi tree, unblinking, in admiration and thanks. Sri Maha Bodhi is a good orientation point in the Sacred City, and serves as a convenient starting spot from which to see the other sights.

Location of Sri Maha Bodhi on our Map
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Buddhist Flags
Holding The Tree Up
mokeys Taking Over
Worshipping Buddha
Trunk Stairs
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March 11, 2012 at 5:43 am Comments (4)

Anuradhapura – The Ancient Capital of Sri Lanka

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Hotels in Anuradhapura

For nearly ten centuries, Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka and its most important city. Found in the steamy, low-lying North Central Province, Anuradhapura has long lost its political significance, but remains the spiritual capital of the island, and is still one of the world’s major Buddhist pilgrimage sites.


Excavations date the settling of the region to the 10th century BC, though the city wasn’t officially established until 377 BC, after King Pandukabhaya became the island’s first truly Sri Lankan ruler. When Buddhism appeared on the island a couple centuries later, the capital embraced it enthusiastically and quickly became one of Asia’s most important centers of Buddhist learning.

The city flourished for centuries, boasting some of the world’s largest buildings and most advanced infrastructure. The complicated irrigation schemes of the Sinhalese were unmatched anywhere, and the mammoth dagobas built by various kings were surpassed in size and scale only by Egypt’s pyramids. But in the flat lowlands of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura proved difficult to defend. After a long history of fighting off invasions from India, the city was completely abandoned in 993 AD.

Abandoned and forgotten for six hundred years. The jungle grew up around the monasteries and reclaimed dominion over Anuradhapura. It wasn’t until the arrival of the British that the ancient city was rediscovered. What a sight that must have been! The Brits hacked away at the jungle’s encroachment and re-established the town. Soon, Anuradhapura was resettled by a native population thrilled to have recovered an important part of their heritage.

Today’s Anuradhapura is split into two clearly defined sections. The New Town, to the east, contains all the commerce and hubbub of daily life, while the Sacred City, to the west, is home to the ancient monasteries, extensive ruins, and the famous stupas and temples, which are once again bustling with the activity of the faithful.

We’d given ourselves a long time to explore Anuradhapura, which was important since the Sacred City is unfathomably large. There’s just no way to see everything that the ancient capital offers on a short schedule.

Anuradhapura on our Sri Lanka Map
Budget Stays in Anuradhapura

Bikind in Sri Lanka
Jungle Train
Short Round
Collapsed Pool
Sri Lankan Pyramid
Small Dagoba Ruin
Sri Lanka History
Bizarre Sri Lanka
Farting Monkey
Sri Lanka Lakes
Public Bathing
Palm Tree Anuradhapura
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March 6, 2012 at 12:58 pm Comments (2)
Echoes of the Past - Anuradhapura's Ruins The only thing more abundant in Anuradhapura's Sacred City than monkeys, is ruins. Pools, prayer halls, refectories, temples, residences; ruins great and small, in varying states of decay. These vestiges of the past serve as silent testaments to the former glory of Anuradhapura.
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