Jatavanaramaya is an entire monastery complex the details of which are often overlooked by visitors. My second visit to Jatavanaramaya was in August this year. Having covered other important locations in Anuradhapura it was nearly dusk when we reached Jatavanaramaya. The stupa was spectacular in soft rays of the dying sun. Because of it’s isolation from the bussier areas of the historic city (there was a perahera leaving the Sri Maha bodhi that evening and people were lining up the streets) Jatavanaramaya had the kind of peaceful environment you would hope to find in a monestry. The gentle breeze was soothing. The stone courtyard was vast and empty. The rock warm beneath our feet. Putha and I decided to say our prayers while walking slowly around the stupa. According to the site that lists the Ten Largest Temples of the World the dome has a diameter of 95 meters which means we would have walked close upon 300 meters. There wasn’t much light once we had covered the full circle.
The stupa I remember as a child was covered with foliage and I would illustrate it with dabs of bright green. I suppose a stupa with a little forest running all over it in contrast to the usual white-washed dagabas was all too much for a child’s imagination. From that point onwards my memories of the place is vivid with the antics of a troup of monkeys.
Conservation of the stupa had started in the second half of the 19th century under the British rule. However it was in 1981 that the major conservation and archeological research work began under the UNESCO funded Central Cultural Fund. Then Anuradhapura became one of the first locations to be named a World Heritage site (1982). Since then there has been much effort in restoration activities resulting in the stupa we are seeing today.
A visit to the museum in the complex reveal the significance of Jetavanaramaya both in terms of Buddhism (because it represents the tensions within the Theravada and Mahayana sects of Buddhist monks – read more) and technology. One wonders how it may have looked like all those years back. And just to fill our imagination (perhaps!) the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka has put together an interesting 3D tour titled ‘Jetawanaramaya Complex as it looked in 9th Century AD‘.
It is believed that King Mahasena (273-301 AD) initiated the construction of the stupa following the destruction of Mahavihara. Jatavanaramaya complex is located in Nadana Gardens which according to the chronicles had been gifted by King Davanampiya Tissa to Ven. Arahath Mahinda Thera. Mahavihara is perhaps the monestry complex that was built when Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka. The King Mahasena had it built as the largest stupa, rising to a height of 122 meters, using over 93 million baked bricks. It is still the world’s largest brick monument. At the time of its completion ( It took 15 years to be completed!) it was the third tallest structure in the world and only behind the Great Pyramids of Giza. The engineering ingenuity behind the construction of the structure is astonishing.
The excavations in the Jatavana monostery complex have brought to light a great number of ruins as well as artefacts including vessels, ceramic ware, coins, paintings (frescos using natural dyes), carvings, bronze ornaments and hinges etc. These are displayed in the museum (also a result of the UNESCO funded restoration project) I found the jewellery very interesting. The currator says nearly 300,000 beads fabricated from different materials – clay, colored, glass, precious and semi precious stones, crystal , agate (orange), carnelian (red), jade(green), moonstones (white), ivory, shell, bronze, silver and gold. Some of the artefacts have been reconstructed to give the visitor an idea of its usage. Some of the material had been brought from foreign countries.
This is where we spotted the stone tablets (with pockets for storing valuables) that are buried under statues or stupas. Another item that caught our attention was a beautifully crafted Guard Stone which they believe was never put to use. The carvings of Nagaraja is in excellent condition showing no signs of weathering. Two guard stones stand on either side of the entrance to a place of worship, and in the center would be a half circle decorative slab of rock called the Sadakadapahana.
Of all the places we’ve been to that day- the Atamasthana (8 main places of worship in Anuradhapura) it was Jetawanaramaya that captured our hearts.