Jetavana Stupa

King Mahasen (273-301 AD) built this largest stupa in Sri Lanka, and possibly the whole Buddhist world. Presently restoration of this stupa has made the glorious past of this stupa more evident. Together with the Abhayagiri Stupa this stupa would have been taller than the third Pyramid of Giza and during its hey day would have definitely been a wonder of the world.

Layout and Appearance

  • Largest stupa. Jetavana is the largest brick-built structure in the world: its current dimen­sions are 71 meters/233 feet in height (from platform) and 102 meters/335 feet in diameter, although it was originally appreciably taller.
  • Entrances. Although the primary entrance today is from the east side, visitors can approach from 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.
  • 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.
  • Shrines on the cardinal points. It has Buddha shrines (uahalkadas) on the cardinal points, symbolizing the ubiquity of the Buddha throughout the world; altars to deposit ritual offerings sit directly before them (blue highlights in figure below).


Shrine Decoration

As is generally the case throughout Anuradhapura, only the bases of the cardinal point shrines (vahalkadas) survive; the brick superstructures that held the deity images have been lost. Made of soft limestone, the bases hold nearly all of the stupa’s carved decoration. And at Jetavana, in particular, it is quite well preserved. The overall theme of the decorative program is one of prosperity, peace and joy springing from an abundant water supply, a gift from the Buddha.

  • Elephants. Following a basic rule of Sri Lankan decoration, elephants — with their trunks wrapped around bunches of grass — line the lowest string-course. Given their natural association with strength and great size, elephants were typically placed at the lowest levels of arrangements, appearing as if to support the structure above.
  • Makaras. Makaras — disgorging streams of water that shoot upward — occupy the upper stringcourse.. Makaras are mythical water creatures with hybrid features: alligator (the most prominent), elephant, lion and fish, among others. The creature symbolizes the life-giving powers of water; its hybrid nature alludes to water’s importance for all living things.
  • Figures. More elaborate reliefs run along the outer edges of the shrine: multi-headed ser­pents, guardians, dwarfs.
  • Serpent king. A serpent king (nagaraja) — his head framed by a five-headed serpent — holds a budding flower, a symbol of agricultural abundance. Drawing on the serpent’s longstanding association with the watery depths, he was thought responsible for releasing water required for successful rice harvests.. For more the on the nagaraja’s symbolism, see the sec­tion entitled “Abhayagiri Monastery – Ratna Prasada and Guardstone.”
  • Water pot. Alongside the figures on the shrine’s outer edge is yet another recurring symbol linked to abundance: the water pot, from which sprout twisting vines that wind their way up­ward..


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