Ancient ruins at Anuradhapura - A view from our expert author

jetavaranama dagoba stupa anuradhapura sri lanka by flocu shutterstockThe Jetavaranama Dagoba in Anuradhapura © flocu, Shutterstock

With a scared Bo tree at its heart, this city is venerated as the capital of Buddhism.

Anuradhapura is a sacred city, venerated as the capital of Buddhism. At its heart is the sacred Bo tree, reputed to be the oldest living tree in documented history, having been brought as a sapling to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. In the vicinity of the shrines surrounding the tree are the remains of the Brazen Palace, the towering Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, the seated Buddha, temples, palaces and parks. They may have lost their vibrance and become historical monuments, but nevertheless they bear testimony to a proud past.

By the middle of the 3rd century BC, the fame of Anuradhapura as the capital (it was founded a century earlier) was known as far away as the Mediterranean. Three centuries later a trade delegation from the capital presented its credentials to Claudius Caesar in Rome and met Pliny the Elder. Within another three centuries, a connection was established eastwards with China.

According to the Mahavamsa (the Sinhala Buddhist chronicle), Anuradhapura was a model of city planning, although hierarchical. Precincts were set aside for huntsmen and scavengers, and even for heretics and foreigners, so those belonging to the establishment were not disturbed. There were cemeteries for high and low castes, and also hospitals. Reservoirs were constructed to assure a regular water supply. The city remained the capital until the 10th century, when its position was weakened by internecine struggles for the royal succession. The final blow came in AD993 when the Chola king, Rajaraja I, conquered the island, burning and looting the capital. Anuradhapura was abandoned and the capital moved to Polonnaruwa.

While its importance diminished, buildings crumbled into ruin and the jungle closed in, communities of dedicated Buddhists remained, many as guardians of the Bo tree. The British conquerors of the island were intrigued by tales of a ruined city and it was ‘discovered’, then chosen in 1833 to be the seat of local government. It was designated in 1873 as the capital of the new North Central province. In the 1950s, a new town was begun on the outskirts of the ancient capital.

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