Welcome to Anuradhapura, an ancient city nestled in the heart of Sri Lanka’s North Central Province. As one of the country’s most significant historical and cultural sites, Anuradhapura holds immense importance in the hearts of locals and visitors alike. Steeped in legend and heritage, this city is a treasure trove of archaeological wonders and spiritual landmarks.
With a history dating back over two millennia, Anuradhapura was once the capital of Sri Lanka and a thriving center of Buddhism. The city flourished as a powerful kingdom and a hub of trade and religious pilgrimage. Today, it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a testament to its remarkable cultural heritage and ancient ruins.
As you explore Anuradhapura, you’ll encounter captivating remnants of its glorious past. The city’s archaeological complex spans a vast area, comprising ancient palaces, monasteries, stupas, and intricately carved stone structures. The sacred Bodhi Tree, believed to be a sapling of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, is a revered pilgrimage site that draws devotees from all over the world.
Immerse yourself in the spirituality and serenity of Anuradhapura’s sacred sites, such as Ruwanwelisaya, Jetavanaramaya, and Thuparamaya. Marvel at the immense dagobas (stupas), which stand as architectural marvels and symbolize the strength of Buddhist faith in the region.
Beyond its historical treasures, Anuradhapura offers a glimpse into the daily life of its residents. Explore bustling markets, where vibrant colors and aromatic spices fill the air. Engage with friendly locals and sample authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, renowned for its rich flavors and diverse influences.
As the sun sets over Anuradhapura, the city takes on a magical aura. Witness the timeless tradition of evening rituals at temples, where devotees gather to offer prayers and pay homage to the teachings of Buddhism. The tranquil ambiance creates a sense of peace and reflection, allowing you to connect with the spirituality that permeates the city.
Anuradhapura beckons you to embark on a journey through time, to unravel the mysteries of its ancient past and experience the living heritage that thrives within its boundaries. Allow yourself to be transported to a bygone era as you explore this remarkable city, where history, spirituality, and cultural richness converge to create an unforgettable experience.
Anuradhapura City Guide: A Brief History Of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
The history of Anuradhapura stretches back over two millennia, making it one of the most significant historical and cultural sites in Sri Lanka. Founded in the 4th century BCE, Anuradhapura served as the capital of ancient Sri Lanka for over a thousand years and was a thriving center of Buddhist civilization.
According to historical accounts, Anuradhapura was established by King Pandukabhaya, who united several regional kingdoms into a single centralized state. Under his rule, the city grew in prominence and became the capital of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. Over the centuries, subsequent kings expanded and embellished the city, constructing magnificent palaces, monasteries, reservoirs, and religious monuments.
Anuradhapura’s golden age occurred during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BCE. It was during his reign that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Indian Emperor Ashoka. The king embraced Buddhism and fostered its growth, laying the foundation for Anuradhapura’s transformation into a major center of Buddhist culture and learning.
The city’s significance as a religious and cultural hub continued to flourish under successive rulers. Anuradhapura became renowned for its monastic institutions, attracting scholars and monks from across the region. These monasteries, known as “Viharas,” played a pivotal role in preserving Buddhist teachings and traditions.
Anuradhapura reached its zenith during the reign of King Dutugemunu in the 2nd century BCE. He is celebrated for his successful military campaigns, including the famous battle against the Tamil king Elara, as recounted in the ancient chronicle, the Mahavamsa. King Dutugemunu’s reign marked a period of great prosperity and monumental construction, with the creation of architectural marvels such as the Ruwanwelisaya and Jetavanaramaya stupas.
However, the city’s fortunes declined in the 10th century CE due to invasions and internal conflicts. Anuradhapura’s capital status was subsequently moved to Polonnaruwa, and the city gradually fell into ruin and was eventually abandoned.
Anuradhapura’s historical significance was rediscovered during the British colonial period in the 19th century. Efforts were made to preserve and restore its ancient monuments, leading to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Today, Anuradhapura stands as a testament to the glorious past of Sri Lanka, showcasing its rich architectural heritage and spiritual legacy. Visitors can explore the vast archaeological complex, marvel at the ancient stupas, monasteries, and palaces, and witness the enduring traditions of Buddhism that continue to thrive in the city. Anuradhapura remains a revered pilgrimage site and a symbol of Sri Lanka’s cultural and historical identity.
Anuradhapura Top Attractions and Best Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
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 highlight 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.
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Other Cultural Attractions: Trip to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
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.
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Top 10 Things To Do in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka For Visitors
- Explore the Sacred City: Begin your journey by exploring the vast archaeological complex of the Sacred City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit ancient stupas, monasteries, palaces, and intricately carved stone structures that reveal the grandeur of Anuradhapura’s past.
- Marvel at the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa: Admire the magnificent Ruwanwelisaya, one of Anuradhapura’s most iconic landmarks. This massive stupa, built in the 2nd century BCE, stands as a testament to the city’s rich Buddhist heritage and offers a serene and spiritual atmosphere.
- Visit the Jetavanaramaya: Explore the awe-inspiring Jetavanaramaya, once the tallest stupa in the ancient world. This architectural marvel, constructed during the reign of King Mahasena, provides a glimpse into the engineering prowess of ancient Sri Lanka.
- Discover the Abhayagiri Monastery: Wander through the ruins of the Abhayagiri Monastery, a prominent monastic complex that served as an important center of Buddhist learning. Marvel at the remains of its magnificent buildings, including the Abhayagiri Dagoba and the Samadhi Buddha Statue.
- Pay Homage to the Sri Maha Bodhi: Visit the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree that originated from a sapling of the original Bodhi Tree in India under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. This revered tree is one of the oldest living trees in the world and a focal point of pilgrimage.
- Explore the Isurumuniya Temple: Visit the Isurumuniya Temple, known for its rock-cut sculptures and tranquil surroundings. Admire the famous “Lovers’ Leap” carving and explore the temple’s beautiful ponds and serene rock formations.
- Discover the Twin Ponds: Take a stroll to the Twin Ponds (Kuttam Pokuna), an ancient bathing complex renowned for its architectural beauty and serene ambiance. These symmetrical pools were used by Buddhist monks for bathing rituals.
- Explore the Archaeological Museum: Dive deeper into Anuradhapura’s history at the Archaeological Museum. Discover a rich collection of artifacts, statues, and ancient relics that provide insights into the city’s past.
- Enjoy a Bicycle Tour: Rent a bicycle and explore the vast archaeological site at your own pace. Cycling allows you to cover more ground and provides an immersive experience as you navigate the ancient city’s pathways and discover hidden gems.
- Experience a Puja Ceremony: Witness the mesmerizing rituals and offerings during a Puja ceremony at one of the city’s ancient temples. Observe the devotion and spiritual fervor as devotees pay homage to the Buddha, creating a memorable and cultural experience.
These top 10 activities in Anuradhapura will take you on a captivating journey through the city’s rich history, spiritual heritage, and architectural wonders. As you delve into the ancient past, you’ll develop a deeper appreciation for the cultural significance of Anuradhapura and the enduring legacy it holds.
What To Eat and Drink in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
When it comes to culinary delights, Anuradhapura offers a range of traditional Sri Lankan dishes that are sure to tantalize your taste buds. Here are some must-try foods and beverages in Anuradhapura:
- Rice and Curry: Sample the quintessential Sri Lankan meal, rice and curry. Enjoy a plate of fragrant basmati rice accompanied by an array of flavorful curries, including dhal (lentil curry), vegetable curries, fish or chicken curry, and sambols (spicy condiments).
- Kottu Roti: Indulge in a popular Sri Lankan street food, kottu roti. It consists of shredded roti bread stir-fried with a mixture of vegetables, eggs, and your choice of meat or seafood. The rhythmic chopping of the roti on the griddle is part of the unique experience.
- Hoppers (Appa): Taste traditional Sri Lankan hoppers, a type of pancake made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. These bowl-shaped delicacies can be enjoyed plain or with a variety of accompaniments such as sambols or curries.
- String Hoppers (Indi Appa): Try string hoppers, also known as indi appa. These delicate steamed rice noodle nests are typically enjoyed for breakfast and are commonly served with coconut sambol or curry.
- Pittu: Savor pittu, a steamed mixture of ground rice and coconut. It has a unique cylindrical shape and is often served with curries or accompanied by coconut milk and sweetened coconut.
- Pol Sambol: Experience the vibrant flavors of pol sambol, a spicy coconut relish made with shredded coconut, chili, onions, and lime juice. It’s a staple condiment in Sri Lankan cuisine and adds a delightful kick to any dish.
- Wood Apple (Belimbing): Quench your thirst with a refreshing wood apple juice. This fruit, known as belimbing, has a unique flavor profile, combining sweet and sour notes. It’s often blended into a delicious juice or used in desserts.
- King Coconut (Thambili): Stay hydrated with the sweet and refreshing king coconut water. This variety of coconut is native to Sri Lanka and is known for its naturally sweet and hydrating properties.
- Watalappan: Treat yourself to a traditional Sri Lankan dessert called watalappan. It’s a steamed coconut custard made with jaggery (palm sugar), coconut milk, eggs, and aromatic spices like cardamom and nutmeg.
- Ceylon Tea: No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without indulging in a cup of Ceylon tea. Anuradhapura is surrounded by tea plantations, and you can savor a cup of freshly brewed tea while enjoying the serene surroundings.
Don’t miss the opportunity to savor these authentic Sri Lankan flavors during your visit to Anuradhapura. Whether you’re dining in local eateries, exploring street food stalls, or enjoying traditional Sri Lankan cuisine at your accommodation, these culinary delights will provide you with a true taste of the region’s gastronomic heritage.
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Top Restaurants In Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
- Palhena Restaurant: Discover a nice restaurant offering Asian and healthy cuisine, providing a pleasant dining experience.
- The Lakeside: Enjoy a lovely setting and good food at The Lakeside, where you can indulge in Asian and Sri Lankan cuisine.
- Rasa Gedara: Explore the flavors of amazing vegetarian food at Rasa Gedara, a wonderful place known for its delicious offerings.
- Little Paradise Anuradhapura: Indulge in delicious and flavorsome Sri Lankan curry at this cozy restaurant, known for its authentic local food.
- Bamboo Restaurant Juice Bar: Enjoy Sri Lankan desserts and more at this delightful restaurant, offering a variety of sweet treats.
- Milano Tourist Rest Restaurant: Discover tasty food, including a mix of Sri Lankan and international dishes, at this restaurant offering a simple yet enjoyable dining experience.
- The Mango Tree: Experience the blend of Indian and Asian flavors at The Mango Tree, where you can savor both Indian-style dishes and local Sri Lankan cuisine.
- Ambula Anuradhapura: Experience a buffet-style dining experience at Ambula Anuradhapura, known for its amazing food offerings.
- Hotel Shalini Restaurant: Delight in Sri Lankan dishes, including a selection of vegetarian curries, at this restaurant known for its flavorful meals.
- Seedevi Family Restaurant: Try the buffet-style rice and curry at this restaurant, which offers a range of Sri Lankan and Asian dishes.
- Banana Cafe: Visit this cafe known for its ice creams and enjoy a refreshing treat during your time in Anuradhapura.
- Pizza Hut: If you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms and crave a taste of familiar fast food pizza, Pizza Hut is available in Anuradhapura.
- Salgado Hotel & Bakery: Visit this bakery for tasty treats and snacks, perfect for breakfast or a quick bite.
- Casserole: Savor Chinese and Asian cuisine at Casserole, where you can enjoy a variety of dishes that serve the purpose.
- Big Mama Family Restaurant: Enjoy a variety of Indian and Chinese dishes at this family-friendly restaurant, perfect for a happy dining experience.
Tours For Visitors To Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
When visiting Anuradhapura, there are several tours and activities available that allow you to explore the rich history and cultural heritage of the city. Here are some popular tours for visitors to Anuradhapura:
- Anuradhapura City Tour: Take a guided city tour to discover the main attractions of Anuradhapura, including ancient stupas, monasteries, and palaces. Learn about the city’s history and significance as you explore the archaeological sites and gain insights into the rich cultural heritage.
- Cycling Tour of Anuradhapura: Embark on a cycling tour around the ancient city to explore its archaeological wonders at your own pace. Ride through the serene surroundings, visit lesser-known sites, and discover hidden gems while enjoying the fresh air and scenic landscapes.
- Anuradhapura Heritage Walk: Join a guided walking tour that takes you through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Anuradhapura. Explore the ancient ruins, visit sacred temples, and learn about the fascinating legends and stories associated with each site.
- Mihintale Pilgrimage Tour: Visit Mihintale, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site located near Anuradhapura. Climb the steps to the summit, visit ancient dagobas and shrines, and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. This tour provides a spiritual experience and a deeper understanding of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
- Wilpattu National Park Safari: Combine your visit to Anuradhapura with a wildlife adventure by joining a safari to Wilpattu National Park. Embark on an exciting jeep safari to spot native wildlife such as elephants, leopards, sloth bears, and a variety of bird species in their natural habitat.
- Anuradhapura Food Tour: Embark on a culinary journey through Anuradhapura by joining a food tour. Sample traditional Sri Lankan dishes, visit local eateries, and learn about the flavors and techniques that make Sri Lankan cuisine unique. This tour offers an opportunity to immerse yourself in the local food culture.
- Anuradhapura Village Tour: Experience the rural charm and traditional way of life by participating in a village tour. Engage with local communities, learn about their customs and traditions, and try your hand at traditional activities such as rice cultivation, clay pottery, or traditional cooking.
- Anuradhapura Night Tour: Witness the magic of Anuradhapura under the moonlight by joining a night tour. Explore the illuminated ancient sites, visit temples during evening rituals, and experience the serene ambiance that envelops the city after dark.
- Anuradhapura Cultural Show: Enjoy a cultural show featuring traditional music, dance performances, and colorful costumes. Immerse yourself in the vibrant cultural heritage of Sri Lanka and witness the artistry of local performers.
- Anuradhapura Photography Tour: If you’re passionate about photography, join a photography tour that takes you to the most photogenic sites in Anuradhapura. Capture the architectural details, serene landscapes, and vibrant cultural scenes under the guidance of an experienced photographer.
These tours offer unique perspectives on Anuradhapura’s history, culture, and natural beauty. Whether you’re interested in archaeology, spirituality, wildlife, or local experiences, there’s a tour available to suit your interests and enhance your visit to Anuradhapura.
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