Anuradhapura Travel Guide
Unlike India, Buddhism is the dominant religion in Sri Lanka. Historians trace it back to a visit by a Buddhist missionary dispatched by an Indian king more than 2,000 years ago. Left to develop in isolation from the Indian mainland, the kingdom of Anuradhapura and Sri Lanka became Buddhist.
Today, the city of Anuradhapura and area is home to some of this country’s most significant Buddhist sites. Be sure this place does not get left off your itinerary.
Come check out our Anuradhapura travel guide as we cover the best things to do in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
Start your visit to Anuradhapura by checking out Mihintale. King Devanampiyatissa met a Buddhist monk called Mahinda in the 3rd century BC upon this peak. Sent by Indian Emperor Ashoka, the monk delivered a sermon to the king and his people. Moved by his words, the King allowed the introduction of Buddhism to his kingdom. This event marked the start of Sri Lanka’s association with Buddhism, which continues to this day.
Throughout the immediate area, you’ll find several interesting sights. These include stupas, hermitages, Buddha icons, and the ruins of an ancient hospital. In the latter, patients were immersed in medicinal oil and subjected to treatments. Historians believe this may be the oldest facility of its kind in the world.
While the stupas on Mount Mihintale are impressive, they don’t hold a candle to the might of Ruwanwelisaya. This massive whitewashed stupa that stands over 100 metres tall, and measures almost 300 metres around. This fact makes it one of the tallest monuments ever built during ancient times. Historians also believe it influenced the design of the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda in Burma.
King Dutugemunu built it to celebrate his victory over the Chola King in the 2nd century BC. By the 19th century, though, it laid in ruins. A fundraising effort by local monks led to its restoration in the early 20th century. With the rebound in tourism to Sri Lanka this century, travellers are rediscovering this world wonder. Although nobody has dared to open its interior, monks believe Buddha relics are within the stupa’s dome.
Want to investigate more Buddhist sites in the Anuradhapura while feeling like Lara Croft? Add the Ritigala Forest Monastery to your itinerary. Surrounded by thick jungle, archaeologists have dated this site to the 1st century BC.
While much of this complex lay in ruins, the stone pathways leading to it remain in good shape. Unlike more ornate Buddhist temples, this compound was a place of austerity. Maintaining separation from earthly wants, the monks here sought to attain the non-attachment that Buddhism holds as an ideal.
Isurumuniya Temple is another Buddhist site you should include in your visit to Anuradhapura. According to local theologians, this place was where King Ravana was born. However, this mythological figure did not build this temple – that credit belongs to King Devanampiya.
Within its bounds, you’ll find three reliefs of particular interest. The Isurumuni Lovers is a story of love between castes, which forced a prince to abdicate his throne. The Royal Family Carving depicted local rulers in the 8th century, and Elephant Pond Carving shows elephants bathing.
More significant Buddhist sites await those with extra time to spend in Anuradhapura. If you’re not in a rush, make sure you check out Jetavanaramaya. It supplanted Ruwanwelisaya in size when finished in the 3rd century AD, as it stood 122 metres high. This fact made it the third tallest structure in the world upon its completion.
King Mahasena commissioned its construction to replace the loss of the Mahavihara. After the fall of the Anuradhapura kingdom, it took damage and soon, the jungle reclaimed it. However, King Parakramabahu rebuilt it partially upon discovering it in the 12th century. His workers built it up to a height of 71 metres, the height where it stands today.
The world is home to some ancient trees. Few, however, match the longevity of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. A fig tree brought to Sri Lanka by Buddhist missionaries, it represents the everlasting nature of Buddhism here.
Planted in the early 3rd century BC, temple abbots continue to protect this millennia-old tree. The tree has only seen harm three times – two storms snapped branches, and someone took a branch once. Seen as holy, pregnant women pray before it for safe childbirth, while farmers pray for a good harvest.
Those wanting to experience the best nature Anuradhapura has to offer will want to visit Wilpattu National Park. Best known for depressions that become lakes during monsoon rains, it also has diverse flora and fauna.
Leopards are its most famous mammal, followed by elephants and sloth bears. Birds like painted storks, Sri Lankan junglefowls, and little cormorants will delight birders visiting this park.