Text and pix by Vindya Amaranayake
Anuradhapura is a city of stupas. A conical spire of a gigantic stupa, reaching the skies well above the treetops, is an unmistakable sight, when travelling along any road in the Old City. Although a dwarf when compared with the massive structures such as Ruwanwelisaya, Abhayagiriya, Jetavanaramaya, Mirisavetiya and Lankaramaya, in the centre of the Anuradhapura heritage trail lies a small stupa, whose significance in the history of Sri Lanka is unmatched.
Erected during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (307-267 BC), Thuparamaya, is the first stupa built in ancient Sri Lanka. Legend has it that Arhat Mahinda, who introduced Buddhism to the country, brought with him the collarbone of the Buddha. It is said the king enshrined the sacred bone fragment when building the stupa, hence initiating stupa worship in the country.
The name ‘Thuparamaya’ is a coinage of words, ‘stupa’ and ‘aramaya,’ which denotes a stupa situated inside a residential complex for monks. Today, the surrounding area of the stupa is abundant with ancient ruins, some of which in the shape of monks’ abodes.
Thuparamaya is also known as the ‘Prathamaka Chaithya,’ for being the First Stupa built in the country. It is believed the Buddha visited the site where the stupa is built during his third visit to the country. Upon the request of Arhath Mahinda, King Devanampiyatissa had the stupa built at the same site.
According to ancient chronicles, the stupa was initially built in the shape of a heap of paddy (dhanyagara). However, it is believed the site was completely destroyed and was re-built in 1862 AD in the shape of a bell (ghantakara).
The monument that is seen at present, after several renovations over the centuries, has a diameter of 59 ft (18 metres), at the base. The dome is 11 feet 4 inches (3.45 metres) in height from the ground, 164½ ft (50.1 metres) in diameter. The compound is paved with granite and there are two rows of stone pillars round the stupa. The pillars are remains of a vatadage (a structure built around small stupas for their protection).
A remarkable number of pilgrims and tourists visit the site annually. Being an active site of worship for Buddhists the world over, the travellers must keep in mind to dress and behave appropriately, particularly keeping in mind not to disturb the devotees.