Welcome to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s true jewel !
Founded in the fifth century BC, the ancient city of Anuradhapura was par excellence the royal city of the island for fourteen centuries during which no less than 119 kings ruled from here.
Anuradhapura emerged in 380 BC under King Pandukabhaya but attained its peak during the reign of King Devanampiyat Tissa almost two centuries later. His reign also marked the arrival of Buddhism on the island, brought by Mahinda, a Buddhist monk. Anuradhapura’s history and development was also the work of King Dutugemunu (during the second century BC) who successfully repulsed the attackers of invaders from southern India and later constructed numerous monuments that testify to his grandeur even today.
Anuradhapura’s history during the later centuries was marked by invasions by kings of South India and their influence. Anuradhapura’s decline started in 1073 when King Vijaya Bahu decided to transfer the capital to Polonnaruwa mainly for security reasons. The city slowly lost its splendour and fell into a slumber.
It was only in 1820 that the lost city and its architectural treasures were rediscovered by British archaeologists. They found palaces, dagobas, monasteries and irrigation projects that had been invaded by thick jungle during the eight centuries Anuradhapura was forgotten.
A century after this rediscovery, Anuradhapura was resurrected and restored it to its former glory that you can admire today. The beauty and charm of Anuradhapura convinced UNESCO to induct it to its World Heritage list in 1982.
How to reach Anuradhapura and how to move in and around
Travelling to Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is easily reachable either by rail or by road.
There are six trains that ply between Anuradhapura and Colombo every day. Note that trains to Anuradhapura stop at the railway station on Jayanthi Mawatha and not at the other station near the New Bus Station. If you are travelling with children, the night train from Colombo is not advisable as it arrives in the wee hours of the morning.
By bus, it takes about six hours to cover the 205 km between Anuradhapura and Colombo. From Kandy, it is better to reach the town by bus, as there are no direct trains. The journey lasts about three hours.
Buses arrive or depart either at the Old Bus Station or at the New Bus Station depending on where you come from. Please enquire which bus station to go to depending on your destination. Buses to Polonnaruwa, Habarana, Giritale and Trincomalee leave from the New Bus Station. Buses to Kandy, Colombo, Dambulla, and Sigiriya leave from the Old Bus Station.
If you are travelling by car, a shorter route from the International airport in Negombo to Anuradhapura is via Puttalam.
The archaeological sites are spread around the town. They open early in the morning around 7 am and remain open until around 10 pm.
A very interesting way of visiting them is by bicycle if the weather permits. Most guesthouses can find one for you for around Rs.300 per day. On hot days, cycling can be a bit challenging for children. A cooler option is to go for a tuk-tuk. You can easily find one that you can hire for the day. A bit of negotiating is required to get the price to around Rs.1700. During the hot season, you can split the day in two in order to avoid the unbearable heat between 11 am and 4 pm.
If you need a guide to show you around, you can ask for one at your hotel or guesthouse. Your guide can accompany you on his bicycle or get on your tuk-tuk or car. A good guide will cost you about Rs.1500 for half a day or Rs.2500 for a full day.
One single ticket, valid for three days, priced at $25, gives access to all archaeological sites except Isurumuniya Temple and Sri Maha Bodhi Tree (Rs.200 each).
Top tourist attractions in Anuradhapura
Near the lakes - Isurumuniya Vihara
Situated on Kurunegala Road near Tissa Wewa tank, this temple dating from the third century BC was built by King Devanampiya Tissa. The vihara was built to house 500 children who were ordained here. There are many interesting sculptures here including a 6th century Gupta-style carving known as the Isurumuni Lovers, today housed in the museum next door. Near the pond, you can spot carvings of elephants in a bathing scene that remind you of the bas-relief in Mahabhalipuram, near Chennai in India.
Up the flight of stairs is Sri Lanka’s oldest Buddhist temple, carved inside a cave that holds a meditating Buddha statue. To the left of the grotto is another temple. Visitors can admire the statue of Mahinda, the first monk who converted the dwellers of the island to Buddhism and that of King Thissa, the first Sri Lankan king who was the first to convert to Buddhism.
The museum that is next to the temple is where the Isurumuni Lovers statue is housed today. The statue, behind glass, depicts a woman, seated on the man's lap, lifts a warning finger while the man carries on regardless. The figures are said to represent King Dutugemunu's son, Saliya, and the low caste maiden named Asokamala whom he loved. Saliya is said to have sacrificed his throne for the sake of Asokamala. Another stone carving depicts King Dutugamunu sporting a crown surrounded by four attendants.
On Kurunegala Road to the very south of the site, about 700 m after Isurumuniya Vihara and close to Thisssa Wewa is the Vessagiri Monastery. It features the remains of a monastery founded during the reign of King Devanamipiyatissa in the third century BC. The place is a motley collection of granite rocks, pillars and stairs. The view of the countryside from here is enchanting.
Royal Pleasure Gardens
On the shores of Thissa Wewa between Mirisavatiya Dagoba and Isurumuniya Vihara are the Royal Pleasure Gardens. Also called Goldfish Park, it covers an area of 14 hectares and dates from the reign of Dutugemunu. Surrounded by mango trees and rocks are two stone-cut tanks, set in a peaceful area suitable for meditation.
Sri Maha Bodhi Tree
The Sri Maha Bodhi Mawatha, situated south of the site, occupies a central role in Anuradhapura. Though not compulsory, a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura is considered to be almost incomplete without a visit to the tree and the altars that surround it. Visitors to the sacred site can sense the spirituality that springs from the daily prayer evenings, interrupted only by the many monkeys that live here.
To get to the temple, you need to park your vehicle or get off your bike or tuk-tuk and follow the string of pilgrims on the mud road that takes you to the temple. Security measures are quite strict ever since the 1984 terrorist attack that killed 45 people here. Access to the Maha Bodhi costs Rs.200.
The sacred Bo tree here is said to be 2600 years old. It is said to be a shoot from the right branch of the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment in the town of Bodgaya in India. It is believed that it was Sanghamitta, the daughter of Indian Emperor Asoka, who brought the sapling to Sri Lanka. The trunk that remains of this tree, planted on the highest platform, is supported by metal railings to which devotees tie prayer flags.
On the Full Moon day of December, known as "Uduvapa Poya" or "Sanghamitta Day", hundreds of pilgrims flock to the place bearing small oil lamps.
Just north of the Sri Maha Bodhi, is The Brazen Palace that was built by King Dutugemunu for the benefit of monks on pilgrimage. The palace gets its name from the original roof that was covered with bronze tiles.
The building initially had a thousand rooms on nine different floors. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the palace is now famous for its 1600 stone columns laid out in forty rows.
Located on Old Puttalam Road around 1 km west of the Sri Maha Bodhi, this dagoba was originally built in the second century BC by King Dutugamunu. The structure is very similar to the more famous Ruwanweliseya Stupa.
It is believed that the shape of the dagoba, a heap of rice, was decided by the king to seek penance for having enjoyed a rice meal without sharing it with monks.
Destroyed during the Chola invasion from South India, the dagoba was rebuilt in 930 AD by King Kasyapa V.
This is the largest dagoba in Anuradhapura. It was erected in the second century BC by King Dutugemunu.
The dagoba can be seen from afar and is quite noticeable for its pearl-white appearance due to the Whitewash made of lime and salt that is applied every year in preparation of the Poson Poya festival.
It is said that King Dutugemunu wanted the dagoba to be completed before he died but the structure could not be finished. The king’s brother is said to have set up a bamboo tent draped with soft white cloth to give the illusion of a finished building and allow the king to breathe his last with the impression of having completed his wish.
The building was later completed but not in the form "water bubble" desired by the deceased king. Nevertheless, visitors can admire a 100-metre tall Stupa that has withstood the effects of time and invasions.
You can admire 475 elephant sculptures embedded on the surrounding walls before entering the site (after having removed your footwear). On nearing the Stupa, you can light an oil lamp in the glass room at your right and then proceed to the Shrine Room that houses a statue of Dutugemunu. A colourful reclining Buddha is also to be seen here.
The whole place is shrouded in mysticism especially in the evenings when devotees flock here to chant prayers.
Located on Watawandana Road, to the east of the site, this dagoba is an important landmark. Standing at 122 metres, it is visible for miles around and identifiable for its unique features: unplastered bricks, half crumbled pinnacle and a curious bulbous shape.
Jetavanaramaya Dagoba is also said to be the third tallest building of the ancient world after the two main pyramids. Made of 93 million bricks, the construction of the dagoba took twenty-four years. It is believed to contain the belt and the begging bowl of Buddha.
The Thuparama Dagoba, built in 276 BC, is the oldest dagoba of the country. It was initially built to to house a collarbone of the Buddha. Its original form that resembled a "heap of rice" was unfortunately changed to a bulb-like silhouette after restoration work that was carried out around 1840. The pillars placed in concentric circles originally supported a circular roof, known as vatadage that is no more to be seen.
North of the lakes - Kuttam Pokuna
Kuttam Pokuna refers to a set of almost identical twin basins, dating back to the fourth and sixth centuries. They were used to perform purification ablutions by monks from the nearby monastery as well as other dignitaries. Although they look identical, one of them is almost one and a half times larger than the other. In the middle, water flows from the mouth of a gargoyle called Makara. The stairs leading to the water are encased in elegantly carved stone volutes.
Samadhi Buddha Statue
Situated to the east of the northern ruins, in the beautifully wild Mahamevuna Park situated on Watawandana Road, is the statue of a seated Buddha statue dating to the fourth century BC. Visitors need just one look to realise why it is considered one of the finest in the country. The statue is named “samadhi” as the Buddha is in deep meditation, close to attaining illumination.
The roof protecting the statue from the sun and the rain spoils the setting a bit. Please note that it is forbidden to take photos of yourself with the Buddha as a backdrop.
Further down Watawandana Road, stands Abhayagiri Dagoba built in the second or first century BC during the reign of King Vattagamini Abhaya. The dagoba, about 75 metres high, is particularly noteworthy for friezes, relics and alms bowls that were sent by the Indian Emperor Asoka.
The Abhayagiri Museum, south of the Abhayagiri Dagoba, is open every day from 10 am to 5 pm. This building, donated by China, houses various remains found near the Dagoba. Entry is free.
Situated to the west of the Abhayagiri Dagoba, this ruined palace paints a glorious picture of bygone eras. The entrance is where lies one of the most beautiful moonstones of the country dating back to the 6th century and considered to be one of the finest specimens in the country.
All moonstones have a cosmic significance. Here, the outer edge is designed with a ring of flames below which you can witness a ring filled with four animals chasing each other: elephants, representing birth, horses representing strength and decision, lions, representing illness and decadence and the bull, representing death. The next ring represents a creeper with a wavy stem with leaves. The row below is occupied by a line of swans with flower and leaves in the beak that represent sagacity that is reached by taking the best of any situation, like the swan said to be capable of separating milk from water. The fifth ring, further towards the centre, represents a string of flowers representing death. The last ring, representing the lotus flower, symbolises nirvana.
This dagoba, built by King Vattagamini Abhaya in the first century BC, is found south of Lankarama Road. The white Stupa is surrounded by rows of stone pillars erected in a circular fashion that supported a roof in the past to form a Vatadage.
A choice of appealing places to visit when you venture outside Anuradhapura for just a few hours
Located on the flat top of a tall plateau, the Nellikulama Temple is a modern temple with a unique architecture. Its most distinct feature is the 500 statues that represent Arahat Buddhist monks draped in saffron attire that line the path to the shrine. The quiet atmosphere and lack of distractions really enhance the ambience. It is only a short climb to the top but it is advisable to do this early morning or in the evening, to avoid the hot sun.
Remember to respect the dress code.
Set amidst a strict natural reserve with bountiful luxuriant vegetation, the ruins of Ritigala offer a great escape for tourists in search of adventure.
Not much is known about the hermit monks who set up the 24 hectare site in the 3rd century BC except that they were specialists in herbal medicines and probably ran a hospital that welcomed patients in this setting that reminds the visitor of an Indiana Jones movie setting.
The whole area is embalmed in silence and despite the very little architectural interest (except for specialists), a leisurely trek is worth the go. Among the ruins still to be seen is a man-made reservoir for ritual purposes, an entrance complex, pedestrian paths, stairways, raised platforms, sunken courtyards, a hospital and a monastery.
True to their philosophy of renunciation, the monks lived here in an ascetic fashion that stripped even the structures of any unnecessary frills. As a criticism of what was deemed as excesses by other communities, the monks only decorated their urinals in order to serve as a daily reminder against futility.
Entrance fee Rs.1200.
Natural beauties near Anuradhapura
Kalu Diya Pokuna or Natural Black Water Pond
Close to Mihintale Stupa, a few kilometres from Anuradhapura.
The Kalu Diya Pokuna is a beautiful abandoned water body that was used by the monks for their daily use. Today, it cannot be used, but the atmosphere is very calm and soothing. The bottom of the lake is covered with black rocks, giving the water a dark blue colour. Take a moment to sit under the shade of the trees and absorb the good vibes from the whole area.
Admire wildlife birds safari and natural parks in Anuradhapura
Wilpattu National Park
One of the oldest and largest parks of Sri Lanka, Wilpattu remained closed for many years during the civil war. Since it reopened in 2010, it has proved to be a hit with tourists.
'Wilpattu' means “land of lakes”. So you wouldn't be surprised to know that this park contains about sixty natural lakes of different sizes where water birds of every hue and size flock almost all year round.
Located west of Arunadhapura, covering an area of over 1320 sq. km., Wilpattu is an ideal park to visit especially if you are not planning to head to the south of the island.
The water and meadow landscape is quite a sight. Visitors are astounded by leopards that are spotted here regularly. Other animals such as deer, wild pigs, and of course, elephants and sloth bears prove to be a great hit among visitors.
The main access road is on the Puttalam-Anuradhapura highway. If you would like to stay inside the park premises, there are seven bungalows that are open during the dry season i.e. between August and September. Apart from this, you have a choice of different lodgings especially some comfortable safari lodges just outside the park or tent lodges inside that can give you an adventure experience. However, if you are looking for a cheaper option, you can stay at Anuradhapura and hire safari jeeps easily from there for a half-day trip.
Keep your children busy during your stay in Anuradhapura
Thuparama Mawatha to the west of the site, near Basawkkulama Tank and Ruwanelisaya Stupa.
The museum is housed in the old building that dates back to the British administration. It is located on Thuparama Mawatha to the west of the site, near Basawkkulama Tank and Ruwanelisaya stupa. The museum contains sculptures from different parts of Anuradhapura site. Showcases containing various objects discovered by archaeologists such as pearl jewellery, crystal glass paste, gemstones or jade can be seen. Other highlights of the visit that you can pinpoint to your children are the reconstruction of a relic chamber found near Mihintale and a reconstruction of the vatadage of the Thupurama Dagoba.
Open daily from 8 am to 5 pm except on Tuesdays and public holidays.
Admission included in the ticket that offers full access to all sites.
Located close to the Bassawkkulama Tank and the Archaeological Museum, the Folk Museum offers an interesting insight into life in the countryside of North Central Province of Sri Lanka. The diverse objects housed here include relics, betel nut boxes, measures and weights, professional tools, musical instruments, agricultural utensils, etc.
Adult admission Rs.300, Children Rs.150
Ticket office closes at 4 p.m.
+94 25 222 2589
Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
Closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Great things to visit in Anuradhapura
The sacred hill of Mihintale is where Buddhism was first introduced to the island.
Mihintale is a gem of a place comparable to Anuradhapura but smaller in size and spread out on a mountainous terrain. There is a unique ambience around this sacred site, a mixture of serenity and spirituality preserved by the multiple varieties of trees that encompass the hilltop.
There are two stories, one historical and one mythological, that explain the arrival of Buddhism in Mihintale. According to historical sources, in the middle of the third century BC, the Indian Emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda to Sri Lanka to spread the teachings of the Buddha. Mahinda and his group of Buddhist monks camped on the flanks of the Mihintale hill. During their stay, it is believed that they were received on a full moon night in June 247 BC by King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura who was on a hunting expedition on the site. Mahinda spoke to the king of Buddhism in such a way that the King and the 40,000 inhabitants of Anuradhapura soon converted to Buddhism. This is how Mihintale, meaning ‘Mahinda mountain’ got its name. An alternate story of the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka tells that the Buddha himself journeyed to the island, on the back of the great winged demigod Garuda that rested on the island in Mihintale.
Every year, in the month of June, a pilgrimage commemorating Mahinda’s first preaching of the Buddhist doctrine in Sri Lanka takes place on full moon night. Pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka climb the 1840 steps of the grand stairway cut out from granite to reach the rocky summit.
How to visit the site?
There are quite a large number of guides available, some of them unauthorised. You need to verify their professional ID before you hire one. A good guide will cost you in the range of Rs.800 for a two-hour visit.
Visiting the site on your own is quite feasible. The following indications will help you.
The most sacred site is the one situated at the top most point. To reach this point, you will have to climb up the stairs flanked with frangipani trees. If you are a family with toddlers, you will have to consider skipping the lower part of the site and start your climb from the car park that is situated somewhere around one-third of the ascent.
At the foot of the hill, you can visit the little museum that houses a motley collection of unearthed artefacts. Further up, to your right, you can visit the Mihintale Hospital that dates back to the 9th century. You can still see the ruins of what was once a hospital at the foot of the mountain including stone sarcophagi in which patients were given oils baths and treated with medicinal plants. You can then take the staircase that lead up to a large platform and reach the beautiful Kantaka Chetiya brick Dagoba. The 12-metre high structure dating back to the second or first century BC is partially in ruins. Admire four altars decorated with friezes, each facing a cardinal point. Nearby, under a rock, is an inscription considered to be the oldest in Sri Lanka. The staircase at the end takes you to the Sinha Pokuna (“lion bath”), a small square structure with animal motifs all around. To reach it, you need to cross the narrow road that cuts your path. The statue of a lion in upright position (in quite a bad state of preservation) once had water spouting from its mouth. A bit further, you reach the Conversation Hall, a square stone building, measuring about 20 metres on each side, where the monks congregated and carried debates and discussions. The House of Relics contains two steles, one of which bearing an elaborate set of rules that governed the life of the monks. The English translation provided by the side is worth reading. Further up, to your left, is the Refectory, recognisable by many small granite pillars set in straight lines. At the end of the refectory is a beautiful feat in stone carving: a Rice boat in granite that contained food served to monks.
To go further up and visit the temples situated there, you will need to remove your shoes and pay Rs.500. The first monument you come across is the Ambasthale Dagoba, built to mark the spot where Mahinda converted King Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism. A statue of the king, all in white, faces the Dagoba. A footprint of Buddha, protected by gold railings decorated with prayer flags tied by pilgrims can be seen nearby. A Bo tree stands a few meters away.
From this point, you have a number of interesting options:
- The Mahaseya Dagoba, southwest of the Ambasthale Dagoba, that is said to contain relics of Mahinda and a strand of hair of the Buddha. The Dagoba is an ideal spot to enjoy colourful sunsets and admire the tall Buddha statue erected on the opposite hill.
- The Mahinda Cave, a simple rock shelter containing a flat granite slab, situated southeast of the Ambasthale Dagoba, where Mahinda is said to have sought refuge.
- The Naga Pokuna (« Snake Pool »), a rock-cut pool guarded by a five-headed cobra with a tail that swirls down to the bottom of the pool.
- The Aradhana Gala, the huge rock with handrails to allow pilgrims to climb to the top.