Cultural Triangle Sri Lanka

The Abhayagiri Monastery

Anuradhapura is the most historical city in the island and dates back to the 2nd century BC. Anuradhapura is one of the UNESCO world heritage sites. Anuradhapura harbours many dozens of historical monuments and most of these monuments are many hundred years old. However, some of the monuments are more than thousands of years old such as Jetawanarama and Ruwanweli Dagoba. This blog post highlight one of the most historical and important Buddhist temple in Anuradhapura, namely Abhayagiri monastery.

Role of Anuradhapura in the past

Anuradhapura was not only our ancient capital but also it had been a Buddhist teaching centre in Asia. Buddhist monasteries such as Abhayagiriya believed to places, where a large number of Buddhist monks learned the teaching of Buddha. The monks had been gathering in those monasteries from all around the world.

Abhayagiri was a Buddhist temple complex located within the city of Anuradhapura and visited by a areg number of Buddhist pilgrims. The Buddhist monastery is believed to be a major seat of learning and a large number of scholarly monks lived in the temple.

This flourishing religious centre was not only a place to learn only the orthodox Mahavihara school of Buddhism but also various other principals of Buddhism. Today the past grandeur of Abhayagiri can be ascertained by studying the tumbled down carved pillars, gigantic Stupas, Image houses, and may other ruined buildings. Monasteries were consisting of buildings with many stories and they were decorated with exquisite wood carving, arts, sculptures and precious materials such as gems, gold and silver.

Abhayagiri was built at the centre of Anuradhapura. It was encircled by gigantic walls, bathing ponds that they were architectural marvels, exquisitely carved balustrade and moonstones.

Abhayagiri was founded by King Vattagamini Abhaya and he reigned from 89 BC to 77 BC. When Chinese monk Fa-hsien visited Abhayagiri in 5th century AD to study Buddhism, Abhayagiri was a popular learning centre for Buddhism in the region.

Fa-hsien lived in the monastery for 2 years and learnt Buddhism from scholar monks at Abhayagiri. He had taken the copies of Buddhist texts to China with him. Written documents of monk Fa-hsien gives valuable evidence about highly developed Abhayagiri monastery during his stay.

There had been monasteries, statues, the tooth relic of Buddha and there had been as much as 5000 monks in Abhayagiri. Fa-hsien has described Abhayagiri thus “Anuradhapura city is the residence of magistrate, grandees and many foreign merchants; the mansions beautiful and public buildings richly adorned, the streets and highway straight and level and houses for preaching built at every thoroughfare.”

Abhayagiri was rapidly developed as a seat of learning and has four fellowships by 7th century AD for religious teaching. Uttara-malu, Kapara-malu, Mahanetpa-malu and Vahady-malu are the four fellowships. Through the excavations, research and epigraphical evidence, archaeologists have been able to identify some of the buildings belongs to these fellowships. Abhayagiri monastery was in close contact with other Buddhist religious institution on the island as well as foreign countries such as China, Java and Kashmir.

Sri Lanka had a very close relationship with Java by 8th century AD through Abhayagiri monastery. An inscription discovered in Ratubak plateau in java provides valuable information about it. According to the monks, who resided in Abhayagiri was trained in Java. Even though Abhayagiri was a seat of learning for many centuries, it had to face many hardships due to the repeated invasions of Southern India.

The fall of Abhayagiri resulted in a Chola invasion and subsequent rule of Sena 1 of south India. The city and the monastery were abandoned during the rule of Sena 1. Both King Parakramabahu 1 and King Vijayabahu tried to revive the former glory of Abhayagiri in the 12th century, but none of them succeeded in the effort.