WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Abhayagiri Vihara - The Northem Monastery (Uttararamaya)


(By I G. Kulatunga and Athula Arnarasekera)

An exemplary foundation

Anuradhapura, one of the most extensive ruins in the world, and one of its most sacred pilgrimage cities, was a great monastic centre as well as a royal capital, with magnificent monasteries rising to many stories, all roofed with gilt bronze or tiles of burnt clay glazed in brilliant colors. To the north of the city, encircled by great walls and containing elaborate bathing ponds, carved balustrades and moonstones, stood Abhayagiri, one of seventeen such religious units in Anuradhapura and the largest of its five major viharas. Surrounding the humped dagaba, Abhayagiri Vihara was a seat of the Northern Monastery, or Uttara Vihara.

 The term Abhayagiri Vihara means not only a complex of monastic buildings, but also a fraternity of Buddhist monks, or Sangha, which maintained its own historical records, traditions and way of life. Founded in the second century B.C., it had grown into an international institution by the first century of this era, attracting scholars from all over the world and encompassing all shades of Buddhist philosophy. Its influence can be traced to other parts of the world, through branches established elsewhere. Thus, the Abhayagiri Vihara developed as a great institution vis‑a‑vis the Mahavihara and the jetavana Buddhist monastic sects in the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura.

Once flourishing, the great monasteries of Anuradhapura fell into melancholy ruin, only to be overgrown with vegetation, their walls and roofs pierced by the thrust of trees and tangled roots, and the great dagaba became a tree‑covered hillock the size of a town. After many centuries of oblivion, they are again being explored and cleared, and detailed excavation and conservation work is now leading to the rediscovery of an exquisite royal city of temples and monasteries.

It is recorded in the chronicles that Abhayagiri was established by King Vattagamini Abhaya (Valagamba), during the period of his second reign, from 89 to 77 B.C., a young Brahmin named Tiya (Tissa) declared war against him. Tiya was deluded by the prophecy of another Brahmin into thinking that was destined to be king. Before the arrival of Mahinda Thera who brought Buddhism to the island, Brahmins held the highest place in society. After the establishment of the Bhikkhu order in the island, however, they lost their supremacy, and were replaced by the Buddhist Sangha. Some Brahmins converted to Buddhism, while others raised the standard of revolt. Tiya, who enjoyed the support of his community, lived both in and outside of Sri Lanka, and was therefore very powerful.

At the same time, seven Tamil chiefs landed at Mahatittha with a mighty army. King Valagamba, a good diplomat, realizing that his forces were too weak to fight against both of these enemies, tried to rid himself of them by making them fight each other 'like a palm leaf cutting itself'. He sent a message to Tiya that he could have the kingdom, provided he managed to defeat the foreign invaders. Tiya agreed, advanced with his forces to meet the Tamils, and was vanquished by them. The Tamils, elated by their success, advanced towards Anuradhapura and defeated the king, who was forced to abandon the throne and go into hiding in the mountains. As the King, defeated in battle, was fleeing Anuradhapura, a Jain priest of the Giri Monastery, which had been built by King Pandukhabaya near the northern gate of the citv, cried out 'The great black Sinhala is fleeing.' The king thereupon resolved, if my wish (of regaining the kingdom) is fulfilled, I will build a Temple here.'

During the period of famine and foreign rule which followed, Vattagamani Abhaya took refuge in the mountain region collecting troops until, after more than fourteen years of exile, he marched on Anuradhapura in 89 B.C., and defeated the last Tamil king, Bhatiya. In fulfillment of the vow made on the day of his defeat, one of His first acts was to build the Abhayagiri Vihara on the site of the Giri monastery. Mahatissa Thera of Kupikkala was appointed as its Chief Incumbent, as a mark of gratitude for his support in the fight against the invaders. Abhayagiri thereafter became a symbol not only of religious, but also of national resurgence, as it signaled the end of Brahmin and Jain influence in the country.

According to the chronicles, the name Abhayagiri Vihara originated from the names of King Vattagamani Abhaya and of the Giri priests who lived in the Jain monastery. However, since most ancient monasteries were built around a hillock, or giri in Sinhala, examples being the Vessagiri, Meghagiri or Chetiyagiri monasteries, it is possible that the name Abhayagiri symbolizes the monastery created by Vattagamani Abhaya after his recapture of the kingdom surrounding the hillock known as Digapasana, now inside the Abhayagiri complex.

Although the monastery came into being as a breakaway faction of the Mahaviharal professing the Theravada doctrine, there are, initially, no discernible differences from the Mahavihara in its attitude towards doctrine or religious practices until, according to the Nikaya 5angraha (the Story of the Sects), a monk called Dhammaruci, of the Vajjiputtaka sect, arrived at Abhayagiri in 77 B.C. After that time, the monks came to be known as Dhammaruci as they accepted the theory of Puggala‑attavada of the Vajjiputtaka sect, a breakaway sect differing from the orthodox Mahavihara Buddhist sect of Anuradhapura, which had originated in India. A later attempt in the third century AD.,to introduce Vaitulyavada, another school of Buddhist thought, was subsequently frustrated.

The golden age of Abhayagiri

The accession of King Mahasena in the third century A.D.. saw the suppression of the Theravada doctrine practised by the Mahavihara monks. The king prohibited the giving of alms to them and went as far as to demolish the buildings of the Mahavihara and re‑use their materials for the construction of new buildings at the Abhayagiri. The accession of Mahasena ushered in the golden age of Abhayagiri. After the Buddha's Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka in the fourth century, Abhayagiri was selected to house the relic for public veneration.

Fa‑hsien, a Chinese monk recounts that: 'Ten days from now, Buddha's tooth will be brought out and carried to the Abhayagiri Monastery... on both sides of the road; the king sets images of the Five Hundred Forms which the Buddha assumed in his previous existence.' By the time Fa‑hsien came to Sri Lanka in search of the Dhamma, visited Abhayagiri in 412 A.D., it had developed into a leading Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka. He spent two years studying the Dhamma doctrine, and carried away copies of texts of the Mahayana doctrine. 'Fa‑hsien stayed in this country for two years and obtained a copy of the "Rules of the Mahisasakas". He also procured copies of the 'Dirgagama", the "Samyuktagama" and the "Sannipata", all of which were unknown in China.'

By the seventh century A.D., Abhayagiri Vihara consisted of four mulas fraternities or grouped institutions for religious teaching: the Uttara‑mula, Kapara‑mula, Mahancthpa‑mula and Vahadu‑mula, all of which have now been located and identified through archaeological excavations, research and epigraphical evidence. In the course of time, Abhayagiri had developed into a wcll‑organized religious and educational institution having well- established relations with China, Java and Kashmir.

According to the Chinese text Pi‑Chitu‑Ni‑Chung, the biography of the bhikkhunis (nuns) compiled by Pao Chang in 526 A.D., and the biography of Gunavarnam and Sanghavarnam, the Sinhala nuns gave the second Upasampada, or higher ordination, to the Chinese nuns. According to another Chinese source, in 426 A.D.,eight Sinhala (shin‑iza‑kuo) nuns (pi--chiu‑ni) arrived in Nanking, the capital of the early Sung dynasty (420‑77 A.D.), on a foreign merchant ship owned by a certain Nandi. Consequently, three more nuns, headed by Tie-so-re (Tissara in Sinhala), arrived in Nanking. Thus in the year 434 over three thousand nuns, received their higher ordination for the second time in the presence of more than ten Sinhala nuns headed by Tissara at the Nanking Temple in China.

It is also recorded that there were religious contacts between Sri Lanka and Java through the Abayagiri Vihara, at least toward the end of eighth century, as attested by a fragmentary inscription from the Ratubaka plateau in central Java. This inscription records the establishment of 'the Abhayagiri Vihara of Sinhalese ascetics trained in the sayings of jinas (Buddha).' Commenting on this record, J.G. de Casparis observes, 'The most important detail is the name of the foundation, vis., the Abhayagiri Vihara. The name at once suggests that of the famous monastery of Anuradhapura, and the addition of the words "of the Sinhalese' proves that this is not just a coincidence. In fact, the foundation is a second Abhayagiri Vihara ... either in common with it in form or spirit, or both, to deserve the same name.'

Periodic South Indian invasions, especially in the ninth century in the reign of Sena 1, almost half a century of Cola rule and the subsequent abandonment of the capital, Anuradhapura, led to the disintegration of the Abhayagiri Vihara. Despite efforts by Vijayabahu I and Parakramabahu I in the thirteenth century to renovate and resurrect the temple, its gradual destruction in the course of time could not be averted, particularly after the final transfer of the capital from Polonnaruva in the Rajarata, or King's Country, to an alternative location in 1215 as a result of repeated Maga invasions.

A dark era of eight hundred years engulfed Abhayagiri Vihara until its rediscovery in the 1880s awoke scientific and scholarly interest in the abandoned and vandalized ruins. Mistakenly identified at first with Jetavana Vihara, they were photographed and drawn by specialists in the late nineteenth century, while the Department of Archaeology, established about the same period, undertook excavation and conservation work of some of the edifices at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Planning and layout

Covering approximately 200 hectares, Abhayagiri Vihara had all the components required by doctrine for a Buddhist temple; the image house, stupa, Bo Tree shrine, chapter house (poyage or ruvanpaha), residence for monks, and refectories. This is confirmed by the inscriptions of Mahinda IV (956‑972 A.D.) found at Abhayagiri: 'Whatever remains after repairs have been effected .... at the site of the great stone statue, Ruvanpaha (the chapter‑house) at the Abayatura‑maha‑sa ... at the shrine of the sacred Bo Tree... shall be kept as communal property.' Recent archaeological excavations at the site have also revealed other features such as roadways, assembly halls and temple buildings such as the Abhisheka Mandapa (the ceremonial anointing hall).

A road access system anticipating modern concepts of town planning has been uncovered, with the highway from the city to the north running through the monastery. The roads and pathways, generally paralleled with the principal axes, are up to ten metres wide. Fa‑hsien throws some light on the circumstances of their creation: 'Buddha's Tooth will be brought out and carried to Abhayagiri Monastery. All monks and laymen who wish to do good deeds may level the roads, adorn the lanes and streets, and prepare all kinds of flowers and incense as offerings.'

By the seventh century, the stupa, the Uposathagam chapter house, the refectory, the principal Bodhighara, and the assembly hall of the Abhayagiri fraternies were completed. The principal roadways and common water bodies were shared by the residents of thirty subsidiary monasteries composed of a quincunx of monastic residences, or pancavasa, within each of the four fraternities. Spatially, the public and private domains of the monasteries were clearly defined, as dictated by the doctrine. The public spaces surrounding the stupa contained the principal BodhighaTa of the complex to the south‑east, the sannipatasala or assembly hall, the chapter house and the Abhisheka Mandapa. The asanaghara can now be identified as the principal Bo Tree shrine of Abhayagiri.

The stupas

According to Fa‑hsien, 'Buddha once came to [his country to convert a dragon ... Over the footprint north of the royal city, a great stupa,, four hundred feet high, was erected ... by, the side of this stupa was erected the monastery called Abhayagiri'.

The centre‑piece of the monastery and its four fraternities, Abhayagiri Stupa, consisting of outer and inner terraces enclosed by walls, is over 75 meters high and 106.5 meters in diameter at its widest point. The outer terrace was strewn with sand, while the inner terrace was stone‑paved. The rain‑water falling on this vast stretch of land was drained into four ponds built near the Stupa grounds. Today stripped of parts of its outer casing and covered by vegetations, the great dome was built of solid brickwork laid in a butterclay mortar, and may contain small, inaccessible chambers or garba concealed in its interior. The superstructure above the dome consists of the massive rectangular cube of the hataraskotuva surmounted by the circular devatakotuva and the badly deteriorated spire.

The Stupa as it stands today is the original as last renovated by Parakramabahu 1. No major renovation or conservation has been done since, apart from some attempts at consolidation of the cube, cylinder and spire by the Department of Archaeology in 1910‑12 and reconstruction of parts of the three basal terraces by the chief monks in 1926 and after. J. G. Smither attempted a careful documentation and after which he published in the form of several excellent drawings in his monumental book, 'Archaeological Remains, Anuradhapura, Ceylon', in 1884.

There are other stupas in the Abhayagiri Vihara complex. One such is the Lankarama Stupa which originally had a conical roof covering. This has been identified as the Silasobbhakandaka Cetiya built by King Valagamba. Another tall brick structure, situated in Vahadu‑mula to the west of the Elephant Pond, was previously thought to be a library building, but turned out to be a stupa. Yet another, popularly known as Indikatu Seya, is situated close to the Ratnaprasada. The last two stupas are similar in design to the well‑known Naka Vehera. The Indikatusaye, or Needle Stupa, is an example of the ingenuity of the ancient Sinhalese in planning and erecting buildings in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Stylistically, it is considered to be Mahayanic.

The Bo Tree shrine

'A former king of this country', relates Fa‑hsien, 'had sent a messenger to the middle kingdom to fetch a seed of the Pattra tree to plant beside the hall, and this grew some two hundred feet high. This tree inclined towards the south‑east and, fearing that it might fall, the king set up a huge pillar that required eight or nine men to encircle it, to support the tree. At the place where the tree was propped, a branch grew from the trunk and pierced the pillar, then sent down roots to the ground. This branch was so thick that it took four men to encircle it. Though the pillar is cleft in two, since it still supports the tree, it has not been removed. Under this tree is a rest house containing a seated image of the Buddha to which both monks and laymen pay homage continuously.' The Pattra tree mentioned by Fa‑hsien is the Bo‑Tree at Buddha‑Gaya in India where Buddha achieved enlightenment.

From previous excavations by the Archaeological Department and recent excavations by the Cultural Triangle, it is now possible to identify the location of the Bodhi Tree described by Fa‑hsien ‑ the principal Bo‑Tree shrine of the complex ‑ with the monument popularly known as the Asanaghara, or Coronation Point. From a‑hsien's‑ description and the chronicles, we know that monasteries already existed by the fifth century to the south west of the stupa. It is therefore clear that, although this was the oldest Bodhi Tree of the Abhayagiri complex, it was not the first on the Asanaghara. Excavations carried out in 1962 and 1963 by Dr Godakumbura revealed three successive cultural phases. Recent excavations in the Cultural Triangle have identified a fourth stratum demarcating the trough used to plant the Bo‑Tree. An inscription, dating from between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., found in this layer, firmly establishes that the Bo‑Tree shrine and the earliest refectory belong to the fourth cultural phase. Also found in the Bodhighara among objects of worship were representations of the footprints of the Buddha, asana (seats) and seated Buddha images. With the development of the Buddha statue, one can identify the use of disused footprints as column bases. Further excavations have uncovered several seated images, indicating the final development as a shrine with seated Buddhas and asanas.

The Image House and other monuments

'By the side of this stupa, a monastery was erected which is called Abhayagiri (the Hill of Fearlessness), and here are five thousand monks. It contains a hall for the worship of Buddha, engraved with gold and silver and adorned with precious stones. In it stands an image of Buddha made of green jade, some twenty feet high. The entire image sparkles with the seven precious substances, and its splendour and magnificence defy description. In its right hand, the image holds a priceless pearl...'

This description by Fa‑hsien, and an inscription by Kasyapa V, confirm the existence of a principal Image House which it has not yet been possible to locate, although many image houses can be identified within the existing ruins. The Mahasena pavilion and the queen's pavilion, for example, indicate the existence of image houses within a pancavasa complex.

The largest preaching hall hitherto discovered in Sri Lanka, the Sannipatasala, is situated opposite the southern entrance to the Stupa, serving both the clergy and laity: this was an open hall with stone parapet walls on four sides. The entrances, facing the cardinal points, were flanked by the four guardian deities. The statue of Virupaksa, the guardian deity of the west, found in ruined state, is now preserved in the Abhayagiri museum. The stone plinths of statues of other gods were also found here. The ruins of an image house towards the north‑east can be dated to the late Anuradhapura period, although the remains of brick walls dating from three earlier construction phases were discovered during excavations.

The remains of a building to the south of the Ratnaprasada, the Chapter House of Abhayagiri, mistakenly thought by earlier scholars to be a refectory, were identified by Dr Roland Silva as a preaching hall. Subsequent excavations under the Cultural Triangle project at Abhayagiri have confirmed this identification.

The Abhishaka Mandapaya, or Anointing Hall, is thought to have been used for anointing Buddha statues and other objects of veneration during festivals.

The residential quarters

A pancavasa complex, of which approximately thirty have been found at Abhayagiri, consists of a group of five two‑storied residential buildings enclosed by a wall, according to the requirements of the disciplinary code of monks, with its entrance situated at the end of an axial avenue. In its outer precincts were anciliary and service buildings. The central unit was the space for the teacher and his classroom, the upper floor being usedas a library, while the four corner buildings were set aside for the pupils with three on each floor, giving a basic unit of twenty‑four students to one teacher for each pancavasa complex. There is evidence to suggest that an image was kept within the central building. The buildings had elaborate doorways and a lotus petal pedestal of brick or stone. The walls were of brick plastered with lime mortar and reinforced with structural stone columns, while the upper floors were of timber, sometimes finished with lime plaster. The roofs of the residential buildings were covered with terra cotta roofing tiles; recent excavations have led to the discovery of ten different colors of glazed tile used to decorate the roofs.

Each of these residential units had baths, sometimes equipped for hot water, urinals and sanitary closets. The drainage system was similar to modern concepts in sanitation, and the lavatories were connected by stone conduits to septic tanks outside the building. The sanitary complex of Vahadurnula is 19.75 by 13 metres and is surrounded by a brick wall. The waste water from the basin is drained by an underground conduit to a covered square soakaway pit, 2.2 metres square and of an equal depth, situated within the walled enclosure. In the centre of the stone slab covering the pit is a small circular opening, perhaps meant as an air‑vent. The lavatory and ablutions adjoin each other. Within the complex, but outside the courtyard enclosure, was an area for sun‑bathing after applying a medicated oil or ointment to the body. A beau tif ully‑made urinal carved in stone, a stone seat and a paved bathroom floor have been unearthed in a pancavasa, behind the second Samadhi Buddha statue. The foul water was filtered and drained into the ground through a series of clay pots. A small refectory comprising a kitchen and a storage area was found at the entrance to the pancavasa complex. This individual refectory was used for every-day meals and daily delivery of alms.

A significant architectural feature of each complex, adding much to the beauty of the landscape environment, was the pond, often very ornamental, as the Eth Pokuna, or Elephant Pond, were linked to these smaller ponds by underground pipes.

The biggest rice‑bowl in the world

The Chinese monk Fa‑hsien, who lived at Abhayagiri for nearly two years, reports that there were five thousand monks living there at that time. Within the refectory excavated and conserved by the Cultural Triangle project is a stone trough with a capacity of five thousand alms bowls, indicating that this trough was used to contain boiled rice, or alternatively, to store uncooked rice offered as alms to the bhikkhus. The plan of this refectory differs somewhat from those found in other monasteries in Anuradhapura. Two courtyards, paved and well‑drained ensured adequate light and ventilation to the building. There are indications that it was expanded a number of times. This is confirmed by excavated remains from four different cultural phases, and a stone inscription from the first century BC.,to the first century A.D., describing a gift to the refectory. Underground conduits supplied fresh water and drained away waste water. A stone sun‑dial was used to ensure that the midday meal was served prior to noon, as dictated by doctrine. Hearths and various forms of grinding stones have also been found.

Ancient water management

The Elephant Pond, equivalent in area to six modern Olympic swimming pools, is perhaps the largest man made pond in Sri Lanka. A flight of steps leads down to the pond from the centre of each sidewall. To the north and south, underground water conduits have been found which probably supplied water from neighboring tanks. One such conduit continues to function during the rainy season even today.

The existence of the bisokotuva, or cistern sluice, in the south‑west corner, indicates that water was distributed through conduits to other ponds in the vicinity, and an underground conduit supplying water to the refectory to the cast has been discovered.

The Elephant Pond was perhaps built for the supply and storage of water to three of the fraternities, excepting Kaparamula. It is an eloquent testimony to the highly developed water management and hydrological engineering techniques of the ancient Sinhalese.

Among the most significant artistic achievements in the field of hydrological engineering are the Twin Ponds, or Kuttam Pokuna. These can be considered one of the outstanding architectural and artistic creations of the ancient Sinhalese. Built of polished stone slabs, they have entrance steps flanked by two stone punkalas, or pots of abundance. The embankments were perhaps made to enable the monks to bathe using pots or other utensils. Water supplied through the underground conduits was first conveyed to stone chambers, or silt traps, from whence it was filtered before flowing in to the ponds. An opening for an outlet allowing water to be drained away during repair was discovered at the bottom of each pond. The ponds were restored during the time of Dr. Senerath Paranavitana. During excavation small figures including a fish, a conch, a crab and a dancing women were found in the bottom.

Ancient technology

The 500-acre sight also contains many ancillary buildings connected with the day-to-day functioning of the monastery complex. These include foundries and workshop areas for the processing of lime plaster and pottery glazes. Samples of plaster produced in these workshops can be seen in the vahalkada of the stupa. The raw materials for the glazes, used for application to roofing tiles and ceramics, seem to have been lime and sand. Remnants of grinding stones, lime and sand, moulds and pots discovered at the site of the workshop building provide clues to the manufacturing process of glazes. Among several foundries which have been excavated are furnaces of clay, lined with mica and graphite. A crucible was found on one site. A gilt bronze Buddha statue, fragments of two other figures and a bronze astamangala bowl with eight auspicious symbols unearthed nearby indicate that they were cast at this particular foundry. Raw materials for iron manufacture and iron stag have also been discovered, and further excavations have revealed a series of moulds for casting images, coins and crucibles.

It is significant that remnants of paintings belonging to the Anuradhapura period have been discovered in the Abhayagiri Vihara Complex. Some of these are found in the sculptures of the gateways and the gate houses. A patch of paint is found under the right shoulder of the Samadhi Buddha statue. There is evidence in the chronicles, supported by finds from the excavations, that the entire stupa, stone stabs and statues had all been painted with locally produced lime or lime‑based paint. One such 'paint factory' has in fact been discovered and restored at Abhayagiri, within the precincts of the Mahanetpamula.

Architectural decoration

The architectural elements of the buildings excavated at Abhayagiri Vihara clearly reflect the social beliefs and religious practices prevalent at the time. Although Buddhism was the state religion and the principle doctrine followed by the majority of the population, the influence of other local beliefs, particularly Hinduism, were considerable, and are expressed in the architecture of the period. The design of entrances, for example, illustrates the practice of placing buildings under the protection of a guardian deity.

The two slabs erected on either side of the foot of the flight of steps leading to a building are know as guard stones (Muragal). They are usually carved, although plain guard stones have also been found. Among the Hindu symbols represented on these stones, the most common, apart from the Pot of Abundance and Kalpavrksa, is the figure of the Nagaraja, or anthropomorphic King Cobra. The best example of these, and one of the finest guardstones yet discovered, was found at the Ratnaprasada in Abhayagiriya, and illustrates the degree of perfection reached by the sculptors of Abhayagiri. Lotuses and punkalas are indicative of plenty. Representations of the lotus are of particular significance in agricultural societies where they symbolize the daughters of the guardian deity of rain. The elephant figure at the Eth Pokuna is also a symbol of water.

The principle Buddhist guardian deities are frequently indicated by the animal vehicles of the particular gods, particularity on the guard stones. A good example is furnished by the the exquisite statues on either side of the entrance to Abhayagiri Stupa. The head‑dress of one of the statues is a conch while that of the other is a lotus. Representing Sanka and Padma, the two principal treasure houses of Kuvera, they are believed to have been erected to ward off any evil or danger that might threaten the stupa or its precinct. Even at present they are commonly believed to be endowed with mystic powers, and courts of law in Anuradhapura accept swearing before the statues as evidence in settlement of minor disputes between litigants.

The best example of a moonstone, a unique creation of Sri Lanka sculptors, can be seen at the foot of the steps leading to the Pancavasa commonly known as Mahasenas palace. A smaller example, just as exquisitely carved, was found nearby at the Queen's Pavilion. Varying in shape and size and made of different kinds of stones, all are exquisite artistic creations. According to Paranavitana, the moonstone symbolizes samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth, and the path to freedom from the samsaric process leading to nirvana. He interprets the pattern of the outermost ring as flames, and the various animals shown in the other concentric circles as successive phases of man's passage through samsara.

The Samadhi Buddha images

The image of Buddha in Samadhi posture, considered the finest samadhi image in all Sri Lanka, is dated by Coomaraswamy to a period before the third century A.D. javaharlal Nehru wrote that he found solace during his imprisonment by the British by looking at a photograph of this statue. Sculptured out of dolomite, it is Gupta in style and execution. Probably the eyes were originally studded with gems, and a path of paint found under the right shoulder is evidence that the entire figure may have been painted. The discovery of a pit behind the statue suggests that this was one of four that stood on each side of a Bodhigara, or Bo‑Tree shrine.

Some  remarkable finds

The Ardhanarinatesvera bronze image, discovered during excavation of inner wall of the Abhayagiri Stupa, is the first of its kind discovered in the world. The dancing posture is a feature which is not found in similar statues discovered in India. Traditionally, the female half of the statue is on the left side and the male half on the right, but in this statue the opposite is the case. The male figure wears a headdress, and his left forearm is in the form of a snake's tail, the rest of the arm being in the katakamudra. The left leg is raised in dancing posture. The right leg, in a similar posture, is kept on the ground. The right hands have jewellery, whereas the left hands are without them. The right ear is adorned with a large and beautiful ear ornament, but the one in the left ear is not as beautiful. Each half is appropriately dressed according to its sex. This great work of art portrays the Hindu creation myth of the genesis of the human race by Agni and Soma, the principles of heat and cold.

A bronze bowl, discovered at the foundry of Mahanet‑ pamula, though described as a bowl, is more like a vessel with three legs. Measuring 14.5 cm. in diameter and 8 cm. in height, it is the only vessel of its kind to have been discovered in Sri Lanka. It is well‑preserved and there is evidence to show that it originally bore a lid. A metal sheet fixed inside the bowl with three nails shows that it was broken into pieces. Perhaps it had been brought to the foundry for repairs. Moulded in low relief in a band around the outside of the bowl are the 'eight auspicious symbols'. These are the bhadrapita (auspicious seat), the matsya yugala (double fish), the ankusa (elephant goad), the camara (fly-whisk), the srivatsa or purnaghata (pot of abundance), the sankha (conch), and the svastika. There can be no doubt that this vessel was used for ritual purposes.


Over seventy inscriptions, dating from the first century B.C.,to the eleventh century A.D., illustrate the development of early Brahimi, middle Sinhala, Sanskrit and Tamil. They are of inestimable value to archaeologists and historians for the new light they shed on the religious, political and soci--economic life of ancient Sri Lanka. For example, the Digapasana inscription indicates a gift to a Tamil monk by Tamil devotees. One of these inscriptions, on a paving stone in the terrace near the south frontispiece (vahal,kada) of the stupa, helped to clear the confusion regarding the identity of Abhayagiri and jetavana. Three important inscriptions belonging to the reigns of Mahinda IV and Kasyapa V describe the plan of the Abhayagiri complex and its administrative organization. Equally important is the discovery of a unique Sanskrit inscription at Kaparamula, which provides the exact date and time of a solar eclipse.

Also of special significance is the finding of an inscription on a gold ingot with older lettering specifying its weight, thereby making possible a comparison between early units of measurement and those used today. Coins found at Abhayagiri date from the pre-Christian era to the Dutch period. (Source: The Cultural Triangle by UNESCO Publishing - CCF)

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