Jetawanarama Anuradhapura Sri Lanka

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Jetawanarama Stupa is tucked away in the historical city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, about 200km from Colombo. Jetawanarama was one of the prominent ancient Buddhist monasteries located within Anuradhapura. There were many Buddhist monasteries in the ancient city such as Abhayagiri, and Mahavihara along with the Jetawanarama monastery. Jetawanarama monastery is a part of the UNESCO world heritage site of Anuradhapura. According to the archeological finding in the ancient city, the Jetawanarama monastery was inhabited by a large number of Buddhist monks.

Exploring the rich historical past of Sri Lanka is one of the most popular activities among travelers. Therefore, the Anuradharapura city tour is part of most Sri Lanka Tour packages. The city tour allows visitors to see a large number of ancient temples, palaces, gardens, museums, and many other historical monuments. This 3rd-century BC city spreads over more than 40 hectares of land and harbors hundreds of ancient monuments. Anuradhapura city tour covers many important religious and historical places in Sri Lanka such as Srimaha bodhi, Thuparama, Ruwanweli stupa, and Jetanarama dagoba are also among the important monuments.

Jetawanarama Dagoba

The Jetavanarama stupa is what is left of the Jetawanarama monastery complex. Most other constructions such as image houses and living quarters of the monks, Ayrvbeda hospital are destroyed in the past. Therefore, the most significant element you see on your visit to Jetwanarama is the Stupa. Jetawanarama Stupa was one of the largest constructions in the world and it was rising up to 122 meters (400 ft) from the ground, Jetawanarama was the largest Stupa in the world, and Jetawanarama Stupa was the third tallest structure in the world. Jetawanarama Stupa was built by King Mahasen, who ruled the island from Anuradhapura from 273–301. The King initiated the construction of the Jetawanarama monastery upon the destruction of the Mahavihara monastery (giant monastery) of Anuradhapura. However, the King was not able to complete the construction of the Jetawanarama monastery, and his son Maghavanna I completed the construction of the monastery including the stupa. The stupa was renovated by King Parakramabahu I of Polonnaruwa in the 10th century. A part of a sash or belt tied by the Buddha is believed to be the relic that is enshrined here.

The importance of Jetawanarama

Jetawanarama had very significant importance for Buddhism in Sri Lanka because it was the result of tensions between the Theravada and Mahayana sects of Buddhism; it is also significant in recorded history as one of the tallest structures in the ancient world. Jetwanarama was the tallest non-pyramidal building in the world. The ancient city of Anuradhapura was abandoned in the 11th century AD, due to the south Indian invasions. Most ancient building in the city was destroyed during the invasions and what was left decayed over the last centuries on the wrath of the sun, and rain. With teh abandonment of the ancient city in the 11th century, the stupa and the rest of the monastery were covered by jungle. King Parakramabahu of Polonnaruwa 12th century renovated this stupa, the King was able to rebuild the Stupa up to its current height, a reduction from the original height. Today it stands at 71 meters (233 ft).

The Jetawanarama monastery covered approximately 5.6 hectares. Around 10,000 Buddhist monks were residing in the temple complex. One side of the stupa is 176 m (576 ft) long, and the flights of stairs at each of the four sides of it are 9 m (28 ft) wide. The doorpost to the shrine, which is situated in the courtyard, is 8 m (27 ft) high. The stupa has an 8.5 m (28 ft) deep foundation and sits on bedrock.

The Jetawanarama Stupa is not the tallest structure in the world today, but it is still the largest, with a base area of 33,000 m2 (2,508,000 sq ft). Approximately 93.3 million baked bricks were used in its construction; the engineering ingenuity behind the construction of the structure is a significant development in the history of Sri Lanka.

Historical facts about Jetawanarama

Following the demise of King Jetta Tissa, his brother Mahasena became the king of Sri Lanka and he was consecrated by Mahayana monk Sanghamitta; owing to the monk’s influence king Mahasena waged a campaign against Theravada Buddhism and Theravadin dwelling in the Mahavihara. The rift between Mahynins and Therawadins escalated to an extent to which a penalty was established for any person providing alms to Mahayana monks dwelling in the Mahavihara temple. According to Mahavamsa (ancient chronicle) quotes Sanghamitta: “The dwellers in the Mahavihara do not teach the (true) Vinaya, we are those who teach the (true) Vinaya, king”.

On account of the unending obstacles, the monks who lived in the Mahavihara monastery decided to abandon the temple. The monks moved to Malaya rata or Malaya country and the Principality of Ruhuna. The Mahavihara monastery was pillaged by Sanghamitta and minister Sona, and teh valuable items of the Mahavihara temple were moved to Abhayagiri vihāra.

The destruction of the Mahavihara temple complex led to a rebellion by minister Meghavannabhaya, he marched to Anuradhapura from Malaya with an army and set camp by the Duratissaka tank. King Mahasen marched an army to meet minister Meghavannabhaya, where negotiations were reached the night before the battle, and the king apologized for the destruction of Mahavihara and agreed to re-build a temple complex similar to Mahavihara temple at the grounds of Mahavihara. The Mahavamsa quotes the king: ” will make the vihara to be dwelt in yet again; forgive me my fault”. The Sangamitta the monk, who led the conspiracy against the Mahavihara temple was assassinated by a laborer on the instructions of a wife of the king. After the demise of Sangamitta, a new temple was constructed under the instructions of minister Meghavannabhaya and the monks who fled the temple returned to Anuradhapura.

The Jetwanarama was offered to monk Tissa upon starting the construction, but later it was revealed that the monk committed a grave offense. After an investigation of the allegation and proof by a minister, the monk was disrobed and expelled from the order. The monks of Dakkhinagiri were then entrusted with the Jetawanar monastery.

The monks of the Sagalika sect were occupying the Jetavanaramaya monastery. The Sagalica sect was closely connected to the Abhyagiri monastery. Towards the 10th century AD, just before the destruction of Anuradhapura ancient city, Jetavana monastery had developed into one of the three fraternities on the island along with Mahavihara and Abhyagiriya. Under the leadership of king Parkramabahi the great in the 10tth century AD, the fraternities were united. Then the King carried out pro-orthodox reforms against unorthodox or limited Theravadins.

The location of the Jetawanrama is regarded as highly important to the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Mahinda, introduced Buddhism to sri Lanka and took up residence at the site to preach Dharma. Thus the forest was named Joitavana and was later called Jetavana.

Design and construction of Jetawanarama

The Jetwanarama Stupa is the largest of its kind in the ancient world and it was the tallest ancient Buddhist structure in the world, the structural ingenuity and engineering skills employed for the construction are significant. The foundation of the ancient Stupa was 8.5m deep and the size of the structure required bricks that could withstand loads of up to 166 kg. The solid foundation lay on bedrock and the dome was constructed of full and half bricks and earth fill, the unique shape of a perfect ellipsoid allowed for stress and thus allowed the construction of the large structure. 

According to the Mahawamsa (ancient chronicle) about laying the foundation, where fissures were filled with stones and stamped down by elephants whose feet were protected with leather bindings. The bricks required for the construction were developed with Sri Lankan know-how using local materials and it is considered a significant development of ancient Sri Lankan engineering, the bricks we comprised of 60 percent fine sand and 35 percent clay, and the bricks could withstand 44 kg/cm2 (281 kg/in2).

The bonding material for the bricks was developed using finely crushed dolomite, limestone, sieved sand, and clay. The clay employed was pliable and thus accommodates movement within the structure. One of the sides of the brick was roughened to trap the bonding slurry thus limiting lateral movement. Lime plaster was applied to cover the stupa; the plaster was developed using contained seashells, sugar syrup, egg whites, coconut water, glues, oils, plant resin, sand, clay, and pebbles. The plaster not only created a smooth surface, and appealing view but also functioned as a waterproof mechanism. The Mahavamsa also mentions the use of copper sheets over the foundation and arsenic dissolved in sesame oil to prevent insect and plant intrusions inside the stupa. According to historical information, it had taken 15 years to complete the construction of Jetawanrama Stupa and it was constructed by a skillful workforce of hundreds, including brickyard workers and bricklayers, and stonemasons.

Conservation of Jetawanarama

Jetawanrama was hidden in the jungle until 1909. Monk Kumbuke Dhammarama of Sailabimbaramaya temple of Gammanpita received approval to clear the stupa. However, the monk was not granted permission to occupy the temple. Later Polonnaruwe Sobita thera was granted permission to carry on the clearing at the site but approval was once again canceled when the monk initiated the collection of contributions. However, the monk refused to leave.

The conservation of Jetawanrama Stupa was started in the late 1990s and was funded by the earnings from three cultural triangle sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya. The bricks were made with the same composition as the original bricks used by the ancient constructors of Jetawanrama. The conservation was largely hampered due to many reasons such as the north-east war in Sri Lanka, short or bricks, and other materials.


Excavations have revealed artifacts indicating that Sri Lanka was the primary entrepot for trade activity connecting the Indian rim countries as well as the Mediterranean and the Far East, and artistic influences that point to a shared culture in South Asia.

1 thought on “Jetawanarama Anuradhapura Sri Lanka”

  1. Excellent article and facts, Never knew about the Sri Lanaks history. On one side I’m surprised to hear that this much of advanced construction existed in Sri Lanka in teh past. excellent article on Jetawanrama. I don’t know much about Buddhism but I can understand the knowledge of ancient people.

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