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Stupas in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Stupas
Stupa or Dagoba [also known as Chetiya, Vehera, Dhatugabbha (Pali), Dhatugharbha (Sanskrit)] is a dome-shaped Buddhist monument built to enshrine the corporeal relics (Saririka-dhatu) or other related relics of the Buddha (The National Atlas of Sri Lanka, 2007). Construction of Stupas in Sri Lanka began with the introduction of Buddhism to the country by Arhat Mahinda Thera (Bandaranayake. 1990). Since then, Stupas have been built in every Buddhist monastery, with the exception of the monasteries in forests (The National Atlas of Sri Lanka, 2007). Presently, Sri Lankan Stupas are considered the largest brick structures in the world (Held & de Panthou, 2001; Ranaweera, 2004; Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006).

In the beginning, Stupa was a burial mound containing relics and on which a mast had been raised (Held & de Panthou, 2001). According to the view of some scholars, this mound was the reproduction of Mount Meru, the famous cosmic mountain at the centre of the South Asian Universe (Held & de Panthou, 2001). The main function of this type of mound was to protect and proclaim the sacred relics which it enshrines.

The first Stupa in Sri Lanka
According to provable historical sources, the first historical Stupa erected in Sri Lanka is the Thuparama Stupa in the Maha Viharaya at Anuradhapura (Dias, 2001; Held & de Panthou, 2001; Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006; The National Atlas of Sri Lanka, 2007; Wikramagamage, 2004). It was built by enshrining the right collarbone of the Buddha by King Devanampiyatissa (247-207 B.C.) after the introduction of Buddhism to the country by Arhat Mahinda Thera, the son of Indian Emperor Ashoka (c.268-232 B.C.) in the 3rd century B.C. (Dias, 2001; Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963). 
As per details given in the chronicles, the Stupas at Mahiyanganaya and Tiriyaya were built in Sri Lanka during the lifetime of the Buddha (Ray, 1959). Therefore these two monuments are considered by some as the earliest Stupas in the country as well as in the world. However, the details given about these Stupas in chronicles are full of miraculous things and no monument that can be dated to a time before the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka has been identified in the country yet (Ray, 1959).

Construction of colossal Stupas
Jetavanarama Stupa
The early Stupas built in the country were smaller in dimensions but later, in the 2nd century B.C., King Dutugemunu (161-137 B.C.) built the colossal Ruwanweliseya Stupa in the Maha Viharaya monastery premises with a diameter of 90.8 m at its base and a height of 91.4 m (The National Atlas of Sri Lanka, 2007). The Abhayagiri Stupa built in the 1st century B.C. was also a colossal construction with a base diameter of 94.5 m and a height of 71.5 m. The Jetavanarama Stupa with a base diameter of 99.1 m and a height of 73 m was built by King Mahasena (276-303 A.D.) in the 3rd century A.D. and it is often compared with the great pyramids of Egypt (Held & de Panthou, 2001; Jayasuriya, 2016; Nicholas, 1963; Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006; Wikramagamage, 2004). These monuments were not only the largest of their type in the entire Buddhist tradition but were also amongst the largest and tallest constructions in the pre-modern world (Bandaranayake. 1990; Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006).

The construction of colossal Stupas came to an end in the 13th century A.D., due to the decline of the kingdoms as a result of warfare and foreign invasions (Ranaweera, 2004).

Structural aspects of the Stupas
Stupas have occupied the principal position in Buddhist monasteries and even when their primacy was paralleled by other ritual structures such as the Bodhighara and the Patimaghara [(image house) Bandaranayake. 1990]. It is accepted that no Stupa in the country has come down to the present day in the same form as it was when originally built (Held & de Panthou, 2001). They were subjected to restoration, renovation or remodelling by Sinhalese kings who ruled the country for about two millenniums (Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006).

Sri Lankan Stupas
The Stupas in Sri Lanka, in their most evolved form, have the following distinct elements; 
    #) Maluwa (elevated terrace or platform)
    #) Garbha/Dhatugharbha (the dome/the relic chamber)
    #) Devatha Kotuwa (the cylinder)
    #) Kotha & Chuda Manikya (the pinnacle and the crystal)
    #) Vahalkada/Ayaka (the frontispiece)
    #) Pesawa (the plinth/basal rings)
    #) Hatharas Kotuwa (the square chamber)
    #) Chathra or Koth Kerella (the umbrella or the spire)
    #) Yupa and Yasti (the cosmic pillar and the mast)
    #) Garadiya (the railing)

#) Maluwa: Stupas are always built on an elevated terrace or platform demarcated by boundary walls. These walls sometimes contain low-relief carvings such as elephants. Flights of steps located at the four cardinal points provide access to the Maluwa.

#) Pesawa: The part between the Maluwa and the Garbha of a Stupa is known as Pesawa. It consists of a moulded plinth or series of plinths built one above the other.

#) Garbha & Dhatugharbha: The dome-shaped part is called Garbha and it is the biggest body and the principal element of a Stupa (Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006). It contains within it a few Dhatugharbhas (relic chambers) built to preserve the enshrined relics and other valuable objects. The inner walls of Dhatugharbha are adorned with murals as evidenced by the relic chambers discovered from Mahiyangana Stupa and Giribhanda Stupa. Usually, the outside of the Gharbha is plastered and painted in white.

The main shape of the Gharbha is a semi-circular form but traditionally it has been categorized into six (or sometimes seven) more shapes (Bandaranayake. 1990).

Stupa shapes
1) Ghantakara (bell shape): ex. Thuparama Stupa
2) Ghatakara (pot shape): ex. Tissamaharama Stupa
3) Bubbulakara (bubble shape): ex. Ruwanweliseya StupaKiri Vehera Stupa
4) Dhanyakara (paddy heap shape): ex. Kelaniya StupaAbhayagiri StupaJetavanarama Stupa
5) Padmakara (lotus shape)
6) Amlakara [Nelli fruit shape (Phyllanthus emblica)]: ex. Lankarama Stupa

7) Palandvakara (onion shape)

Besides the Stupas with aforesaid shapes, there are two more special types of Stupas, namely: the ziggurat type and the Kota Vehera type (Prematileke, 1990). Of them, the ziggurat-type Stupas have a square-shaped base and a series of receding cube-shaped tiers built one above the other. Prasada Stupa and Nakha Vehera in Anuradhapura and Satmahal Prasada in Polonnaruwa belong to this type. The Kota Vehera-type Stupas have a dome of a hemispherical form truncated on the top (Prematileke, 1990). The Sutighara Stupa, Demalamahaseya, Deliwala Stupa, Yudaganawa Stupa, and Lahugala Stupa are examples of this type of Stupa (Prematileke, 1990).

#) Hatharas Kotuwa & Devatha Kotuwa: The cube resting immediately on the summit of the dome is the Hatharas Kotuwa or sometimes it is known as the Harmika. The cylindrical-shaped Devatha Kotuwa (or encloser of the gods) is built above the Hatharas Kotuwa and it forms the base of the Chatthravalli. The outer surfaces of both Hatharas Kotuwa and Devatha Kotuwa are adorned with figures depicting lotus roundels or the sun and moon (on the Hatharas Kotuwa) and deities (on the Devatha Kotuwa).

Rajagala Stupa
#) Chatthravalli & Kotha: Chatthravalli, also known as Koth Kerella, consists of a series of Chatthras (sun-shades) placed one above the other forming a conical spire (Bandaranayake. 1990). It is clearly a development of the single Chatthra design found in early Indian Stupa architecture and in early Sri Lankan reliquaries which are in the form of miniature Stupas (Bandaranayake. 1990). The solid conical Chatthravalli of brick masonry is thought to be a Sri Lankan development and its design is found to date from about as early as the 2nd century A.D. (Bandaranayake. 1990).

Kotha (the pinnacle) is the upper part of the Koth Kerella as well as the Stupa. It is usually a precious stone or a metal (probably gold or gilded bronze) or sometimes a masonry feature crowned with a precious crystal or gemstone (Bandaranayake. 1990).

#) Yupa & Yasti: Yupa (or cosmic pillar) is an eight-sided pillar placed in the brickwork of the Stupa above the Dhatugharbha (Bandaranayake. 1990). The Yasti is the mast that forms the stem of the Chatthra or Chatthravalli (Bandaranayake. 1990).

#) Vahalkada: Also known as Ayaka or Adimukha or frontispiece, this is a structure constructed joining the Stupa at its four cardinal directions.

Besides the above-mentioned elements, some small-sized Stupas have been built inside a roofed structure known as Vatadage (lit: circular relic house). Examples of these buildings, without their roof superstructures, are still found at several ancient Buddhist monasteries in the country such as Thuparamaya, Lankaramaya, Mihintale, Medirigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Tiriyaya (The National Atlas of Sri Lanka, 2007).

Materials used in the construction of Stupas
Stupas in Sri Lanka are solid structures, built mostly of burnt clay bricks. The bricks used in ancient Stupas are much larger than the modern bricks and it is observable that different sizes of bricks have been used in different components of the same Stupa, larger ones for the basal rings and the dome, and smaller ones for the spire (Ranaweera, 2004). The mortar used between the bricks is a clay slurry type (called butter clay) with an adhesive from a tree and a solvent of sweetened water(Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006). Normally, the outer surface of the Stupa was water-proofed using a plaster layer (Ranaweera & Abeyruwan, 2006).

1) Bandaranayake, S., 1990. The architecture of the Anuradhapura period 543 B.C.-800 A.D. Wijesekara, N. (Editor in chief). Archaeological Department centenary (1890-1990): Commemorative series: Volume III: Architecture. Department of Archaeology (Sri Lanka). pp.25-26.
2) Dias, M, 2001. The growth of Buddhist monastic institutions in Sri Lanka from Brahmi inscriptions. Epigraphia Zeylanica, Vol. VIII. Department of Archaeology Survey. ISBN: 955-9264-04-4. p.47.
3) Held, S.; de Panthou, P., 2001. Sri Lanka; the Island of Ceylon. Editions Herme, Paris. ISBN:2 86665 355 6.  p.233.
4) Jayasuriya, E., 2016. A guide to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. Central Cultural Fund. ISBN: 978-955-613-312-7. pp.36-46,51-52.
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.131-133,146-147.
6) Prematileke, L., 1990. The architecture of the Polonnaruwa period 800-1200 A.D. Wijesekara, N. (Editor in chief). Archaeological Department centenary (1890-1990): Commemorative series: Volume III: Architecture. Department of Archaeology (Sri Lanka). pp.47-49.
7) Ranaweera, M.P., 2004. Ancient Stupas in Sri Lanka-Largest brick structures in the World. CHS Newsletter No. 70, December 2004, London, Construction History Society.
8) Ranaweera, M. and Abeyruwan, H., 2006. Materials used in the construction, conservation, and restoration of ancient stupas in Sri Lanka. In Proceedings of the second International Congress on Construction History. pp.2573-2586.
9) Ray, H. C. (Editor in Chief), 1959. University of Ceylon: History of Ceylon (Vol 1, part I). Ceylon University Press. pp.136-137.
10) The National Atlas of Sri Lanka, 2007. (2nd ed.) Survey Department of Sri Lanka. ISBN: 955-9059-04-1. p.102. 
11) Wikramagamage, C., 2004. Heritage of Rajarata: Major natural, cultural and historic sites. Colombo. Central Bank of Sri Lanka. pp.74-79,126-139.

This page was last updated on 5 June 2023

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