Anuradhapura was Sri Lanka’s first civilisation and the centre-point of the island’s greatest kingdoms, acting as the royal capital for over 100 kings between the 2nd century BC and 1073 AD. At its height, Anuradhapura was home to thousands of monks from dozens of different monasteries, and it remains Sri Lanka’s most important cultural site, both in terms of history and religion.
Founded in the 4th century by a minister called Anuradha, it became the capital of Sri Lanka two centuries later and would grow to become an extensive complex of monasteries, temples, buildings and bathing pools, all connected by an astonishingly complex irrigation system which was put in place due to the some of the Buddhist teachings which arrived in Sri Lanka at around this time. The ruins are remarkably well-preserved, and include towering dagobas which, when first built, were some of the largest man-made structures in the world, second only to the pyramids of Egypt. The Mahavihara (the first monastery), which served as the seat of Theravada Buddhism, the Thuparamaya (built by King Devanam Piyatissa in 250 BC) and the Ruwanwelisaya are the other ruins of particular historical interest found at this site.
Anuradhapura is also home to a sacred, ancient Bo tree, which originally came from a branch of the Bo tree in Budda Gaya – the tree under which Lord Buddha sat and gained enlightenment. This was brought to Sri Lanka in 288 BC by Princess Sagamiita, the daughter of Emperor Asoka of India.
Anuradhapura can be explored on foot or by bike. The sprawling ruins extend over a few kilometres, so Red Dot recommends cycling if you want to see Anuradhapura in its glorious entirety. We offer a guided cycling tour of Anuradhapura, led by a local guide who is highly-knowledgeable about Buddhism and Sri Lanka’s ancient history, which covers the sites most awe-inspiring relics and ends with a scenic picnic by a lake. The trails are fairly flat and are not strenuous – even children will love exploring this fascinating cultural site by bike.