Roots of royalty and religion

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Tracing the path of Buddhism through Sri Lanka is a delightful discovery of ancient history for SANDIP HOR

“This is where Buddhism was first introduced to our land,” says Harsha my guide, while standing in front of a white stupa at Mihintate in Sri Lanka. It is said that at that spot around 247 BC, Mahinda, Emperor Ashoka’s son met Sinhalese King Devanampiya and inspired him to accept Buddhism as the national religion.

Marked as a significant event in the land’s history, this devout espousal led to the integration of state royalty with religious orders which in subsequent periods influenced art, culture, lifestyle and architecture. It is evident throughout Sri Lanka; but most expressively in the ancient cities in the northern plains from where 2500 years ago, the vibrant journey of a nation and a religion began.

An odyssey through past legacies following the steps of the royals and Buddhism is a major attraction of the Indian Ocean Island, currently witnessing unprecedented growth in tourism at the end of its long-drawn ethnic unrest.

Speculations suggest that the island of 64,000 sq km area was originally occupied by hunter-gatherers called Veddahs, until 5th century BC, when Vijay, an ousted Indian king touched its shores and instituted the first Sinhalese kingdom that ruled the land from their capital Anuradhapura for the next 1200 years. It was during this golden era that myriad palaces, temples, stupas and monasteries were built; townships were developed with massive irrigation systems needed for survival in the hot dry land, and artistic and architectural endeavours were sponsored. After Anuradhapura was destroyed by the Chola kings from South India, Polonnarawa down south became the new epicentre and remained so for over two centuries till the Europeans moved in and the power base shifted further south to Kandy and finally, to Colombo.

The primeval sites are located around 3 hours away by road from the capital Colombo, an international getaway metropolis which in style and ambiance is different from rest of the nation. It is more cosmopolitan; represents a unique blend of cultures derived from its early settlers – the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and British – and displays tolerance for all religions, testified by the number of Catholic churches, Hindu temples and Islamic mosques sharing space with Buddhist shrines.

To experience the true Sri Lanka and its roots, and to comprehend the evolution of Buddhism in this land, all guidebooks recommend moving out of Colombo and driving north to Anuradhapura and its surrounds, often referred as the Cultural Quarter.

Founded by King Pandukabhaya in 384 BC, Anuradhapura is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown. The ensemble of tall Buddhist stupas or dagobas, admirable sculptural samples and the remains of royal palaces, temples, monasteries, gardens and ceremonial baths, depicts a strong connection between royalty and religion. All the stupas are well-preserved, prominent among them are Thuparama dagoba, said to be the oldest of its kind in the world; Ruvanvelisaya dagoba guarded by a wall with a fresco of countless elephants standing shoulder-to-shoulder; the 100m tall Jetavanarama dagoba that once housed 5000 monks; and Abhayagiri dagoba, the largest in the domain.

Unlike Anuradhapura, at Polonnaruwa some Brahmanic monuments built by the Chola kings add to the assembly of epic ruins of palaces and sanctuaries endowed by several Indian and Sinhalese dynasties in a perfect natural setting. Revealing superior samples of art and architecture, they appear to be in marginally better physical condition, perhaps being younger in age. Unfortunately because of time constraints it is not possible to see all of them, however don’t miss the gigantic rock-carved Buddha figures at Gal Vihara , the 175m diameter stupa at Rankot Vihara and the four sitting Buddha busts,  placed on a raised platform at the Quadrangle.

The most sacred emblem in Anuradhapura is Sri Maha Bodhi, a huge tree which has grown from the cutting of the same plant in Bodhgaya in India, under which the meditating Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became Buddha. The sapling was brought to Sri Lanka in 244 BC by Sangamitta, Emperor Ashoka’s daughter to inspire the new religion introduced earlier by her brother. Over the years, the sprout grew into a huge tree, withstood sun and rain for more than two millennium and survives today at the same location as the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. Its presence is venerated in the heart of every ardent Buddhist in Sri Lanka, thousands thronging there every day for prayers.

Pilgrims in large number also visit mountainous Mihitale, which millenniums before was deeply forested, where royals voyaged to hunt deer. It was during one such trip on a full moon day that King Devanampiya saw the apostle Mahinda and was instantly engaged by his spiritual strength. The wondrous setting became renowned as the cradle of Buddhism and Anuradhapura kings of then and the future filled in the precinct with beautiful shrines, stupas and caves, one of which is acclaimed as Mahinda’s meditation camp. “A more perfect sanctuary for the sons of Buddha could not be found anywhere else throughout the length and breadth of Ceylon,” said 20th century British archaeologist Harry Bell, and all visitors, irrespective of their religion, tend to agree with this statement when at Mihitale.

Though not clearly documented, many Sri Lankans believe that Buddhism was instituted into the land centuries earlier by the Lord himself who, according to legend, touched Sri Lanka three times – in 528 BC, 523BC and 520 BC to prevent wars between indigenous factions and to spread his faith among them. Believing the fable, Anuradhapura kings later built dagobas at Mahiyangana, Nainativu and Digavapi honouring the auspicious visits.  They stand today as sites of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world. So does the 2234m mountain peak of Sri Pada where Buddha is assumed to have left his footprint during his second visit.

However in terms of veneration, perhaps nothing beats the Tooth Temple in Kandy. This shrine treasures Buddha’s tooth which was recovered from his funeral pyre and smuggled to Anuradhapura with credence that whoever has custody of it owns the right to rule the kingdom. With the demise of ancient capitals, the relic was shifted to a temple in Kandy which now stands as a major attraction for visitors to Sri Lanka, irrespective of their religion.

Built in the 17th century, the interior of the stone edifice is richly carved and decorated with inlaid woods, ivory, and lacquer. The relic rests on a solid gold lotus flower, encased in jewelled caskets placed on a throne. It is kept in a two-story inner chamber fronted by two large elephant tusks. There are certain times during the day when pilgrims can see the casket from a distance.

The pious piece is removed from its shrine only once a year, during the 10-day Esala Perahera, possibly recognized as the largest Buddhist celebration in the world. During the full moon in late July or early August, a royal male elephant carries the reliquary of the sacred tooth and leads a colourful parade of dancers, drummers, dignitaries and several ornately decorated elephants.

Harsha tells me that attendance at the festival exceeds the million mark and unites all ranks of Sri Lankan society in a vast throng of devotees and interested onlookers. Surely it inspires me to make a return visit.



Getting there: Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com), has daily flights to Colombo from Singapore with excellent connections from Australia offering 107 flights per week in total to Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane Adelaide and Perth. The A380 operates on two of four flights from Sydney, and one from three flights from Melbourne. 

Accommodation: Cultural Quarter precinct offers an array of quality accommodation options; however Heritance Hotel at Kandalama (www.heritancehotels.com), aptly boasts a haven of bliss. A Geoffrey Bawa creation, this luxury hideout is not far from any of the distinguished sites, and is uniquely styled like an outspread wing of a bird. Overlooking a tranquil lake, the 1.8 km long hotel is 7 stories high, yet appears to be a perfect natural extension of the rocky mountain. At Kandy, it is most convenient to stay at the colonial Queens Hotel (www.queenshotel.lk) in front of the temple.

Tour package – Aitken Spence Travel (www.aitkenspencetravels.com) for Cultural Triangle package tours or for transportation in a private vehicle with driver cum guide.

Sandip Hor
Sandip Hor
Writing is a passion for this culturally enthused and historically minded globe trotting freelancer

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