Anuradhapura: The city of Anuradha (Part XV)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

The Anuradhapura Kingdom was enjoying a time of splendour and prosperity under the rule of King Dutugamunu (161 – 137 BC) after he united the country under one rule. He defeated the usurper Elara and brought Rajarata under his rule. Known as a great Buddhist king, Dutugamunu is the creator of three sacred places of the Atamasthana. In our previous articles, we have presented to you the stories of Lovamahapaya and the Maha Stupa (Ruwanweliseya). The third sacred place created by King Dutugamunu that belongs to the Atamasthana is the Mirisaweti Stupa and Monastery. 

The Mirisaweti Stupa is the first stupa built by Dutugamunu, after the tiresome battle against Elara and uniting the country. King Dutugamunu is known for his devotion to Buddhism and is also considered the greatest heroic king of the Sinhalese. King Dutugamunu and his entire family have secured their places as protectors and saviours of the Sinhala Buddhist civilisation, not only in this lifetime but also in their future births. The most accepted belief among Sri Lankan Buddhists is that King Dutugamunu and his younger brother King Saddhathissa will be born as the most trusted disciples (Agasawu or Agrashrawaka) of the future Buddha Maitreya. King Dutugamunu’s parents will be born as Maitreya Buddha’s parents and his son Prince Saliya, as the future Buddha’s son. 

The Pali and Sinhala chronicles, especially the Mahavamsa, dedicate a notably lengthy amount of chapters to narrate the life and work of this king. The religious constructions of King Dutugamunu followed by his brother Saddhathissa, have engraved an unshakable place in the consciousness of Sri Lankans. 

After seven days of defeating Elara and uniting the island…

The Pali chronicles say that King Dutugamunu participated in a water festival held at the Thisa Wewa on the seventh day of his victory over Elara. Legend says that the King held a special ceremony to celebrate his victory over Elara and unite the country. The Mirisawetiya Stupa was built to commemorate this great victory; thus the Jaya Kunthayudha was enshrined inside the stupa. 

The Mahavamsa says that on the seventh day after the defeat of Elara, the King held a water festival (jala kreeda) following Kshathriya traditions. This festival was held after honouring all the warriors and the royal coronation ceremony. The Mahavamsa says that the king participated in this water festival till the evening accompanied by a large crowd. 

According to ancient texts, the waters of Thisa Wewa were used to cleanse the king’s sword and royal umbrellas and to coronate the kings of Anuradhapura. Royal water festivals were also held at the Thisa Wewa. 

Enshrining the king’s sceptre

The king had a sceptre (Jaya Kunthayudha) in which sacred relics of the Buddha were placed. The king placed his royal sceptre at a specific pavilion near the Thisa Wewa and went to the festival. After his return, he attempted to take back his sceptre, but it was firmly fixed on the ground.  He and his men tried to take it back several times but failed. Hence, he decided to construct a stupa enshrining his royal sceptre and commemorating his great victory. 

Naming the stupa after a pod of chilly…

Legend says that he also commemorated another incident that happened to him earlier during the time of the great war against Elara, and the name of the stupa echoes this incident. King Dutugamunu only consumed food after offering the first portion to the monks. This was a vow he was asked to make by his father, King Kavanthissa during his childhood. But one day, this promise was broken by him. He couldn’t offer a pod of chilly (a miris wetiya) to the monks; and as a means to punish himself for breaking the vow and as an apology, he named the stupa Mirisawetiya. 

The Great Chronicle further says that it took three years to complete the stupa and the monastery. The king offered it to Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis. At this point the king has said to the Bhikkhus that once he broke the vow by not offering a chilly pod and consuming it, hence, this stupa shall be called, Mirisawetiya. Thus, the stupa and the monastery were referred to as the Mirisaweti Stupa for 2100 years. 

Ancient water festival of the Sinhalese

Ancient Sinhalese are known to have held water festivals that were held in honour of the Rain God Parjanya, to evoke his blessings. Water played a very significant and sacred part in the ancient Sinhalese culture. Water was the backbone of the ancient agrarian civilisation of Sri Lanka, especially during the Rajarata Period. Man-made tanks and the complex irrigation system built by Sinhalese engineers played a vital role in the ancient Rajarata landscape. Festivals and rituals were performed in honour of water gods. Various statues of water deities and mythological water beings were found buried near ponds, tanks, and irrigation systems in Sri Lanka. Carvings and statues of Nagas can be seen at ponds, tanks, and irrigation systems. These deities and supernatural beings are believed to be protectors of these water bodies. 

God Parjanya was worshiped by ancient Sinhalese as the god of rain and there is evidence that festivals were held in honour of this god in Anuradhapura. 

Also, water was considered sacred and pure. Water was used as a ‘witness’ to hand over the authority of land and in marriage. Also, water was used to mark the victories of kings; their swords and chathras (royal umbrellas) were washed with the pure waters of the Thisa Wewa. 

Water festivals or Jala Keli were a part of ancient Sinhalese festivals and rituals. Before Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, historians believe that these festivals took a rather erotic fashion. Such erotic festivals were held in many ancient societies to honour rain gods and evoke their blessings for prosperity and abundance in the harvest. However, as Buddhism rooted itself in the Sri Lankan soils, it refashioned every aspect of the Sinhalese civilisation. Thus, these erotic and secular festivals and rituals too changed by shedding away their erotic essence. There are many records of Sinhalese kings of the Rajarata Period attending water festivals.

Mirisaweti stupa through the decades

Many kings of the Rajarata kingdoms continued to expand, renovate, and restore the Mirisaweti Stupa and Monastery. Among them are King Gajabahu I (112 – 134 CE) and King Voharika Tisaa (214 – 236 CE). It is said that King Voharika Tissa restored the Umbrellas (Chathras) of the stupa. Ancient Buddhist stupas had umbrellas on top of them instead of the Koth Karalla that we are familiar with today. Remnants of ancient Chathras have been discovered in Sri Lanka. Giant stupas such as Jetavanarama, Abayagirya had massive stone Chathras during early times. A Chathrawaliya is a collection of many Chathras placed on top of each other, ascending in size. During the mid-Anuradhapura time, the Koth Karalla replaced the Chathras. (In a future article of this series, we shall discuss the evolution of the Buddhist stupa). 

It is believed that thousands of monks who attained the highest state of mind, Arahats, lived in this monastery and at Mirisawetiya. Among the ruins, one can also see some of the earliest forms of moonstones. 

The Dana Sala or the Alms Hall

The Dana Sala, the dining hall where resident monks receive their meals, is located on the northern side of Mirisawetiya. Close to the Dana Sala, there is an old rice boat (bath oruwa) used for offering rice to the monks residing in the monastery. 

Image House and Bodhi Shrine

The site also contains the ruins of an image house and a bodhi shrine, which can still be seen within the premises.

The Chapter House

A chapter house, also known as Uposathagara, is an essential building in any monastery. It is where the Patimokka is recited by the priests every fortnight and where other acts of Vinaya (Discipline) are conducted. Chapter houses were also used as residences for monks. Anuradhapura boasts spectacular chapter houses, such as the Lohapasada, which was purportedly nine stories tall.

During the Chola invasions of the 11th century, they destroyed and looted the stupa and the monastery. Kings of Polonnaruwa including King Vijayabahu the Great (1055 – 1110 CE), King Parakramabahu the Great (1153 – 1186 CE), and King Nissankamalla (1187 – 1196 CE) have restored the stupa. King Nissankamalla’s restoration work is the last recorded restoration work.

For the next coming centuries, the once glorious and magnificent stupa and the monastery were abandoned and covered by the jungle tide. Treasure hunters looted the riches during these doomed years. 

Modern times…

In 1873, Henry Parker encountered Mirisawetiya as a mound enveloped in large trees and dense shrubs. The first Government agent of Anuradhapura, J.F. Dixon, along with Smither, initially cleared the surrounding area of the stupa. During this process, Smither examined the stupa and discovered a magnificent Vahalkada (Ayakaya or front piece).

Using a grant of Rs 12,500 obtained from the King of Siam (now Thailand), a renovation project commenced in 1888 but could not be completed. The construction halted in 1896 due to lack of funds, and what was visible until 1980 as Mirisawetiya (The half stupa) remained from when work stopped in 1896.

Restoration efforts resumed under the leadership of former President R. Premadasa. The renovation was successfully completed in 1993, and the stupa was ceremonially opened on Poson Full Moon Poya Day in the same year. The stupa, in its current form, stands at 192 feet in height and 141 feet in diameter.

To be continued…

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