Ruwanweliseya or Ruwanweli Maha Seya is an ancient stupa or dagoba, venerated and held very sacred by Buddhists in Sri Lanka and all over the world. The stupa is found in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, about 4km from the Anuradhapura railway station. Apparently, this particular location had been selected for the erection of this stupa since a rock slab laid by King Devanampiya Tissa had been discovered here which had mentioned “in this place where this slab is found, a great dagoba will be erected”.
Ruwanweliseya is also known by several other names including Rathnamali Dagoba, Hemamali Dagoba, Swarnamali Chaitya (after the goddess Swarnamali) and Mahathupa. Ruwanweliseya is listed not only amongst the Solosmasthana, i.e. the 16 places of veneration but also amongst the Atamasthana or eight places of veneration. These “places of veneration” are locations in the island considered as sacred since it is believed that they have been visited by Gautama Buddha.
King Dutugemunu, one of the greatest kings in Sri Lanka, was responsible for starting the construction of the dagoba in 140 BC on the Vesak poya day, which is the full moon day in the month of May. Sadly, it is said that the king passed away before the completion of the dagoba. The dathu garba or inner relic chamber is believed to contain the relics of Buddha, placed there by King Dutugemunu himself, with much ceremony and grandeur, in the presence of royalty as well as other eminent guests. In fact, it is believed that Ruwanweliseya has the largest collection of Buddha’s relics than anywhere else in the world. Thereafter, the dathu garba had been sealed with 131 feet long stone slabs. Legend has it that in the middle of the dagoba, King Dutugemunu had placed eight large gold water pots and eight silver water pots, with another 108 vases being placed around the large water pots. It is also said that eight bricks of gold have been placed in eight corners with another 108 silver bricks surrounding each of the gold bricks. Legend goes on to say that this grand occasion was marked with divine signs such as rays and earth tremors. The Mahawamsa, or the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka gives a detailed account of the stupa’s construction as well as opening ceremony.
Other ancient manuscripts also refer to the extravagant material used in the building of this stupa such as bricks, gold, gems, pearl and even corals, all of which had been acquired from the surrounding areas. Other materials used to adorn the temple include fine clay from the Himalayas, stones, plaster, quartz, white stones, rock crystals as well as sheets of bronze and silver.
The actual design of the dagoba had been conceived with teachings of the Buddha in mind: where, its dome signifies the vastness of its doctrine, the four facets above it represent the four noble truths, the concentric rings indicate the noble eightfold middle path and the large crystal at the pinnacle represents the ultimate Buddhist goal of enlightenment. It is believed that the idea for this spiritual design was given to the king by a master builder who used two bowls of water to create a water bubble of which shape, the king approved. This giant water bubble also depicts the concept of impermanency in Buddhism, thus reflecting its very true essence and structure.
King Dutugemunu is said to have passed away from an illness during a site visit to the stupa, while gazing at the almost complete Ruwanweliseya, whose construction had reached the level of its kotha, or square turret. After his untimely death, the king’s brother, King Saddha Tissa, took it upon himself to complete the construction of this architectural marvel.
The original stupa was believed to have been built to a height of 55 m (180 ft). It has, however, undergone many renovations under the direction of many kinds over the years, until today, it stands at a height of 103 m (338 ft) and a circumference of 290 m (951 ft), as one of the world’s tallest ancient monuments. The stupa was damaged during the Chola conquest of Anuradhapura and was renovated by King Parakramabahu I. Other kings who were involved in the renovation of the dagoba include King Lajji Tissa who is said to have erected three altars in marble, King Mahadathika Mahanaga who is said to have constructed the circular portion of the ‘Salapatala’ courtyard made of stone tablets, as well as King Ballathanaga who had completed the Weli Maluwa or sandy compound.
Today, Ruwanweliseya remains sacred to Buddhists and a very popular site visited by tourists as well as devotees from around the world. Statues of King Dutugemunu, his mother Queen Vihara Maha Devi as well as King Bhathika Tissa can be seen in the temple premises. A marble footprint of Buddha is also found beside the dagoba.
Near the dolos mahe pahana (meaning, the lamp that burns throughout the 12 months), is found a Brahmin inscription carved by King Nissankamalla, which recounts the excavations made by the king and the items discovered during those excavations which include ornaments, coins, elephant tusks and pottery items. The dagoba is decorated by vahalkada or frontispieces in English, on four sides. This is a structure that is constructed for decorative purposes, to connect a stupa on its four cardinal directions. These vahalkada are lavishly decorated with carvings of lions, tuskers, horses, cattle, and lotus flowers. Today, visitors can observe the western vahalkada which has managed to retain some of its original paint and colours over the years. The dagoba is surrounded by an outer wall called a hasti prakara, which is also decorated with 1900 figures of elephants. 475 of these elephants are found on each of the four sides of the dagoba, creating a visual impact of them bearing the weight of the dagoba on their backs. Visitors can also feast their eyes on other rich, ancient works of art such as highly decorative pun-kalasa (pot of plenty), guard stones as well as figures of lions.
The shrine room known as the budu ge is found in the temple courtyard. Inside this shrine room, facing the east are found four statues of the four buddhas who are said to have appeared over the years – Kakusanda, Konagama, Kashyapa and Gautama. Another statue portraying the passing away bed of the Buddha is also found at the temple.
Visitors and devotees to the Ruwanweliseya site today are sure to be transported back to the time of King Dutugemunu and the splendor and serenity of the temple in the days gone by.