Anuradhapura: The city of Anuradha (Part XIV)

Exploring the history of Ruwanweliseya, the Maha Stupa of Sri Lanka

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

The ceremonial placing of the first construction stone of the Maha Stupa was held in the month of Esala, according to the Mahavamsa. At the auspicious time, the king – all adorned in royal attire and precious jewels and accompanied by his ministers, giants, dancing girls, and musicians – arrived at the location of the Maha Stupa. It was the evening time of the day. 

According to the Mahavamsa and other ancient literature sources of Sri Lanka, monks from many faraway foreign lands arrived at this grand ceremony. Some of the ancient Buddhist kingdoms the Mahavamsa mentions are difficult to identify while some of them are Kashmir and Alexandria of the Yonaka country. Historians suggest that the Yonaka country is the land of the Greeks. According to these narrations, a large number of foreign monks arrived to witness this ceremony. 

The relic chamber of the Maha Stupa

According to literature sources, the relic chamber of the Maha Stupa was a masterpiece of architecture and art. It was all decorated with gold, silver, ivory, and precious and semi-precious stones. Statues made of gold and silver of the Buddha and deities were placed inside the chamber. Silver and gold Bo trees adorned with precious stones were made and placed inside. The walls of the relic chamber were decorated with intricate and exquisite murals. 

According to the Theravada Tradition or the Southern Buddhist Tradition, the largest numbers of Buddha’s relics are enshrined in this stupa. 

The placing of a golden Buddha statue inside the relic chamber of the Maha Stupa remains controversial. It is because according to widely-accepted facts, the Buddha statue was not yet created by this time, in the Buddhist world. It took another century or so for the Buddha statue to have appeared; that was during the time of the Kushan Empire. However, some scholars suggest that perhaps the Sinhalese created the Buddha statue during this time. Let us discuss this further in a different article. 

Also, in a future article of this same series, we shall in detail discuss the interior of a Buddhist stupa’s relic chamber that has been subjected to archaeological excavations. 

The planning and construction of the Maha Stupa are explained in great detail in the Mahavamsa and many other Pali and Sinhala ancient texts. To those who are interested to know in detail about the ancient stupa construction of Sri Lanka, these narratives provide a surplus of documented information. 

There is folklore relating to the construction of the Maha Stupa which involves almost every part of the island. It is said that natural resources such as gold, silver, clay, ivory, bricks, stone, quartz, gems, and so on were miraculously discovered in many places on the island. At some of these places, temples were constructed to commemorate this miraculous incident. The Ridi Vihara in Kurunagala is one such temple. It is believed that silver was found at this location. 

Fulfilling the wish of a dying king

Before completing the construction of the Maha Stupa King Dutugamunu fell ill, fatally. The King’s wish was to complete the construction of the Maha Stupa before he breathed his last. Therefore, he called his younger brother Prince Saddhathissa, who was in Deeghawapi (Eastern Province) and handed over to him the responsibility of completing the Maha Stupa. 

However, Prince Saddhathissa realised that it was impossible to complete this great construction of the large stupa before the king died, as the king only had a few days to live. 

Thus, Prince Saddhathissa ordered tailors to tailor a large white dome-shaped cover in white fabric. Once this large dome-shaped fabric jacket was fixed as the dome of the stupa, it was plastered with a layer of white stucco. The upper part of the stupa was made out of bamboo. Now, the Great Stupa or the Ruwanweliseya seemed to be complete. 

The dying king who was weak, was carried to the stupa premises on a dolawa (palanquin). The Maha Stupa appeared to be completed. It was beaming in white due to the bright white stucco layer. 

We can understand two important points through this narration. During the Anuradhapura Period, the great development of technology and science is evident through these facts. Sewing a large-scale set of fabric to create a dome of a large stupa and then plastering it with stucco, are difficult tasks to do without great technological advancements. 

Also, we understand that King Dutugamunu was in a poor health condition. His health was so deteriorated that he could not even walk and stand and was carried to the stupa premises. Also, he was so weak that he could barely see things. The king remained to be lying on his bed (dolawa) and worshiped the Maha Stupa. It is said that on his right-hand side, he could see the Maha Stupa and on his left-hand side he could see the Lovamahapaya. 

Soon, the heroic king, King Dutugamunu, passed away and Prince Saddhathissa ascended the throne as the next king of Anuradhapura. He completed the construction work of the Great Stupa. Kings of Anuradhapura continued to add various constructions to the Great Stupa. 

The architectural significance of the Ruwanweliseya lies in its monumental scale, harmonious proportions, and symbolic design. The stupa originally stood at a height of 55 metres (180 feet) and had a diameter of 91 meters (300 feet). Although it has been restored and slightly altered over the centuries, its grand presence remained intact. The stupa’s massive white dome is one of its most striking features, symbolising the infinite nature of the Buddha’s teachings and the vastness of the universe.

The base of the Ruwanweliseya is built on a circular platform, which is surrounded by concentric terraces that gradually ascend towards the dome. These are known as Pesa Walalu. This design not only adds to the visual grandeur of the structure but also represents the different stages of spiritual enlightenment. The circular terraces are adorned with intricate carvings and sculptures that depict various aspects of Buddhist cosmology and mythology.

At the four cardinal points, there are large, elaborately-decorated entrances known as Ayakas (previously, these were known as Wahalkada). These structures serve both functional and symbolic purposes. Architecturally, they provide access to the inner ambulatory paths, allowing devotees to circum-ambulate the stupa in a clockwise direction, a practice that symbolises reverence and the journey toward enlightenment. Symbolically, the Ayakas are adorned with intricate carvings of deities, animals, and floral motifs, representing protection, fertility, and the divine.

The artistic importance of the Ruwanweliseya is evident in its detailed sculptures, intricate carvings, and overall aesthetic harmony. The craftsmanship displayed in the construction and decoration of the stupa reflects the high level of artistic achievement of the ancient Sinhalese.

The dome and terraces of the stupa are adorned with finely crafted figures of lions, elephants, and other mythical creatures, symbolising strength, wisdom, and protection. These sculptures are not merely decorative; they convey deep symbolic meanings rooted in Buddhist teachings and local folklore. The use of these motifs demonstrates the seamless integration of religious symbolism and artistic expression.

One of the most notable artistic features of the Ruwanweliseya is the series of elephant statues that encircle the base of the stupa. Each elephant is depicted in a standing position, with detailed attention to anatomical features and expressions. These statues are believed to symbolise the strength and stability of the Buddha’s teachings, which support the spiritual structure of the world. These elephant statues are known as the Gajan Maluwa or the Ath Pawura and it symbolise the Great Stupa being carried by a large number of elephants on their backs. It is said that the Gajan Maluwa was first constructed by King Saddhathissa. What we see today is a modern reconstruction of the ancient Gajan Maluwa. 

The decorative elements on the Ayakas are also of significant artistic value. The intricate reliefs and carvings depict scenes from the Jataka tales (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives), floral patterns, and various deities. These carvings are executed with remarkable precision and attention to detail, showcasing the skill and creativity of ancient Sri Lankan artisans.

As a symbol of spiritual enlightenment and a testament to the artistic and architectural prowess of its builders, the Ruwanweliseya continues to inspire awe and reverence. It stands as a monumental of the rich cultural heritage and religious devotion that has shaped Sri Lankan civilisation for centuries.

Over the centuries, the Ruwanweliseya faced periods of neglect and decay, particularly during times of foreign invasions and political turmoil. However, it has been the focus of numerous restoration efforts aimed at preserving its structural integrity and religious significance. Notable restoration work was undertaken in the 20th century, led by the Department of Archaeology (DoA) of Sri Lanka and supported by local and international Buddhist communities.

Today, the Ruwanweliseya continues to be meticulously maintained, reflecting the dedication of those committed to preserving this sacred monument. Modern restoration techniques, combined with traditional craftsmanship, ensure that the stupa remains a vibrant and enduring symbol of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist identity and a grand testimony of Sri Lanka’s living cultural heritage. 

There are many notable statues that one can witness at the Ruwanweliseya. Among them are Buddha statues, Bodhisattva statues, and statues of kings. The four Buddha statues are kept at the vihara house built on the Salapathalamaluwa (stone-slab terrace) of the stupa. These four Buddha statues are in standing posture and Abaya Mudra. Art historians believe that these statues belong to the 3rd century CE and they belong to the Amaravati School of Buddhist Art. 

The four Buddha statues represent four past Buddhas that are, Kakusanda, Konagama, Kashyapa, and Gautama. The Bodhisattva statue represents the future Buddha, Maitreya. According to old archaeology archives of old Ceylon, these standing stone Buddha statues were first discovered among ruins of the Ruwanweliseya monastery during the colonial-time archaeological explorations and later they were placed inside the vihara of the stupa terrace. 

Apart from these Buddha statues, there are several stone Buddha statues (some are in ruins) found among the ruins of the vast Ruwanweliseya Monastery. 

Another two notable statues that can be seen at Ruwanweliseya are the standing stone statues of King Dutugamunu and King Bhathikabhaya (20 BCE – 9 CE). The statue of Dutugamunu does not indicate that it is the statue of King Dutugamunu. Yet, people believe that perhaps it is the statue of King Dutugamunu. However, it also could be a Bodhisattva statue. It is also rational to believe that a statue of the Great King Dutugamunu was erected at Ruwanweliseya to honour and commemorate him. 

The second statue has a stone inscription on the base saying Thisa Maharaja, which indicates that it is a statue of a king. Prof. Senarath Paranavitana says that these letters and the language belong to the 1st/2nd centuries. As King Bhathikabhaya is known as a great pious Buddhist king who held enormously grand and lavish ceremonies and offerings to the Maha Stupa, it is generally believed that this statue was created to honour the king. 

To be continued…

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