Fascinating large brownish stupa of Jethawanaramaya Monastery Complex, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka might be a speck on the world map. Still the natural charms it holds with it, its wonderful history, and its marvelous culture and traditions, makes it significant and exclusive. Of course, these are a few reasons that positions this splendid island top in the lists of the most popular tourist attractions. However, when grasping the delight of the history of Sri Lanka, and when planning the things to do in Sri Lanka, exploring the historical cultural attractions happen to be a favorite of many. Further, when seeking such places to visit in Sri Lanka, Jethawanaramaya Monastery ranks top in any of the lists.

There are two main reasons for this immense attraction. One is the historical and religious values of Jethawanaramaya Monastery. And the second is, this stupa being the tallest stupa in Sri Lanka, and the third tallest structure of such in the world. So, both these reasons make it worth exploring. Thus, we thought of sharing with you its grandeur through this read.

Establishment of The Jethawanaramaya Monastery

King Mahasena (276-303AC) secured the credit of founding Jethawanaramaya Monastery. He was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism. Though he found this monastery, he built it destroying the Mahavihara Monastery which was the first and largest monastery in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, owing to this fact, Jethawanaramaya happens to be an important highlight in both the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism sects histories in Sri Lanka. Besides, the reason for naming Jethawanaramaya Monastery as “Jethawana” was constructing it on the premises of Mahavihara in Jethawana Park.

Demolishing The Mahavihara Monastery

During the reign of King Gotabhaya, a disagreement took place between the monks of Mahavihara and Abhayagiri monasteries. King Gotabhaya took the side of Mahavihara. In addition, he took severe measures against the Abhayagiri Monastery. During this time, monks of this monastery went to India. But one monk named Sanghamitta came back for avenge and earned King Gotabhaya’s trust to teach his two children. They were Prince Jettathissa and Prince Mahasena.

Later, after the death of King Gotabhaya, his elder son Prince Jettathissa who was a supporter of Mahavihara, came to the throne of the country. He ruled the country for 10 years. In 276 A.C, at the moment Prince Mahasena got the throne. Thereafter, Sanghamitta Thero returned to Sri Lanka. He persuaded the king to take actions against Mahavihara saying that only Abhayagiri monks preached true doctrine of the Buddha. Similarly, he convinced the king to prohibit offering almsgiving to Mahavihara monks and order them to retreat. Finally, according to the advice of Sangamitta thero, King Mahasena destroyed the buildings of Mahavihara. Later, he built Jethawana Monastery in that same place where Mahavihara was located.

Restoration of The Mahavihara Monastery

As a result of the misdeeds of King Mahasena, his reputation was defamed. A friend of King Mahasena, Maghavanna-Abhaya, fled to Ruhuna. He raised an army and challenged him. However, King Mahasena regretted his deeds and promised to restore Mahavihara. The king kept his promise and rebuilt Mahavihara Monastery and several other temples and some other academies like Lovamahapaya. It happened to minimize his black mark. Finally, he became popular as a great builder of significant tanks like Minneriya Tank. Later, people named him as “The God of Minneriya”.

Features of The Jethawanaramaya Monastery

In addition to the buildings created by King Mahasena, King Kithsiri Mewan (303-331 AC) created many other several buildings in the Jethawana Monastery. King Mahasena built Jethawana Monastery at the place where Nandana Pleasure Garden existed before. It is the place where Arahat Mahinda Thero preached the Dhamma for seven consecutive days.

Since the establishment of the monastery, it has expanded for at least six centuries. However, the current monastery complex covers an area of 48 hectares. The layout of Jethawana monastery is so much similar to the Abhayagiri Monastery. But, it is smaller in size. All the features in the Jethawanaramaya Monastery are identical to the features in Abhayagiri Monastery. They are as follows.

  • Jethawana Stupa
  • Buddhist Railing
  • Complex of Monks’ Living Units
  • The Chapter House (Uposathagara)
  • The Image House (Pilimage)
  • Refectory (Danasala)
  • Bo-tree Shrine (Bodhigara)
  • The Assembly Hall (Sannipatasala)

If you are able to visit Jethawanaramaya Monastery, you can see all them situated around the stupa as follows. 

FeatureLocation From Stupa
The Image HouseWest
The Bo-Tree ShrineSouth
The Chapter HouseSouth
The RefectoryEast
The locations of the important places in the Jathawanaramaya Momastery

In addition, there is a belt of residential units of the monks around stupa. Thousands of Buddhist monks lived there. It is said that the Jethawanaramaya Monastery has been the home for the Sangika Sect of Buddhism in the past.

Let us go through all the amazing features of Jethawanaramaya Monastery one by one.

Jethawana Stupa

King Mahasen built this. The amazing thing about the Jethawana Stupa is that it falls under the most sacred sixteen places and eight places that a Buddhist devotee should visit at least once in their lifetime. Local Buddhists call them “Solosmasthana” and “Atamasthana”. It holds a part of the sash or waist tie of Lord Buddha. Some believe that the intention of building this monument was to enclose the place where they cremated Mahinda Thero.

The Architecture Of Jethawana Stupa

Jethawana Stupa was one of the tallest structures during the fourth century AC, the other two being the pyramids at Giza, Egypt. However, it still secures the largest with a base area of 233,000 m2 . Its height is 122m (400 ft). They used approximately 93.3 million baked bricks for the construction of this stupa. In addition, they have obtained the support of more than 100 elephants to construct it.

Similarly, each side of the stupa is 576 ft in length. In addition, the width of the flights of the stairs at four sides are about 28ft. It has a deep foundation of 8.5 meters and sits on a bedrock. The whole compound area covers about 5.6 hectares. There was once a boundary wall which covered the whole compound area with four wahalkadas or front entrances. They lead to welimaluwa, a sand terrace. And there was an inner retaining wall which carried four parts of elephants and four altars called Ayakas. Finally, they have engraved the names of the people who donated to build this on stones.

However, with the downfall of Anuradhapura Kingdom in the 11th century, the stupa started to cover a jungle. Later, King Parakramabahu renovated it to the height at present. Finally, UNESCO – Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle project rehabilitated this amazing Jethawana Stupa recently.

Buddhist Railing at the Jethawana Monastery

Buddhist railing is a rectangular structure that consists of four entrances. Each entrance was on the center of each side. All these were situated behind the Jethawana museum. They have built the railing with a long wall of 42m x 34m. Archeologists believe that it indicates the Triple Gems of Buddhists, Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Monks’ Living Units (Pancavasa)

The location of monks’ living units is in the south-west side of the Jethawana Stupa. They have built it in a format of four smaller buildings surrounding a large building at the four corners. The senior monk would have lived in the large building in the center and other monks would have lived in other smaller buildings. However, all these five buildings consist of steps decorated with moonstones, guard stones and balustrades.

The Chapter House (Uposathaghara) at the Jethawana Monastery

The monks used the chapter house to perform their religious activities like praying, meditation and holding meaningful discussions on religion. In addition, it was a place to make confessions for the monks who had made any breach of conduct in front of the head monk. An inscription on the Abhayagiri Monastery proves that there was a chapter house called “Diyasena”, built by King Mahinda V (956 – 972 A.D) at Jethawana Monastery. The present edifice with 176 stone pillars has been identified as a chapter house. The massive columns cut in stones testify that it had a multi-storeyed magnificent structure. Similarly, monks used upper floors for the residential purposes. Its ground plan is so much similar to “Rathnaprasada”, the chapter house at the Abhayagiriya Monastery.

The Image House (Patimaghara)

The image house in this complex was the largest image house in Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa era. The location of it is the west of stupa. It is a vaulted type image house known as gedige. However, continuation of this type of image houses can also be found in the Polonnaruwa era such as Lankatilake and Thivanka image house.

There is a monolithic door at the entrance of the image house at Jethawana Monastery. The pillars in them raise to 27ft (83 m). There is evidence like the fragments of lotus pedestals which prove that once a massive Buddha statue filled this image house which was the height of 37 ft (11.3 m) and high carved in limestone. According to the calculations, the whole building would have been 50ft (15.25 m) in height.

However, it is said that this image house was built by King Sena I (831-833) and was destroyed by Cholas in the 10th century. Later, other kings who ruled at the last stages of the Anuradhapura Kingdom rebuilt it.

The Refectory or Danasala at Jethawana Monastery

You can see the Refectory at the south-east of the stupa. The building has a central court-yard paved with stone. There are two large canoes of different sizes. They are the Bath Oruwa (Rice boat) and Kenda Oruwa (Gruel boat). The rice boat is larger in size. Judging by its size, the refectory would have been capable of serving 3000 monks at a time.

The Bo-tree Shrine (Bodhigara)

A rectangular terrace of 42×32 meters and some fragments that can be parts of a bodhigara was found in 1890. During the excavation in 1891, the same team was able to find another two stone images of Buddha. But, the location of them was unknown in 1990.

The Assembly Hall (Sannipatasala)

It is the place where the resident monks assemble and also called as Sannipatasala or Sabhasala. It is a rectangular hall with long seats and entrances on all four sides.

Museum At The Jethawana Monastery

The public got the chance to visit the museum at Jethawanaramaya Monastery in the year of 1996. The location of it is the same place of the ancient monastery of Jethawana, Anuradhapura. If you get a chance to visit this wonderful place, you will get a good knowledge about artefacts discovered during the excavations of the Jethawanaramaya Monastery. 

Chronicled Artefacts in the Museum

The amazing thing about the artefacts is that they were in the thick layer between the basal platform and the brick upper platform in Jethawana Stupa when they were excavating. Among the artefacts displayed in the museum, there are several local and imported things such as Roman, Indian and other coins, Buddhist and Hindu ritual objects, slabs of stone with paintings, more than 300,000 beads made of glass, crystal, clay, agate, bone, ivory, carnelian, shell, gold and silver. 

In addition, they found several black and white photos that illustrate the Jethawana Stupa covered in jungle during its rediscovering process. However, you are able to see some ruins outside the museum building such as a photogenic water tank and several raised platforms. The British used this museum building as the town hall in 1937 during the colonization period in Sri Lanka.

Later, the excavations done in Jethawana Monastery found nine gold plates containing some parts of Mahayana sutra. The language of them was Sanscrit. The gold plates weighed approximately 73 ounces. A plate had a length of 63.5 cm, a width of 5.8 cm and a thickness of 0.576 cm.

The Current Significance of the Jethawanaramaya Monastery

In 1982, UNESCO declared the ancient city of Anuradhapura as a world heritage site which holds an immense cultural and religious value. Being the first kingdom of Sri Lanka it has a lengthy, significant history. Various structures in this ancient city exhibit the magnificent architectural and aesthetic skills that the people of this little island had. Jethawanaramaya Monastery is one among these astonishing places where numerous local and foreign devotees come to visit every day. Similarly, you have the chance to join with various religious activities such as Sil Campaigns, Dhamma Sermons, Dhamma Discussions, Bodhi Pujas, and Pirith Chanting Ceremonies at this place especially on Poson Poya Days. In addition to those activities, you will get the chance to enjoy a free meal at Dansals where you are given different kinds of Sri Lankan foods with no charge.

The Bottom Line

Are you a traveler who loves and appreciates the delightful cultural heritage of Sri Lanka? If so, let us highlight the fact that Jethawanaramaya Monastery is a must visit for you . Also, it is certainly an ideal attraction that offers a perfect understanding of the grandeur of Sri Lankan history and culture. So, by chance, if you ever visit the sacred city of Anuradhapura, make sure that you visit this wonderful historical site. And, why not? Sit by the verandah of this majestic stupa, and spend some time there. How its atmosphere soothes you with its peaceful nature and tranquility will surely amaze you. Happy and Safe Travelling!