Sri Lanka’s Historic Anuradhapura

Photo by Gavin Thomas

Mapping your way through Anuradhapura's myriad ruins and monuments

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The ancient city of Anuradhapura is huge, sprawling and disorienting – you could spend days wandering amongst the literally thousands of temples, stupas and shrines dotted around the area without ever quite getting to the end of them. The following tour wraps up all the major sights in a single (longish) day. You’ll need some kind of transport to get around. Hiring a rickshaw is one possibility, although it’s much more fun – and a lot more peaceful – just to rent a bike.

Morning in Sri Lanka’s Historic Anuradhapura

Start at the Jetavana Monastery (one of the city’s three great ancient monasteries, along with the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri), with carefully manicured lawns and the remains of innumerable monastic buildings laid out in the shadow of the monumental Jetavana Dagoba (stupa), originally the third tallest structure in the ancient world at a staggering 120m in height, outdone only by the two great pyramids at Giza. The ravages of time have reduced its dimensions somewhat since, although it still looks mighty impressive at its current height of 70m.

Nearby, you might want to have a quick look at the Jetavana Museum, displaying some of the beautifully made ancient artefacts recovered from the site, while immediately behind the museum you’ll find a pretty little bathing pool and the strange “Buddhist railing” – like a wooden fence carved in stone which formerly enclosed a now-vanished temple or other religious object.

Continue west to reach the end of the road and the Mahavihara monastery complex, the oldest part of the city. Turning left at the end of the road you’ll reach the Sri Maha Bodhi, one of the world’s most famous trees, well over two thousand years old and said to have been grown from a cutting of the original bodhi tree in India beneath which the Buddha himself attained enlightenment. The tree is still held in immense reverance and is usually busy with devout local (the ladies dressed in white saris) paying their respects amidst a constant hum of prayer.

Retrace your steps, heading north, to reach the soaring white Mahavihara Dagoba, standing on a huge base symbolically supported by elephant heads, with further elephants carved onto the four valkahadas (shrines) placed against the base of the stupa at the cardinal points.

A few hundred metres north of here, surrounded by toppling pillars, the Thuparama is the oldest stupa in the city (although much restored since it was first built). About 100m south of the Thuparama look out too for the iron railings protecting one of the city’s most elaborate ancient moonstones – semi-circular slabs traditionally placed at the doors of temples and shrines and believed to purify all those who walked across them.


West of the Sri Maha Bodhi, the verandah at stately old colonial resthouse – now called The Sanctuary at Tissawewa – makes a pleasant and very peaceful place for lunch. Just north of here you can’t fail to notice the massive white Mirisivetiya Dagoba, the fourth-largest stupa in the city.


Head north along the beautiful road bounding the edge of the Basawakkulama Lake past the Archeological Museum (currently closed for renovations) and the humdrum and entirely missable Folk Museum. Reach a T-junction and turn right (you’ll see the Thuparama which you visited earlier on your right) and then left (north) at the next crossroads.

Head north along this road. Now covered in light woodland, this area – known as The Citadel – was for many centuries home to the kings of Anuradhapura, although not much survives of its former glory apart from the modest remains of the Royal Palace (on you left, a few hundred metres from the crossroads), home to a couple of impressively carved guardstones.

About 100 metres further along on the opposite side of the road, the remains of the Mahapali Refectory include a huge stone trough in which the local’s monks daily rations were once served. Just north of here (but difficult to identify) are further ruins including those of the island’s original Temple of the Tooth and the ancestor of the one you see in Kandy today.

Continue on until you reach a crossroads. You’re now in the Abhayagiri Monastery area – the largest, most fascinating and more confusing of all Anuradhapura’s ancient districts (although detailed signage now makes navigation a bit easier). Continue straight ahead to reach the superb Kuttam Pokuna, a beautifully preserved monastic bathing pool, then head left (east) to visit the remains of the iconic Samadhi Buddha statue showing the Buddha seated in deep meditation.

Slightly further along the road rises the huge Abhayagiri Dagoba, one of the city’s three largest stupas, with the usual finely carved valkahadas at each of the four cardinal points. Continuing west along the road from the dagoba you’ll find the Ratna Prasada, home to another eye-bogglingly intricate guardstone, and Mahasen’s Palace, location of one of the city’s most exquisite moonstones.

There are also innumerable other ruins dotted around this area. In the unlikely event that you still have time and energy it’s great fun just to lock your bike and wander off through the trees to see what you stumble upon – the vast Et Pokuna (“elephant Pool) bathing tank, just south of Mahasen’s Palace, is particularly worth hunting out, and every bit a huge as its name suggests.

More Sri Lanka Itineraries

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Explore Sri Lanka’s Galle Fort … historic stronghold on the southwest coast
Romantic Sri Lanka … share the love on one of Asia’€™s most romantic islands
Sri Lanka Family Holidays … something for all ages and interests
Sri Lanka Grand Tour … see the very best in two weeks
Sri Lanka Hill Walk Around Ella … hike through hills and tea plantations
Sri Lanka Journey through History … explore three thousand years of Sinhalese Buddhist art and architecture
Sri Lanka’€™s Cultural Triangle … the heart of the island’s most ancient kingdom
Sri Lanka’s Kandy in a Day … explore the temples, museums and music of the cultural capital
Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa … touring the stunning ruins and shrines of a great medieval capital
Sri Lanka’s Ten Best Beaches … sand and sea, plus plenty of great places to stay
Wild Sri Lanka … take a walk on the wild side through Sri Lanka’s spectacular landscapes and national parks

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