Abhayagiri Stupa – Anuradhapura
Abhayagiri Stupa in Anuradhapura, the second most abundant of the stupas in Sri Lanka, was constructed by King Vattagamini Valagamba (89-77 BC). This continues up to the area of approximately 200 hectares. According to Bhikkhu Fa-Hsien, who toured Sri Lanka in the fifth century, there had been three thousand resident monks in the Mahavihara and five thousand monks in the Abhayagiri.
The growth of Abhayagiri spread its peak in the reign of King Mahasen and was the core of Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhist structures found in the suburbs of Abhayagri show that this complex had been an essential educative institution both regionally and globally.
During the period between 1873 and 1874, the British erroneously identified Jethawanaramaya as Abhayagiriya. Therefore, when referring to older documents, it is essential to keep this fact in mind. Today, the archeological department is making a massive effort to restore the stupa to its original glory without compromising its historical and archeological value. However, the restoration work has been slow due to a lack of funds. Presently, the stupa is still covered by grass and trees, making it resemble more of a mound of earth.
The misidentification of Jethawanaramaya as Abhayagiriya by the British in the 19th century created confusion in historical records. It is crucial to acknowledge this error when studying the history of Abhayagiri Stupa and consult reliable sources for accurate information.
Despite the challenges, the archeological department is determined to restore the Abhayagiri Stupa. The restoration process aims to bring back the stupa's original grandeur while preserving its historical and archeological significance. Various experts and professionals are involved in this meticulous restoration work.
Current State and Challenges
As seen in the pictures, the Abhayagiri Stupa remains covered by vegetation, indicating the slow progress of restoration efforts. Lack of sufficient funding and resources has hindered the restoration process, making it a challenging task for the archeological department. However, their dedication and perseverance remain unwavering.
Birth of the Abhayagiri Complex
According to the chronicles, the establishment of the Abhayagiri complex has an intriguing story. After King Vattagamini Abaya ascended to the throne in 104 BC, a Tamil invasion threatened the kingdom. Unable to withstand the attack, the king retreated from the capital. During his retreat, the Jain monk Geri, residing in the area where Abhayagiri stands today, insultingly shouted, "Lo the great black Sinhala king is in flight."
Rivalry with Mahavihara
Upon returning to Anuradhapura after 14 years of defeating the invaders, King Vattagamini Abaya remembered the incident involving the Jain monk Geri. In response, he razed Geri's hermitage to the ground and constructed a massive stupa and 12 accompanying buildings, which he offered to Mahathissa Thero. The stupa was named Abayagiri, combining the names "Abaya" (the king) and "Geri" (the Jain monk). Over time, this vihara became a rival to Mahavihara, with the priests at Abayagiri embracing both Theravada and Mahayana teachings.
Exploration and Discoveries
In 1877, extensive digging was carried out under the permission of the Anunayake Unnanse. The objective was to search for books rumored to be deposited inside the relic chambers. A tunnel was excavated towards the center of the stupa, followed by a vertical shaft below the Salapathala Maluwa. Although no significant relics were discovered, various items such as stones, beads, and shells were found during the excavation.
The Abhayagiri Stupa boasts impressive architectural features. It has a circumference of approximately 1150 feet (350 meters), and according to Chinese monk Fa-Hsien, its original height was 400 feet (122 meters). The stupa was constructed using solid bricks, which were then coated with a thick layer of lime mortar. Certain parts of this plaster are still visible on the Dagaba. The stupa is surrounded by a square Salapatala Maluwa measuring 600 ft. by 600 ft. (183×183 meters), with a half wall enclosing the raised ground laid with slabs. Four entrances with guard houses provide access to the sacred premises.
The Abhayagiri Stupa holds immense cultural significance in Sri Lanka. It serves as a reminder of the country's rich history and its connection to Buddhism. The stupa represents an architectural marvel, showcasing the skill and craftsmanship of ancient Sri Lankan artisans. Its preservation and restoration contribute to the conservation of the nation's cultural heritage.
Importance for Buddhists
For Buddhists, the Abhayagiri Stupa holds religious and spiritual significance. It stands as a sacred place of worship and pilgrimage, attracting devotees from all over the world. Buddhists believe that paying homage to this ancient stupa brings blessings, merits, and spiritual solace.
The Abhayagiri Stupa is a popular tourist attraction in Anuradhapura. Visitors are captivated by its historical significance and architectural splendor. Exploring the stupa and its surroundings provides a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in Sri Lanka's ancient past.
To ensure the long-term preservation of the Abhayagiri Stupa, various conservation measures are being implemented. The archeological department, in collaboration with experts and international organizations, is working on strategies to safeguard the stupa from further deterioration. This includes regular maintenance, documentation, and the use of advanced preservation techniques.
Despite the challenges faced in the restoration process, there is hope for the Abhayagiri Stupa's future. With increased awareness, funding, and support, the restoration work can progress at a faster pace. The successful restoration of the stupa will contribute to the overall preservation of Sri Lanka's cultural heritage and serve as a testament to the country's glorious past.
The Abhayagiri Stupa in Anuradhapura stands as a testament to the rich history and cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. Despite the passage of time and periods of neglect, the stupa continues to evoke awe and wonder. The ongoing restoration efforts aim to restore its former glory while maintaining its archeological value. The Abhayagiri Stupa remains a symbol of spiritual devotion, architectural excellence, and the profound influence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.