Ruwanweliseya, also known as the Great Stupa or the Mahathupa, is one of the most significant and venerated Buddhist monuments in Sri Lanka. This ancient stupa is located in Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage city that serves as a focal point for Sri Lanka's rich history and cultural heritage. As a must-visit site for both pilgrims and tourists, the stupa offers a glimpse into Sri Lanka's spiritual and architectural traditions.
Ruwanweliseya is a remarkable icon of Sri Lanka's past and holds a rich tapestry of tales woven over the centuries. It was constructed during the reign of King Dutugemunu, one of the most celebrated monarchs in Sri Lankan history.
King Dutugemunu, originally from the southern region of the island, embarked on a mission to unify the island under a single rule.
After his victory, King Dutugemunu began the construction of many Buddhist Stupas around the country. Ruwanweliseya was the crown jewel among these. King Dutugemunu was a devout Buddhist, and his reign saw a revival and spread of Buddhism throughout the island.
However, it was no easy task, and construction took years.
The King had grown old and deeply desired to see the finished stupa before his death. Knowing the stupa could not be finished before the King's death, his subjects ingeniously draped white cloth over the partially built structure, giving the illusion of a completed stupa. From his deathbed, King Dutugemunu gazed upon this sight, gaining peace in the belief that his last mission had been fulfilled. Shortly after, he passed away, leaving behind a monumental legacy.
Over the centuries, Ruwanweliseya has witnessed invasions, restorations, and periods of neglect. Several Sri Lankan kings, recognizing its significance, undertook the task of maintaining and restoring the stupa. Notably, King Parakramabahu I in the 12th century and King Nissanka Malla in the 13th century contributed significantly to its preservation.
Today, the stupa stands as a symbol of Sri Lanka's intricate history, having weathered both time and turmoil to remain one of the most revered sites on the island.
Ruwanweliseya is an impressive example of ancient Sri Lankan architecture. This monument showcases the skillful design and artistic vision of that era. Visitors can see the technical abilities and creativity of the builders through its various elements.
The main body of Ruwanweliseya is characterized by its massive dome. Constructed in the shape of a water bubble, this dome is a classic representation of the 'bubbulakara' style of stupas in Sri Lanka. The dome rises to an impressive height of 103 meters, making it one of the largest of its kind in the world.
Atop the stupa sits the 'Koth Kerella,' a spear-like pinnacle that elegantly crowns the structure. It represents the attainment of enlightenment.
Encircling the stupa's premises are intricately carved stone railings. These railings, made from fine-grain stones, present various themes from Buddhist teachings and Sri Lankan folklore. Each segment of the railing is a lesson in craftsmanship, with detailed depictions that provide insight into the religious and cultural beliefs of the period.
Courtyard and Vahalkadas
The stupa is surrounded by a vast courtyard, allowing devotees and visitors to walk the grounds in reflection and prayer. At the cardinal points of the stupa are the Vahalkadas - decorative platforms or altars. These Vahalkadas are decorated with sculptures and inscriptions.
For devout Buddhists, Ruwanweliseya is not just an architectural marvel. It's a cornerstone of their faith. It is believed that the stupa contains a relic of the Buddha, making it one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world. Pilgrims from various countries, particularly from South and Southeast Asia, visit Ruwanweliseya to pay their respects and seek spiritual solace.
Rituals and Ceremonies
Daily rituals at Ruwanweliseya include offerings of flowers and incense. On Poya (full moon) days, special prayers and sermons are conducted. Various ceremonies take place throughout the year, including the grand Ruwanweliseya Perahera, a traditional procession that includes elephants, dancers, and drummers. During the Vesak festival, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, the stupa is illuminated with thousands of lamps, creating a serene atmosphere for reflection and prayer.
Visitors to Ruwanweliseya often find the experience deeply moving, regardless of their religious beliefs. The tranquility of the surroundings, coupled with the majestic structure of the stupa, makes for a memorable visit. The site is well-maintained, and basic amenities like restrooms and small shops selling religious offerings are available. Tourists can also hire guides to learn more about the history and significance of the site.
Location and How to Get There
Ruwanweliseya is situated in Anuradhapura, approximately 200 km north of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital city. You can get there by car, bus, or train. The nearest airport is Sigiriya Airport, about 56 km away. From the airport, taxis and local buses are available to reach Anuradhapura. Once in Anuradhapura, Ruwanweliseya is easily accessible by tuk-tuk or taxi.
Best Time to Visit
The optimal time to visit Ruwanweliseya is between November and April. During this time, the weather is dry and relatively cool. However, if you wish to experience the grand ceremonies, plan your visit around Poya days or during the Vesak festival in May.
Tips and Advice
- Dress Respectfully: When visiting Ruwanweliseya, it's important to wear white clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. This shows respect to the religious significance of the site.
- Remove Footwear: Before entering the temple premises, ensure you take off your shoes. It's a customary practice at most religious sites in Sri Lanka.
- Guided Tours: Consider hiring a local guide to enrich your visit. They can provide detailed insights into the stupa's history, significance, and architectural features.
- Photography Restrictions: While photography is generally allowed, always look for signs or ask the temple staff about restricted areas. Flash photography may be prohibited inside certain areas to preserve the artifacts.
- Keep Noise to a Minimum: Given its religious importance, maintaining a quiet demeanor is appreciated. This ensures that both visitors and devotees can have a peaceful experience.
- Offerings: If you wish to make an offering or light a lamp, there are designated areas around the stupa. Make sure to follow the local customs and practices.
If you're in Anuradhapura, consider extending your visit to explore other nearby attractions:
- Sri Maha Bodhi: This ancient fig tree in Anuradhapura was a sapling of the sacred tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. Revered by Buddhists worldwide, it is one of the oldest trees still alive.
- Thuparamaya: Recognized as the first stupa built in Sri Lanka, Thuparamaya enshrines the collarbone relic of Buddha. Its distinctive architectural style, featuring a vatadage (circular relic house), makes it a notable point of interest.
- Isurumuniya Temple: Renowned for its rock carvings, particularly the "Isurumuniya Lovers" sculpture, this temple sits beside a picturesque pond. It offers both a spiritual atmosphere and insights into ancient Sri Lankan artistry.
- Abhayagiri Monastery: Once a significant seat of Buddhist scholarship and practice, this monastery complex houses the Abhayagiri Dagoba and several other religious and historical structures. The vast grounds hold remnants of ancient pools, shrines, and intricate carvings.
- Jetavanarama Dagoba: Constructed by King Mahasena, this colossal stupa was one of the tallest structures of the ancient world.
Ruwanweliseya stands as a monument to Sri Lanka's rich cultural and religious heritage. Its blend of historical significance, architectural splendor, and spiritual resonance makes it a must-see for anyone visiting Sri Lanka. Whether you're a devout Buddhist, a history enthusiast, or simply a traveler looking for a unique experience, be sure to visit this sacred place on your travels to Anuradhapura.