Solosmasthana – The Sixteen Buddhist Sacred Sites (සොළොස්මස්ථාන)

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Thuparama Stupa and the Vatadage
Thuparama Stupa and the Vatadage

During his lifetime, Buddha visited the island of Sri Lanka three times. These visits are described in detail in the Mahavamsa, the great chronical of Sri Lanka and in ancient writings such as Pujavaliya, Samantapasadika and Buthsarana also mention these visits .

The First visit of Buddha was on the 9th month after the of attainment of his Enlightenment, the Buddhahood to Mahiyangana. This was to stop a war between Yaksha and Naga tribes. Mahavamsa says that he conquered the yakshas there and sent them to an island named Giri, thereby setting the background for the establishment of Buddhism in the country later on, where the Buddha knew that the Dhamma would prevail “in all its glory”.

The Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka was made to Nagadipa in the fifth year after attaining enlightenment, where he settled a dispute between Naga kings Chulodara and Mahodara regarding a jewel studded chair. In the eighth year after enlightenment, the Buddha made his third and final visit to the country accompanied by 500 bhikkhus. This visit was to Kelaniya and was due to an invitation by a Naga king named Maniakkika, who had asked the Buddha to come to his kingdom during the previous visit.

With the decline of the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, most of the Solosmasthana were abandoned.It was not until the 20th century that all of them received the attention of the Sangha and Buddhists in the country and were renovated. A Pali gatha, praising the Solosmasthana, is in use among Buddhists. This gatha, which lists all of the Solosmasthana, is recited especially when making offerings to the Buddha.

මහියංගණං නාගදීපං
කල්‍යාණං පාද ලාංඡනං
දිවාගුහං දීඝවාපී
චේතියංච මුතියංගණං
තිස්ස මහා විහාරංච
බෝධිං මරිචවට්ටියං
සොණ්ණමාලී මහා චේතියං
ථූපාරාම භයාගිරිං
ජේතවනං සේලචේතියං
තථා කාචර ගාමකං
එතෙ සොළසඨානානි
අහං වන්දාමි සබ්බදා

Mahiyanganan Naagadeepan
Kalyaanan Pada Lanchanan
Diva Guhan Deepavapi
Chethiyancha Muthinganan
Tissa maha Viharancha
Bodhin Marichawattiyan
Swarnamali Maga Chethiyan
Thuparama Bhayagiri
Jethawanan Sela Chethiyan
Thatha Kachara Gamakan
Ethe Solosthanani
Ahan Wandami Sabbada

By name these 16 holy places in the above gatha are

  1. Mahiyangana Viharaya (Badulla District)
  2. Nagadeepa Viharaya (Jaffna District)
  3. Kelani Viharaya (Colombo District)
  4. Sri Pada (Rathnapura District)
  5. Diva Guhava (Rathnapura District) – location has not been identified definitely. However in recent times it is thought this to be the Batathota Caves in Erathna, Ratnapura
  6. Deegavapi Viharaya (Ampara District)
  7. Muthiyangana Chethiya (Badulla District)
  8. Tissamaharamaya (Hambantota District)
  9. Sri Maha Bodhi (Anuradhapura District)
  10. Mirisawetiya (Anuradhapura District)
  11. Ruwanweli Seya Stupa (Anuradhapura District)
  12. Thuparamaya (Anuradhapura District)
  13. Abhayagiri Viharaya (Anuradhapura District)
  14. Jethawanaramaya Viharaya (Anuradhapura District)
  15. Sela Chethiya (Anuradhapura District)
  16. Kiri Vehera (Hambantota District)

1. Mahiyanganaya Stupa

Mahiyangana Rajamaha Viharaya

The most sacred out of the 16 holy places. On the 9th month of attaining enlightenment on the full moon poya day of the month of January, According to Mahavamsa, the great chronical of Sri Lanka, Buddha visited the island off Lanka in order to settle a dispute arose between Yakkas and Nagas (two tribes then inhabited this area), This was his first ever visit to Sri Lanka.

During this visit Buddha preached Dhamma to Sumana Saman, a local leader (of Deva tribe and later a deity) in this area, to whom the Lord Buddha gave a handful of his hair so that people could worship. Enshrining this relic, Sumana Saman built a stupa of Sapphires at Mahiyangana there the Buddha had sat.

When the Buddha passed away, the collar bone of the Buddha was enshrined in the stupa by Sarabhu thero, a disciple of Sariputta Thero, covered it in gold coloured stones and made the stupa 12 cubits high.

Later on about seven chethiyas were built over the original chethiya from time to time, the last one being built by the King Dutugemunu. As such, this historic town is a very sacred place for Buddhists.

2. Nagadeepa Stupa

Nagadeepa Viharaya - Jaffna

On the 5th year of attaining enlightenment , Buddha saw that a war was brewing up regarding a gem studded throne between Chulodara and Mahodara, uncle and nephew. Mahodara was the king of Nagadeepa. Chulodara was his younger sisters son. The throne had been gifted to the sister of Mahodara by their father and then died.

Seeing the potential death of many, Buddha visited Nagadeepa and preached dhamma to the Naga’s and stopped the bloodshed. This was his 2nd visit. Then the uncle and the nephew offered the gem studded stone to Buddha. Buddha sat on the throne and refreshed himself with the dana offered by the Nagas.

Naga Maniakkhika, Mahodara’s mothers brother and the king of Kelaniya who had come to Nagadeepa to join the battle, requested Buddha to visit Kelaniya, his own kingdom one day. The Buddha gave back the throne to the Nagas and asked to enshrine it and build a place of worship.

3. Kelani Stupa

Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya

To honour the invitation of Naga king Maniakkhika of Kelaniya, 3 years later on the 8th year of attaining enlightenment Buddha visited Kelaniya.  The king had extended this invitation at the Buddha’s second visit to country which was to settle a battle between the two “Naga” kings at Nagadeepa.

On this visit he was not alone. He arrived at the adobe of Maniakkhika with five hundred disciples. On the spot where the Kelani Stupa was later built, king Maniakkhika erected a golden palace with a throne of inestimable value. The Buddha and his disciples preached dhamma to the Naga king siting on this seat.

Although this event took place in the 5th century BC, its is not clear who actually built the stupa. It is believed the fist stupa would have been built by king Maniakkhika himself enshrining the throne which Buddha sat. However according to chronicles, the King Uttiya has made renovations to this stupa in the 3rd Century BC, therefore this Stupa would have been built before that time. There after many kings have extended and made additions to this temple over time, and during the Kingdom of Kotte in the 14th Century the Temple of Kelaniya was a highly developed place of worship.

4. Sri Pada

Sri Pada (Adams Peak)

Continuing the Buddha’s 3rd visit, after preaching Dhamma to the Deva’s at Kelaniya, he visited Samanthakuta, the adobe of Sumana Saman, who met Buddha on the 1st visit to Mahiyangana. After preaching dhamma to Sumana Saman, he placed his foot print at the peak of the mountain whuch has become a must go pilgrimage to all buddhists in the country.

The mountain is 7,360 feet (2,243 meters) high. Although this is only the second highest mountains, It rises alone majestically with a conical shape and offers an unobstructed view over land and sea. It is said that the mountain was the landmark of the ancient sea-faring Arabs, who came to Sri Lanka, to trade in gems, spices, ivory etc., and they, having sighted the conical mountain miles off shore, prayed to God for having brought them safely to the island.

With other nationalities and religions later being introduced to the country in the last few centuries, this mountain was woven to to their own legends and today pilgrims of all nationalities and faiths are seen making this demanding journey to the top of the mountain during the season.

5. Diva Guhava

Bhagawa Lena located just below the Sri Pada Peak off a jungle path

Diva Guhava is the only place in Solosmasthana which has not been properly identified. It is said in Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of Sri Lanka states that after preaching dhamma to Sumana Saman at Sri Pada mountain, he spent the day in the Diva Guhava cave at the foot of the mountain.

Current opinions of Diva Guhava is focussed on 3 locations. The first one is the cave known as Bhagawa Lena below the Sri Pada Sammit. The cave hidden in the jungles about 100 meters (some say 30 meters) below the summit is not a place that pilgrims visit. The main reason for this to be a contender is the ancient inscription found placed by king Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa kingdom (1187-1196) along with the line sketch of the king and a small arabic inscription.

The other popular belief is that the Batathota Cave is the Diva Guhava mentioned in ancient texts. This cave lies in Erathana in Ratnapura off the Sri Pada route and very popular among tourists as well as pilgrims.

The third belief is Diva Guhava lies in the ancient monastery complex of Kuragala.

6. Deegavapi Stupa

Deegavapi (Digavapi) Stupa

Buddha, continuing on his journey of the 3rd visit to Sri Lanka, after a brief stay at Diva Guhawa, the Buddha along with his 500 disciples, visited Deegavapi. He along with the diciples sat on the place there the great stupa would be built later and spent time in meditation as per Mahavamsa.

According to the same great chronicle of Sri Lanka, this stupa was built by king Saddhatissa (137-119 BC) and the king has also donated a jacket decorated with gold lotus flowers and various gems to cover the stupa.

Since this location has been blessed by Buddha’s presence, it is generally believed that this stupa is a “paribogika” stupa and no special relics has been enshrined. But historian venerable Ellawela Medananda thero believes that this stupa enshrines a nail relic of Buddha. An inscription on a gold foil unearthed during excavations discloses that King Kawanthissa (164-192) has done renovations to the stupa.

7. Muthiyangana Chethiya

Mutiyangana Raja Maha Viharaya

Muthiyangana is considered the 8th place in Solosmahastana which was visited by Buddha on his 3rd visited Sri Lanka. However no information of Muthiyanganaya is found on Mahavamsa, Bodhi Vamsa or Dhatu Vamsa. However Samantapasadika, an text believed to be older than Mahavamsa, mentions the Muthiyangana of Buddha as another site where Buddha and his disciples spent time in meditation.

The stupa is believed to be built by king Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC) enshrining relics on same spot which Buddha and his disciples sat in meditation 2 centuries before.

8. Tissamaharamaya

Tissamaharama Rajamaha Viharaya built by regional king Mahanaga in the 3rd century BC

Tissa Maha Viharaya is considered the 8th place in Solosmahastana which was visited by Buddha on his 3rd visited Sri Lanka. However no information of Muthiyanganaya is found on Mahavamsa. However Bodhivamsa, a 10th century text mentions Tissa Maha Viharaya as another site where Buddha and his disciples spent time in meditation on his 3rd visit.

Though there are disputed sites of Tissa Maha Viharaya, it is generally accepted that the Tissa mentioned in the text is Tissamaharama Viharaya of Hambantota District.

According to ancient chronicles this stupa has been built by King Kavantissa who ruled Ruhuna in the 1st century BC. But there is also a belief that this stupa was initially built by regional King Mahanaga in the 3rd century BC and King Kavantissa probably enlarged the shrine.

9. Sri Maha Bodhi

Entrance to the Bo Tree Enclosure as in 1896 from The ruined cities of Ceylon by Henry W. Cave

According to Mahavamsa, on the Buddha’s 3rd visit to the island, he finally went to Anuradhapura where the Meghawana would be established and alighted on the spot where the Sacred Bo Tree would be planted later and enjoyed the bliss of the Samadhi meditation with his 500 disciples.

After bringing Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda Thero in 250 BC Emperor Asoka in India sent his daughter Theri Sanghamitta to the island with a branch of the Sacred Bodhi obtained from the main stem of the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya under which Buddha attained enlightenment. King Tissa received the sapling and planted it at the site in 249 BC. Taking this information to account today (in 2023) the Sri Maha Bodhi tree is exactly 2273 years old. Thus this tree is  considered the oldest living tree in world in the recorded history.

10. Mirisawetiya

Mirisawetiya Stupa after restoration

Mirisawetiya of Anuradhapura is the site number 11 of Solosmasthana. Mirisawetiya Dagaba has been built by King Dutugamunu (161-137 BC) and this belongs to Mahavihara Complex. On the seventh day of the re-establishment of Anuradhapura as the Capital of Lanka after defeating Elara, the Indian invader who ruled Anuradhapura for 55 years, the King proceeded to the Tissa Wewa followed by a state retinue to celebrate an aquatic festival maintaining a custom observed by his predecessors.

The king’s attire and his imperial sceptre (kunta) which had a scared relic of Buddha inside, was kept at a place close the Tissa Wewa. When he returned to his surprise the sceptre was it was stuck to the ground and no one could retrieve it. So the king seeing this miracle decided to erect a stupa on that spot to enshrine the sceptre itself.

11. Ruwanweli Seya Stupa

A smaller parivara stupa along with the Ruwanweli Seya Maha Stupa

According to Mahavamsa, on the Buddha’s 3rd visit to the island, he finally went to Anuradhapura where the Meghawana would be established and alighted on the spot where the Sacred Bo Tree would be planted and also visited site that the Great Thupa, Ruwanweli Seya would be established and meditated at the site.

Ruwanweli maha Seya was built by the great king Dutugamunu who reigned from 137BC to 119BC from Anuradhapura. Next to Sri Maha Bodhi, Ruwanweli Seya temple is the most venerated Buddhist site in Anuradhapura. Ruwanweli Maha Seya is not the largest neither the oldest of the stupas erected in Anuradhapura, but this is the most venerated by the Buddhists surpassing all other great stupas. It has the most imposing collection of relics of Gautama Buddha than was ever enshrined in any other dagaba in the island.

12. Thuparamaya

Thuparama Stupa and the Vatadage

According to Mahavamsa, on the Buddha’s 3rd visit to the island, he finally went to Anuradhapura where the Meghawana would be established and alighted on the spot where the Sacred Bo Tree would be planted and also visited and meditated site of Thuparamaya where a stupa would be built later.

 The Great Mahinda Thero on the forth day of the visit, visited Mahameghavanaramaya and marked boundary lines for 32 malaka’s and the Thuparamaya. On the construction of the Stupa after passing the first season of “Wass“, the Mahavamsa states that the right collar bone relic of Buddha was given by the Sakra, the king of the Gods from the Silumini Seya.

The relic was carried by an elephant to the location of the Stupa but refused to let in brought down. The king inquired from Mahinda thero for the reason and and he answered that the elephant would not allow it to be carried down but it would allow to be taken off to a place of same height of its back.

King Devanampiyatissa immediately got his men to bring dry clay from the Abhaya Wewa (now called Basawakkulama Wewa) , built a mound to the height of the elephants back and the elephant allowed the relics to be taken off its back and deposit in the mound. The king then immediately started the building of the stupa up to knee height and invited the relics to the relic chamber of the stupa. The relics rose up to the sky and after performing a set of miracle acts floated in to the relic chamber. A sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi too was planted here. The stupa was then completed in the form of a paddy heap (Dhanyakara).

13. Abhayagiri Viharaya

Abhayagiriya Stupa under restoration in 1994

Abhayagiri Viharaya has been built on the is the 13th place which has been blessed by Buddha’s presence in Sri Lanka. According to the The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka – The Mahavamsa, The Buddha visited a place called “Sela Chetiya” in Anuradhapura on his 3rd visit to Sri Lanka. Deepawamsa connects the Seela Chetiya and Abhayagiriya together and the records of Fa-Hien, the stupa of Abhayagiri is built upon a footprint of Buddha. Therefore it is believed by some that the Seela Chetiya has been located where the current Abhayagiri Stupa stands.

The vihara complex is credited to king Vattagamini Abaya popularly known as king Walagamba ( 103 BC, 89-77 BC). Proof has been found that a Jain temple has existed on this land in the 5th century BC during the rule of King Pandukabaya (437-367 BC).

The circumference of this Dagaba may be roughly put down as 1,150 feet and its original height was 400 feet. This gigantic solid work of bricks had been plastered with a thick coating of lime mortar. There were still parts of this plaster to be seen over the Dagaba at certain spots in the early 20th century. This Dagaba has an extensive square Salapatala Maluwa which is 600 ft. by 600 ft. 

14. Jethawanaramaya Viharaya

Jethawanarama

Jethawanarama Viharaya has been built on the is the 14th place which has been blessed by Buddha’s presence in Sri Lanka. Jethawanaramaya was built by King Mahasena of Anuradhapura (276-303) 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.

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 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 which appears 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 round the platform and a stone rampart round the Weli Maluwa.

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

15. Sela Chethiya (Mihintale)

Ambastala Dagoba at Mihitale

The place where the Sela Chethiya would be built in future is the last place mentioned in Mahawansa which the Buddha visited on his 3rd visit to Sri Lanka and is in the 15th place of the Solosmasthana. Sela Chethiya has been identified as the Ambasthala Dagoba in Mihintale.

believed to be built by  by King Mahadatika Mahanaga (09-21 AC) on the exact place where the great Mahinda Thero met the King Devanampiyatissa. According to the chronicles this stupa was built enshrining the Buddhas hair relic between the eye brows ( called Urna Roma).

16. Kiri Vehera

Kataragama Devalaya & Kiri Vehera

Kiri Vehera in Kataragama, Hambantota district is the last holy place which has been hallowed by Buddha of the Solosmasthana.

Some legends consider the Kataragama Deviyo (deity) as the powerful regional warrior king Mahasena who ruled the area when the Buddha made his 3rd visit to Sri Lanka in the 8th year of his enlightenment ( 580 BC) . This warrior king took to Buddhism after meeting the Buddha and was elevated to a deity by the community after his death.

It is believed that Kiri Vehera has been built by him on the place that the Buddha meditated. Some believe that the Kiri Vehera was built by the Ksastriyas who accompanied King Vijaya ( the first descendent of the Sinhalese race) or by prince Aggabodhi, King Devanpiyathissa’s (250-210 BC) younger brother’s son who ruled Magama during 3rd century BC.

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