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Stupa Land : Ancient Buddhist stupas of Sri Lanka

"Eight vases of silver & eight (vases) of gold did he, with tireless zeal, place in midst, & in a circle around these he placed a thousand & eight new vases, & likewise (around each of these) a hundred & eight garments. Eight splendid bricks did he lay, each one apart by itself." Mahawamsa

What's in the name?
In Sri Lanka, the stupa (Sanskrit word) is often referred to as 'Chaitiya' or 'dagoba' (from Sanskrit dhatu-relic, garbha-womb chamber) & sometimes named "saya" (from cetiya-funeral mound) or "wehere" (from vihara-monastery).

Other country names
Stupa (a Sanskrit word) has its own country names: Chorten (the basis of offering) in Tibet and Bhutan; Chaitya in Nepal; Candi in Indonesia; Chedi (a Pali synonym) in Thailand; Chedey in Cambodia; Tap in Korea; That in Laos; Ta (meanining tower) in China; Pagoda in Japan.

The origin of construction & Relics
The origin of stupa traces to Giragadu Dagoba stupa, Mahiyangana Dagoba and Mutiynagana Vihara in Lanka. Construction of Stupa in India spread in the era of Emperor Asoka of India. Following the cremation of Buddha at his final extinction, his ashes were divided into forty thousand parts, providing the impetus for a huge spate of construction of dagoba in India to enshrine the relics. Emperor Asoka is believed to have constructed 84000 Stupas. Stupas are believed to enshrine the bodily relics (Saririka datu), objects associated with Buddha (Paribosika datu) & relics sacred to Buddhism (Udeshika datu).

Origin of the idea
The quintessential form of Buddhist architecture began as a mound of earth & developed into the stupas. The earliest dagobas were built to enshrine sacred relic of the Buddha. As Buddhism spread, the building of dagoba became widespread resulting in the construction of smaller, or votive, dagobas as well as colossal dagobas.

Origin of the design
The stupa, or dagoba, as they are known in Sri Lanka, is the world's most universal Buddhist architectural symbol. The development of the distinctive form of dagoba is believed to trace back to non other than Buddha himself. Upon being asked by two Indian devotees Tapassu & Balluka, what shape a memorial to him should take, the Buddha is said to have folded one of his robes into a square & placed his upturned begging bowl & umbrella on top it, thus outlining the basic shape of the dagoba. Upon the request of Tappasu & Bhalluka for an object for veneration, Buddha offered them Sacred Kesha Datu, a lock of pure & blue-black hair. The sacred Kesha Datu offered to Indians Tappasu & Ballauka, merchants by profession, were enshrined in Giragadu Dagoba stupa in Sri Lanka.

Placement of relics
Relics were traditionally placed in the harmika, the square relic chamber at the top of the dome.

Development of stupa in Sri Lanka: Asia's nearest equivalent to the Egyptian pyramids.
Although the architecture of Stupas has evolved in every Buddhist country throughout the history, in no other country has the concept & architecture of Stupa developed to such an extent, splendour & grandeur as in Sri Lanka. The tradition of building stupas was developed under the patronage of Sinhalese kings, in the golden age of Anuradhapura in the 4th & 5th centuries AD & the subsequent revival during the 11th & 12th centuries. Sri Lanka's dagobas preserve the classic older form of the stupa, following the pattern of the great stupa at Sanchi in central India, erected in the 3rd century BC by the Emperor Asoka.

The visual impact
The visual impact of the Stupa has a tremendous calming influence on the restless & tormented minds & hearts of suppressed masses of the underdeveloped world, the third world. The stupa is made up of five constituents: a square base, a hemispherical dome, a conical spire, a crescent moon, a circular disc.

Orientation & alignment
The stupas are oriented along North-South & East-West axes & setting out has been done very accurately. In Abayagiri Stupa (present height 73.0 m, outer basal ring diameter 108.8m) orientation of the boundary walls within 1.5 degree accuracy & the top of the sphere is almost in the same vertical line passing through the centre of the base (maximum shift is 23 mm) (Dempegegama, 2001).

A cosmological interpretation of the shape
The design is complete with symbolic meaning too. The main dome (ande), is said to represent dome of heaven or Mount Meru, the sacred mythological peak which lies at the so called centre of the universe, while the central spire (chattravali) symbolizes the axis of the cosmos, axis mundi, or cosmic pillar, connecting earth & heaven & leading upwards out of the world to heavens of the gods or towards nirvana. Worshippers walk round the stupa on the raised platform in a clockwise direction (pradakshina), following the rotational movement of the celestial bodies.

Surrounding it on a low platform (vahalkadas) is the ambulatory or circular path, reached from the cardinal directions by stone stairways. Around some of the dagobas there are fine sculptures on these circular paths at the head of each stairway.

The Bulldozer & Bulldog of ancient Lanka
The foundations were trampled down by the elephant, the Bulldozer & Bulldog of ancient Lanka. "...First the land was dug out to a depth of 6 meters & then crushed stones were stamped down by elephants whose feet were bound by leather. Then butter clay was spread over the stones & a network of iron was laid. Finally a sheet of copper & a sheet of silver were laid". Mahawamsa

Popular ancient stupas in Sri Lanka
Thuparama stupa
built by King Devanam Piya Tissa during 307-267 BC, - present height from platform 19.2 meters & dome diameter at platform of 18.0 meters.

Tissamaharama stupa built by King Kavantissa during 3rd century, - present height from platform 45.9 meters & dome diameter at platform of 43.0 meters

Mirisavatiya Dagaba built by King Dutugamunu during 161-137 BC, - present height from platform 55.0 meters & dome diameter at platform of 43.0 meters

Ruwanweliseya Stupa (Ruwan Weli Seya) built by King Dutugamunu (161-137 BC) - present height from platform is 300 ft.

Abayagiri stupa built by King Valagambahu during 88-76 BC, - present height from platform 73.0 meters & dome diameter at platform of 99.1 meters

Jetavana Dagoba built by King Mahasena during 269-296 AD, - present height from platform 70.7 meters & dome diameter at platform of 102.1 meters

Kirivehera stupa built by King Parakaramabahu during 1140-1173 AD - present height from platform 24.3 meters & dome diameter at platform of 21.3 meters

Rankothvehera built by Nissanka Malla during 1174-1183 AD - present height from platform 61.0 meters & dome diameter at platform of 56.7 meters

Vatadages : Many smaller stupas were built within circular buildings. These were covered with a metal & timber roof resting on concentric rows of stone pillars. Today the roofs have disappeared, but examples such as the Polonnaruwa Vatadage & Medirigiriya Vatadage are still in existence.


Modern Stupas

Mahaweli Maha Seya, Kotmale, Sri Lanka
Construction of Kotmale reservoir, resulted in submerges of 66 villages, 7 four tea estates & 18 temples. Today Mahaweli Maha Seya is being constructed in memory of those 18 Buddhist shrines lost to the island. The modern reservoir is subsequently named Gamini Dissanayake Reservoir in honour of the late Minister of Mahaweli in charge of Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project (AMDP) during the period of late president J. R. Jayewardene's government.

Located on an escarpment overlooking the modern Reservoir in a backdrop of magnificent landscape in the historic valley of Kotmale, the great modern stupa, once constructed, would become the largest stupa of the history of Sri Lanka.

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Photo Gallery

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Thuparama Dagoba

Mahiyangana Dagoba

Mirisavatiya Dagaba

Ruwanweliseya Stupa

Abhayagiri Stupa

Jetavana Dagoba

Kiri Vihara Stupa

Rankot Vihara

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