Anuradhapura: The City of Anuradha (Part X)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

After the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka during the 3rd century BCE, educational institutions were also established on the island. These were ‘colleges’ and ‘universities’ that were centred around Buddhist monasteries. Buddhist monks ran these colleges and universities and some of them were open for lay students as well as international students (monks). 

Pre-Buddhist period education in Sri Lanka

During King Pandukabhaya’s time, he had built prayer halls and religious shrines for various religious sectors, including for Brahmins; thus, perhaps a certain form of religious education and a secular education must have been provided at these educational institutions. The Mahavamsa and other Pali chronicles say that the young prince Pandukabhaya when he was 16 years old was sent to the Pandula Brahmin who lived in the Pandula village. Pandula Brahmin was a well-learned scholar, a Brahmin (a priest), and a learned medicinal practitioner. Students were sent to him where they would reside at the teacher’s place, serving him and learning all necessary skills and crafts under the guidance of the teacher as resident students.

Once their term of studentship ends, they would pay tribute to the teacher and leave. This system of education was practiced in Northern India (as we understand through literature sources) and students were taught subjects such as religion, reading, poetry, literature, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, logic, and practical training in horse riding, archery, sword fighting, various martial arts, and so on. During the time that the student was to reside at the teacher’s house, serve the teacher with respect and gratitude, and improve his discipline. 

Once training at Pandula Brahmin’s place, Prince Pandukabhaya paid gratitude to his teacher with a large sum of gold coins. 

However, this education was limited only to royals and children of elite families and the clergy. We also do not have evidence of women being sent to such educational institutes and residing at the teacher’s house. 

Yet, the story of Kuweni makes us assume that she was a woman of a notable amount of power, authority, and financial and social independence. According to the chronicles, she was skilled in looming fabrics. She was fluent in the language that Prince Vijaya and his people spoke (a northern Indian Indo – Aryan dialect). Scholars also assume that she was engaged in maritime trade, thus she must have been knowledgeable in mathematics and trade. Her interest in political affairs also made us understand that she was a woman who knew politics. Although we do not know for sure if institutes were there for women to be trained and educated, the story of Kuweni provides us with a little glimpse into the education of women in Sri Lanka before the arrival of Buddhism. 

The queens mentioned in the Mahavamsa of the pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka (before the arrival of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE), seem to be fairly educated and knowledgeable in political affairs, trade, and economy. These queens were involved in the country’s politics and took an interest in such affairs. They were not veiled and kept aside as a symbol of the king’s power and prosperity. This practice continued in Sri Lanka. After the arrival of Buddhism, many queens, princesses, royal women, and ordinary women embraced Buddhism and many became Buddhist nuns. Many royal women have constructed hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and donated money and property to Buddhist monasteries. Some Sinhalese queens even engaged in warfare and played a major role in planning warfare. This indicates that pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Sri Lanka had a system of education and training for women (at least only women of royal and elite families), which is not well documented in our chronicles. 

Most of these must have been around Anuradhapura. 

Maha Vihara and the birth of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist education

After the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the education system was refashioned with the essence of Buddhism as well as the Mauryan influence. By this time, Northern India had a systematic education system for which we have archaeological evidence as well as literature sources.

In Sri Lanka, these newly established Buddhist monasteries became education centres. During pre-Buddhist times, Brahmins were teachers and the same practice continued, making it refashioned according to the Buddhist culture. As we have explained in our previous article, the Maha Vihara was the first established Buddhist monastery on the island and the first Buddhist educational institute on the island. Among the many early Buddhist ‘Colleges’ built in Anuradhapura are the Kalapasada Pirivena in which Arhat Mahinda Thera also dwelled and the famous Diksanda-seneviya Pirivena in which the author of Mahavamsa, Mahanama Thera resided. 

Professor T. G. Kulatunga in his book Maha Vihara (The Great Monastery) at Anuradhapura writes that several monastic colleges were established during the reign of King DevanampiyaTissa and most of them were set up in commemoration of the Arahat Mahinda Thera. Further explaining this fact Prof. Kulatunga says that the college called Dighacankamana was at the promenade of the Thera. Where the Arhat Mahinda Thera enjoyed the bliss of medication came up the College Phalagga (Ecstasy). The place where the Arhat Mahinda Thera sat on a plank covered with grass was marked by the college named Therapassa (Thera’s seat). The college Marugana (assembly of gods) earmarked the spot where ‘devas’ or celestial beings obtained his audience. 

Another well-known pirivena of the Maha Vihara is the Mayura Pirivena or College Mayura. Prof. Kulatunga writes that this is the building on the right-hand side of Maha Vihara and to the northeast of the Maha Bodhi. The remains of the building show that it had a ground floor 66’ x 45’ in length and width with an upper floor. Among the ruins are found stone pillars with rather artistic carvings. 

Another significant pirivena or college was the Granthakara Pirivena of the Maha Vihara. This is known as the pirivena where Buddhagosha Thera occupied himself with his commentaries while residing in it. Prof. Kulatunga says that the present circuit bungalow of the Department of Archaeology (DoA) which is in close proximity to the Mayura Pririvena is believed to be the site of the Granthakara Pirivena. 

The Maha Vihara monastic complex consisted of colleges, residences for monks, hospitals, ponds, alms halls, kitchens, toilets, baths, and other important religious buildings utilised by monks for religious purposes. 

The birth of the Atamasthana

Thuparama: The Stupa loved by the Royal Tusker

The first of the Atamasthanas to be constructed in the city was the Thuparama. This stupa is also known to be the oldest known (or recorded stupa with dates) stupa in Sri Lanka. Historians and archaeologists believe that this stupa was first built in the Dhanyakara shape (shape of a pile of paddy). Art historians believe that many of the ancient stupas during the early Anuradhapura Period were first constructed in the Dhanyakara shape and during later constructions, these early shapes were altered. 

It is said that the present-day shape and finish of the stupa are the result of the 1862 construction and during this work, the shape of the stupa was constructed in the Ghantakara shape (Asirimath Anurapuraya by E.M. Rathnapala). 

According to the Pali chronicles, the stupa was constructed near the Pre – Buddhist devala named Pramoja Wasthu, which is attributed to the time of King Pandukabhaya. The clay used to construct the stupa was from the Abaya tank which is located close to the stupa. The Mahavamsa narrates a beautiful story about the construction of the Thuparama.

By this time, the Maha Vihara was a new monastery that was expanding and functioning well. Mihintale or Segiriya was another monastery in the vicinity. Meanwhile, Emperor Asoka was making arrangements to send a sapling of the sacred Bo tree to Sri Lanka along with her daughter, Arhat Sanghamitta Theri. 

During this time, Arhat Mahinda Thera said to King Devanampiyathissa that sacred relics of the Buddha should be brought to Sri Lanka for worship and a stupa needed to be built on the island. Therefore he sends Sumana Samanera 

(a novice monk and the grandson of Emperor Asoka) to Peshawar (Purushapura) to meet the Emperor and asks for some of the Buddha’s sacred relics. After obtaining the relics of the Buddha, Sumana Samanera visited God Sakra, or the Chief of Gods (according to Buddhist mythology) who resided in his heavenly abode. From God Sakra, he obtained the sacred Right Collarbone Relic of the Buddha. 

After receiving the sacred relics, the delighted king placed the casket of relics on the back of the Royal Tusker. The tusker who was excited and happy, trumpeted loudly and upon the arrival of the sacred relics of the Buddha for the first time on the island, the earth also rejoiced and shook with excitement. 

The joyous tusker, filled with pride and excitement, paraded around the city, accompanied by monks and vehicles and lay devotees, entered the city from the eastern gate, left the city from the Southern gate, and arrived at a certain place where according to the Mahavamsa a devala named Pramoja Wasthu was located, which was built during the time of King Pandukabhaya. The tusker came near the shrine and then went to the place where the bodhi was located (not sure which Bodhi the Mahavamsa is referring to) and stood facing the eastern direction. 

During this time, this place was covered with vines such as Higuru and Hiya. The king made arrangements to clean the place and to place the sacred relic casket on the cleared ground. However, the tusker did not allow the casket to be placed on the ground. The Mahavamsa says that the tusker did not wish to place the sacred relics of the Buddha at a place lower than his head. Therefore, the king ordered to bring dry clay from the Aba wewa (Abaya Tank) which was dried by this time, and built a stupa that was of the height of the tusker. 

After a small stupa was built with dry clay, it was decorated and the sacred relics of the Buddha were placed on this stupa. Once the relics were placed on the small clay structure, the king arranged for the security of the relics and also let the tusker stay nearby and ordered to construct a stupa enshrining the small clay stupa with the relics. For this task, the king assigned a large number of people to prepare large bricks.

Once the king, Arahat Mahinda Thera, and the monks visited back to the city and the Mahamewuna Gardens, the tusker remained at the place, looking after the sacred relics. The Mahavamsa says that the tusker spent the night time walking around the clay mound on which the relics were placed. And he spent the day time keeping the sacred relic casket on his head, residing in the hall near the stupa construction site. 

Once the stupa construction was completed, the king announced the special occasion to his subjects. At this point, according to Buddhist literature and local chronicles, the sacred relics performed various miraculous acts. Seeing these miraculous acts, the chronicle says that thousands of lay people including the king’s youngest brother Prince Maththabhaya, entered monkhood. 

After the stupa was completed, the king, royals, queens, chiefs, citizens of Anuradhapura, and monks offered various precious offerings to the stupa and venerated it. The king also built a monastery (aramaya) centring the Stupa (Thupa) and therefore it was named Thuparamaya (Thupa + Aramaya) or the Monastery of the Stupa. 

To be continued…

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