Why Anuradhapura is famous and What can you see there?

Anuradhapura - Sri Lanka

If you are wondering if Anuradhapura is worth the money and time you are going to spend by adding it to your Sri Lanka itinerary, what can you see there? And what is so special about Anuradhapura? You’ve come to the right place.

Why is Anuradhapura famous? What is so special about it?

Anuradhapura is a center of archaeological, religious, cultural, and historical importance. It belongs to the cultural triangle in Sri Lanka and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 due to its impressive collection of ruins from Sri Lanka’s oldest kingdom. By visiting Anuradhapura, you will be able to witness the remains of one of the oldest kingdoms, dating back to the 4th century BC, and many incredible stupas that are so tall and huge that they will make you wonder how Sri Lankans had the technology to build these incredible structures thousands of years ago. Also, you will be able to see the oldest existing tree ever known to have a historical record of its origin. Not only that, you will see many amazing reservoirs where you can witness amazing sunsets or go cycling around them, experience true authentic village life, go on hikes in some of the awe-inspiring tracks, visit Sigiriya, which is located nearby, or even go on a safari in Wilpattu National Park, and so much more.

If you are interested in reading more about Sigiriya and the National parks in Sri Lanka to go on safaris, I’ll leave the links to my previous posts about them here. 

Anuradhapura Sri Lanka
Photo by Yashi EL on Unsplash

A Pinch of History about Anuradhapura

The Anuradhapura kingdom was founded in the 5th century BC and was the main ruling power in Sri Lanka for an impressive 1500 years, making it the longest-serving ancient capital in Sri Lanka, until the 11th century, during the South Indian invasion and the subsequent shift of the kingdom to Polonnaruwa.

“Mahavamsa”, the main historic documentation of Sri Lanka, states that Anuradhapura was founded by a minister named Anuradha with the blessings of the first king of Sri Lanka, Vijaya.

Anuradhapura was the center of Theravada Buddhism, and the glorious archeological structures bear witness to that even to this day.

After Polonnaruwa became the new kingdom, Anuradhapura was abandoned and overrun by nature until it was rediscovered by the British in the 19th century. After the discovery of the evidence of this ancient kingdom, it became a major attraction for archeologists, Buddhist pilgrims, tourists, and all Sri Lankans.

What can you see by visiting Anuradhapura?

Mihintale - The place where Sri Lanka’s renaissance began

Mihinthale has a significant place in the history of Sri Lanka because this is the place where King Devanampiyathissa met the Buddhist monk Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashoka, who was delivering Buddhism to Sri Lanka from India.

It is said that King Devanampiyathissa was on a hunting trip and was chasing a deer when he met Mahinda Thero. After this intervention, the king embraced the teachings of Buddhism and didn’t kill animals for fun again.

Anuradhapura - Mihintale
Photo by රත්න දීපය - Rathna Deepaya on Unsplash

From that moment, Sri Lanka went through a massive cultural, social, economic, and technological renaissance, making this meeting one of the most important, or probably the most important, in Sri Lankan history.

You will have to climb many stone steps on the way and pass through many ancient ruins and archeological sites when you are making your way to Mihintale.

It’s best to make your journey in the morning or evening when the sun is not high in the sky because it can get quite hot during the day.

Also, bring enough water to keep you hydrated.

Ruwanweliseya - House to the largest collection of relics of Gautama Buddha

Anuradhapura - Ruwanweli stupa (Maha stupa)
Photo by Oshani Ayeshika on Unsplash

Ruwanweliseya is the most venerated stupa among many stupas in Sri Lanka, as it houses the largest number of relics of Gautama Buddha.

It was built by King Dutugemunu in 140 B.C. after uniting the kingdom by defeating the South Indian invader, King Elara.

You will see so many Buddhists visiting this stupa with flowers and other offerings. You might even encounter long, colorful flags depicting the colors of the Buddhist flag being carried over the heads of devotees and being wrapped around the stupa. In case you are wondering, this is called “Kap ruka pujawa,” which is considered in Buddhist culture to provide prosperity in this life and the afterlife.

The best time to visit is in the morning and evening. During the day, the sun heats the sand, and it’s torture to walk barefoot on the sand. Since it’s a place of religious importance, no one wears footwear on the premises.

Did you know?

There is an interesting story related to Ruwanweliseya. It says moments before the apocalypse happens, all the relics of Gautama Buddha will gather at the Ruwanweliseya premises, and a Buddha figure will appear one last time before the demise of all mankind as salvation. I don’t know if it’s a fact. But I’m glad to know that there’s one last hope of divinity on the brink of an apocalypse.

Ruwanweliseya is situated within walking distance of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree, the oldest tree in recorded history.

Sri Maha Bodhi - The oldest human-planted tree with a written history in the world

Sri Maha Bodhi is grown from a cutting of the Bo tree, under which Gautama Buddha gained enlightenment. It was brought to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiyathissa in the 3rd century B.C. by the Buddhist nun Sangamitta Maha Theri, the daughter of King Ashoka.

It shows the close relationship that Sri Lanka had with India for the emperor to send both of his children to Sri Lanka. Isn’t it?

Anuradhapura - Sri Maha Bodhi
Photo by රත්න දීපය - Rathna Deepaya on Unsplash

Sri Maha Bodhi is more than 2300 years old, making it the oldest human-planted tree with a written history, and is well preserved by the Sri Lankan government and responsible authorities. There are two terraces on the premises, and the Bo tree is located above the upper terrace.

There’s a golden-coated fence and four other Bo trees named “Parivara Bodhi” surrounding the Maha Bodhi.

You will be able to visit the upper terrace, but getting to the very base of the sacred tree is not allowed for security reasons.

Isurumuniya Temple - Renowned for its stone carvings

Isurumuniya temple is situated close to the Tissa tank and is said to be built by King Devanampiyathissa. It is very popular for its many stone carvings. But some are of greater interest than others. Namely, the Isurumuniya Lovers, Horseman, Elephant Pond, and the Royal Family.

Anuradhapura _ Isurumuniya Temple
Photo by Yashi EL on Unsplash

Jethawanaramaya Stupa - Largest man-made construction in the world

When it was built by king Mahasena of Anuradhapura in the 3rd century, the Jethawanaramaya Stupa was the tallest man-made construction in the world. Today, it isn’t the tallest but the largest, with a base area of 233,300 m2.

The technology and the work that was put into making this gigantic structure show how developed Sri Lankan engineering skills were at that time.

Anuradhapura - Jethawanaramaya Stupa
Photo by Gurth Bramall on Unsplash

Doesn’t Jethawanaramaya Stupa remind you of the Pyramids in Giza?

Samadhi Buddha Statue - One of the most popular icons of Buddhist culture

The Samadhi Buddha statue is arguably the most photographed Buddha statue in Sri Lanka. Due to the calm and relaxing aura surrounding this statue of a meditating Buddha, it has become one of the most popular symbols of Buddhist culture.

Situated within the vicinity of the gigantic Abhayagiriya Stupa and the Kuttam Pokuna, this stupa is considered to be the only one to survive out of four that were built together with it.

Anuradhapura - Samadhi Buddha Statue - One of the most popular icons of Buddhist culture
Photo by Gurth Bramall on Unsplash

The Samadhi Buddha Statue was built somewhere in the 3rd or 4th century and is fully carved of dolomite marble. The attention that was paid to the fine characteristics by the sculptors is the reason for this lifelike Buddha statue that has amazed visitors to this date.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has mentioned that a photo of this Buddha statue, which he kept on his table in the cell, helped him get through a very challenging period of his life. He writes in his autobiography that “[this picture of Buddha] became a precious companion for me, and the strong, calm features of the Buddha’s statue soothed me and gave me strength and helped me to overcome many a period of depression”

Kalu diya pokuna - Natural black water pond

Kalu diya pokuna got its name because its water appears dark most of the time due to the surrounding trees and bushes. 

This pond, which is located in the Mihintale area, bears evidence of the advanced irrigation technology in the Anuradhapura era.

It is the largest of the ponds that remain from many that were built in ancient times for the use of monks who lived in Mihintale.

It is a cool place to visit, relax a bit, and maybe have a little picnic and capture some great pics on your excursion in the Mihintale area.

Thuparamaya Stupa - The first stupa built after the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Thuparamaya was built by King Devanampiyathissa in the 3rd century B.C. at the request of Mahinda Thero, and it symbolizes the official arrival of Buddhism on the island.

The reason why this stupa is so venerated among the Buddhist community is that it houses the right collar bone of Gautama Buddha.

Anuradhapura - Thuparamaya Stupa - The first stupa built after the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Photo by රත්න දීපය - Rathna Deepaya on Unsplash

At the entrance, you will notice 2 guard stones, which are considered stone sculpture icons in Sri Lanka.

There has been a structure that was built over the stupa for protection called Vatadage, but only stone pillars remain today to bear witness to it.

Ran masu Uyana - the Royal Park - The gate to the universe?

Ran Masu Uyana is the ancient Royal garden in Anuradhapura, which is situated close to Isurumuniya and Tissa Tank. It got its name because there were golden fish in the ponds inside the garden. Ran masu means “golden fish” in Sinhala. 

This is a perfect example of the incredible garden architecture in the pre-Christian era of Sri Lanka more than 2000 years ago. To be honest, I get goosebumps thinking about how Sri Lankans were able to make these amazing structures so long ago. 

While you are walking through the remnants of Ran Masu Uyana, take a moment to close your eyes and imagine how this place would have looked back when it was in its prime.

Anuradhapura - Ancient Kingdoms in Sri Lanka
Photo by Isuru Ranasinha on Unsplash

A well-maintained royal garden filled with flowers, ponds with golden fish where beautiful princes and princesses were enjoying water sports, lakes filled with lotus flowers, birds singing to their significant others, and kids running around and having a good time. Must have been a piece of heaven. Isn’t it?

Did you know?

There is a stargate in Ran Masu Uyana, which was believed to be used to communicate with extraterrestrial beings. Some believe Sri Lankans had help from aliens to build these advanced structures in such ancient times. So many mysteries surround Sri Lanka. Aren’t there? Isn’t it interesting?

Kuttam Pokuna (Twin baths)

Situated in the Abhayagiri vihara complex, Kuttam Pokuna bears evidence of the fine work of talented Sri Lankans in the fields of engineering, architecture, and art.

Anuradhapura - Kuttam pokuna
Photo by Gurth Bramall on Unsplash

It is a very photographic piece of history with two massive pools that are bonded together.

Eth Pokuna (Elephant Pond)

Eth Pokuna, or the Elephant Pond, must have gotten its name due to its huge size. It is also situated in the Abhayagiri vihara complex.

Both the Kuttam pokuna and the Eth pokuna are believed to be utilized by the monks who resided in the Abhayagiri temple complex.

Anuradhapura - Eth pokuna
Photo by Datingscout on Unsplash

The most surprising thing is that the underground waterways that feed these tanks are functioning to this day. Pretty amazing!

Also, this location is ideal for a picnic, unwinding, and taking in the serene surroundings. You should surely capture a photo to add to your collection of Sri Lankan images.

Avukana Buddha Statue - the tallest ancient Buddha statue in Sri Lanka

The Avukana Buddha statue is located near the town of Kekirawa, which is close to Anuradhapura. This statue depicts a standing Buddha with a hand raised in reassurance. The statue is built so that Buddha is looking towards the neighboring Kala Wewa, a large reservoir built by King Datusena.

Anuradhapura - Avukana Buddha Statue
Photo by IndunilPD

You can browse more amazing photos from Sri Lanka and purchase some for yourself by visiting our profile @ iStock by Getty Images.

The waves of the clothing of the Buddha statue (sivura – robe without regard to color) resemble the waves of Kala Wewa.

The statue is more than 14 meters tall and is carved from a natural standing rock. When you think about the talent of that sculptor who manifested this incredible Buddha statue from a rock that is neither forgiving nor flexible, it’s just mind-blowing. Isn’t it?

Tissa Wewa Reservoir: To see amazing sunsets

Tissa Wewa was built by King Dewanampiyathissa in the 3rd century B.C. It is situated close to Isurumuniya and provided water to Isurumuniya and the Royal Gardens at the time.

Anuradhapura - Beautiful sunset near a tank
Photo by Chathura Anuradha Subasinghe on Unsplash

This is one of the oldest man-made reservoirs in Sri Lanka. And Sri Lanka has so many of them. It is thanks to these tanks that the kingdoms in the north-central area of Sri Lanka have achieved a level of prosperity that amazes everyone.

Did you know?

Sri Lanka’s culture in the early civilizations was centered around four concepts. The tank, the stupa, the village, and the temple. By looking at the remnants of these civilizations, we can think that it was a very self-sufficient way of living.

Moonstone of Abhayagiri Viharaya - Stone carving that shows the journey to Nirvana

Moonstone is a stone carving at the beginning of the footsteps to Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. It has symbols depicting the journey toward enlightenment or Nirvana. The moonstone at the Abhayagiri complex is one of the stone sculpture icons in Sri Lanka.

The Abhayagiri complex was a prominent Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana Buddist center in the Anuradhapura era.

You will see the giant Abhayagiri stupa towering above the trees while you are pacing through the ruins of this huge monastery.

Did you know?

In the moonstones of the Anuradhapura era, you can see carvings of four animals. Elephants, lions, horses, and bulls But in the moonstones of the Polonnaruwa era, you can’t see the carvings of lions and bulls. Since bulls are considered sacred in Hinduism and the lion is the symbol of the Sinhalese, those carvings have not been added to the moonstone, considering it an insult for people to step on them.

Ritigala Forest Monastery - For a perfect hiking experience

Ritigala mountain range and the ancient Buddhist monastery are located in the middle between Anuradhapura and Dambulla.

The microclimate here is vastly different from Anuradhapura or Dambulla.

The thick canopy covering the hiking trail through the ruins of Ritigala monastery allows you to make this a daytime activity without worrying about the heat from the sun.

Once you get to the top of the trail, you can have a picnic with an amazing view. So don’t forget to pack some food and drinks with you.

Ritigala has so many rare plant and animal species. Due to this, a large part of Ritigala is designated a strict natural reserve to protect this rare biodiversity. It is prohibited to enter the Strict Natural Reserve without special permission.

But don’t worry. The hiking trail is open to everyone.

Did you know?

Because Ritigala has a much different microclimate compared to the surrounding area and it houses so many rare plants and animals, there is an interesting story surrounding the origin of Ritigala. It goes like this: When Lord Hanuman from the epic Ramayana was en route to save Prince Lakshman, who was hurt in the battle, he unintentionally dropped a piece of the infamous Himalayan mountain, causing Ritigala to develop. Interesting. Isn’t it?

Wilpattu National Park - For incredible wildlife safaris

Sri Lankan leopard Wilpattu National Park - Anuradhapura
Leopard in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka - Photo by Geoff Brooks on Unsplash

Wilpattu is the largest national park in Sri Lanka. It is situated close to Anuradhapura, and several ancient ruins can be seen inside the national park too. But hey! You didn’t get on a safari Jeep to see artifacts now. Did you?

There’s so much more to see in Wilpattu. You will get the chance to see wildlife in their natural habitats. Sri Lankan elephants, leopards, sloth bears, mugger crocodiles, and so many bird species are just some of them.

And not to mention the amazing landscape that is made up of dry zone forests, thorny shrubs, dunes, villus or wetlands, and vast open plains.

If you’d like to know more about Sri Lanka’s national parks and wildlife, don’t forget to read our article about ‘The fantastic beasts in Sri Lanka and where to find them’.

Some tips that will help you while exploring Anuradhapura

  • The best time to visit Anuradhapura is from April to September, when there is less rain. The skies will be blue and the sun will be shining. But beware, it will be a bit hot.
  • The distance from one attraction to the next will be hard to conquer on foot. It’s better to hire a vehicle. A tuk-tuk or a scooter will work best if you are a budget traveler. Cycling is also an option. But it’s not very comfortable in the daytime with the heat from the sun.
  • Talking about the sun, I strongly suggest that you wear sunscreen, put on sunglasses, and take a bottle of water when you are exploring the city during the day.
  • The best time of the day to visit all the archeological sites with religious importance is in the morning or in the evening when the sun is not heating the ground. Since you will have to remove footwear near religious sites, it’s better to go when the ground is cool.
  • Cycling will be a perfect activity in the evening. You can cycle up to the wall of a reservoir and witness an amazing sunset from there. Tissa Tank and Basawakkulama Tank are just two out of many tanks in Anuradhapura where you can see beautiful sunsets.
  • If you are wondering how long you should stay in Anuradhapura to get a whole experience of this majestic ancient city, it would be around 2 to 3 nights.
  • After visiting Anuradhapura, if you are planning to visit Kandy, then board the famous Ella train, I would highly recommend you visit Dambulla cave temple and Sigiriya on your way to Kandy.
  • It would be wise to stay one night in Sigiriya or Dambulla and then make your way up the hill country towards Kandy.

Congratulations! You have reached the end of this long post. Now it’s time for the quiz. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. There’s no quiz. Haha! 

So, what do you think about Anuradhapura? What else would you like to know? Let me know in the comments. Your thoughts are always highly appreciated.

I’ll meet you with another “Letter” from Ceylon. Until then… 

නැවත හමුවෙමු😉 (Newatha hamuwemu = Let’s meet again)

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