Jethawanaramaya of Anuradhapura Kingdom (ජේතවන විහාරය)

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Jethawana Stupa is the largest stupa in the Sri Lanka. It was originally 400 feet (122 meters) in height and was the third tallest building in the world at that time. Even today as a brick monument, Jethawanaramaya still remains the tallest of its kind in the world.

The birth of Jethawanaramaya Monastery

During the reign of King Gothabhaya (253-266 CE), a disagreement took place between the monks of Maha Vihara Monastery and the Abhayagiri Monastery regarding a Vetulya doctrine. King Gotabhaya took the side of the Maha Vihara and banished 60 monks who had turned in the Vetulya doctrine from Abhayagiri Monastery

One of the disciples of the banished monks named Sangamitta Thero decided to avenge the bikkus of Maha Viharaya. He came back to Sri Lanka and gained the favour of King Gotabhaya (253-266 AC) and was entrusted to teach his two sons Prince Mahasena and Prince Jetthatissa. After their father’s death, the elder son Prince Jettatissa who was a supporter of the Mahavihara monks became the king and reigned for 10 years (266-276 CE).

In 276 Mahasena (276-303) succeeded to the throne and he persuaded the king that the Mahaviharians laxed discipline and the monks of Abhayagiri vihara preached the true doctrine of the Buddha. He also persuaded the king to order the prohibition of giving arms to the Mahaviharians and they were forced to retreat to the hills and Rohana.

Then Sangamittha Thero persuaded the king to razor the Maha Vihara buildings and use the materials to build up a new rival institute within the boundaries of Maha Vihara itself. This became known as the Jethawanaramaya (Jethawana Viharaya).

Jethawanaramaya Viharaya was built on the 14th place which has been blessed by Buddha’s presence in Sri Lanka.  Thus this site lies on the 14th position of Solosmasthana, The Sixteen Buddhist Sacred Sites hollowed by Buddha, and also one of Atamasthana, one of the eight most sacred holy sites of Anuradhapura.

However, this act brought a great and disastrous civil war and the monk Sangamitta was killed by the queen of the king. Later the king bowing down to public pressure restored the Maha Vihara buildings and ruled for 27 years.

Jethawanaramaya Stupa

The circumference of this edifice is about 1,200 feet and its height is 249 feet. It stands, as all other Dagabas do, on a platform called Salapatala Maluwa paved with stone slabs that appear to be square, having about 580 feet from east to west and from north to south. This maluwa is surrounded by a sandy compound called Weli Maluwa whose breadth is 125 feet. There had been a half wall around the
platform and a stone rampart around the Weli Maluwa.

Jethawanaramaya was built by King Mahasena of Anuradhapura (276-303) and was completed by his son Sirimeghavanna. It is believed that this monument was built upon the enclosure where Mahinda Maha Thero was cremated. Recent excavation in the stupa has unearthed a one-meter-thick brick wall adjacent to a layer of ash and charcoal. This is believed to be the chamber where the remains of the great thero rest.

The British erroneously identified Jethawanaramaya as Abhayagiriya between 1873 AC to 1874 AC (Seneviratna, 1994). Therefore when older documents are referred to, this fact needs to be kept in mind.

Sir Emerson Tennent’s remarks on this stupa are as follows: ” The solid mass of masonry in this vast mound is prodigious. Its diameter is 360 feet, and its present height (including the pedestal and spire) 249 feet ; so that the contents of the semicircular dome of brickwork and the platform of stone 720 feet square and 15 feet high, exceed twenty millions of cubic feet. Even with the facilities which modern invention supplies for economising labour, the building of such a mass would at present occupy 500 bricklayers from six to seven years and would involve an expenditure of at least a million sterling.

The materials are sufficient to raise eight thousand houses, each with twenty feet frontage and these would form thirty streets half-a-mile in length. They would construct a town the size of Ipswich or Coventry ; they would line an ordinary railway tunnel twenty miles long, or form a wall one foot in thickness and ten feet in height, reaching from London to Edinburgh. Such are the dagabas of Anuradhapura.”

In 1870 Mr. L. Liesching, Assistant Government Agent for Anuradhapura too comments of the gigantic size of this stupa as follows; “The trough where his elephants were watered is in beautiful preservation, and the stone canoe, forty cubits long, out of which the priests were supplied with food, is still to be seen in the jungle not far from the Jetawanarama, the largest of all the dagabas. This dagaba is 1,080 feet in circumference, and has been estimated to contain 456,071 cubic yards of bricks, a quantity sufficient to build a wall 97 miles long, 22 feet high, and 2 broad. It was built by Maha Sen in the third century ‘before Christ“.

As with all other buildings in Anuradhapura, this too was subjected to destruction by North Indian Invaders. Then when the Anuradhapura was finally abandoned as the capital in the 11th century this stupa with others was covered by the jungle. King Parakramabahu (12th century) in the Polonnaruwa era again tried to renovate this stupa and it was rebuilt to the current height, a reduction from the original height. Today it stands at 232 feet (71 meters) .

Among the objects discovered by more recent archaeological excavations are nine gold plates containing some parts of a Mahayana Sutra identified as a version Prajnaparamita Sutra which is the philosophical discourse of the Buddha. The script of the gold plates is in Sinhala of the 9th century and the language is Sanskrit. The appropriate weight of the gold plate is 73 oz. The plates measure 25 inches in length and 2.3 inches in breath (Seneviratna, 1994).

The stupa has four Vahalkada, the frontispieces on the four Cardinal Points. The Vahalkadas were a feature of stupas by the time Jethawana was built. The stone slabs on the Salapathala Maluwa or the stone pavement sometimes carry inscriptions that say they were the donations of certain devotees. On the paleographic evidence, it is clear that the stone pavement was a work of the 8th century (Seneviratna, 1994). 

Today this stupa is going through a painful and slow conservation to bring it to its ancient glory. Even today you can see massive trees which have come up on the stupa itself on the sides where reconstruction has not started.

Jethawanaramaya Image House (Patimaghara)

This image house is the largest of its kind found in the Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa Era. This edifice has been built using bricks in a Gedige type where the hemispherical brick or stone roof is the distinctive feature of such a building. Stylistically this belongs to the late Anuradhapura Period. The entrance to this building is a monolithic door which the pillars raise to 27 feet (8.3 meters). At the center lies a massive pedestal made of bricks and a stone reliquary (Yanthragala) with 25 chambers where the relics would have been deposited. This evidence confirms that this was an image house and that a Buddha statue of a gigantic scale once filled this image house. When discovered, the stone doorposts were broken into pieces and fallen off. These sections have been fitted together with steel rods and setup.

There has been a circumambulating path around the statue. The floor of the image house has been paved with stone slabs. There is a vestibule and an entresol in the front of the image house. There is evidence that this edifice has been destroyed by a fire. There are indications of 2 subsidiary image houses located on the two sides of the main image house.

The statue is thought to be 37 feet (11.3 meters) high and carved in limestone. Based on the calculations the whole building would have been 50 feet (15.25 metres) high. This is probably the “Manimekhala Prasada” built by King Sena 1 (831-833) in the 9th century. King Sena 1 installed a gold image of Buddha in this image house. King Sena II (853-887) has added an image of Bodhisattva. During the reign of King Udaya II (887-898), the Cola invaders from India destroyed the building and the king partially built it again. At the last stages of the Polonnaruwa kingdom Mahinda IV (956-972) restored this image house again (Seneviratna, 1994)

Uposthaghara (The Chapter House)

The Uposthaghara or the Chapter House of the Jethawana Monastery is found at the south-east end of the stupa. A dense group of 83 stone columns marks the site of the Chapter House

Other Names  : Jethawanaramaya, Jetawanaramaya, Jethawanaya, Jetawanaya, Jethawana Viharaya, Jetawana Viharaya, Jethavanaramaya, Jetavanaramaya, Jethavanaya, Jetavanaya, Jethavana Viharaya, Jetavana Viharaya


  • B.W. Harischandra, 1908. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura. With Forty-six Illustrations. 1st ed. Colombo: Brahmachari Walisingha Harischandra.
  • Ievers, R.W., 1899. Chapter II. In Manual of the North-Central Province, ceylon. Colombo: G.J.A. Skeen, Govt. Printer.
  • Seneviratna, A., 1994. Ancient Anuradhapura. 1st ed. Colombo: Archaeological Survey Department, Sri Lanka.
  • Devendra, D.T., 1952. Guide to Anuradhapura. 2nd ed. Colombo: [Govt. Press], p.27-28.
  • Smither, J. and Wikramagamage, C., 1993. Architectural Remains, Anurádhapura, Ceylon; comprising the dágabas and certain other ancient ruined structures. Measured, drawn and described by J.G. Smither. 2nd ed. (revised) Colombo: Academy of Sri Lankan Culture, pp.68-73

Also See

Jethawanaramaya Map

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Driving Directions to Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura can be reached through many routes from Colombo. The two main routes are through Puttalam (Puttalama) and through Kurunegala. Travelling from Puttalam, you will pass the scenic Wilpattu area. From Kurunegala, there are two main routes to Anuradhapura. The most common route is through Dambulla. The other route is through Galgamuwa. Out of all the routes, the most commonly used is the Kurunegala-Dambulla route (Route 2).

Route 01 from Colombo to AnuradhapuraRoute 02 from Colombo to Anuradhapura
Through : Negombo – Chilaw – Puttalam
Distance from Colombo : 210 km
Travel time : 4.30- 5.00 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google map
Through : Katunayake Expressway – Central Expressway – Kurunegala – Dambulla
Distance from Colombo : 223 km
Travel Time : 4.30- 5.00 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google maps
Route 03 from Colombo to AnuradhapuraRoute from Kandy to Anuradhapura
Through : Katunayake Expressway – Narammala – Wariyapola – Padeniya – Thambuthegama
Distance from Colombo :203 km
Travel Time : 4.30- 5.00 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google map
Through : Katugastota – Matale – Dambulla
Distance from Colombo :136 km
Travel Time : 3.5 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google map


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