Ruins of the Image House of the Maha Vihara Monastery

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The first Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, known as Thissarama or Maha Vihara, was established by King Devanam Piyatissa in 250 BC within Mahamewna Uyana, Anuradhapura, for Mahinda Thero. While Mahinda Thero resided in Mihintale during the vas season, his primary dwelling remained the Mahaviharaya. Subsequently, the Maha Vihara set the standard for the design and construction of all Buddhist monastic complexes in Sri Lanka.

In writings from the latter part of the Anuradhapura era, reference is made to a principal Buddha Image House within the Maha Viharaya. However, despite thorough exploration, no traces of such a structure were uncovered within the grounds of the Mahavihara to date.

The primary explanation could lie in the British colonial administration’s designation of Anuradhapura as the administrative hub for the Nuwara Kalaviya region. During this period, the vicinity around the Sri Maha Bodhi tree was utilized for constructing their administrative edifices. As documented by Ivers, a governor of Anuradhapura during that era, the influx of pilgrims during the Poson period led to a partial clearance of land specifically around the Sri Maha Bodhi, while other areas remained largely untouched.

The newly uncovered Image House is situated just south of the southeast corner of Lovamahapaya. Adjacent to its southern side, extending from the Sri Maha Bodhi courtyard, lies Dikman Road, established during the English colonial period. The section of the road near the monument, now outside the Sri Maha Bodhi courtyard, serves as the Perahara road, recently constructed utilizing cement block stones.

The first mention of this image house is found in Pali Maha Bodhiwamsa written in the 10th century AD. In the 12th century Maha Bodhiwamsa Commentary, it is mentioned that King Devanampiyatissa built buildings with lions in SInha Vikranthi pose (walking lion turned to the right and looking back) in Maha Vihara Monastery.

According to that description, the Great Bodhi was at the place where the valadhi (end of the tail) of the lion was located. The place where the rear right foot was placed was Lovamahapaya. The place where the left foot is placed behind is the Sannipatha Hall, the place where the navel is located, the Dhatughara, the place where the left foot is placed in the abdomen (chest), the Ransimalaka, the place where the right foot is placed in front is the Maha Thupa (Ruwanmalisaya), the place where the throat is located, the pond called Kantaka, and when the head is turned to the south, the place where the lie of sight fell is the Image House.

Before the recent investigation prompted by the aforementioned source, there had been no extensive study on the image house. However, through this inquiry, remnants of an image house were indeed identified. Professor Paranavithana, in the 1949 archaeological report, asserted that during King Maha Parakramabahu’s (1153-1186) expansion of the Lowamahapaya, a portion of the pond, which received water from an underground channel linked to the Tissa Wewa reservoir and was situated south of Lovamahapaya, was filled to facilitate the expansion.

In 1964-65, Dr. Godakumbura cut a mound of earth nearby to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes due to stagnant water in the above-mentioned pond by filling it. He reported that the remains of a monument were found there, but the monument found has not been identified or the exact location of the building is not specified.

Indeed, considering the context, there appears to be no other monument in close proximity to Lowamahapa on its south side except for the one discovered during the excavation. Moreover, the report mentions the presence of three stone pavements of doors within the monument uncovered during the soil removal process. Additionally, it is noted that the stone balustrades (Korawakgal) and guard stones of each entrance were found to be in a relatively good state of preservation.

Also, during the removal of the soil, a part of the torso of a statue, and a part of a limestone pedestal of a statue were found. However, the statue was not discovered. It is said that the width of the pedestal is four feet. Therefore it seems that the Mr Godakumura has removed Soil from the ruins of the Image House.

Another important factor mentioned in the report is that the stone slabs on the south side of the monument have been removed and the south side has been destroyed by Dickman Road. The same characteristics are seen today.

According to the above Mahabodhivansa description, it is revealed that the image house was in existence in the 10th century AD. But a description of Buddhaghosa Thero, who composed the Samantapasadika from the Mahavihara in the 5th century, is important in the search for the origin of this image house.

As indicated in the Samantapasadika, if any outsider constructs any building on any temple premises, he should be notified not to do so. If the construction is continued despite the notice, the construction should be dismantled, the raw material piled up and asked to remove them. But a bodhi or stupa should not be removed. Here it is indicated that the Bodhi and the Stupa should not be removed because they are worshiped by the devotees. Can a worshipping Image House be removed? If there was an image house in the Mahavihara during Buddhaghosa’s time, it would surely be included among the constructions that should not be removed.

Thus, it can be considered that the image house may have been built sometime between 5-10 AD. In 1017 AD, the Mahavansa mentions how those temples were destroyed when Anuradhapura and Rajarata were surrendered to Soli invaders. In the 12th century, when King Maha Parakramabahu (1153-1186) came to restore the religious places in Anuradhapura, it is said in the Mahawansa that the great stupas like Abhayagiriya had to reach through jungles inhabited by wild animals.

Considering these conditions, the Maha Vihara Image House too might have been destroyed. Therefore, it is confirmed by examining the way the two monuments are located today that the entranceway of the image house was also been buried when the Lovamahapaya was expanded.

According to the ruins of the image house, it can be assumed that there must have been a large doorway, but the doorway is not found today.

At present, there is a large stone doorway in the northern Wahalkada of the Sri Maha Bodhi compound, which is close to the image house, but in the book The Ruins City of Anuradhapura published by Henry Cave in 1894, a photograph of that Wahalkada, describing all the stones etc., there is no description of a doorway. There is no doorway in the photo either. It is said that in the year 1925, the members of the Bulankulama family repaired the gate. At that time, the stone doorway of the nearby image house may have been attached to the Wahalkada.

All the information can be precisely compiled and aligned as below. According to the 1964-1965 report of the Department of Archaeology, during the relevant period, Mr. Gedakumbura, the Commissioner of Archaeology, has done an informal excavation here. Professor Senaratha Paranavithana says that in 1949, during an excavation near Lovamahaprasada to the south, a part of the pond was discovered by cutting the mound here to obtain the soil needed to close it.

In 1949, Professor Paranavithana’s Archeological Report states that an underground water channel was found that brought water from Sri Maha Bodhi towards Lovamahaprasada which fed water to a pond on the right side of Lovamahaprasada.

It is written by Prof. Paranavithana that During the expansion of the Lovamahaprasada by King Maha Parakramabahu in the 12th century, much of the pond on the right was submerged under the building.

As per archaeological reports, stagnant water in the remaining section of the pond led to issues with mosquito breeding. Consequently, in 1964-1965, a nearby mound was excavated, and soil obtained from it was used to fill the pond, aiming to mitigate the mosquito breeding problem.

As indicated in that report, the pond section was located southwest of Lovamahaprasada. According to the unearthed information, the mound is the location of the image house.

Also See

Map of Ruins of the Image House of the Maha Vihara Monastery

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Driving Directions to Ruins of the Image House of the Maha Vihara Monastery

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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