The soft rays of the 8 o’clock sun played peekaboo with me, as I cycled into the historic city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, that May in 2016. Tall trees stooped and swished to embrace, and the asphalt road flowed evenly. A five kilometre cruise towards the old city of Buddhist ruins lay ahead of me. Under the matronly greenery, cyclists of various nationalities explored in all directions.
Finding the Jetavanaramaya Stupa
I hail from Odisha — the land which made a Buddhist out of the ruthless Emperor Ashoka, and have explored India thoroughly for ruins and excavated sites. Although I was game to discovering Sri Lanka, I did not believe the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Anuradhapura could hold a candle to the Buddhist marvels of India.
My homestay lay in the modern part of the city with swanky bungalows and shopping centres. Seven kilometres away is the old city. It is bespoke with peeling stupas, monasteries, residential quarters and universities. The semi-circled stupas or relics, served as a solace for forethought and meditation in ancient Buddhist culture.
It is believed that Mahinda, son of Ashoka, lead emissaries from India to Anuradhapura in the 3rd century BC. Soon, under the influence of Buddhism, Anuradhapura flourished with architecture, arts and culture for over ten centuries, until it was massacred by South Indian Chola kings. It was around 17th century AD that the ruins were discovered by explorers. However, by then, the edifices were covered with thick creepers and trees, making restoration a monumental task.
Caught in the glimpses of crumbling structures, I spotted a sun-kissed and rusty U-shaped head atop the tall trees. For reasons yet unbeknown, my heart skipped a beat. I halted my rented cycle to consult the guide map. It was the Jetavanaramaya stupa.
At approximately 400 feet, the Jetavanaramaya stupa is considered the tallest stupa in the world. The construction, which is made of primitive bricks engineered to withstand weight and weather, took fifteen years to complete.
That day was Buddha Purnima, when the revered Buddha is believed to have been born and had attained enlightenment. The four wide entrances to the stupa were flanked by Buddhist flags, which flapped determinedly as if to honour the festivities. Monks welcomed tourists with broad smiles. Parking the bicycle at one of the entrances, I took off my shoes and made my way up the stairs. The formidable brick layout was ancient, symmetrical and rust coloured. It looked like any other stupa, brooding and hemispherical.
Suddenly, the greenery turned a vague grey. The ground thumped, the monks vanished and the sky turned orange. I couldn’t hear the tireless flags fluttering anymore. In front of me, the grey materialised into elephants. They were strapped with what looked like overflowing sacks and containers. Their mahouts propelled them ahead, where men worked from makeshift landings on an under-constructed mound "“ the stupa! It was red and unblemished.
I found myself kneeling and breathless. The air was abuzz with camaraderie, chants and adrenaline.
And just as abruptly, the blur lifted. Flags fluttered and the grey turned green. Months later, it dawned upon me that what had transpired that morning at the overwhelming stupa was the result of an unfathomable awe. Still, I was affixed to the spot. It is only when a monk helped me up and smiled knowingly, I found my bearings. My cheeks were warm with tears in the tropical sun.
I cannot gauge why the Jetavanaramaya stupa had chosen to impact me so; it was alive, I felt its stirrings in my chest. Was this an ethereal experience?
That fine May morning, I spent five hours at the stupa. I ran along the structure, slept on the landing, laughed and spoke to it. I took solace in the shade of the towering edifice, touched the edifice and fingered its carvings and crevices. If only it could speak! Nevertheless, I heard delight, devotion and veneration from the centuries gone by.
Sri Lanka is known for Colombo’s crab houses and its picturesque shoreline; Galle’s cricket stadium and fascinating European architecture; Nuwarailiya’s tea gardens; Sri Lanka’s cuisine, legends and myriad delights. Sigiriya and Anuradhapura are known for numerous other ruins, nonetheless, it was the poignant stupa that inundated me with an unprecedented sensation I couldn’t quite place. It cleared a chronic vagueness which I never knew existed.
To have inspired masses, when machines and means were sparse; to have stimulated generations across nations to build such metamorphic monuments, my dear Buddha, I can’t help but marvel, who were you, what were you?
Written by: Bidisha Satpathy
Bidisha is a corporate lawyer based in Mumbai, India. She has written for various online and print publications in India. Her first love is fiction and second is backpacking through serene landscapes to reimagine history.