Anuradhapura: The city of Anuradha (Part XVIII)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Anuradhapura developed into a fortified city over the centuries, starting from the 9th century BC as a small village, known as Anuradhagrama. It became the capital city of Sri Lanka in the 5th century BCE and lasted till the 11th century CE, becoming home to more than 100 kings and queens.

Starting as a humble village in the 9th century BCE or even before, Anuradhagrama was home to two historical Indo-Aryan princes named Anuradha; hence it was called Anuradha’s village and later, Anuradha’s city. When King Pandukabhaya (437 – 367 BCE) chose Anuradhapura as his capital city, he further developed the town following a well-organised city plan. The city was named ‘Anuradha’ as it was established in the auspicious time of the Anuradha constellation as well as to honour his ancestors, Prince Anuradha. 

The importance of the capital city in ancient town planning

In ancient town planning and warfare, the capital city is considered the most important architectural feature of a kingdom. The capital city symbolised the status of the kingdom; its power and prosperity. Also, the capital city was always the target of invaders. Therefore, kings made sure that the capital city was well protected and difficult to defeat. 

For this, ancient cities had fortified walls, ramparts, watchtowers, moats, and gates. Armed soldiers, elephants, and horses were placed at the city gates, along the city wall, and watchtowers. The city was lighted during the night to keep it safe. High and thick walls were built around the city. The moats were filled with crocodiles and filled with mud, to ensure that enemies could not cross the moat. 

Usually, in ancient Sri Lanka, a capital city was planned along two main sections; the inner city (citadel) and the outer city. The inner city or the citadel of Anuradhapura consisted of all the most important buildings of the country such as the king’s place complex, and the Temple of the Tooth. 

Literature evidence and archaeology evidence suggest that ancient Anuradhapura was a city that had all of these qualities, and throughout the 15 centuries it reigned as Sri Lanka’s most glorious capital city, hundreds of kings, queens, ministers, and royals, continued to build the city further enhancing its security. 

In this article, we will explore the military powers, fortifications, and warfare of the Anuradhapura city. We shall also understand the boundaries and layout of the ancient inner city and the outer city of Anuradhapura. 

The fortification and security systems of Anuradhapura during the Anuradhapura Period were advanced and reflected a deep understanding of statecraft and military strategy. Drawing insights from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, it is evident that the city’s defences were not only physical but also administrative and strategic. The meticulous urban planning starting from the 6th or 5th century BCE, robust infrastructure, and integrated security measures ensured Anuradhapura’s prominence and stability for centuries. This comprehensive approach to city-building and defence highlights the sophistication of ancient Sri Lankan civilisation and its enduring legacy in urban planning and statecraft.

Fortification of Anuradhapura Walls and gates

The city of Anuradhapura was renowned for its impressive fortifications, which served both defensive and symbolic purposes. The fortifications included massive walls, moats, gates, and watchtowers, reflecting the city’s importance and the need for security against invasions and internal strife.

Anuradhapura’s fortifications were characterised by robust walls constructed using large stone blocks and earth. These walls provided formidable barriers against invaders. 

According to Kautilya’s Arthashastra, effective fortifications should have multiple layers of walls with varying heights to confuse and delay attackers. The gates of Anuradhapura were strategically placed and heavily guarded, often reinforced with towers for archers to repel assaults.


Surrounding the city walls were deep moats filled with water, designed to thwart enemy advances and make direct assaults on the walls more challenging. It is said that crocodiles were bred in these moats. 

Kautilya emphasises the importance of moats in city defences, recommending they be wide and deep enough to prevent easy crossing.


Watchtowers were integral to the fortification system, providing vantage points for surveillance and early warning of potential threats. These towers were placed at regular intervals along the walls, allowing guards to monitor the surroundings and communicate quickly in case of an attack. 

Kautilya suggests the placement of watchtowers for continuous vigilance and effective communication within the city.

Security systems

Security in ancient Anuradhapura extended beyond physical fortifications to include sophisticated administrative and military strategies inspired by principles similar to those outlined in the Arthashastra.

City administration

The administration of Anuradhapura was well-structured, with officials responsible for various aspects of security and public order. According to Kautilya, a well-administered city should have a hierarchy of officers, each accountable for specific duties, ensuring efficient governance and rapid response to emergencies. Anuradhapura had such a system, with roles ranging from city governors to guards and spies.

Internal security

Maintaining internal security was crucial for the stability of the capital. Anuradhapura’s rulers implemented measures to prevent espionage, sabotage, and rebellion. Kautilya advocates for a network of spies to gather intelligence and detect conspiracies. In Anuradhapura, a similar intelligence network likely existed, with spies operating within and outside the city to gather information and report back to the authorities. These spies were known as Chara Purushayo in the chronicles.

Military presence

A strong military presence within the city ensured readiness to repel invasions and maintain order. The Arthashastra advises maintaining a standing army and a reserve force that could be mobilised quickly. Anuradhapura housed a garrison of soldiers who could be deployed rapidly in case of an external threat or internal disturbance.

Layout and zoning

The city was divided into different zones, each serving specific functions such as residential areas, markets, administrative quarters, and religious sites. Kautilya recommends a similar zoning approach to ensure organised growth and efficient management. The well-planned layout facilitated smooth administration and better security management.


Infrastructure development in Anuradhapura included the construction of roads, reservoirs, and public buildings. The Arthashastra underscores the importance of good infrastructure for economic prosperity and political stability. Anuradhapura’s advanced irrigation systems, known as ‘tanks’, supported agriculture and ensured water supply, contributing to the city’s sustainability and resilience.

Religious and cultural sites

Anuradhapura was not only a political centre but also a great religious and cultural hub. The construction of stupas, monasteries, and temples reflected the city’s spiritual significance. Kautilya highlights the role of religion and culture in fostering social cohesion and loyalty to the state. These sites were strategically placed to integrate religious life with the daily activities of the inhabitants, along the inner city and the outer city and beyond. 

Parts of the ancient Anuradhapura’s city walls, watchtowers, moats, and city gates have been discovered during archaeological work. 

The growth of Anuradhapura’s military powers and fortification

As we have compared and quoted from Kautilya’s Arthashasthra, historians suggest that ancient Sinhalese kings also followed certain theories of Kautilya in city planning and development. 

However, during the time of King Pandukabhaya, the Sinhalese kingdom was a new rising kingdom and there were no powerful rival kingdoms in the neighbourhood, the city’s safety was not a major concern. During the 3rd century BCE, when the Mauryan Empire rose to the heights of its power, still, the Sinhala Kingdom was not facing a political and military threat. Moreover, as historical literature suggests, King Devanampiyatissa and the Mauryan Emperor Asoka were childhood friends and had been communicating through letters for years. This friendship led the two kingdoms to enter a very close, favourable, and beneficial political alliance, that changed the identity of the entire South Asian and Southeast Asian region. 

Military power, security of Anuradhapura and warfare

According to the Mahavamsa, King Kutakannatissa (41 – 19 BCE) constructed the city walls and a moat around the city, and the wall was seven cubits in height. Later, King Vasabha (65 – 109 CE) rebuilt it up to 18 cubits in height. Many other kings strengthened the city wall and deepened the moat. Also, according to literature sources, the city had four gates, with large and well-decorated pandols at these gates, and beautiful gardens adorning the entrances of the city. 

Eminent Sri Lankan historian D.T. Devendra suggests that Anuradhapura had an inner city and an outer city separately developed before the 1st century BCE. 

‘Nagara Guttika’

According to the Mahavamsa, King Pandukabhaya appointed a position known as ‘Nagara Guttika’. He appointed his uncle, the previous king Abaya to this position. Historians believe that this was a night guard position, and it was his duty to safeguard the city during night time. Some historians suggest that ‘Nagara Guttika’ is in a similar position to a Mayor. 

The first foreign attack on Anuradhapura 

During the 3rd century BCE, that was during the reign of King Suratissa (247 – 237 BCE), two invaders named Sena and Guttika, dethroned the Sinhalese king and took over the kingdom by force. It is said that they ruled for 22 years. This is the first recorded foreign invasion of Sri Lanka. 

The Mahavamsa and Thupavamsa say that they were the two sons of horse merchants/sailors. According to the Pujawaliya and Rajawaliya, they were horsemen who traded horses (imported) to Sri Lanka. 

Another interesting piece of information about Sena and Guttika mentioned in the Pali and Sinhalese chronicles is that they believed in a religion that emphasised washing away the sins with holy water and purifying one’s soul with holy water. However, this is not sufficient to assume that Sena and Guttika were followers of Brahmanism or a Hindu belief as many Asian beliefs believe in the purification of the soul through holy water. What we can assume is that they were not Buddhists. 

What we can understand from this is that the safety of the capital city was not in a high state by this time (3rd century BCE). Perhaps as it was a new kingdom and there were no known threats from the neighbouring countries, and up to this time Sri Lanka had strong ties with the Mauryan Empire, military powers, and safety was not a priority for the Sinhalese kings. However by this time, the tables were gradually turning and the Mauryan Empire was declining and its authority over the Southern part of the Indian subcontinent was weakening, setting the stage for the formation of Dravidian kingdoms in the South. 


After 22 years, Suratissa’s younger brother Asela (215 – 205 BCE), defeated Sena and Guttika and crowned himself as King of Anuradhapura. However, he could only rule for 10 years. A more powerful foreigner, as the Mahavamsa says a Dravida named Elara invaded the island and ruled Rajarata for 44 years. 

To be continued…

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