#2 - The Ancient City: Anuradhapura to Mihintale
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Our first stop-off once we’d left the sprawling mass of Colombo was to a capital of a bygone era: the ancient city of Anuradhapura. First obtaining this status in 380 BC, the city served as the religious and cultural heartland of Sri Lanka for well over a millennium. Moving from the ultra-modern, high-rise complexes of the contemporary capital, our arrival in the city felt like crossing the gateway into the country’s rich and extensive spiritual past.
Navigating through Anuradhapura New Town involved all the hustle, bustle and harrying which turned out to be characteristic of the majority of Sri Lankan towns, with a single Pizza Hut the only link to the outside world. The town’s modesty is such that without the interspersed signposting for a nearby ‘Sacred City’ you would be forgiven for not realising that Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest archaeological and architectural treasures lie just round the corner.
Anuradhapura became the royal epicentre of Sri Lanka during the time of King Devanampiya Tissa (307-267 BC), and under his reign the country first adopted Buddhism. This point marked the birth of Sinhalese culture in the region, an ancestry which has grown to encompass 75% of the current population. Control over Anuradhapura changed hands frequently during the city’s heyday, with each new King and ruler adding more grandeur to the giant dagobas and temples, the spectacular culmination of which remains largely intact today.
Forgoing the all-inclusive $25 dollar entry-fee to see the site in its entirety, Gus and I made the decision to beat the sunset on a walk to the Sri Maha Bodhi; said to be a oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, grown from a sapling of the tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment.
As I donned my new pair of loose-fitting, temple-ready white trousers at the entry point, I was quickly surrounded by robed Buddhist pilgrims arriving to sing prayer to the tree and the temple that surrounds it. I began to feel immersed in the late-evening procession, taking a seat in the sand to look up in awe as night descended through the tree’s branches. The extent of the care given by the thousands of devoted guardians of the tree was immaculate, with large, gold-covered supports tending to every stray branch. With Buddhism teaching us to reflect on our own impermanence, the Bodhi tree’s almost incomprehensible longevity enforces upon its visitors a deep-rooted sense of perspective and wonder, with only the rhythmic chanting of pilgrims breaking through the calm stillness of the air it breathed.
The next morning we rewound the clock yet further by visiting the nearby temple complex of Mihintale, said to mark the very spot where the king was converted by the son of an Indian emperor, and thus the birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Weaving precariously past tuk-tuks, buses and dogs on the 13km cycle to the hill site, we arrived in the early morning hours to avoid the midday heat. The temples themselves were scattered on the hilltop, demanding a steep but rewarding hike of just under 2000 steps before revealing themselves. Upon the hilltop the views of the flat plains extended undisturbed in all directions. We met pilgrims who had cycled for two days from the capital to get there, putting our leisurely bike-ride to shame, and we got guided through the various ancient carvings by a resident cleaner of 18 years, who gave us passionate details of their significance without demanding anything in return – an unexpected but welcome treat. We cycled back to Feel Like Home hostel with our thirst for Buddhist enchantment thoroughly quenched.
The structures of Anuradhapura and Mihintale evoke awe through their sheer scale, with their intricate carvings harking back to a time when nature was at once overwhelmed and sanctified as humanity first took hold of the island. They are perhaps the country’s two cultural must-sees.
Left: The Ruwanwelisaya Stupa in Anuradhapura. Standing at 103 metres, it is one of the world's tallest ancient monuments.