The brick color stupa of Abhayagiri Vihara, a Wonderful Attraction in Anuradhapura
Abhayagiri Vihara, a Wonderful Attraction in Anuradhapura

The majority of Sri Lankans follow Buddhism as their religion. Hence, there is a long history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. However, if you have heard about Sri Lanka before, you may have also heard about the mind-blowing ancient sites and ruins which are scattered throughout the island. Among them, there are so many historical Buddhist sites. So, your trip to Sri Lanka won’t be completed without paying a visit to a Buddhist temple. Abhayagiri Viharaya is one such iconic and popular Buddhist temple in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, that you should certainly visit. So, here is all you need to know about this temple prior to your visit.

Where is the Abhayagiri Viharaya Located?

Abhayagiri Viharaya is located in the Anuradhapura district of the North Central province of Sri Lanka. It is about 8 kilometers away from Anuradhapura town.

History of the Abhayagiri Viharaya

Abhayagiri Viharaya is written in Sri Lankan history as a major monastery site of the Anuradhapura era. In addition, it is a historical representation of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism. According to Mahawansa, the great Sri Lankan chronicle, King Vattagamini Abhaya built the colossal Abhayagiri Viharaya. It gained much reputation as the second-largest monument built solely of brick in the whole world.

During his reign, King Vattagamini Abhaya faced many challenges due to famine and foreign invasions. Therefore, he had to stay in exile for 14 years. After he gained the victory, he built the Abhayagiri Viharaya at the same site. Then, he appointed Venerable Maha Tissa Thero of Kuppikala as the chief monk of the viharaya. Abhayagiri Viharaya was popular at the time as an education center for various schools of Buddhism. It had the following four faculties.

  1. Uttara Mula
  2. Vahadu Mula
  3. Kapara Mula
  4. Mahanepta Mula

During that period, Abhayagiri Viharaya was an international learning center that covered the whole Buddhist philosophy. The structure of the Abhayagiri Viharaya was very similar to the Buddhist universities of Nalanda, Jagaddala, and Vikramashila in India. According to various historical records, there were about 5000 resident monks in Abhayagiri Viharaya at the time. Furthermore, the Abhayagiri Stupa is also historically important as it is the original custodian of the sacred tooth relic. The ancient ruins of the site still reflect the grandeur of the site which used to be a major center for Buddhism in the Anuradhapura Kingdom.

After the reign of King Vattagamini Abhaya, King Gajabahu also supported immensely for the development of the temple. However, since King Parakramabahu supported the Maha Viharaya, Abhayagiri Viharaya started to face a sort of decline. At the present, the government of Sri Lanka has conserved it as a religious heritage of the country.

The Significance of Abhayagiri Viharaya

Anuradhapura is a must-visit town if you are visiting Sri Lanka. There are many iconic Buddhist temples in this sacred town. Abhayagiri Viharaya takes a significant place among those temples for its historical importance and many other reasons.

Here are some such factors for why Abhayagiri Viharaya takes a prominent place in Anuradhapura.

Architecture of the Abhayagiri Viharaya

The unique architecture of the Abhayagiri Viharaya represents many important concepts of the Anuradhapura era. Even though Buddhism was the religion followed by the majority of the population at the time, Hinduism also had a major influence on the architecture of the Buddhist temples. Therefore, in Abhayagiri Viharaya, there are certain elements that display the influence of Hindu traditions. For instance, the design of the entrance to the temple displays how the protection of the temple is dedicated to a guardian deity. Apart from that, the guard stones at the sides of the foot of the flight of steps are carved with Hindu symbols such as the pot of abundance, Kalpavrksa, and the figure of Nagaraja. Furthermore, one such well-carved guard stone is visible in the Ratna Prasada of Abhayagiri Viharaya. These guard stones illustrate the exquisite architecture of the time.

Apart from the Hindu symbols, another symbol that is very prominent in these guard stones is pictures of lotus. Lotus represents the agricultural lifestyle that prevailed in the country and it also symbolizes the guardian deity of rain. Moreover, there are two statues at the sides of the entrance of the Abhayagiri Stupa. The significance behind these statues is that the people believe they are wearing off any evil or danger that might harm the stupa or the temple premises.

Furthermore, another great example of the architecture of Abhayagiri Viharaya is the moonstone. This unique creation of Sri Lankan sculptors also portrays the impeccable talent of the ancient Sri Lankans. According to historians, it symbolizes the concept of Samsara in Buddhism which is the endless cycle of life. Such highly detailed features of the architecture in the temple add a lot of significance to the iconic vihara. 

Abhayagiri Stupa

The gigantic Abhayagiri Stupa is possibly the most attractive feature of the whole Abhayagiri Viharaya premises. The stupa still stands in its glory even though it is heavily restored after being destroyed during the foreign invasions and being neglected for a long time. It is restored with the use of clay bricks and it is said that the structure quite resembles the original stupa. The history of the stupa dates back to the 1st century BC. Originally, it was over 100 meters tall and was one of the biggest structures of the ancient world. The restoration is also over 75 meters tall. Besides, the brick monument amidst the forested plain gives a breathtaking view.

According to the historical record of Saddharma Ratnavali, this stupa had a statue of a golden bull that contains the relics of Lord Buddha in it. Another special feature of the stupa is the presence of a large slab with a footstep on its northern side. People believe that it is to be of Lord Buddha.

Apart from all these, you will have the chance to see heavily detailed and unique moonstones situated close to the western and eastern steps toward the stupa. Thus, Abhayagiri Stupa is one of the most popular stupas in the country.

Abhayagiri Museum

Another interesting place to visit within the Abhayagiri Viharaya premises is the Abhayagiriya museum. The name of this museum is “Mahatissa-Faxian Cultural Complex”. The title honors the Ven. Kuppikala Maha Tissa Thero, who was the first incumbent of the Abhayagiri Viharaya, and Ven. Fa-Xian, who was a Chinese Buddhist monk who studied Buddhism at the Viharaya from 411 AD to 412 AD. Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Fund constructed this museum with financial support from the People’s Republic of China. The general public got the chance to visit this museum which mainly centers around the archeological campus from the 13th of June of 1992 onwards.

There are many artifacts that were recovered from the temple premises in the Abhayagiri museum. The main purpose of the museum is to showcase and conserve the pride and importance of the Abhayagiri Viharaya complex to the world. It is also a great portrayal of the ancient arts and technology of Sri Lanka, especially focusing on the Anuradhapura era.

Furthermore, during your visit to the museum, you’ll be able to see an impressive collection of squatting plates, jewelry, pottery, and religious sculptures which belong to the Abhayagiri Viharaya. There is a small bookshop at the museum in addition. So, after all, it will be an educational experience for you to pay a visit to the museum when you are visiting the Abhayagiri Viharaya.

The Destruction of the Abhayagiri Viharaya

The decline of the glory and development of the Abhayagiriya Maha Viharaya started after the 12th century BC. This is because the Mahavihara got the political support of King Parakramabahu the first which resulted in the abolishment of Abhayagiri and Jetawana traditions. According to the Culavamsa, which is a historical record of Sri Lanka, King Parakramabahu first purified Mahavihara and then unified it with the Abhayagiri and Jetawana traditions. Even though some mention it as a unification of Maha Sangha in some historical records, other historians claim that this resulted in the destruction of the Abhayagiri and Jetawana traditions. Later, the king appointed a leader of the Sangha called ‘Sangharaja’ who posed as the leader of the whole Maha Sangha. The Sangharaja received the assistance of two deputies.

The foreign invasions from South India and the abandonment of the city of Anuradhapura as capital due to the Chola rule which prevailed over a half-century also resulted in the decline of the Abhayagiriya Viharaya. After the capital of the kingdom was moved to Polonnaruwa from Anuradhapura, it was evident that the decline of Abhayagiri Viharaya was unavoidable. It gradually lost its fame and people neglected it for a long time. In fact, Abhayagiri Viharaya became unnoticed for 800 years until historians rediscovered it during the late 19th century.  

Present Status of the Abhayagiri Viharaya

Today, Abhayagiri Viharaya is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Anuradhapura. In the late 19th century, during the rule of the British, they discovered this ancient heritage hidden in the Anuradhapura area. Afterward, many historians also researched the area and found many important facts about the historic importance of the site. Thus, the authorities took action to conserve the Abhayagiri Viharaya site as a great heritage.

People throughout the world consider this one of the most extensive ruins in the world. As a result, Buddhists from Sri Lanka and from other countries as well, make sure to visit this historic place during their tours to Anuradhapura. Thus, Abhayagiri Viharaya has become one of the most prominent Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka.

Apart from its religious importance, Abhayagiri Viharaya is also famous as a tourist attraction as well. There is so much to see in the large temple site so it will be an educational and enriching experience to explore the area. Furthermore, you will be able to capture some iconic photographs amidst the ruins situated in a spectacular landscape. Overall, Abhayagiri Viharaya is a destination that you should definitely pay a visit to when in Anuradhapura.

The Bottom Line

Sri Lanka is a country with a great history and culture. Visiting ancient temples like Abhayagiri Viharaya is a great way to explore the country’s ancient history. Moreover, if you are interested in visiting historical sites, this will be a lovely experience for you. However, if you are planning to visit the Abhayagiri Viharaya, try to visit in the morning to avoid the crowds and the scorching heat. In addition, make sure to dress in appropriate attire to visit a place of worship. The amazing thing is that there is no entrance fee to visit the temple and it is totally free to witness this place. Besides, even the Department of Archaeology is providing services to preserve the grandeur of this place. After all, a visit to Abhayagiri Viharaya will be an unforgettable experience on your tour in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Happy and safe traveling!