Periods of historical development in Sri Lanka are identified in relation to the kingdoms, of which Anuradhapura is referred to as the earliest and the Kandyan kingdom as the last. The establishment of Anuradhapura as the kingdom of the Anuradhapura dynasty by King Pandukabhaya (5th century B.C) was considered as the beginning of the era [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Mirisavati Stupa: Pinnacle of Buddhist architecture


Periods of historical development in Sri Lanka are identified in relation to the kingdoms, of which Anuradhapura is referred to as the earliest and the Kandyan kingdom as the last. The establishment of Anuradhapura as the kingdom of the Anuradhapura dynasty by King Pandukabhaya (5th century B.C) was considered as the beginning of the era which ended with the shifting of the capital to Polonnaruwa in 12th century A.D. The Anuradhapura kingdom was confined mainly to the North Central Province of the Island
Buddhism was officially introduced to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (241-207 B.C.) with the arrival of Most Ven. Arahat Mahinda Thera, son of Emperor Dharmasoka of India. Thus began a new era and thereafter the history of the island was guided and influenced mainly by Buddhism. A few years later, a branch of the sacred Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment was brought to Sri Lanka with 18 families of different castes to perform multifarious duties and thus originated a new cult of Buddhist rituals and performances.

Buddhist architecture of Sri Lanka has a recorded history which goes back to the last few centuries of the first millennium B.C. For more than 100 years, archaeologists, architects and historians have studied, documented, excavated, and conserved the monuments belonging to this tradition and examined extensive literary and epigraphical records associated with it. This research has provided us with a substantial body of information regarding a remarkable archaeological, historical and religious record of construction and design extending over millennia. Tradition and ideological interest in the history of ancient monuments goes back to the time of the Pali chronicles in the early and middle first millennium A.C., which are themselves based on earlier records. Thus, for example, important events in the history of the Mirisavati Stupa at Anuradhapura are recorded over a period of about 1,325 years from its original construction in the reign of King Dutugamunu in the 2nd century B.C., to its restoration by King Gajabahu and others.
The Mirisavati stupa’s antiquity, both in literary record and archaeological evidence goes back to the beginnings of the Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka in 3rd century B.C. The largest of the Sri Lankan stupas, such as the Jetavana, Abhayagiri, Ruwanvelisaya and Mirisavati Stupa at Anuradhapura are not only the oldest and largest monuments of their type in the entire Buddhist tradition but are also amongst the tallest constructions in the pre-modern world.

The function of the stupa is to protect and proclaim the sacred relics of the Buddha which it enshrines; originally derived from the tumulus or funerary mound, its circular plan and basically domical shape surmounted by a towering superstructure constituted an enduring structure and a distinctive and dramatic architecture form. It enabled the worshipper to pay homage to the relics within and at the same time became itself an icon or symbol to follow.

Throughout the greater part of the Anuradhapura period, the Mirisavati stupa occupied the principal position in the monastery, and even when its primacy was rivalled by other ritual structures, such as the temple, image house, bodhighara dwelling cells, chapter house, refectory hall, hospital and assembly hall, it retained its ritual and architectural status as a major structure in the central precinct of the religious complex.

The relic-chamber of the stupa was placed inside the dome or garbha. Although inaccessible after the completion of the monument, it contained figural and thematic murals. The relic of the Buddha, the royal spear and other sacred items were enshrined in the relic chamber. The royal spear was the symbol of sovereignty and victory. The Mirisavati dagoba is the only stupa where royal items are enshrined with the Buddha’s relics in Sri Lanka.

The other unique distinctive and ancient feature of the Mirisavati stupa is the projecting frontispieces (vahalka/ayaka/adimukha) placed at the four cardinal points (northern, eastern, southern and western) at the base of the dome. These are the oldest and most beautiful creations among the frontispieces of the other ancient stupas in Anuradhapura. These were ornamented with classical stone carvings, sculptures and mural paintings. The other example with this type of carvings and paintings is Kantaka Stupa at Mihintale. The carvings in both resemble stone carvings of the Sanchi Stupa (3rd century BC) in India.

According to historical records, Sri Lanka possesses the largest amount of Buddha’s relics so far unearthed from any country. The Anuradhapura sacred city is visited by Buddhists and venerated as the most significant religious place because of the large quantity of relics deposited there. The Mahavamsa, the great Chronicle, also mentions Mirisavatiya stupa as one of the earliest monuments built to deposit the Buddha’s relics. It was built by King Dutugamunu, depositing Buddha’s relic together with his spear, during his reign (161-137 B.C) as a mark of the end of armed struggle fought for sovereignty of this country.

Subsequently, some of the kings who ruled Sri Lanka deposited more and more relics and valuable items as well as decorating the monument. Among them King Gajabahu I (134-1 12) King Voharikatissa (214-236), King Kasyapa (914-923), and King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) are foremost. However due to foreign invasions, the city was abandoned and Mirisavatiya like other monuments fell into ruin as a result of vandalism and natural reasons.

During the colonial period, British Colonial Agents like Henry Parker and J.G Smither started excavation and the true history of the monuments was revealed. The 192-feet high present monument is the result of the endeavour of faithful Buddhists. The late President R. Premadasa initiated the renovation of the monument in 1991 and it was completed with the patronage of Ven. Ethalavatunuwewe Gnanatilaka Thera, Chief Incumbent of the Mirisavatiya Temple.

Many of the relics of the Buddha found from this monument were re-deposited in the present monument and some were kept in possession of incumbent monks who became the heads of Mirisavatiya temple in teacher -pupil succession. Today Most Venerable Etalavetunuwewe Gnanatilaka Thera is the Incum bent and head of the Mirisavatiya temple under whom the main monument and its surrounding historical site is preserved.

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