Sri Lanka’s first Stupa, Girihandu seya

Antiquities of the Buddhist stupa: Part 2

A Buddhist stupa is a pleasant and common sight in every Buddhist country. A complex tangible and intangible culture has been woven around Buddhist stupas making the stupa the ultimate symbol of veneration among Buddhists. Eminent scholar A.H. Longhust in his much acclaimed scholarly work The Story of the Stupa, stated that the chief purpose for which stupas were erected by the Buddhists was to serve as monuments enclosing relics of the Buddha, or the Buddhists saints, which were placed in a reliquary enclosed in a stone coffer, over which the stupa was built.

Sri Lanka is a land of thousands of stupas varying from its size, style and purpose. The ancient Sinhalese mastered the art of stupa building so well that they excelled in it, surpassing other Buddhist countries of the world. Hence, Sri Lanka owns the world’s largest stupas and the world’s oldest known stupas. According to legend, the first known Buddhist stupa was built by the two merchants Thapassu and Bhalluka in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India and Afghanistan.

An age old legend of two merchant brothers
Two merchants Thapassu and Bhalluka, who were from the North came across where Buddha was meditating just after the supreme one attained enlightenment. The two merchants offered Mee-pindu to Thathagatha. After Thathagatha accepted the offerings, the merchants requested something for veneration, then the blessed one gave them a handful of hair relics. Thapassu and Bhalluka accepted the hair relics in a golden casket and took it to their home town carried in a chariot. At their home town they venerated the hair relics. However when they were engaged in maritime trade, they landed in Sri Lanka. While in Sri Lanka they were resting at Girihandu, and had their meals there. They kept the relic casket on the Girihandu rock while they were resting. About to leave, the merchants tried to take back the relic casket but it was not moving from the place where it was kept. Deciding this must be a sacred place, Thapassu and Bhalluka, covered the casket with a heap of stones, offered flowers to the mound and continued their journey. Later on, a vehera of the name of Girihandu was enshrined there.

(Poojawaliya, 13th century AD)

Identifying Girihandu seya and Thapassu Bhalluka

The home town of these two merchants are not mentioned in Poojawaliya. It is a well-known fact that Girihandu seya or Thiriyaya in Trincomalee district is the place where Thapassu and Bhalluka built the first stupa. A 7th century inscription written in Sanskrit found at Thiriyaya temple reveals the story of Thapassu and Bhalluka and the stupa built by them.  

Nevertheless, Professor Paranavitana states in his book, The Stupa in Ceylon that, a stupa named Girihandu vehera located in the southern coast of Sri Lanka seems to be the place which inherits the age old legend of Thapassu and Bhalluka. He further states that since these legends are entwined with so much of fables, it is impossible to consider them as truthful. However, the 7th century inscription stands alone as a solid witness to prove the antiquity of Girihandu seya at Thiriyaya.

Poojawaliya and the Sanskrit inscription as the strongest witnesses

Poojawaliya is a highly acclaimed ancient text and also considered as a valuable historical literature source. Written in the 13th century, this book reveals many valuable historical facts regarding the history of Sri Lanka and Buddhism. Therefore, there is no rational reason to overlook the facts mentioned in Poojawaliya. Also it should be noted that modern archaeological research have revealed a lot about these two merchants, their homeland and their many travels.

The temple which professor Paranavitana mentions is located in Ambalantota. Also, there is another belief that a temple at Mavathagama, Kurunegala district has a stupa that enshrines the hair relics of the Buddha given to Thapassu and Bhalluka. But then Girihandu seya at Trincomalee is the only place that has an inscription which clearly mentions the name of the place and its association with Thapassu and Bhalluka.

Where Thapassu and Bhalluka from Central Asia?

The first account of Thapassu and Bhalluka appears in the Vinaya pitaka where they offer the Buddha his first meal after enlightenment. According to the Theragatha Commentary, Thapassu and Bhalluka were brothers, sons of a caravan leader of Pokkharavati. According to Pali texts, they were merchants from Uttarapatha. It has been suggested that Uttarapatha was originally the name of a great trade-route, the high road which extended from Savatthi to Takhsila in Gandhara.

The Chinese monks as eye witnesses  

The famous Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang, early 7th century AD, witnessed the remains of two Stupas built over the hair relics while he was traveling from Balkh to Bamian, in Gandhara. He also records that Buddhism was introduced to Central Asia by Thapassu and Bhalluka. The New Encyclopaedia of Islam by Cyril Glasse, confirms that Buddhism was brought to Pre-Islamic regions of Central Asia by these two merchants after they met Buddha.

Renowned scholar and art historian John S. Strong believes that the first Buddhist stupa was built by Thapassu and Bhalluka following the instructions of the Buddha, when he instructed them how to erect it by folding his three robes into squares piling them up and then topping them off with his inverted bowl. Strong’s suggestion is based on the travel records of Hieun Tsang.

Bhalluka from Balkh?

Many information can be revealed about Balkh through the travel records of the Chinese monks Hieun Tsang and Fa-Hien. Balkh was historically an ancient centre of Buddhism, Islam and Zoroastrianism and is now for the most part a mass of ruins. According to a popular legend, Buddhism was introduced in Balkh by Bhallika, disciple of Buddha, and the city derives its name from him. He is known to be a merchant of Balkh and had come home after meeting the Buddha. In literature, Balkh has been described as Balhika, Valhika or Bahlika. First Vihara at Balkh was built for Bhallika when he returned home after becoming a Buddhist monk. In books written about archaeology of Afghanistan, they state that there are many remains of stupas in Balkh. It is also believed that Nava Vihar or the New Temple in Balkh was heavily associated with Thapassu and Bhalluka.

Did Thapassu and Bhalluka land in Trincomalee?

Sri Lanka is located in a central point in the ancient maritime and land trade routes making it an important centre in ancient trade. The ancient name for Trincomalee was Gokanna thiththa, or Gonagamaka Pattana. This means the shape of a Bull’s ear. Since the 6th century BC, Gokanna had functioned as a naval harbour. As Professor Indrakeerti Siriweera in his book History of Sri Lanka, states that it began to function as a commercial point only after it was included in the trade routes of the East and West in the 7th century BC. Merchants arrived at the port from China, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Rome, India, and Persia to trade horses, exotic perfumes, silk and expensive carpets in exchange for gems, turtle shells, ivory and elephants from local traders.

According to Mahavamsa, during the 5th century BC Shakyas landed with their followers at the Gokanna port when they migrated to Sri Lanka from India.

Therefore it is clear that travellers sailing from the Eastern coast of India must have used the sea route across Gokanna Thitta that is present day Trincomalee, to travel to Sri Lanka. Especially during the 6th to 4th century BC, Jambukola Pattana (Jaffna) and Gokanna Thitta were popular ancient harbours. If Thapassu and Bhalluka met Buddha at Rajgiri, or Bodhgaya, the two merchants must have taken the above mentioned sea route and landed in Trincomalee harbour.

­Ancient Girikanda kingdom and Thapassu, Bhalluka

In the Sanskrit inscriptions this place is referred to as Girikanda, which can be related to the story of King Pandukabhaya who lived around one century after Thapassu and Bhalluka. Girikanda was the name of the rock and the vicinity. One of Pandukabhaya’s uncles, Siva, was the ruler of Girikanda.

Moreover it is mentioned in Samanthakuta warnana, a 13th century Buddhist script that the ruler of Girikanda, has gone to Mahiyangana to meet Buddha when he first visited to Sri Lanka. The chief monk at Girihandu seya, most venerable Gandara Shri Ananda thero writes in 1961, that this stupa must have been constructed before the first visit of the Buddha. Also he states that this stupa was constructed in collaboration with the ruler of Girikanda kingdom.

Rediscovering ancient Girihnadu seya

The Buddhist temple of Thiriyaya is situated on a small hillock near the sea coast about 47 km (29 mi) to the north of Trincomalee. The ancient stupa and inscription was discovered in 1929 by workers of the surveying department. In 1930, the department of Archaeology examined this place and identified the stupa as Girihandu seya, built by Thapassu and Bhalluka.

The 5th century Buddhist script, Visuddhimargaya, mentions about Girihandu seya. During the time of King Sila Megha, 8th century AD, the old stupa was renovated and also a Vatadageya was added to the construction. During the 7th and 8th centuries, Mahayana beliefs were popular in Sri Lanka, and this monastery was also under the influence of Mahayana.


The oldest cave inscription discovered at this place belongs to the 1st century BC, which reveals that this cave was used by Buddhists monks for meditation. The site consists of a number of ponds and caves with inscriptions. Once you pass these caves you will come across the rock inscriptions written in Sanskrit. Passing them, you will see more ponds and a well that were used by monks who once resided at this monastery.

The vatadage

The unique architectural feature of the ancient Sinhalese, the Vatadage, is believed to be a masterpiece of King Agbo VI. The renovation process of the Vatadage completed in 1954. The Vatadage is adorned with classical Sinhalese carvings and decoration features.

After the demise of the Rajarata civilization in the 13th century, most of these Buddhist monasteries of the Northern and Eastern areas were abandoned and later invaded by the jungle tide, until they were rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Thapassu and Bhalluka offering alms to Buddha

Nava Vihar in Afghanistan is related to Thapassu and Bhalluka 2Nava Vihar in Afghanistan is related to Thapassu and Bhalluka 2

A recently excavated Buddhist stupa, or shrine, at Mes Ainak, 35km south of Kabul.

Vatadage at Girihandu seya

Vatadage at Girihadu seya

Vatadage at Girihandu seya

Uncategorized, Balkh, Buddhism in Central Asia, BUDDHIST STUPA, Sri Lanka, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, stupa, Thapassu, Thiriyaya