Abhayagiriya Monastery (Anuradhapura)

Abhayagiriya Monastery

Abhayagiriya, also known as Uttara, Abhayauttara, Abhayaturā, Abhāgiri, Abagiri-maha Vihara, Apahayagara, Abahaygiri, and Bagirivehera (Sinhala: අනුරාධපුර අභයගිරි විහාරය; Tamil: அபயகிரி விகாரை), is an ancient Buddhist monastery situated in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.


The temple founded by Valagamba

Abhayagiriya Monastery

The monastery was established by King Valagamba alias Vattagamini Abhaya (103 & 89-77 B.C.) during his second reigning period and he donated it to the Buddhist monk Mahatissa of Kupukkala as a token of gratitude at a time when his throne was contested by seven South Indian conquerors (Bopearachchi, 2020; Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004). During his first ascension to the throne in 103 B.C., a Brahmin called Tissa declared war against him (Jayasuriya, 2016). At the same time, a Tamil invasion (seven Tamils) from neighbouring South India put the king in a difficult situation. Valagamba sent a message to Tissa that if he could conquer the Tamils he could have the kingdom to himself (Jayasuriya, 2016). Tissa agreed to that and advanced with his forces to meet the Tamils, but was defeated by them. The Tamils who were enraptured by the victory upon Tissa rampaged through the Anuradhapura city and defeated the king (Jayasuriya, 2016).

Valagamba who lost his throne went into hiding in the hinterlands (Jayasuriya, 2016). When he got into the vehicle to flee, a Nighanta (a Jaina monk) named Giri saw the king escaping and cried out rudely "Mahakalu Sinhalaya palayayi" which means that "the Great Black Sinhala is fleeing". The hermitage from where the Giri cried out was called Tittharama and that was built by King Pandukabhaya in the 4th century B.C. (Nicholas, 1963). Hearing this insulting shouting by Giri, Valagamba thereupon resolved to build a vihara at the site of Tittharama if his wish of regaining the throne was fulfilled (Jayasuriya, 2016).

After nearly fourteen years, Valagamba marched on Anuradhapura and regained the throne by defeating the last reigning Tamil king (Jayasuriya, 2016). He gave orders to demolish the Tittharama and built a Buddhist temple at the site as he vowed. As revealed by the chronicle Mahavamsa, the king named the newly built temple Abhayagiri by combining a part of his name (Abhaya) and that of the Giri Nighanta (Nicholas, 1963). However, it is unclear how the monastery was named in this manner (Jayasuriya, 2016). According to the view of Jayasuriya, this establishment heralded a religious and national resurgence and marked the end of Brahmin and Jain authority in the country (Jayasuriya, 2016).

A separate sect against Maha Viharaya

The term "Abhayagiri Vihara" refers not only to the complex of monastic buildings but also to a sect of Buddhist monks. It is said that after accepting the Abhayagiri Monastery, the Mahatissa of Kupikkala was accused of having a personal gift and was expelled from the Maha Viharaya (Bopearachchi, 2020). At the beginning of the foundation of the Abhayagiriya Vihara, there was no difference between its religious practices and those of the Maha Viharaya (Jayasuriya, 2016). However, after a group of monks from South India who were the disciples of Dhammaruci of the Vajjiputra sect arrived at Abhayagiriya in 77 B.C., the monks of Abhayagiri came to be known as Dhammarucis as they started to follow a breakaway sect that differs from the Maha Vihara tradition (Jayasuriya, 2016). As a result, Abhayagiriya became the seat of the heterodox, Mahayana doctrines and consequently, it came into rivalry with the orthodox Maha Viharaya (Nicholas, 1963).

Abhayagiriya Alms-Hall

Abhayagiriya had its golden age during the reign of King Mahasena [(275-301 A.D.) Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963]. Mahasena who was persuaded by his tutor monk, prohibited the giving of alms to the monks at Maha Viharaya, destroyed the buildings of that temple and re-used their materials for the construction of new buildings at Abhayagiriya (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963). Thus Abhayagiriya became rich in buildings and as the chronicle records "it was made stately to see" (Jayasuriya, 2016). The Chinese monk Fa-Hsien who stayed in Sri Lanka from 411 to 413 A.D. mentions that there were 5000 monks in residence at Abhayagiriya (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963). He further mentions in his memoirs about the Abhayagiri Stupa, the glamour of the city, and the annual procession of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha from the Palace to the Vihara (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963). In the 4th or 5th century A.D., the Cetiyapabbata Vihara (present Mihintale) passed into the control of Abhayagiriya Viharaya (Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004).

As a seat of learning

Abhayagiriya as a seat of learning developed independently (Jayasuriya, 2016). By the 7th century, it consisted of four main Mulas (faculties), namely; Uttara Mula, Vahadu Mula, Kapara Mula, and Mahanethpa Mula (Jayasuriya, 2016). Buildings and structures belonging to these faculties have been identified today (Jayasuriya, 2016).

Foreign relations

Abhayagiriya had well-established relations with China, Java (Indonesia), India (Jayasuriya, 2016). Fa-Hsien, a Chinese monk lived in Abhayagiri Viharaya for two years (411-413 A.D.) to study Buddhism (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004). It is mentioned in Chinese texts that nearly three thousand Chinese nuns received higher ordination from ten Sri Lankan nuns headed by Tissara at the Nanking temple in China in the 5th century A.D. (Jayasuriya, 2016). The nuns responsible for this higher ordination are believed to be hailed from Abhayagiri Viharaya (Wikramagamage, 2004). An inscription found in pieces near Pendopo from Ratu Boko in Central Java reveals the religious contact between Sri Lanka and Java in the 8th century A.D. (Degroot, 2006; Jayasuriya, 2016). This inscription (known as Abhayagiri Inscription) records the building of a Buddhist monastery by King Dharmmottungadewa and the naming of the new monastery after the well-known Abhayagiri Vihara of Sri Lanka (Degroot, 2006). The Sinhala-Vihara in Nagarjunakonda in India is thought to be a branch of the Abhayagiri sect (Wikramagamage, 2004).


Periodic South Indian invasions, especially in the 9th century in the reign of King Sena I (833-853 A.D.) and nearly fifty years of Cola rule in Sri Lanka (1017-1070 A.D.) and the subsequent abandonment of the capital, Anuradhapura, led to the fall of the Abhayagiri Vihara (Jayasuriya, 2016). King Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 A.D.) and Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.) made efforts to resurrect the temple (Jayasuriya, 2016). However, its final collapse came after the transfer of the capital from Polonnaruwa to an alternative location due to foreign invasions (Jayasuriya, 2016).


The site which was in a dark era of about eight centuries was rediscovered in the 1880s (Jayasuriya, 2016).

Abhayagiri Entourage

Anointing Pavilion

Abhayagiri entourage is extending in about 200 hectares (Jayasuriya, 2016). It is the second oldest of the Great Monasteries (Mahavihara) in Anuradhapura. All essential features of a Buddhist monastic institution such as the Stupa, Bodhi-tree shrine, image house, Padhanaghara (meditation centres), Chapter House, living quarters, refectories, bathhouses, wells, ponds, etc. are found here. Kings such as Gajabahu I (114-136 A.D.), Kanittha Tissa (167-186 A.D.), Voharika Tissa (209-231 A.D.), Gothabhaya (249-263 A.D.), Mahasena (275-301 A.D.), Dhatusena (455-473 A.D.), Aggabodhi I (571-604 A.D.), Aggabodhi II (604-614 A.D.), Silameghavanna (619-628 A.D.), Dathopatissa (659-667 A.D.), Aggabodhi IV (667-683 A.D.), Manavamma (684-718 A.D.), Mahinda II (777-797 A.D.), Sena I (833-853 A.D.), Sena II (853-887 A.D.), Kassapa V (914-923 A.D.), Sena III (938-946 A.D.), Mahinda IV (956-972 A.D.), Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.) made repairs and additions to the development of the temple (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 196).

Abhayagiri Stupa

Abhayagiri Stupa (also known as Uttara Maha Cetiya) is the second-largest Stupa in the country (Lokeshwara et al., 2023). Presently, it is 73 m tall (up to the broken spire) and has a diameter of 99.1 m at the platform (Lokeshwara et al., 2023). The Stupa including the sand-strewn terrace covers an area of about 5.6 hectares.

There had been a Stupa named Aggipavisaka on the spot where the present Abhayagiri Stupa stands (Wikramagamage, 2004). King Valagamba (89-77 B.C.) built the Abhayagiri Stupa in the 1st century B.C. (Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963). King Gajabahu I (114-136 A.D.) enlarged it and built vestibules to the four gateways (Nicholas, 1963). King Kanittha Tissa (167-186 A.D.) built Vahalkadas for it and King Voharika Tissa (209-231 A.D.) renovated its umbrella (Nicholas, 1963). According to Fa-Hsien (411-413 A.D.), the Stupa at Abhayagiriya was 122 m (400 feet) tall (Nicholas, 1963; Wikramagamage, 2004).

King Mittasena (428 A.D.) in the 5th century A.D. built a gateway to the Stupa and King Dhatusena (455-473 A.D.) restored the umbrella (Nicholas, 1963). King Mahanaga (569-571 A.D.), Aggabodhi I (571-604 A.D.), Moggallana III (614-619 A.D.), Kassapa IV (898-914 A.D.), Sena III (938-946 A.D.), and Mahinda IV (956-972 A.D.) made further improvements to it (Nicholas, 1963). Following the neglect and partial collapse during and after the Cola conquest of Anuradhapura (993-1070 A.D.), Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.) restored the Stupa to a height of 73 m [(240 feet) Nicholas, 1963].

Thereafter, the Stupa didn't receive the patronage of anyone until the 20th century. In 1910-1912, the Department of Archaeology made several attempts to consolidate the cube, cylinder, and spire of the Stupa (Jayasuriya, 2016). The three basal terraces were repaired in 1926 by the resident monks of the temple (Jayasuriya, 2016). However, from the practice obtained from restoration and conservation works on Mirisaweti and Jetavana Stupas, conservation works on the Abayagiri Stupa commenced again in around 1996 (Lokeshwara et al., 2023). Although in the beginning it was suggested to be restored as Mirisawetiya Stupa type restoration, later it was agreed to conserve as Jetavana Stupa conservation (Lokeshwara et al., 2023).

Frontispieces (Vahalkada)

Abhayagiri monastery

Four frontispieces are there at the base of the Abhayagiri Stupa facing cardinal points. They have been decorated with floral designs and figure sculptures. According to the slab inscription at the south Vahalkada of the Stupa, King Kanitthatissa (164-192 .D.) was said to have built the four frontispieces corresponding to the four cardinal directions (Bopearachchi, 2020; Jayasuriya, 2016). Kalpavrksha in the form of a candelabrum, Cakravartin, Kubera and some scenes from the life of the Buddha are found among the sculptures of the frontispieces (Bopearachchi, 2020).

Moonstones (Sandakada Pahana)

Moonstones are found at the foot of a flight of steps to a shrine of every Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. The most exquisitely carved two moonstones so far discovered in the country have been found within the Abhayagiri monastery premises. Of them, one is located at the foot of the steps of a Pancavasa building known as Mahasen's Palace (Jayasuriya, 2016). The other is found in front of the building known as the Queen's Palace (Jayasuriya, 2016).

Other monasteries & monuments belong to the Abhayagiri Vihara complex

It is said that there are 27 monasteries in the entourage of the Abhayagiri complex (Wikramagamage, 2004). Vijayarama, Kiribath Vehera, Asokarama, Lankaramaya, Dakkhina Vihara, Toluvila, Puliyankulama, and Mihintale are some of the monasteries belonging to the Abhayagiri Vihara complex (Wikramagamage, 2004).

Other monuments within the Abhayagiri monastery premises include the Bodhighara, Eth-Pokuna, Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiriya Alms-Hall, Samadhi Buddha Statue, Kuttam Pokuna, Jantaghara, Kapara Mula, Uttara Mula, Anointing Pavilion, Assembly hall, and the Second Samadhi Statue.


A large number of artefacts have been unearthed through the archaeological excavations carried out at the monastic site by the Cultural Triangle since 1981 (Wikramagamage, 2004). Glazed earthenware and clay tiles, potteries, coins and coin moulds, ingots, Buddha images, Bodhisattva images (Avalokitesvara, Tara), plaques, sculptures, grinding stones, bowls, stone statues, toilet, and urinary stones, and inscriptions are among the many artefacts found so far from the site. Some of them are presently on display at Abhayagiriya Museum and Colombo National Museum.

Bronze Samadhi Buddha image

Bronze Samadhi Buddha image

This solid-cast bronze (right photo) with remains of gilt was discovered during the excavations near the refectory building (Wikramagamage, 2004). According to Wikramagamage, this image probably belongs to a period before the second half of the 5th century (Wikramagamage, 2004). However, according to the description given by the National Museum of Colombo, this image belongs to the 9th-10th century A.D.

The image shows the artistic features of the Maha Vihara school (Wikramagamage, 2004). It is seated in the Virasana posture with hands in Samadhi Mudra.

Limestone Samadhi Buddha image

Eight Samadhi Buddha images made of limestone were discovered in a clay pot unearthed at the boundary wall of a monks' residence to the northwest of the Eth-Pokuna (Jayasuriya, 2016). They have been dated by scholars to the 5-8 centuries A.D. (Jayasuriya, 2016).

Bronze bowl

A bronze bowl with Astamangala (eight auspicious signs) was discovered during the excavations at the Uttara-Mula premises (Wikramagamage, 2004). It measures 14.5 cm in diameter and 8 cm in height (Jayasuriya, 2016; Wikramagamage, 2004). The Astamangala signs are molded in low relief in a band on the circumference of the bowl.

Ardhanarinateshvara (a Hindu bronze of the 7th-8th century A.D.)

This solid-cast bronze was discovered in the Abhayagiri Vihara complex. It depicts Ardhanarinateshvara or the composite figure of the male and female figures of Siva and Shakti. Usually, these bronzes have the male half on the right and the female half on the left. But here, it is reversed. The bronze is 12.3 cm tall (Wikramagamage, 2004).

Statue of Nagaraja or Virupaksa

This fragmentary stone statue was discovered near the western entrance of the assembly hall [(Sannipata Salawa) Jayasuriya, 2016; Wikramagamage, 2004]. According to some, it is a statue depicting a Nagaraja [(King of Nagas) Jayasuriya, 2016]. Others believe that it is a statue of the Buddhist deity Virupaksa (Wikramagamage, 2004).

Abhayagiriya Pillar Inscription of King Kassapa IV

This inscription was discovered from Abhayagiri Vihara premises. The purpose of this record was to register certain immunities granted by the king in respect of land named Mihindaratan-vatta and the income of that had been set aside to meet the cost of the medical treatments given to the monks of the Mangul-Piriven of Abhayagiri Viharaya (Ranawella, 2005).

Abhayagiriya Museum

Abhayagiriya Museum is located to the south of the Abhayagiri Stupa. It was initially known as the Maha Tissa Fhahian Museum, but later the name was changed because it is linked to the Abhayagiriya archaeological site (Rambukwella, 2014). The museum was opened to the public in 1992 (Rambukwella, 2014).


1) Bopearachchi, O., 2020. Roots of Sri Lankan Art. Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka. ISBN: 978-955-7457-31-4. pp.77-84.
2) Degroot, V., 2006. The archaeological remains of Ratu Boko: From Sri Lankan Buddhism to Hinduism. Indonesia and the Malay World, 34(98), pp.55-74.
3) Jayasuriya, E., 2016. A guide to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. Central Cultural Fund. ISBN: 978-955-613-312-7. pp.21-35.
4) Lokeshwara, P.A.G.W.S., Thilakarathna, T.N.M., Wijewardena, L.S.S., Karunananda, P.A.K. and Pallewatta, T.M., 2023. Seismic Performance of Three Ancient Stupas in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Engineer, 56(01), pp.21-30.
5) Nicholas, C. W., 1963. Historical topography of ancient and medieval Ceylon. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series (Vol VI). Special Number: Colombo. Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch). pp.141-146. 
6) Rambukwella, M.W.C.N.K., 2014. Heritage representation in culturally diverse societies: a case study of the Colombo National Museum in Sri Lanka (Doctoral dissertation, School of Museum Studies). p.420.
7) Ranawella, S. (Ed.), 2005. Sinhala inscriptions in the Colombo National Museum: Spolia Zeylanica. Vol 42. (2005). Department of National Museums, Sri Lanka. pp.70-76. 
8) Wikramagamage, C., 2004. Heritage of Rajarata: Major natural, cultural, and historic sites. Colombo. Central Bank of Sri Lanka. pp.95-121.

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This page was last updated on 29 October 2023
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