The Stupas of Anuradhapura: Reflections

Chryshane Mendis, whose chosen title isLiving landscapes or Ruined landscapes? A Reflection through the Stupas of  Anuradhapura”

 The approach I am taking in this article is a subjective interpretative one based on my study experience of landscape approaches. I will be looking at the three main historical stupas of Anuradhapura, the Ruwanwalisaya, the Abeyagiri Stupa and the Jethawanarama Stupa in relation to their current conservation and restoration status from a landscape perspective. I attempt not, to take the reader on a strict academic pathway, but on a personal thought provoking journey in this article.

When you look at these three stupas at present, there is a clear difference. The Ruwanwalisaya shines bright in white while the Abeyagiri Stupa and the Jethawanarama Stupa are un-plastered, exposing their brick structure; in other words, one is a restored stupa while the other two are conserved stupas. The younger me always admired the ruined form of the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama Stupas as it gave a sense of historicity and awe. But over time with maturity, I questioned as to why these two were  left in this form while the Ruwanwalisaya was restored as a complete stupa, which makes more sense. Afterall these over thousand five hundred year old stupas are still part of the living religion that made them-Buddhism. The stupa is a living monument, an integral part of any Buddhist temple and an important symbol and place of worship for the devotee of the Buddha.

Then why did we stop short of plastering the Abeyagiri Stupa and the Jethawanarama Stupa?

To understand this, we need to look at the concept of Authenticity. The concept of Authenticity is an important one in heritage conservation. It deals with what is considered authentic when attempting to protect/conserve/restore a historical monument; it has been argued that authenticity is a “measure of the degree to which the values of a heritage property may be understood to be truthfully, genuinely and credibly expressed by the attributes carrying the values” (Stovel, 2004 cited in Wijesuriya, 2018, p.18). These ‘values’ of authenticity of a heritage site have been traditionally understood as being intrinsic, where they primarily concern the original form, design and material. However the world has moved-on from such generic definitions of Authenticity (of European origin). Heritage conservation is now seen as a context-dependent endeavour (Wijesuriya, 2018, p.18). Wijesuriya (2018, p.20) states that “authenticity is not a generic term but a notion that has to be qualified with a particular ‘aspect’ be it fabric, history, an architectural concept and so on”. The Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) further elaborates these by stating that authenticity should be judged within the cultural contexts to which a monument belongs (as opposed to a universal criteria) and that aspects of this may include form and design, materials and substance, use and function, traditions and techniques, location and setting, and spirit and feeling, and other internal and external factors (1994, p.47). Based on a monument’s context, retaining either one of these aspects should hold that monument as authentic.

Looking at the ancient stupas of Anuradhapura from these various aspects of authenticity bring us to the concept of Living Heritage. In simple, it can be defined as a socio-cultural continuation of a monument/site/practice from its origin to the present. In this sense, all of the Buddhist ruins of Sri Lanka are part of a living heritage, and most importantly amoung the types of ruins are the stupas. The stupas as Buddhist heritage monuments are seen in the light of authenticity in three tangible domains as put forward by Weerasinghe (2006, 2011, cited in Cooray, 2018); they are space, form and sight (vision). “He [Weerasinghe] concludes that the space of Buddhist heritage and in a broader sense, living heritage places must be able to accommodate the Buddhist rituals; the form of such living heritage must be able to embody the ritual and liturgical values of the heritage; and the sight of a heritage should be able to visually convey the meanings and values of the heritage”(Cooray, 2018, p.155).

In short, these are the aspects of authenticity looked at in Sri Lanka in Buddhist heritage sites. If these are met in the conservation of ancient stupas, that stupa is considered authentic because it meets the practices of the Buddhist devotee.

The original material-based authenticity is a European concept, which if looked at the stupas from this perspective, it would focus on conserving the original material/substance of the stupa. However as shown above, this is not how Buddhists would view a stupa. For them the material composition is irrelevant, as long as it has its space, form and sight, as they were meant when the stupa was built. This is even seen historically in the restoration of these stupas. The ancient chronicles give many instances where the giant stupas of Anuradhapura had fallen into ruin due to invasion and where fully restored, even enlarged by successive kings. For them again, material was irrelevant. No matter the many times the Ruwanwalisaya was restored, it would always remain the stupa built by King Dutugamunu in the 2nd Century BC.

Now we come again to the first question, why stop short of plastering the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama Stupas?

The Abeyagiri Stupa and the Jethawanarama Stupa have been conserved “following a minimalist approach by maintaining the profile of the dome with exposed brickwork as it has survived without plastering and leaving the broken spires as they have survived to maintain a balance between archaeological and spiritual characters”(Cooray, 2012, cited in Cooray, 2018, p.157).

This current conservation, although inspired by the European concept of authenticity, has its purpose as stated by Cooray (2018,p.158); “…in addition to their height and volume retain enough evidence to showcase their form (parabolic profile of the dome, which is the most stable form for such a construction), materials and techniques (large burnt clay tiles bonded in clay mortar with the foundations reaching down to the bedrock) as well as the massiveness of the undertakings (manufacturing of several millions of bricks, utilization of a massive labour force, scale of construction etc.) (Cooray, 2012). They have been conserved to highlight these aspects”.

It is the value ascribed to a monument that determines its conservation/restoration strategy. In living religious monuments it is the spiritual value that is considered for determining the aspect of authenticity. However due to the ancientness of the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama Stupas, we have now ascribed an archaeological value as well.

Irrespective of the foreign origin of the discipline of Archaeology in general and the modern conservation movement in particular, we cannot deny the importance of ascribing an archaeological value to an ancient stupa.

In building a monument of veneration (the stupa), the ancients unknowingly built an archive of technological knowledge; knowledge of which was mostly lost together with the end of the hydraulic civilization in the 13th century. It is because archaeological value was ascribed to these ancient stupas and that they were viewed as scientific objects, that we now have come to know and appreciate the architectural and technological know-how of the ancient Sinhalese.

It is in this backdrop that the current conservation status of the Abeyagiri Stupa and the Jethawanarama Stupa is justified by the authorities. The exposed brickwork shows its material and technique of construction, its massiveness of scale and retains the original bricks wherever possible.

 (Abeyagiriya Stupa, Author 2016)

All the above was a discussion on the current conservation and restoration status of the ancient stupas of Anuradhapura. I would now wish to discuss my input on the above discussion.

Currently all excavation and major conservation work on the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama stupas have been complete, and the results of which have been widely published. So then since these have been studied and documented, then why not restore them? Afterall they are stupas of veneration of a very much living religion.

When looked at individually, this makes sense. The stupa is meant for veneration but just looking at these gives a sense of an uncompleted stupa. The complete restoration of the form and whitewashing gives a certain spiritual feeling to the devotees (Ratnayaka, 2018, p.150). Although I am a non-Buddhist, I have meditated in front of the Ruwanwalisaya and Abeyagiriya and have noticed a clear difference; meditating in front of the white geometric form of the Ruwanwalisaya gives a strong spiritual calmness to the mind than at the latter.

It makes sense then to restore them when we look at the stupa alone, actually it would be very interesting as well if done so. The Abeyagiri Stupa and the Jethawanarama Stupa are much larger than the Ruwanwalisaya and would be amazing to behold. Had we not restored the Ruwanwalisaya and just conserved it like the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama, it would just have been a landscape of ruins. Nevertheless since the Ruwanwalisaya was restored, we can get a glimpse of the grandeur of the monument and also create a mental image on how the other two giant stupas may have looked. Ruwanwalisaya is still the icon of large stupas in SL; whenever we picture a large stupa, it is the Ruwanwalisaya. We would not have this impression had it not been restored.

However, although the Ruwanwalisaya is the oldest of the three stupas, when we stand in front of it, we do not get the historic feeling, not as much as if we stood in front of the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama stupas. When we stand in front of the Ruwanwalisaya, in our minds we know this is historic, in fact older than the other two, but visually not. When at the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama, visually one is reminded that they are historic stupas.

On the other hand, the conservation approaches taken to the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama in the last century have given them a character of their own now. A character of historicity together with the surrounding. The yellow flood lights lighting up the massive brick domes in the night produces a serene golden aura, unmatched by any other form of ruined monument in the country. It announces to the beholder the deep time and the glory that was ancient Anuradhapura.

(Jethawanarama stupa, by Kasun De Silva, 2015)

Anuradhapura is both a living landscape and a ruined landscape. It is a place of deep time and we must appreciate the historicity of that ancient metropolis, the oldest urban center in the island. Viewing the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama in their current state together with the landscape assures the beholder the deep time and historicity of the place.

Therefore I believe the present combination, a restored Ruwanwalisaya and the “ruined” status of the Abeyagiri Stupa and the Jethawanarama Stupa gives a sense of balance to the landscape; Ruwanwalisaya signifying a living landscape and the Abeyagiri and Jethawanarama signifying a ruined/historic landscape. This landscape outlook can also be said to give a sense of authenticity of place, the authenticity of a living religious landscape and the authenticity of a historic landscape. As these three stupas compose the skyline of Anuradhapura, this duality of the landscape is reflected through them from afar as well.

I recall a memory here while travelling by train one night in Anuradhapura; just after the Anuradhapura railway station, beyond the dark open fields and above the dark hedge of trees, the shinning while dome and spire of the Ruwanwalisaya was visible; this white gigantic monument lit up that area and was a sight to behold. Then few seconds later, above the dark trees the brown dome and spire of the Jethawanarama stupa came into sight, lit up with the yellow flood lights, it gave a different sense of awe and reminded me that I was in Anuradhapura, and few seconds later so did the Abeyagiri stupa in the same way. The reflection of the yellow flood lights on the brown structures lit the surrounding area in a golden orange aura. This impression of the three stupas in the landscape showed me that I was in an ancient place, showed me how they looked like in the past and showed me a living monument where the present was very much there.

 (Ruwanwalisaya and Jethawanarama stupa, by Kasun De Silva)

It may seem here that my outlook at these stupas has reinforced the status quo, but I did so by looking at them from a different perspective, from the landscape. It is interesting to always view and interpret things from different perspectives however we should keep in mind that change is inevitable. How we look at these stupas and conserve them now could change in the future, and that is fine by that. Afterall, impermanence is one of the main doctrines of Buddhism.


The single reference used here is the very interesting publication on Authenticity in the Asian context by ICCROM. Below is its main reference and the list of Sri Lankan authors who have provided chapters to it.

  • Wijesuriya, Gamini. and Sweet, Jonathan. Eds., 2018. Revisiting Authenticity in the Asian Context. ICCROM CHA Conservation Forum Series Number 2. [Online] Available at: <>
    • Gamini Wijesuriya, Revisiting authenticity in the Asian context: introductory remarks
    • Roland Silva, Following the route of authenticity
    • Prasanna B. Ratnayake, Authenticity in the Sri Lankan context: traditional maintenance systems, modern management systems, and present challenges
    • Nilan Cooray, Authenticity in the context of living religious heritage: the Sri Lankan experience
    • Ashley de Vos, Authenticity in connection to traditional maintenance practices: sacred living heritage sites of Sri Lanka
  1. The Nara Document on Authenticity. Nara: ICOMOS – International Council on Monuments and sites. [Online] Available at: <;

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One response to “The Stupas of Anuradhapura: Reflections

  1. Kalinga Tudor Silva

    Very useful essay. I have visited these three great monuments multiple times, usually accompanied by visiting ISLE students from USA. We always made it a point to visit these places late in the evening. We would visit Abeyagiriya and Jetawanaramaya first and end up in Ruwanwelisaya where students and staff of the ISLE program like to spend a longer time just relaxing on the floor of the great stupa also mixing with pilgrims of all walks of life!

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