For well over a thousand years the history of Sri Lanka, was essentially the history of Anuradhapura. Situated almost at the center of the island’s northern plains, the city rose to prominence very early in the development of the island, and maintained its pre-eminent position for over a millennium until being laid waste y Indian invaders in 993. At its height Anuradhapura was one of the greatest cities of its age, functioning as the island’s center of both temporal and spiritual power, dotted woth dozens of monasteries populated by as many as ten thousand monks – one of the greatest monastic cities the world has ever seen. The kings of Anuradhapura oversaw the golden age of Singhalese culture, and the temples of the enormous dagobas they erected were amongst the greatest architectural feats of their time, surpassed only in the scale by the great pyramids of Giza. Anuradhapura also lay at the heart of the great Sinhalese hydraulic achievements, with vast reservoirs (tanks) constructed around the city to store water through the long dry seasons and irrigate the surrounding paddy fields. The city’s fame spread to Greece and Rome, and judging by the number of roman coins found here, appears to have enjoyed a lively trade with the latter.
Although people may have lived in this area since as early as the 10th century BC, Anuradhapura first became a capital in 380BC, but it was during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (260-210BC) that it rose to great importance, when Buddhism reached Sri Lanka. Soon Anuradhapura became a most magnificent city with some of the greatest monuments to the faith (including the sacred Bo-tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi). It became the greatest monastic city of the ancient world with the largest repository of Buddhist texts. Anuradhapura became a great city after the arrival of a cutting from the Bodhi Tree (‘tree of enlightenment’), the Buddha’s fig tree, in the 3rd century BC. The sacred branch was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns.
Anuradhapura ranked alongside Nineveh and Babylon in its colossal proportions—its four walls, each 16 miles (26 km) long, enclosing an area of 256 square miles (663 km²)—in the number of its inhabitants, and the splendour of its shrines and public buildings.
The city also had some of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world. Most of the great reservoir tanks still survive today, and some many be the oldest surviving reservoirs in the world.
Such a splendid city proved a magnet for invading South Indian kings and so Anuradhapura suffered repeated harassment from the 3rd century BC. Then, in the reign of Sena 1 (846-866AD), Anuradhapura was sacked. Nevertheless, Anuradhapura had a glorious history, having served as the capital for 1,400 years and witnessed a succession of no less than 113 kings.
After an invasion in 993 AD, Anuradhapura was permanently abandoned. For centuries, the site lay hidden in the jungle. Rediscovered by the British in the 19th century, Anuradhapura became a Buddhist pilgrimage site once again.
he revival of the city of Anuradhapura began in earnest in the 1870s. The modern city (population 40,000) is a major road junction of northern Sri Lanka and lies along a railway line. The headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon is in Anuradhapura.
Today, the splendid sacred city of Anuradhapura, with its palaces, monasteries and monuments, draws many Buddhist pilgrims and visitors.