Ancient stupas of Sri Lanka

Ancient stupas of Sri Lanka

After Arahat Mahinda introduced Buddhism during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (307-267 BC), in the Sri Lanka’s ancient sacred capital, Anuradhapura, the king built the Maha Vihara, a temple and residence for the monks, after dedicating the Nandana and Mahamega royal pleasure gardens to the Maha Sangha.

The earliest monument found in Sri Lanka is the ‘Stupa,’ which is described as a hemispherical dome surmounted with a spire (‘kota’). During the time of Emperor Asoka, numerous ‘stupas’ were built at hallowed sites in India. In these were enshrined relics of the Buddha which people venerated. When it was observed that there were no Buddha relics in Sri Lanka, the king, on Arahat Mahinda’s suggestion, appealed to Emperor Asoka to send some relics. He responded to the king’s request and sent the right collarbone relic of the Buddha.

Relic Chamber

In the middle of the dagaba was built a relic chamber, in the centre of which was placed a bo-tree made of precious metals, and an image of the Buddha round which were groups of figures representing various events in the life of the Buddha.


King Devanam Piya Tissa built the Thuparama dagaba to enshrine this relic. This was thus the oldest stupa built in Sri Lanka. Originally it was in the shape of a heap of paddy but as restorations were done in later years, it took the form as seen today. It has a diameter of 59 feet 6 inches at the base. As the name suggests, Thuparama comprised a ‘stupa’ and an ‘arama,’ a residential complex. Ruins of such a complex can be seen within an area of over three acres around the ‘stupa.’

The Great Stupas of Sri Lanka

The ‘stupas’ built later on were much larger than the Thuparama. King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC) built the Mirisaveti which has a diameter of 168 feet at the base and the most venerated ‘stupa’ - Ruvanvali Mahaseya, also known as Ratnamali Mahathupa. While the base has a diameter of 289 feet, the height is given as 120 cubits (‘riyan’), equivalent to around 300 feet. It took the form of ‘bubbulakara’ or bubble shape. When the Abhyayagiri dagaba was originally built by King Vattagamani (Valagamba - 103 BC) it was not very large but later enlargements made it larger than the Mahathupa. King Mahasena (276-303 CE) is credited with building the largest of them all - the Jetavana, which has a diameter of 367 feet at the base. Though the present height is estimated at 232 feet, the original height is supposed to have been 160 cubits.

The main feature of Jetavana is its foundation, which goes all the way to the bedrock and 250 feet deep. The height of Jetavana and the depth of the footing is approximately equal. Total Jetavana structure including the foundation is much heavier and massive than the largest pyramid of Egypt.

Large stupas were also built at Mihintale at the site where Arahat Mahinda met the king, Magama, Dighavapi (near Ampara), Kataragama and other places. The builders of ‘stupas’ in Sri Lanka had closely followed the designs of such monuments built in Sanchi and other places in India. In huge monuments, the dome rose from a triple-based platform. The dome was surmounted by a square railing of wood or stone which later became a cube of masonry. A stone pillar embedded in the dome rose above the railing. The ‘stupa’ was crowned by an umbrella (‘chattra’) or a series of umbrellas.

mall Stupas

The Kantaka Chaitya in Mihintale is a fine example of a small dagoba. It features some of the finest stone carvings and terra cotta figures. They are well preserved to this day. The presence of a ‘vahalkada’ or frontpiece is another interesting feature in this chaitya. There are carvings of animal figures, pot and foliage and other familiar ornamental motifs. These frontpieces seen in most dagobas project from the base and face the cardinal points.


It can be observed that after the 4th century, the building of colossal dagobas has virtually ended. Thereafter smaller ones have been built using Thuparama in Anuradhapura as a model. This type came to be known as ‘vatadage’ or rotunda. It is a circular relic house and apart from Thuparama and Lankarama in Anuradhapura, the best example is seen in Polonnaruwa.

There are two other beautiful ones at Medirigiriya close to Polonnaruwa and Tiriyayi off the Anuradhapura-Trincomalee road. These circular shrines enclosed stupas of smaller size and had wooden pillars right round. Later they were replaced by carved stone pillars. The pillars are arranged in four to two concentric circles, diminishing in size outwards.

Temple of the Tooth

After the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka in the ninth year of the reign of King Kitsirimevan (303-331 BC), a temple to keep the Tooth relic was built in Anuradhapura from where the king ruled. Thereafter in each capital of the Sinhalese kings, there was a separate Temple of the Tooth.

Notable stupas

*Ridi Vihara
*Abhayagiri Dagaba
*Mirisaveti Stupa
*Rathna Prasadaya
*Dakkhina Stupa
*Sela Cetiya
*Naka Vihara
*Kiribath Vehera

ee also

*History of Sri Lanka
*Ancient Constructions of Sri Lanka


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