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Abhayagiri Vihara

As king Vattagamani Abhaya, known as Valagamba, was retreating after losing the battle with the seven Tamil chiefs and losing his kingdom, a Jain priest named ‘Giri’ yelled out ‘the great black Sinhala king is fleeting’.  Upon hearing this, the king determined that if he ever retrieved the throne, he would build a Buddhist temple in that very location.  As the tale narrates, after being in exile for over a decade and finally succeeding in regaining his kingdom, keeping his promise, he destroyed the Jain priests’ hermitages and built there an enchanting Buddhist temple.  Combining his and the Jain priest’s names, the King Valagamba named it ‘Abhayagiri’ Vihara.

Still standing against the backdrop of Anuradhapura, a magnificent city of ruins, Abhayagiri Viharaya is the largest of the five ‘viharas’ in that region and is recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.

During the era of Sri Lankan monarchs, it housed over 5000 ‘bhikkus’ (Buddhist monks) and was the most prominent Buddhist centre in the island that disseminated Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism and its teachings throughout the country and across various parts of the globe.

As history unveils, during its golden age, the temple premises which spans across about 500 acres comprised shrines, monasteries, chapter houses, bathing ponds and the like.  Imbued with intricate artistry and unparalleled grandeur, the splendour of which can still be observed today through the existing fragments and relics.

The centrepiece of the temple, it’s ‘stupa’, believed to be built on a footprint of Buddha, is also said to have been decorated with gold, silver and countless other jewels.  Today, it stands as the second largest stupa in the island with a height of over 200 feet, despite being deteriorated and covered with vegetation and missing its top part.

In addition, recent archaeological excavations on the site have uncovered intriguing new details of the engineering brilliance of the ancient world.

The manner in which time has woven together nature, lustrous imperial architecture and artistry of the ancient world at Abhayagiri Vihara is not to be missed by those exploring Anuradhapura!

Title image by: Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau

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