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Anuradhapura | 10 sights in Sri Lanka’s oldest royal city

by Steven
Published: Last Updated on

Anuradhapura is the oldest royal city in Sri Lanka. It was founded in the 4th century BC and in 993 the Sinhalese left the city after major looting by the Tamils. Fortunately, much remains of these ancient ruins and you can visit much of this ancient kingdom in a day. In this guide, you can read all about the history of this city and I give 10 historical sites that you should definitely have seen in Anuradhapura. Let’s go to the ancient royal city!

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Irrigation lakes around Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura is surrounded by several lakes that were important for the agriculture of the kingdom

History Anuradhapura – The oldest capital of the Sinhala Kingdom

Pandukabhaya was the first king of the Sinhalese Kingdom in 377 BC. He established the capital in Anuradhapura and ruled the entire country from there, although there were also small independent states on the island. He named the capital after a minister who had founded the village under his father’s leadership, Anurapura. Anuradhapura would be the center of politics, religion, economics and culture for over 1400 years.

Buddhism made its appearance in the 3rd century BC. This literally began in the small town of Mihintale (day trip?). Also, in the 3rd century BC, a shoot of the Tree of Enlightenment came to the city. This tree can still be admired in Anuradhapura and is therefore an important sacred site for Buddhists. Also, a piece of Buddha’s tooth, which can now be admired in Kandy came to the city.

The main source of livelihood during the Kingdom of Anuradhapura was agriculture. Several kings were particularly popular, having built large irrigation canals and lakes. On a tour of the old city, you will come across these lakes by themselves.

In total, more than 110 kings ruled from Anuradhapura. Only King Kassapa chose to rule from Sigiriya. For centuries the kingdom suffered from attacks by the Tamils and Cholas from South India. It resulted in the Cholas gaining supremacy on the island and Anuradhapura was defeated in 993. The city fell into disrepair and disappeared into the jungle until it was only rediscovered in the 19th century.

A stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
A stupa in Anuradhapura

Sightseeing – Practical information about Anuradhapura

Before you start, it’s important to choose whether you’re going to ride a bike or arrange for a guided tuk-tuk. If you go with a guide he can tell you everything about the history of the city (if it’s a good guide of course). With the bike, you can do the whole day and view the temples and surroundings at your leisure.

A ticket to visit the old city costs about $25. You can buy these tickets at the Archaeological Museum and Jetavana Museum. Control takes place at various places in the park.

Below are 10 places you absolutely must have seen with a short historical description attached. The order is based on my own route. I started at the Jetavana Museum and did a counter-clockwise tour on my bicycle. So first the northern part and then the southern ruins.

Jetavanarama dagoba
The Jetavanarama dagoba in Sri Lanka

1. Jetavanarama dagoba

The Jetavanarama dagoba is one of the largest stupas in Sri Lanka. The founder of this shrine was King Mahasen, who lived from 277 to 304 AD. He was very popular among the people because he had many water cisterns built. But King Mahasen was also a follower of Mahayana Buddhism, while Theravada Buddhism was the official religion of the country. The king forced the monks to accept Mahayana Buddhism, and when they refused, Mahasen had some temples of Theravada Buddhism destroyed. The monks left for the south and a minister rebelled against the king’s plans. Eventually, it ended in a hiss and the king decided to rebuild some Theravada temples.

The stupa was once 122 meters high, making it one of the largest structures in ancient history. After the city of Anuradhapura fell into disrepair and the dagoba was restored again, it now has a height of 71 meters.

Kuttam Pokuna, the two basins
Kuttam Pokuna in Anuradhapura

2. The two basins that look very similar and are still in good condition

The impressive thing about the Kuttam Pokuna is that these two basins still look fine. They are also called the twins, despite the fact that the northern pool is 40 meters long and the southern one is 28 meters. However, historians believe that the pools were built in different time periods, probably between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. It is believed that the monks of the nearby Abhayagiri Monastery used the basins for their ritual baths. The basins have been partially restored but were still left in a good condition.

Samadhi Buddha
Samadhi Buddha in Sri Lanka

3. A Buddha who is meditating

Those heading west from Kuttam Pokuna pass this beautiful statue of the Samadhi Buddha. This statue probably dates from the 4th century AD and depicts a Buddha in meditative posture, also known as Samadhi. This is one of the most common postures in which you will see a Buddha statue. When the statue was found in the 19th century it was partially damaged. For example, at that time it no longer had a nose. Fortunately, you don’t notice this anymore. Left and right, what does it portray? If you go further to the west, you will see more Buddha statues.

Travel guide of History to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka
Abhayagiri dagobe

4. The Abhayagiri dagobe, built in the first century BC

The Abhayagiri monastery was founded by King Valagamba in his second term of office between 89 and 77 BC. For centuries, this monastery was the most important religious center in the country. A characteristic feature is the now 70-meter Abhayagiri Dagoba, built of brick. Originally it was 115 meters high, but when the structure lost its point it was only 70 meters high. The Kuttam Pokuna and the Samadhi Buddha were part of this monastery that attracted monks from all over the world in the centuries following its completion.

Mahasena's palace / Sandakada pahana
Mahasena’s palace / Sandakada pahana

5. The lunar tavern with the cycle of death and rebirth

Little is left of Mahasena’s palace, but the beautiful Sandakada Pahana still sits beautifully. The Dutch meaning is a moonstone and used to be laid at the entrance to a building or at a Buddhist temple in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India. It is a great example of Signalese architecture. The Sandakada Pahana consists of a crescent moon and, according to historians in Buddhism, indicates the cycle of death and rebirth without beginning and seemingly without end.

Thuraparama dagoba
The Thuraparama dagoba in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

6. Thuraparama dagoba, the oldest stupa in Sri Lanka

The Thuraparama dagoba is the oldest stupa you will encounter in Sri Lanka. It was commissioned by King Tissa in the third century BC, just after Buddhism had made its appearance on the island. It was also the place where a collarbone of Buddha was kept. Over the centuries, the stupa has fallen into disrepair several times and been destroyed by attacks by the Tamils from South India, among others.

Ruwanwelisiya dagoba
Ruwanwelisiya dagoba in Sri Lanka

7. The Ruwanwelisiya dagoba and its elephants

The Ruwanwelisiya dagoba is a striking sight. And that’s mainly about the row of elephants that will catch everyone’s eye upon arrival. The stupa was built in 161 BC by King Dutugamunu and is 103 meters high. The elephant heads are a reference to how the king and his army defeated the Tamils: sitting on an elephant. At the stupa here, you will also encounter a statue of the king on an elephant.

8. Archaeological Museum

In total you will find in the ancient ruined city of Anuradhapura 4 museums where you can visit. The main museum is the Archaeological Museum. Of course, here you will find many treasures from the time of the kingdom in Anuradhapura, but also Polonnaruwa.

Sri Maha Bodhi Tri, the Tree of Enlightenment
Sri Maha Bodhi Tri, the Tree of Enlightenment

9. The Tree of Enlightenment, where Buddha once meditated

For monks, this is the most important place in Anuradhapura the fig tree Sri Maha Bodhi Tri. According to tradition, this is part of the tree where Buddha meditated. This tree was brought to Anuradhapura in the third century BC by the daughter of King Asoka, a king from South India. King Tissa of the kingdom of Anuradhapura had the tree planted and since then Buddhists from all over the world come to this place to behold the tree.

Isurumuniya Monastery
Isurumuniya Monastery in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

10. The colorful reclining Buddha in the rock temple Isurumuniya

To end the day, you can view the rock temple Isurumuniya in the south of the old city. This was built in the 3rd century BC and is part of a monastic complex. Here you can admire some beautiful drawings and engravings and visit the colorful reclining Buddha. In front of the rock temple, you will find a basin, where elephants used to bathe. In addition, it is also possible to climb the rock and enjoy the view of Anuradhapura.

Accommodation – Where to stay in Anuradhapura?

Anuradhapura can be divided into 3 areas. You have the area of the old ruins, a new town and an old town. The old town is the northern part of the city where the main railway station is located. It is also closer to the ruins than the new town. But the new town is the biggest and nicest part of the city where you can find most hotels and restaurants. There are also a number of hotels and guesthouses between the old ruins where you can stay.

Looking for accommodation in Anuradhapura? Check here for the possibilities

The railway station of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura train station in old town

Transportation – How to get to Anuradhapura?

Anuradhapura is easily reached by train from Colombo. It takes about 5 hours. The main station is in the old town of Anuradhapura. From there you can take a tuk-tuk to the center and the new part of town. Another way to get from Colombo to Anuradhapura is by bus. This takes about 3 to 4 hours and the buses run more often than the train.

Next destination? Have you seen Anuradhapura and do you want to continue your journey through this beautiful country? From here you can take the train or bus north for Jaffna. Or then travel south for the golden temple of Dambulla, Sigiriya Rock, or towards Negombo.

Do you have more tips, ideas, or comments about Anuradhapura? If so, feel free to leave a comment below.

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