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Must Visit Locations

Abhayagiri Dagoba (Stupa) & Monastery, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

One of the sites of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, greatest monastic city of the ancient world, 437 BC-845 AD, A World Heritage Site.

A Lost city
Abhayagiri monastery is one of the most interesting & atmospheric quarters of Anuradhapura. The sheer scale of the ruins of the monastery is prodigious; the setting, scattered amidst beautiful light woodland, is magical; a lost city particularly memorable at the crack of dawn or at dusk.

Establishment of the monastery in 88 BC
The third of Anuradhapura's great monasteries, Abhayagiri lie on the northern side of the city. The great monastery was founded by King Vatttagamani Abhaya (Valagambahu) (104-76 BC) in 88 BC. King Valagambahu had lost his throne to an army of marauding Dravidian invaders from South India. Whilst escaping from the city, the king was taunted by a Jain priest of the Giri Monastery, who shouted: "The great black Sinhala lion is fleeing". An Indian Jain monk having a Jain hermitage in then capital of Buddhist Lanka itself, is an outstanding indication of the religious tolerance of ancient Lanka. In spite of the religious tolerance in the island, the contempt of the Jain monk towards the Sinhalese & the Sinhalese king brought nothing but the downfall of Jain monastery. The king even while fleeing, vowed to regain his kingdom & built a Buddhist monastery over the Jain hermitage. Fourteen years later, the lion-hearted king rescued his island from the marauding Dravidian invaders, razed the Jain hermitage to the ground & established a Buddhist monastery.

Creation in destruction
King Vatttagamani Abhaya named the new Buddhist monastery with a combination of the second part of his own name (meaning fearless-as in the Abhaya, or "Have No Fear" as in Buddhist mudra of the Buddhist statues) & name of the demolished Jain monastery itself  "Giri". Although the king had the building of the Jain monastery wiped off the earth, he resolved to immortalize the name of Jain monastery in a Buddhist monastery. Even in the destruction, the Sinhalese seemed to have a tolerant aspect in their nature.

Abhayagiriya Dagoba
As at the Mahavihara & Jetavana monasteries, Abhayagiri's most striking feature is its dagoba. In its glorious days, it is believed to have stood around 115m tall, only slightly smaller than Jetavana Dagoba, making it the fourth tallest in the ancient world after Khufru & Khafra at Gizeh, Egypt & Jetavana Dagoba. Following a restoration by King Parakrambahu the great, the dagoba may have stood over 100m high. The loss of its pinnacle has now reduced its height to around 70m tall. The dagoba, built over a footprint of the Buddha is 400 m in circumference & bears some similarities to the earlier Thuparama. Some columns remain of its vatadage.

Ongoing restoration work of Abhayagiriya Dagoba (Stupa)
Restoration work, which took many long years, is nearing its completion at last.

Vahalkadas (entrances)
The dagoba's four entrances are similar in design to those at the Golden Sand Stupa & are in various stages of renovation. The main entrance is flanked by two guardian statues of Padmanidi & Samakanidi, a pair of dwarf attendants of Kubera, the god of wealth. The eastern vahalkada is flanked by low-relief carvings of classical-looking elephants, bulls & lions, all on their hind legs together with two winged figures looking like a pair of angels who've flown straight out of the Italian Renaissance. The western vahalkada is flanked by delicate floral patterns.

The glory of the monastery
Abhayagiri made tremendous strides at a pace to surpass the Mahavihara, the largest & most influential monastery in Lanka; the area almost became a rival capital. By the fifth century it was home to five thousand monks & had become an important source of new Buddhist doctrine & a flourishing centre of artistic activity & philosophical speculation. Stillmore the monastery established wide ranging contacts with Java, India & Burma.

Deviation from orthodox Theravada (Hinayana) tradition
While still remaining within the Theravada tradition, the great monastery adopted some elements of Mahayana Buddhism & Tantric Buddhism much to the displeasure of Mahavihara monastery. The Mahayana doctrine introduced Bodhisattva (the Buddha to be) worship, in which the enlightened withhold his opportunity of entering Nirvana (end of suffering by way of birth & rebirth) in order to help humanity. Worse still Tantric Buddhism involved the worship of a mother goddess.

Reorganization of the monastery complex
Despite their deviation from Theravada tradition, the monks of the Abhayagiri sect reorganized the monastery complex: all buildings were arranged systematically in concentric squares. An outer enclosure contained the monk's living quarters, refectory, bath-house & latrines. An inner precinct, on a raised platform, contained the Bo Tree & the stupa. During the reign of King Mahasena (276-303 AD), the Abhayagiri monks rose to prominence & their precincts sprouted palaces, bathing pools & sculpture of the highest artistic standards. However when the power of this sect declined the monasteries went back to the comfortable informality of their old ways.

Chinese traveler monk Fa Hien
The Chinese traveller Buddhist bhikku (monk) Fa Hien, visitng Lanka in the fifth century AD recorded that there were 5000 monks in residence. Bhikku Fa Hien also refers to a 7-m jade Buddha statue, sparkling with gems.


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Photo Gallery

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Abhayagiri Dagoba

Abhayagiri Vihara

Abhayagiri Vihara

Abhayagiri Dagoba

Abhayagiri Dagoba

Abgayagiri Monastery

Giant Pond at Abayagiri

Moonstone at the entrance

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