Medirigiriya Vatadage – Polonnaruwa


Medirigiriya Vatadage, situated in Polonnaruwa District, is most famous for its Vatadage, a circular temple containing a small stupa in the very centre. This type of tower is typical of ancient Sinhalese architecture and not found in Buddhist architecture in India. Though the much later Vatadage of Polonnaruwa, of course, is much more popular, Medirigirya holds one of the two best-preserved circular pagodas from the Anuradhapura era, the other one being Thiriyai from about the same century. But, there is a notable variation in today’s appearance of these two excellent examples of Vatadages. The striking characteristic of the Thiryai Vatadage near Trincomalee is its round outer wall; such a massive wall is removed at the Vatadage of Medirigiriya. In Edirigiriya, the circles of columns, which once shouldered a wooden shelter, are the various striking feature, almost resembling a small forest of pillars. Nowhere other in Sri Lanka are as several columns on such a small space. Moreover, the Vatadage of Medirigiriya has picturesquely placed atop a granite boulder.

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In the dry zone forest area of Sri Lanka, Medirigiriya Vatadage stands as a testament to the ancient civilization that once thrived in the region. This architectural marvel houses a Stupa and boasts intricate stone carvings, making it an important historical site. Let's explore the intriguing history and unique features of Medirigiriya Vatadage.

Historical Background

The origins of Medirigiriya Vatadage can be traced back to the reign of King Kanittha Tissa (192-194) of the Anuradhapura Era, as mentioned in the chronicles. Over the centuries, several kings contributed to the development and expansion of this complex. However, the site was eventually abandoned following the invasion of Maga, which led to the migration of Sinhalese people to the southern regions to escape persecution. According to the Culawansa, a lesser chronicle of Sri Lanka, King Aggabodhi VI (733-772) built the Vatadage in the 7th century.

Discovery and Restoration

In 1897, amidst a dense jungle, Mr H.C.P Bell discovered Medirigiriya Vatadage and recognized its architectural significance. Describing it as an architectural jewel, he initiated the restoration work on the site. Initially, Muslim labourers were involved in the restoration process since Buddhist labourers considered it a sin to work at a Buddhist temple for monetary gain. Finally 1945, the restoration work was completed, allowing the public to glimpse the temple's former grandeur.

Shrinking Site Area

With time, the once vast archaeological site faced numerous challenges. In 1937, 600 acres of land were reserved for Medirigiriya Vatadage due to the abundance of ruins in the area. However, as people migrated from various parts of the country and settled nearby, the site began to face destruction. Valuable ruins were destroyed or removed for commercial purposes, and the land was encroached upon. Today, only 250 acres of the original 600-acre site remain, and the surrounding landscape no longer showcases the ruins that once dotted the area.

Architecture of Medirigiriya Vatadage

The architectural design of Medirigiriya Vatadage is unique and showcases ancient Sri Lanka's craftsmanship. The main structure of Vatadage completely housed the Stupa, which was a characteristic feature of early Buddhist architecture. Let's explore the architectural elements of Medirigiriya Vatadage.

Stupa House and Entrance

Built on a small rock, Medirigiriya Vatadage's entrance is located on the northern side. At the bottom of the staircase, a massive stone frame measuring 9'9" feet tall and 4'9" feet in breadth greets visitors. Ascending 27 stone steps leads to a resting area and four additional steps to reach the Stupa house. Surrounding the Stupa house is a one-meter-high stone wall adorned with four exquisitely carved Buddha statues in a seated position. Today, the Stupa itself lies in ruins.

Stone Pillars and Roof

The roof of the Stupa house was constructed using three concentric circles of stone pillars. Many of these pillars still stand today, providing a glimpse into the temple's former glory. The innermost circle consists of 16 pillars, each towering at a height of 17 feet. The second circle features 20 pillars, standing at a height of 16 feet, while the outermost circle comprises 32 pillars, measuring 9 feet in height. Archaeologists hold differing opinions regarding the presence or absence of a roof, considering the pillar sizes and numbers. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship displayed at this site remains a testament to ancient Sri Lankan artisans.

Other Buildings and Features

Aside from the main Vatadage structure, Medirigiriya hosts several other buildings and features that enhance its historical and cultural significance.

Stupa House with Buddha Image

Within the vicinity of Medirigiriya Vatadage lies another notable structure known as the Stupa house. This building reached after climbing 16 steps from the Vatadage, measures 57 x 36 feet. The highlight of this house is the impressive Buddha image spanning 33 feet in length.

Pichcha-mal Viharaya

Adjacent to the main pathway leading to the Vatadage entrance, visitors can find the Pichcha-mal Viharaya. This structure consists of two image houses constructed side by side, each measuring 20x20 feet. The area derives its local name from the presence of five Buddha images, with three standing and two seated.

Small Stupa and Viewpoint

A small Stupa built on a rock stands on the opposite side of the Vatadage entrance pathway. Visitors can enjoy a breathtaking view of the Vatadage and its surroundings from this vantage point, providing a unique perspective on the site's historical significance.

Ancient Hospital and Stone Inscriptions

Another remarkable feature near Medirigiriya Vatadage is the remains of an advanced hospital, accompanied by stone inscriptions. The hospital is designed in two squares, with the outer square featuring 33 stone pillars and the inner square containing 20 pillars. The presence of three entrances and indications of rooms with doors suggest a well-organized medical facility. Visitors can observe a well-preserved medicine boat within the hospital carved out of the hard rock to prevent medicine absorption.

Medirigiriya Vatadage, nestled within the dry zone forest area, is a beautiful testament to Sri Lanka's ancient civilization. With a history that spans centuries, this archaeological site showcases the craftsmanship and architectural prowess of its time. Despite the challenges of destruction and shrinking site area, exploring Medirigiriya Vatadage offers visitors a glimpse into the region's rich history and cultural heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is the significance of Medirigiriya Vatadage? Medirigiriya Vatadage holds immense historical and cultural significance. It is an architectural masterpiece housing a Stupa adorned with intricate stone carvings and Buddha statues. It offers insights into ancient Sri Lankan craftsmanship and provides a window into the country's rich cultural heritage.

2. Who discovered Medirigiriya Vatadage? Medirigiriya Vatadage was discovered in 1897 by Mr H.C.P Bell, who recognized its architectural value and initiated restoration efforts. His discovery shed light on the importance of this historical site.

3. How was the restoration work of Medirigiriya Vatadage completed? Muslim labourers primarily performed the restoration work of Medirigiriya Vatadage, as Buddhist labourers were reluctant to work at a Buddhist temple for monetary gain. The restoration was completed in 1945, showcasing the site's former glory.

4. What are some notable features near Medirigiriya Vatadage? Apart from the main Vatadage structure, visitors can explore the Stupa house with its impressive Buddha image. The Pichcha-mal Viharaya, the small Stupa with a viewpoint, and the remains of an advanced hospital with stone inscriptions are other noteworthy features in the vicinity.

5. How does Medirigiriya Vatadage contribute to Sri Lanka's cultural heritage? Medirigiriya Vatadage serves as a valuable cultural heritage site in Sri Lanka. Its unique architecture, intricate stone carvings, and historical significance offer insights into the country's ancient civilization. Exploring Medirigiriya Vatadage allows visitors to connect with Sri Lanka's rich cultural roots.



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