BUDDHISM IN SRI LANKA
A HERITGE SPANNING OVER 2500 YEARS Year: 247 B C. The country’s monarch in out on hunting expedition around sixteen kilometers from the capital, Anuradhapura in North Central Sri Lanka. A sage clad in a yellow robe appears on the peak of a nearby mountain, call the king by his name, Tissa. With a bow and arrow in hand, the king is terrified. Sage mahinda identifies himself as a disciple of the king of truths-the Buddha. He, along with four others had come from jambudipa-as neighbouring India was then known, where Emperor Asoka(276-236 BC) was ruler. Sage mahinda was his son.
Buddhism was thus in traduced to Sri Lanka Which has since been a Buddhist Country for over two millennia. The mountain, Missaka, presently known as Minhintale has been identified as one of sixteen places in Sri Lanka hallowed by the visits of the Buddha, ‘Solosmasthana’- the sixteen holy places are the most venerated spots in Sri Lanka. The devotees recite a ‘gatha’-stanza in pali mentioning the places and pay homage. The mahavamsq (Great Chronicle), the principal source of information on Sri Lanka’s early history dating back to the 6th Century BC, records the Buddha’s visits- the first being nine months after Enlightenment. That was 2600 years ago.
THE PLACES THE BUDDHA VISITED Mahikyangana on the banks of the mahaweli , Sri lanka’s longest river 335 km in length, is adorned with a stupa (also called a ‘chaitya’ or ‘dagoba’), a mound in which the bodily relics of the Buddha were enshrined. Alock of hair given by the Buddha during the visit to God Saman, the deity overlooking the region, is enshrined in the mahiyangana Chaitya which is said to have been built just ofter the Buddha’s visit thus making it the first ever stupa to constructed in Sri Lanka. It has been restored and renovated several times by successive rulers.
Mahiyangana is 74km From Kandy, the hill capital and 60km from badulla, capital of Uva Province.
The second visit by the Buddha was to Nagadipa- the present Nainativu lsland in Jaffna in North Sri Lanka-was five years after Enlightenment. It was to intervene and mediate in settling a dispute between two rival kings, Chulodara and mahodara belonging to the Naga clan, legendary inhabitants of the country when prince vijaya arrived from India and founded the Sinhalese race. After the dispute which was over the possession of a gem-studded throne, was settled, the two kings constructed a stupa enshrining the throne which was offered to Buddha who in turn returned it to the Naga kings.
It is a pleasant boat ride from the Jaffna peninsula to the island
Listening to the Buddha on his visit to Nagadipa was another Naga king, Maniakkhikha, an uncle of king Mahodara. Pleased with what he heard, he invited the Buddha to come to his kingdom at kalyani (kelaniya) from where he was ruling.
Thus the Buddha’s final visit was to kelaniya-just outside the capital city of Colombo-eight years after attaining enlightenment. He arrived accompanied by five hundred arahants, Buddha’s disciple monks who had reached the final stage of sainthood. Agem-studded throne where the Buddha sat and preached had been enshrined in the dagoba at kelaniya.
Situated on the banks of the kelani River, flowing from the hills to the sea in Colombo, the temple at kelaniya is famous for its image of the reclining Buddha and paintings belonging to two eras. The old hall in the temple is adorned with medieval frescoes. The new wing comprises frescoes painted by a renowned artist, Soliyas Mendis, who was a simple peasant with no professional training of any sort. Having seen some murals done by him on temple walls around Negombo, he was chosen to do the paintings of the new wing. Over two decades he did the murals depicting important events in the life of the Buddha and landmark events in the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Art critics consider these equal in craftsmanship to the world famous frescoes of Sigiriya or the popular paintings of the polonnaruwa era.(Incidentally, Polonnaruwa was the second capital of the ancient Sinhalese kingdom from the10th Century). During the third visit, Buddha had visited several places – fourteen of the sixteen mentioned in the stanza.
The name of Sri Lanka’s most sacred mountain “Sri pada”(the Sacred Footprint) originated after the Buddha visited it and placed his footprint upon the summit. The country’s fifth highest mountain, Sri Pada is 2,243 metres high. The pilgrim season starts in December and continues till April/May when thousands of devotees flock to the summit to pay their respects. The their respects. The other months are avoided due to rain and gusty winds during the South-west monsoon. Most pilgrims prefer to start the climb late in the evening to be at the summit at dawn to watch the sunrise which is a spectacular sight.
The trek to Sri Pada is quite fascinating through tea estates and waterfalls in the hill country. The summit can be reached via two routes – one the traditional but a more arduous walk of 10 km through Sri Lanka’s gem country, Ratnapura while the other – a 7 km walk is through Maskeliya in the tea country. This route is relatively easier to climb.
The peak is also referred to as Adam’s Peak and is venerated by followers of other faiths too. Christians and Muslims believe that Adam landed on one foot on this peak when he was banished from paradise. The Hindu belief is that the footprint is that of God Shiva.
Diva Guhava – a cave where Buddha had rested after visiting Sri Pada is said to be around Ratnapura although no definite place has yet been identified.
A chaitya built in 2nd C BC at Dighavapi by the ruling king commemorates a place where Buddha had spent some time in meditation with the accompanying monks. Relics of the Buddha are enshrined in the chaitya situated close to Ampara in the Eastern Province.
Lord Buddha had spent a few moments in meditation at Mutiyanagana in badulla where a chaitya has been built dating back to 3rd C, credited to king Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BC) during whose reign Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka.
Tissamaharama is another spot the Buddha had visited during his final visit. An imposing chaitya built 2nd C BC commemorates the visit. It is the largest stupa in the South.
Tissamaharama is en route to kataragama one of the main pilgrim destinations in the South of Sri Lanka, for both Buddhists and Hindus. For the Buddhists the main place of worship at Kataragama is the Kiri Vehera first built by a lacal ruler upon a site hallowed by a visit of the Buddha. Enshrined in the chaitya is a golden seat used by the Buddha to deliver a sermon at the site as well as a lock of hair and the royal sword which Prince Siddhartha used to cut of his hair at the time of the Great Renunciation. The impressive kiri vehera has been restored by subsequent rulers.
SACRED CITIES OF ANURADHAPURA AND POLONNARUWA The remaining places bestowed with visits from the Buddha relate to places in Anuradhapura, the first capital of Sri Lanka. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Anuradha-pura is dotted with Buddhist monuments built by Sinhalese kings during 4th CBC-10th C when it was the capital of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred Bo (ficus relgiosa) tree is the oldest historically recorded tree in the world. It is the oldest historically recorded tree in the world. It is the right branch of the very tree beneath which, at Buddha Gaya in North India Buddha gained enlightenment. The branch was brough to Sri Lanka by Arahant Mahinda’s sister, Their Sanghamitta when she came over to establish a ‘bhikkhuni’ order in Sri Lanka. King Devanampiya Tissa personally received Their Sanghamitta and the Bodhi branch at the seaport, brought to Anuradhapura in a magnificent procession and had the Bodhi branch planted on the terrace prepared for it.
English author and historian H G Wells observed: “In Ceylon there grows to this day a tree, the oldest historical tree in the world, which we know certainly to have been planted as a cutting from the Bo Tree in the year 245 BC. From that time to this it has been carefully tended and watered. Its great branches are supported by pillars. It helps us to realise the shortness of all human history to see so many generations spanned by the endurance of one single tree.” This most venerated tree is protected by a ‘ran veta’-a golden fence and is tended with utmost care. To this day the Sri maha Bodhi remains at the original site where it was planted. All the main roads to the sacred city lead to the Sri Maha Bodhi terrace.
Close to the Sri Maha Bodhi is the Mirisavatiya Dagoba built by King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC), the most talked about warrior king of Sri Lanka who defeated a South Indian usurper and unified the country. This was the first monument he built after his consecration and according to the Great Chronicle the king’s scepter which embodied a Sacred Relic of the Buddha was enshrined in it. The Story goes that the king went to participate at a water to the agricultural crops placing the scepter in the ground. When the royal party returned they found that the scepter could not be removed. The king realizing it was a miracle decided to build a stupa enshrining it. A monastery was also erected nearby for the monks to reside.
A folk legend relates how the king had decided to erect the stupa to make amends for having partaken a pod of peper without offering it to the monks, as was the custom according to Buddhist tradition where nothing wa consumed without offering the first portion to the Maha Sangha, the community of monks.
Arguably, the most venerated among all stupas in Sri Lanka is the Ruvanweli Seya – also called the maha (Great) Stupa, only a few minutes’ walk from the Sri Maha Bodhi. The bubble-type dagoba is said to coantain the largest portion of Relics of the Bubbha. The Great chronicle relates an interesting story on how the shape was decided upon. When asked by the king, the master-builder “had a golden bowl filled with water, took water in his hand and le it fall on the surface of the water. A great bubble rose up like unto a half-globe of crystal.’Thus I will mokeit’ he said.”
Pointing out that the dome is indeed a very special design, present day researchers insist that its shape has evolved to a perfect mathematical equation which is extended to its logical mirror image forming a perfect spheroid comparable to those of the universe.
The circumference of the Maha Stupa being 370 feet, one could imagine the quantity of bricks laid for its foundation. Thousand of monks from distant lands including Alexandria had participated at the foundation laying ceremony. The king had ordered that no one should work without wages in the construction of the Stupa and arranged to distribute garments, ornaments, perfumes, varieties of food items and the like among the helpers. Arich vein of silver had appeared in a village (which came to be known as Ridigama-‘Village of silver’) which had covered the expenses. Successive kings had improved the layout. The elephant wall built right round is a unique feature. The Maha Stupa stands 55 metres high.
The Thuparama Dagoba is the first Chaitya to be built after the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka After the introduction of Buddhism, King Devanampiya Tissa built the Thuparama Dagoba for the devotees to worship. Designed in the form of a paddy heap, it was the first stupa, a mound where the bodily Relics of the Buddha were enshrined. In it was enshrined the collar-bone of the Buddha which Emperor Asoka had sent.
Compared with other stupas in Anuradhapura, the Thuparama Dagoba is a small structure only. The pillars capped with sculptured capitals ranging in concentric circles around it, indicate that there had been a roof over it at one point.
The tallest Buddhist stupa in the world, the jetavana stupa constructed in the third century is the third tallest edifice of the world ofter the two tallest pyramids of Egypt. The gigantic stupa- 120 metres in height-staands on a square platform eight acres in extent in centre of the Jetavana monastic complex. The largest and tallest brick-built monument in the world it had utilized around 93 million baked bricks. A researcher described the vast edifice which has withstood the ravages of time and the elements for over 1600 years as “an eloquent witness to the engineering expertise and the sound knowledqe of geometry and physics of the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka”
Several museums in Anuradhapura offer visitors a rare opportunity of observing the high standards maintained by Sri Lankans many centuries ago in the sphere of architecture and building construction.
THE STANZA The devotees venerate the sixteen places of worship by reciting the following stanza in Pali. It identifies the different sacred spots.
Mahiyanganam nagadipam Kalyanam Padalanchanam Divaguha Dighavapi Chetiyam Mutiyanganam Tissa Maha Viharancha Bodhim maricavattiyam Suwarnamali maha Chetiyam Thuparama Bhayagirim jetavanam selacetiyam TathaKacharagamakam Ethe solosmasthani Aham Vandami Sabbada (These sixteen places I worship always)
In addition to the places mentioned, There are many more things for a visitor to view in Anuradhapura. Ones that should not be missed include:
The Sela Chaitya, one of several stupas at Mihintale, the cradle of Buddhism, marks a meditation site on Lord Buddha’s final visit. There are several stupas at Mihintale including the Ambasthala Chaitya, the spot where the first sermon was delivered, and the Mihindu Seya where a part of Arahant Mahinda’s ashes were enshrined.
A 1840 stairway and a large number of caves with anti-water drip-ledges are found among the numerous natural boulders that cover the hillside and it was in the shade of these caves and amidst the trees that the monks spent their time deep in meditation
THE MOONSTONE The moonstone is another unique creation of Sri Lankan sculptars. Seen at foot of the steps leading to a place of worship or a royal palace, the moonstones are exquisite artistic creations. Experts say the moonstone symbolizes samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth, and the path to freedom from the samsaric process leading to nirvana. The pattern of the outermost ring has been interpreted as flames, and the animals-elephant, lion, horse and bull shown in the other concentric circles as successive phases of man’s passage through samsara.
TWIN POND Kuttam Pokuna (a pair of ponds) belonging to the 6th – 8th C is an unusual design of two baths joined to form a single bathing complex. The monks are believed to have used the ponds for bathing. Flights of steps are found in both the Southern and Northen ponds to reach the water. On top of the flights of steps are the Purnaghata or Purnaghata or Punkalasa – pots of plenty carved out of stone for arnamental purposes. The Naga guard-stone features a multi-headed cabra-a symbol associated with water. It is yet another unique piece of sculpture. The supply of water to the two ponds first flows into an enclosure built above the supply of water to the two ponds first flows into an enclosure built above the level of the ponds. The water then flows into the smaller pond and the bigger pond its water from the smaller one through a duct below ground level connecting the two ponds. Provision has also been made to drain out the water from a point at the bottom of the smaller pond.
SAMADHI BUDDHA STATUE Standing amidst serene surroundings is the image of the Buddha in Samadhi (deep meditation) posture acclaimed as a masterpiece of Sinhalese sculpture.
In the words of Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister in independent India: “Some painting or sculpture or building fills me with delight, or moves me and make me feel a strange emotion; or it just pleases me a little; or it by almost unnoticed; or it repels me… The Buddha statue at Anuradhapura in Ceylan moved me greatly and a picture of has been my companion for many years” ‘Discovery of India’
(Written by Nehru while in Ahamadnagar Fort prison camp 1941-45)Believed to be a 3rd C AD creation, the statue is sculptured out of dolomite and in style and execution shows the influence of the lndian Gupta art. It is believed the eyes were originally stubbed with gems. The sacred city area is dotted with similar statues.
MORE MARVELS OF SCULPTURE Another marvel of the Sinhalese sculptor is the Sinhalese sculptor is the 46-feet tall standing statue of the Buddha at Avukana close to Kalawewa-a giant tank built in the 5th C AD. The rock cut statue stands 39 feet across the shoulders.
Not far from Avukana, is another tall statue at Sasseruva. The two statues are believed to have been the work of a ‘guru-gola’ (master and pupil) team.
Galvihara is the most celebrated site in Polonnaruwa with its large rock-cut images being in a perfect state of preservation. A sitting Buddha, an artificial cavern cut out of the rock, and on upright and reclining Buddha are the prominent images in this sculptured rock-face. Among the salient features identified by archaeological experts in these images are the narrow, receding forehead and the treatment of the drapery. In the latter, the folds are indicated by means of parallel grooves and not by a single ridge as in the earlier Buddha images.
A fine example of the circular shrine known as ‘vata-da-ge or ‘chetiyaghara’, which had stone pillars supporting a conical timber roof, is seen in Polonnaruwa. Here in line with the outermost circle of stone pillars is a tastefully ornamented screen wall exhibiting flower designs. The flights of access stairs at the cardinal points are of stone and are profusely carved.
Three image houses with vaulted roofs of brick construction in Polonnaruwa-Thuparama, lankatilaka and Tivanka image house-are considered the most outstanding ochievements of the Sinhalese architects of the Polonnaruwa period. The walls, rising from moulded bases, are heavily ornamented an their exterior faces. In the attractive pavilion known as ‘nissanka-lata-mandapaya’, the stone pillars, each eight feet high, which support the roof are unique.
THE TEMPLE OF THE TOOTH In Kandy, Sri Lanka’s hill capital is the Temple of the Tooth-Sri Dalada Maligawa – where the Sri Dalada-Buddha’s Tooth Relic-the most venerated object by millions of Buddhists throughout the world, is kept.
The present shrine where the Relic is deposited dates back to the 16th Century and was constructed by the ruler of Kandy- Vimala Dharmasuriya I. A later king made it into a two-storeyed shrine in the 18th Century. The prominent Octagon known as the ‘Pattirippuwa’ was added by the last king of Kandy, Sri Vickrama Rajasinghe(1808-1815).
It was in the 4th Century that the Tooth Relic was brought by a princess from India disguised as a Brahmin Lady. Princess hemamala, the daughter of King Guhaseeva of Datapura (Orissa) was accompanied by Prince Danta, the king’s son-in-law The king in Anuradhapura received the Relic with honour, kept it in a shrine within the royal palace and held and held an annual festival at which it was taken in procession to a temple in the city-the Abhayagiri Vihara and exhibited to the people.
Throughout the centuries, royalty paid homage to the Tooth Relic and protected it since it was accepted as the symbol of kingship. Whenever there were foreign invasions, the monks hid the Relic in numerous places and returned it to the royal palace when peace dawned.
The tradition of taking the Relic out in procession continued throughout. Even though it is only the golden casket where the Relic is kept, that is taken in the procession, thousands flock the streets of Kandy to witness this great spectacle. Known as the Esala perahera, this grand cultural pageant takes place in the month of August following time-honoured customs and practices.
THE GOLDEN TEMPLE OF DAMBULLA The town of Dambulla is home to the magnificent Golden Temple which contains 5 spacious caves, located high on a rock, that have been converted into shrine rooms. As you enter the caves through a beautiful entrance you will be welcomed with in tricately decorated ceilings and walls, bearing stunning motifs and religious art. An impressive total of 157 statues of Lord Buddha, bodhisattvas and Hindu deities this serene and majestic rock temple.