The gem of sanctity | Sunday Observer

The gem of sanctity

14 May, 2021
The mesmerising view of the Ruwanweli Seya at Anuradhapura
The mesmerising view of the Ruwanweli Seya at Anuradhapura

Travelling to Anuradhapura was a regular family trip from my childhood days. The early trips were by train. During the school holidays we would plan an outing by train. Then we boarded the train from Fort railway station and reached Anuradhapura in a few hours. We didn’t feel hectic because the train ride was enjoyed by children, seeing the countryside through train windows.

We used to stay at the pilgrims’ rest and we hired a car. There were no ubiquitous three wheelers but private cars were available for hire. What usually happened was to hire the vehicle to go round ‘Atamasthana’ on an agreed fare.

This was in the latter part of 1970s as a child I was amazed by the huge dagabas in the holy city. While Ruwanveli Seya was the most attractive having been restored fully, the other pagodas were mounds of earth. Yet devotees did not want to miss the eight places of worship and covered the ‘Atamasthana’ every time they visited Anuradhapura.

A few decades ago, transport facilities were nowhere near what it is today, pilgrims used the railway but van rides are the most popular today.

For Buddhists, there are eight places of particular sanctity within Anuradhapura where devout pilgrims are obliged to worship.

These are; the Sri Maha Bodhi, the Ruwanweli Seya, the Thuparama Dagaba, the Jetavanarama Dagaba, the Abhayagiri Dagaba, the Lankarama Dagaba, the Mirisaweti Dagaba and the Isurumuniya Vihara.

Anuradhapura is slowly but surely getting back to its days of glory. The Abhayagiri dagaba is the latest to be brought back to its former status. Jetawana dagaba and Mirisawetiya have been completed as well. All three were weather-worn stupas not so long ago. Sadahiru Seya is the latest added dagaba to the Anuradhapura holy city.

Hallowed precincts

Standing majestically in the hallowed precincts of the Anuradhapura sacred city is Ruwanweli Seya, the emblem of sanctity, blessed with the presence of Buddha and venerated by gods, great kings and Buddhists for over centuries and beyond.

The immaculate dagaba reaching the cloud laden sky appeared almost like part of the sky, harmonising with the spiritual and celestial worlds above. The Ruwanweli Seya enshrined with the sacred relics of the Buddha evokes reverence and instills a sense of tranquility in the hearts of Buddhist devotees converging on the sacred site.

The Ruwanweli Seya, Swarnamali Seya or the ‘great stupa’ (Mahathupa) built in the 2nd century BC by King Dutugemunu, is popularly regarded as the greatest of the dagabas in Anuradhapura. Indeed, it was completed as King Dutugemunu lay dying in 144 BC. Nineteenth and 20th century restoration work failed to regain the perfect ‘water bubble’ shape that king sought; but the main features were reinstated, incorporating the modifications of countless rebuilders throughout Anuradhapura history.

Today, gate houses at each of the four cardinal points mark the dagaba’s outer walls. From a sand courtyard, the impressive elephant wall upholds the dagaba platform in the same way that elephants hold up the earth in Buddhist cosmology.

Walk clockwise around the dagaba. Note the four 8th century limestone statues of the Buddha beside a modern sculpture of Maitreya, the future Buddha. A model dagaba on the southwest side of the stupa shows how the Mahathupa may have originally looked in its pure ‘water-bubble’ shape.

A larger-than-life statue, probably King Dutugemunu himself and his mother, Queen Viharamahadevi, stands respectfully facing the great dagaba near the main entrance.

Awe and devotion

The four retinue dagabas facing the four sub directions inside the stone podium appear as venerating the immaculate Ruwanweli Seya stupa which is in the middle of the inner compound filling hearts with awe and devotion.

The glistering Koth Kerella, the golden pinnacle of the dagaba holds the crest gem, which is made of crystal, out to the sky in the way the ultimate truth – Nirvana – stands above the rest. Of the four structures, the Wahalkada adorned with carvings of lions, tuskers, horses, cattle, lotus and kalpa wruksha- the wish conferring tree, the one on the west side is restored to its ancient stage.

The shrine room built facing east has four Buddha statues and the 18 riyana (measurement of ancient times) long Buddha statue depicting the pirinivan manchakaya, the passing away bed of the Buddha is another heartening creation.

The two large tanks built close to the Stupa for preparing for the annual traditional lime washing bring to mind the colourful picture of the ceremonial event with people mounted on flexible bamboo ladders laid on the stupa and painting it with lime.

The task requires a large amount of raw materials, tons of lime, bags of salt, several bamboo trees and ropes.

According to folklore, a beautiful goddess named Swarnamali was dwelling in the golden Thelambu tree in the site. She agreed to leave the site only after King Dutugemunu agreed to build the Stupa in her name.

Before construction work came to an end, King Dutugemunu was drawing his last breath and King Saddatissa covered the Stupa with a white cloth to show the completed view of the Stupa to the dying King.

As the Maha Parinibbana Sutta of the Diga Nikaya describes, at the end of 5,000 years of Gauthama Buddha Rajjaya, the sacred relics of the Buddha enshrined in the Ruwanweli Seya will rise to the sky and the remaining of the relics will arrive from other countries in the world, and they will take the ppearance of the living Buddha and perform the miracle of emitting fire and water at the same time, which is known as Yamaka Maha Pelahara before disappearing from the universe.