Jethawanaramaya was built by King Mahasen (276-303 AC). King Mahasen was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism. Jethavanarama is unique because of its massive stupa. The premises where the Jethavanarama is located earlier referred to Nandana Park. It is the area where Thera Mahinda preached the Dhamma for seven continuous days. Concluded with all the structures required for a monastery, buildings here, in addition to those built by King Mahasen, had been constructed by Kitisirimevan (303-331 AC) and kings who worked him.
The Disagreement between Maha Vihara Monastery and Abhayagiri Monastery
During the reign of King Gothabhaya (253-266 AC), a disagreement erupted between the monks of Maha Vihara Monastery and Abhayagiri Monastery. The dispute centered around a doctrine known as Vetulya. King Gothabhaya, siding with the Maha Vihara, banished 60 monks from the Abhayagiri Monastery who had embraced the Vetulya doctrine.
Sangamitta Thero's Revenge
One of the disciples of the banished monks, Sangamitta Thero, decided to seek revenge against the monks of Maha Viharaya. He returned to Sri Lanka and won the favor of King Gothabhaya. Sangamitta Thero was entrusted with the task of teaching the king's two sons, Prince Mahasena and Prince Jetthatissa. After the king's demise, Prince Jetthatissa, a staunch supporter of the Mahavihara monks, ascended the throne and reigned for a decade (266-276 AC).
Prince Jetthatissa and the Reign of Mahasena
In 276 AC, Mahasena succeeded his brother, Jetthatissa, to the throne. Mahasena convinced the king that the Mahaviharians lacked discipline and that the Abhayagiri vihara monks preached the true doctrine of the Buddha. Persuaded by Mahasena, the king issued an order prohibiting the offering of alms to the Mahaviharians. Consequently, the Mahaviharians were forced to retreat to the hills and Rohana.
Construction of Jethawanaramaya Viharaya
Seizing the opportunity, Sangamitta Thero persuaded King Mahasena to dismantle the Maha Vihara buildings and utilize the materials to construct a new rival institute within the boundaries of Maha Vihara itself. This new establishment came to be known as Jethawanaramaya, or Jethawana Viharaya.
Jethawanaramaya's Sacred Status and Civil Unrest
Jethawanaramaya occupies the 14th position among the Solosmasthana, the sixteen Buddhist sacred sites hallowed by the presence of Buddha in Sri Lanka. It is also one of the Atamasthana, the eight most sacred holy sites of Anuradhapura. However, this ambitious act triggered a disastrous civil war, leading to the death of Sangamitta Thero at the hands of the king's queen.
Restoration and Legacy
Under public pressure, King Mahasena eventually restored the Maha Vihara buildings and ruled for 27 years. Jethawanaramaya, with its towering presence, remained a symbol of the events that unfolded during that time, bearing witness to the power struggles and religious conflicts that shaped the history of Anuradhapura.
The Magnificence of Jethawanaramaya Stupa
Jethawana Stupa, the centerpiece of Jethawanaramaya, stands as an architectural marvel. In its prime, it soared to a height of 400 feet (122 meters), making it the third tallest building in the world at the time. Even today, as a brick monument, Jethawanaramaya holds the distinction of being the tallest stupa of its kind globally.
The stupa's circumference measures about 1,200 feet, and its current height is 249 feet. Resting on the Salapatala Maluwa, a stone-paved platform of approximately 580 feet from east to west and north to south, Jethawanaramaya is surrounded by the sandy compound known as Weli Maluwa, spanning a breadth of 125 feet. The platform was originally encircled by a half wall, with a stone rampart surrounding the Weli Maluwa.
Construction and Significance
King Mahasena initiated the construction of Jethawanaramaya during his reign (276-303 AC), and his son Sirimeghavanna completed it. The stupa was built upon the enclosure where Mahinda Maha Thero, a prominent Buddhist monk, was cremated. Recent archaeological excavations have unveiled a one-meter-thick brick wall adjacent to a layer of ash and charcoal, believed to be the chamber housing the remains of the great thero.
Misidentification and Renovation Efforts
In the 19th century, the British erroneously identified Jethawanaramaya as Abhayagiriya. It is important to bear this in mind when referring to older documents. Notwithstanding the misidentification, Jethawanaramaya remained a site of great historical and architectural significance.
Over time, Jethawanaramaya, like other structures in Anuradhapura, faced destruction during North Indian invasions. When Anuradhapura was ultimately abandoned as the capital in the 11th century, the stupa, along with others, was gradually enveloped by the encroaching jungle. In the Pollonaruwa era, King Parakramabahu attempted to renovate the stupa, resulting in its current height of 232 feet (71 meters).
Gold Plates and Sacred Scriptures
Among the recent archaeological discoveries at Jethawanaramaya are nine gold plates containing sections of a Mahayana Sutra. The plates, inscribed in Sinhala of the 9th century, feature the philosophical discourse of the Buddha in Sanskrit. Weighing approximately 73 ounces, these gold plates measure 25 inches in length and 2.3 inches in breadth. They serve as a remarkable testament to the spiritual and intellectual richness of the Buddhist tradition.
In conclusion, Jethawanaramaya stands tall, both literally and metaphorically, as a monumental tribute to the ancient history and religious heritage of Anuradhapura. Its magnificent stupa, historical significance, and recent archaeological discoveries make it a must-visit site for anyone interested in exploring the cultural marvels of Sri Lanka.