Abhayagiri Stupa

One the the three great Stupas in Anuradhapura (together with Ruwanweliseya and Jethawanarama), Abhayagiri was built by King Valagambahu in the 1st Century BC. It literally means "mountain of valour" which speaks volume about this great valiant warrior king. These premises also housed the Abhayagiri Vihara (monastery) where learned monks resided.

King Parakramabahu renovated Abhayagiri Vihara, then the height is said to have been 140 cubit]s. In the year 1875, Abhayagiri Vihara which had a diameter of 307 feet (94 m) at its base, stood to a height of 231 feet (70 m). The relics of the Buddha are said to have been enshrined in a figure of a bull made out of thick gold.

 

Background

  • Under ruler Vattagamani Abhaya, in the second part of his reign (ruled 104-103 and 89-76 BCE). It was famously restored in the 12th century under the Polonnaruwa-based ruler Parakramabahu I.
  • Location. Center of Abhayagiri monastery, on the northern edge of the ancient city. Toggle Map above.

 

Layout

  • Massive scale. Abhayagiri is yet another of Anuradhapura’s massive stupas. Its current di­mensions — 73 meters/240 feet in height (from the platform) and 99 meters/325 feet in diam­eter — rival those of Jetavana and Ruwanwelisaya. It is popularly believed to have been built over a footprint of the Buddha.
  • Entrances. The general arrangement is very similar to that of Jetavana stupa: visitors enter through one of four elevated entrance pavilions located on the cardinal points; they then cross through a sand court on route to a set of stairs that brings them to the square stone terrace on which the stupa sits (F 33). The primary entrance today is from the south side.
  • Cult guardstones. Enclosed in makeshift shrines at the primary entrance are two guardstones, likely from the Late Anuradhapura period. They feature dwarfs, two of the eight treasures of Kuvera, the god of wealth: Padma (lotus treasure, on the right side) and Sankha (conch shell treasure, on the left side). Padma wears an inverted lotus flower on his head, while Sankha wears a conch shell. They have taken on popu­lar cult status at Abhayagiri, receiving offerings and accepting prayers. We will get a closer look at this type of guardian at “4. Mahasena’s Palace and Moonstone.”
  • Shrines and altars on the cardinal points. Buddha shrines (uahalkadas) project from the stupa’s anda on the cardinal points, symbolizing the ubiq­uity of the Buddha throughout the world. Altars designed for ritual donations sit directly be­fore them. Further, unique among Anuradhapura’s stupas, a series of altars runs along the base of the anda between the south and west shrines.
Layout-Abhayagiri-stupa

Appearance

  • Standard Sri Lankan profile. The stupa has all of the standard features: steep-sided anda, solid harmika, thick inverted conical chattra spire and triple molding base.
  • Eight directional deities. Although they are tough to spot given their relatively small size and high elevation, there are eight directional deities wedged between the top of the harmika and the bottom of the chattra spire.

 

Decoration

As is typical, the limestone bases of the shrines on the cardinal points hold the stupa’s only carved decoration. Along with Jetavana stupa, Abhayagiri stupa has the best surviving reliefs.

  • Elephants and makaras. As at Jetavana, rows of elephants and makaras line the string-courses. Elephants also make an appearance on the triple molding base that encircles the stupa.
  • Figurative depictions flank the shrine’s edges: dwarfs holding donation bowls and guardians holding lotus flowers
  • Pots of abundance symbolize a thriving Sinhalese civilization. Vines rise from water pots. To make clear their symbolism — the centrality of water to the civilization, a gift from the Buddha, and its importance for the survival of all living things — elephants, bulls, humans and lions spring from the curling leaves, as if born from agricultural abundance
  • Lotus disks. Lotus flower-shaped disks fill the spaces between other decorative elements.

 

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