After defeating the Tamil king Elara, King Dutugemunu of Sri Lanka built this magnificant stupa. The stupa is known as Ruwanwelisaya, Mahathupa, Swarnamali Chaitya and Rathnamali Dagaba. The compound is supported by stone elephants, and the surrounding wall is decorated with 1,900 figures of elephants – 475 on each side. Successive kings added to the palace over the years.
- Built. Under ruler Dutthagamani Abhaya (161-137 BCE), when it was known simply as Mahathupa (great stupa). A colossal-scale stupa, it was built approximately 100 years after Mahavihara’s earliest sites: Thuparama and the Sri Maha Bodhi tree shrine.
- Location. At the center of Mahavihara monastery, in between Thuparama and the Sri Maha Bodhi tree shrine. Toggle Map above.
- Massive scale. The massive stupa — 91 meters/299 feet in height (from the platform) and 91 meters/299 feet in diameter — is taller than Jetavana, but smaller in overall volume.
- Restored shrines on the cardinal points. It has restored shrines (vahalkadas) on the cardinal points.
- Stone terrace. The stupa sits on an elevated stone terrace that is ringed with elephants.
- Small stupas. Small stupas sit on the corners of the terrace.
- Buddha shrine hall. A Buddha shrine hall occupies the terrace’s southeast quadrant.
- Standard profile with bubble-shaped anda. The stupa exhibits the standard Sri Lankan features: steep-sided anda, solid harmika, thick inverted conical chattra spire and triple molding base. According to the Mahavamsa, the stupa’s anda was shaped like a bubble — a symbol of the transitory and insubstantial nature of the material world — although it has lost some of its perfect balance in restorations over the centuries.
- Elephants. Standing ear to ear below the floor of the stone terrace, nearly 35o elephants appear to support the stupa, consistent with their earth-supporting role in Buddhist cosmology. This is a trademark feature of Sri Lankan stupas; it was copied by other Southeast Asian civilizations with which the Sinhalese kingdoms maintained contact, particularly the Thai (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Bangkok). Although they have been restored (all but a few left in their original state on the west side), they remain true to their original appearance.
- Shrines restored to original appearance. The cardinal point shrine’s superstructure enclosing a small Buddha image, draped in red — has here been restored to its original appearance; this compares versus the Jetavana and Abhayagiri stupas, where only the carved limestone bases survive. Seeing the complete shrine makes it easier to envision how ancient visitors likely interacted with the Buddha images in conjunction with their ritual clockwise circumambulation. Due to their restored nature, however, they hold no original decoration; for good examples of such decoration, see our profiles of the Jetavana and Abhayagiri stupas.
Buddha Shrine Hall
- Five 8th century Buddhas. At the entrances to the hall are five 8th century standing Buddha statues, showing the abhaya (have no fear) mudra with their right hands and grasping their robes with their left. It is believed that they represent the five Buddhas of the present era: Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, Gautama (the historical Buddha) and Maitreya (the future Buddha, who has yet to appear on earth).
- Stylistic change. Notice the stylistic difference versus the 5th-6th century Samadhi Buddha we saw earlier at Abhayagiri monastery. The most obvious difference lies in the rendering of the Buddha’s robe: while it still clings closely to his body, the fabric folds are now clearly visible. The folds are arranged in a naturalistic manner, falling gracefully from his left shoulder. The use of naturalistic folds continues in the Polonnaruwa period, until it is finally replaced by stylized highly-tensioned folds in the Kandy period; we get a very good look at the Kandy aesthetic at Cave 3 in Dambulla.