Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

 

The Earliest Inhabitants: ‘Rakshasas’

  • The aborigines, termed as the Rakshasas, were mostly active during the nights.

Rise, Agni, drive off those who fight against us : make manifest thine own celestial vigour.
Slacken the strong bows of the demon driven…
Destroy the cursing Rakshasas.

                                                 - Book IV, Rig-Veda, trans. Griffith

  • They acted in many ways objectionable to the Aryan settlers.

Protohistoric Iron Age

During 900-600 B.C., Anuradhapura had grown into a settlement with an area of at least 50 ha. Iron technology, pottery, domestic cattle and agriculture had appeared.

The city was strategically placed northwest and northeast of major ports.
It was buried deep inside the jungle, providing natural cover against invaders.
It was also surrounded by vast fertile and irrigable land.

The ‘Vaeddas’

Aborigines were called ‘Vaeddas’.
They lived in caves and rock-shelters, on the slopes of almost all the hills of the country.
They fished and hunted for food.

After the advent of Buddhism into the island, the Vaeddas began to settle down in the villages along riverines.
The caves that they left vacant were occupied by the Buddhist monks.

The People

The population comprised of the Vaeddas (60%), the Sinhalese (30%) and the Tamils (10%).

Their main occupations were agriculture and fishing.

Fa-hien Writes

The Chinese traveller was impressed by the city’s planning. He mentions of two different sections of people living in the city.

One section was the merchant class, consisting of people of mostly foreign origins- south Indian, Mediterranean or Persian.
The other segment consisted of city dwellers whose income came through agricultural production.

The First ‘House’

The earliest ones were rectangular in plan, of an inverted ‘V’ shape. A bamboo or wooden framing was covered with twigs, leaves, ‘sambar’ skin or barks of trees.


The ones that followed were similar, only that they now rested on vertical mud walls.

The First Village

The first villages were settled on the banks of rivers. They consisted of mud houses with sloping roofs.

An efficient hydraulic system was developed which was unprecedented in innovation and sophistication at that time.

King Pandukabhaya

"He laid out (...) four suburbs as well as the Abhaya-tank, the common cemetery, the place of execution, and the chapel of the Queens of the West, the banyan-tree of Vessavana and the Palmyra-palm of the Demon of Maladies, the ground set apart for the Yonas and the house of the Great Sacrifice; all these he laid out near the west gate."

                                                                - Mahavamsa X, trans. Wilhelm Geiger

The fifth king of Ceylon, he made Anuradhapura the capital city of Ceylon as early as 308 B.C.
He also laid out the town and its suburbs according to a well organised plan.

Later Kings

The administrative and sanitary arrangements found in Anuradhapura indicate that over the years, it developed based on an original master plan.

Pandukabhaya’s son, Mutasiva maintained Anuradhapura as the capital and also laid the ‘mahameghavana’ garden.

He was succeeded by Devanampiya Tissa, who was a contemporary of the Indian King Asoka. It was during his rule that Buddhism entered Ceylon, 236 years after the death of the Buddha.

Enter Buddhism

The king realized that for him and his subjects to remain within the vision of Lord Buddha, he had to build ‘sima’ or consecrated boundaries around the city. Soon work commenced on the building of a high boundary wall.

His successors kept on adding to the height of the wall several times and also added fortified gatehouses to the city at intervals. This was done with due consultation with architects and soothsayers.

The City Grows

As the city gained popularity as a religious and administrative centre, the populace found it more attractive to settle in the city. To meet the city’s growing needs, the king tried to improve the living conditions.

He constructed many ponds which were fed by a network of subterranean channels which were constructed to supply water to the city.

Tanks as large as 18 sq. km. were built.

Large lakes were also constructed by the city's rulers to irrigate paddy lands and also to supply water to the city.

Healthcare, Sanitation

Several hospitals were built in the city. The tradition was started by Pandukabhaya as early a 4th century B.C.

One physician for every ten villages was appointed. For their maintenance, one tenth of the income from the fields was set apart.

A large workforce was entrusted with the task of keeping the city clean.

Refuges for the sick were set up in every village. Blind and crippled people were provided with living quarters.

Physicians were also appointed to look after the animals.

A Great City

Anuradhapura attained its highest magnificence about the commencement of the Christian era. In its prime it ranked beside Nineveh and Babylon in its colossal proportions—its four walls, each 16 miles (26 km) long, enclosing an area of 256 square miles (663 km²) —in the number of its inhabitants, and the splendour of its shrines and public edifices.

The city also had some of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world, situated in the dry zone of the country the administration built many tanks to irrigate the land.

Most of these tanks still survive. To date, it is believed that some of these tanks are the oldest surviving reservoirs in the world today.

Works Of Art And Sculpture

The Decline


The city was the capital of the country continuously since the 5th century BC till AD 1017, when it was overrun by the South Indian Chola forces. From then on the capital was shifted to Polonnaruwa.

The destruction caused to the city and its complex irrigation system was so great that the city was totally abandoned, and fell completely into decay.

The Ruins

The ruins consist of three classes of buildings, dagobas, monastic buildings, and pokunas.

  • The dagobas are bell-shaped masses of masonry, varying from a few feet to over 1100 ft (340 m) in circumference. Some of them contain enough masonry to build a town for twenty-five thousand inhabitants.

  • Remains of the monastic buildings are to be found in the shape of raised stone platforms, foundations and stone pillars. The most famous is the Brazen Palace erected by King Dutugamunu about 164 BC.

  • The pokunas are bathing-tanks or tanks for the supply of drinking water, which are scattered everywhere through the jungle.

Anuradhapura Today

The modern settlement of Anuradhapura is the capital of Sri Lanka's North Central Province and has a population of some 50,000 people.

The railway was extended from Kurunegala to Anuradhapura in 1905.

In 1982, Anuradhapura was listed among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Since then it has been attracting a lot of tourist attention.