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Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Ancient Stupas (Dagobas) of Sri Lanka
The sights of modern and ancient Stupas or dagobas of Sri Lanka, seated prettily on a built up ground or perched on a natural elevation or a hill, sheltered by the foliage of all shades and tones of green set up a regular feature of your Sri Lanka Holidays. Serenely overlooking the landscape, the great white symmetrical domes painted in white or blue-white brings about enormous soothing influence to release the tension on the stressed minds.

Mihintale Mahaseya Stupa

Mihintale Mahaseya Stupa

Stupa in the Sinhalese civilization
Moreover, the concept of Sinhalese civilization being based upon triple pillars of irrigation reservoir, Buddhist temple and dagoba (stupa), most often the expansive rice fields in the foreground and irrigation reservoirs in the background spread over the landscape. The stupa is the most pleasant and most prominent feature of the Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka. The group of buildings at the Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka consist of complementary elements: pilimage (Sinhala: image house), bodhigara (Sinhala: enclosure with the Bo Peeple tree), Vihara (Sinhala: dwellings of the Buddhist monks) and of course stupa.

Tissa Maha Stupa at Tissamaharama

Tissa Maha Stupa at Tissamaharama

The scale of the stupa
The ancient cities had the main stupa designed in line with the scale of the city. It was an urban concept of displaying the same respect and reverence accorded to the stupa at the villages. The dominance in the landscape and the sphere of influence created by the stupa was unmistakable, whether at the southern town of Tissamaharama of the ancient Ruhuna, ancient Anuradhapura (UNESCO World Heritage Site), medieval Polonnaruwa (UNESCO World heritage Site) in the north central plains or the Somawatiya sanctuary in the north-east.

Ruwanweliseya Dagoba phot credit to Nandasiri Wanninayaka

Ruwanweliseya Dagoba photo credit to Nandasiri Wanninayaka

Stupa Vs Cosmos
To illustrious Dr. Senerath Paranavitana (1896 – 1972), the eminent archeologist-historian-epigraphist of Sri Lanka, to whom the Sinhalese nation owes a great debt of gratitude for his tireless archeological discoveries, works and interpretations, stupa or dagaba symbolized the cosmos. The rational of the three relic chambers inside the hemispherical dome is explained thus: “That at the ground level symbolized the earth, the one above it the heavenly world and that below ground the subterranean world of the serpents.” Dr. Paranavitana’s view assumes the omnipresence of the Buddha or Tathagata in the world. “The simple and austere lines of the hemispherical white dome would thus have conveyed to the pious devotee the idea of the vault of heaven, with the celestial abodes represented by the superstructure. The relics enshrined within the stupa which at once symbolized the world and the Tathagatha, would convey the idea of the Tathagata being immanent in the universe. The umbrella, the symbol of sovereignty, suggested to the faithful the idea of the Buddha being lord of the world. Whatever the symbolic significance of the stupa may be, it reflects a harmonious synthesis of simple artistic beauty with architectural design and philosophical thought.

Stupas-at-anuradhapura, a view from Minintale

Stupas at Anuradhapura, a view from Mihintale: to the far left is Mirisavatiya stupa; at the center is Ruwanweliseya stupa; to the right, the blurred image is that of Jetavana Stupa. Image by courtesy of Thorondo.

The most venerated stupas of Sri Lanka
Among the most adored great stupas of Sri Lanka are Jetawana stupa (400ft in height), Abhayagiri stupa (370 feet), Ruwanweliseya (338 ft) located in Anuradhapura, the greatest monastic city of the classical world. Among these ancient stupas too, Golden Sand Ruwanweliseya stupa built by the King Dutugemunu (161- 137 B.C.), the Hero of the Nation, is the most adored, most visited great stupa of Sri Lanka.

the wild elephant is a regular visitor of Somawathiya Stupa

The wild elephant from the nearby sanctuary is a regular visitor of Somawathiya Stupa

At a monumental height of 338 feet, Ruwanweliseya stupa also called Mahathupa or Swaranmali chetiya covers over an acre and half with a diameter of the circular base being 294 feet. The immense dimensions of the great stupa make the famous Sanchi Stupa (60 feet) of India, which is the largest monument of this class of the same age in India, dwarfed into insignificant proportions. 250 years later Abhayagiri stupa (370 feet) built by King Gajabahu (113-135 A.D.) at the Abayagiri monastery (founded by King Vattagamaini Abhaya or Valagambahu (103-102 B.C. and 89 -77 B.C.), towered over Ruwanweliseya.


Somawathiya Stupa

Another 350 years later, King Mahasena (276-302 A.D.), the builder of vast Minneriya irrigation reservoir, would do still better: that was by the monumental Jethawana stupa which was originally built to 400ft in height and surpassed, at that time, only by two of the larger pyramids of Egypt. Today restored Jethavana stupa, still the largest among the stupas in Sri Lanka stands majestically, east of the Golden Sand Ruwanweliseya stupa of Sri Lanka Holidays.
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