Today, the ruins of Anuradhapura, the first capital of Sri Lanka, cover a widespread area on the outskirts of the modern town and we spent a wonderful day cycling around the ruins of several monasteries that are among the oldest in the Buddhist world, as well as palaces, ponds, and gardens.
We were specially intrigued by the Abhayagiri Monastery in the north of Anuradhapura. It was something of a progressive university when it was founded in the 2nd century BC, compared to the conservative Maha Vihara in the town center that had been established a century earlier. The Abhayagiri monks soon began to dabble in Mahayana Buddhism and by the 4th century AD this was the leading place for Mahayana studies in the whole Buddhist World. In Nanjing, the capital of Sung China, several thousand Chinese nuns used the opportunity when nuns from Anuradhapura - the authority one religious matters, apparently - were visiting, to get their higher ordination.
As we make our way around the site by bicycle we reach the so-called Elephant pond: Beside the basin are old residential complexes of a monastery that are completely overgrown and covered by moss and mud. A peacock is sitting on top of a pillar in what used to be a lecture room perhaps 2000 years ago, while a kingfisher starts out across the pond.
The monasteries were uniformly arranged in study groups, with the teacher's house serving also as a lecture room and library in the middle, and 4 small houses for 6 students each arranged around it. There were storage houses, sanitary facilities and elaborate water reservoirs. It is possible to make out all these structures among the ruins.
Most impressive in Anaradhapura are the gigantic stupas, or dagobas (reading the syllables backwards this would make a pagoda, the common stupa form in China and Japan today; we still have to find out what the connection is....), constructed on large empty stone or brick platforms. As they are still in religious use, visitors and pilgrims are required to take off their shoes before perambulating the stupa in clockwise direction. In the afternoon sun the stones have become so hot that circling the stupa feels like some particularly wicked form of Ayurveda treatment
As the main ticket for the huge archaeological site is only valid for one day, we had on our arrival the day before already visited two smaller sites with separate entrance fees: One was the sacred Bodhi Tree, Sri Lanka's most holy tree and purportedly a direct sapling of the original Bodhi Tree where Buddha attained enlightenment.
The other was the picturesque Isurumuniya Raja Maha Vihara, a monastery on a rocky outcrop to the South of the other sites, with a huge parking lot - we suspect that not a few tour groups skip the main site in favour of these two, much cheaper, places, plus a free-entry stupa or two ...
At the end of our busy sightseeing day we nevertheless decide to cycle back to another minor site near the southern Isurumuniya monastery, a pleasure garden built by one of the kings comprising his goldfish pond and pavilions in a landscape made for strolling around. It turns out a very peaceful conclusion to a busy sightseeing day.
Yes, Sri Lanka enforces a two tier price system, with foreigner entrance fees for some sites up to 80 times as high as the local price. In our opinion the UNESCO World Heritage site Anuradhapura was totally worth the money. We loved cycling between the old ruins and exploring the different religious sites. Contrary to other places in the so-called cultural triangle (we will write more about them soon), Anaradhapura is not visited by so many tourists and tour groups. This means the site is much less developed and has a very authentic feel.