Abhayagiri Vihāra was a major monastery site of Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism that was situated in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. It is one of the most extensive ruins in the world and one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage cities in the nation. Historically it was a great monastic centre as well as a royal capital, with magnificent monasteries
rising to many stories, roofed with gilt bronze or tiles of burnt clay
glazed in brilliant colors. To the north of the city, encircled by great
walls and containing elaborate bathing ponds, carved balustrades and
moonstones, stood “Abhayagiri”, one of seventeen such religious units in
Anuradhapura and the largest of its five major viharas. One of the focal points of the complex is an ancient stupa, the Abhayagiri Dagaba.
Surrounding the humped dagaba, Abhayagiri Vihara was a seat of the
Northern Monastery, or Uttara Vihara and the original custodian of the Tooth relic in the island.
The term “Abhayagiri Vihara” means not only a complex of monastic buildings, but also a fraternity of Buddhist monks, or Sangha,
which maintains its own historical records, traditions and way of life.
Founded in the 2nd century BC, it had grown into an international
institution by the 1st century AD, attracting scholars from all over the
world and encompassing all shades of Buddhist philosophy. Its influence
can be traced to other parts of the world, through branches established
elsewhere. Thus, the Abhayagiri Vihara developed as a great institution
vis‑a‑vis the Mahavihara and the Jetavana Buddhist monastic sects in the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura.
It is recorded in the chronicle  that Abhayagiri Dagaba was established by King Valagamba during the period of his second reign, from 89-77 BC. A young Brahmin
named Tiya (Tissa) declared war against him. Tiya was deluded by the
prophecy of another Brahmin that was destined to be king. Before the
arrival of Bhikkhu Mahinda, who brought Buddhism to the island, Brahmins held the highest place in society. After the establishment of the Buddhist sangha
on the island, however, they lost their supremacy, and were replaced by
the sangha. Some Brahmins converted to Buddhism, while others revolted.
Tiya, who enjoyed the support of his community, lived both in and
outside of Sri Lanka, and was therefore very powerful.
At the same time, seven Tamil chiefs landed at Mahatittha
with a mighty army. Valagamba, a good diplomat, realized that his
forces were too weak to fight against both of these enemies and tried to
rid himself of them by making them fight each other. He sent a message
to Tiya that if he could have the kingdom, provided he managed to defeat
the foreign invaders. Tiya agreed, advanced with his forces to meet the
Tamils, and was vanquished by them. The Tamils, elated by their
success, advanced towards Anuradhapura and defeated the King, who was
forced to abandon the throne and go into hiding in the mountains. As the
King, defeated in battle, was fleeing Anuradhapura, a Jain priest of Giri Monastery, which had been built by King Pandukhabaya
near the northern gate of the city, cried out: “The great black Sinhala
is fleeing.” The king thereupon resolved, “if my wish (of regaining the
kingdom) is fulfilled, I will build a Temple here.”
During the Beminitiya Seya
or period of famine and foreign rule which followed, Vattagamani Abhaya
took refuge in the mountain region amassing troops until, after more
than fourteen years of exile, he marched on Anuradhapura in 89 BC and
defeated the last Tamil king, Bhatiya. In fulfillment of the vow made on
the day of his defeat, one of his first acts was to build the
Abhayagiri Vihara on the site of the Giri monastery. Mahatissa Thera of
Kupikkala was appointed its Chief Incumbent as a mark of gratitude for
his support in the fight against the invaders. Abhayagiri thereafter
became a symbol not only of religious, but also of national, resurgence,
as it signaled the end of Brahmin and Jain influence in the country.
to the chronicles, the name Abhayagiri Vihara originated from the names
of King Vattagamani Abhaya and of the Giri priests who lived in the
Jain monastery. However, since most ancient monasteries were built
around a hillock, or giri in Sinhala, (for example the Vessagiri,
Meghagiri or Chetiyagiri monasteries) it is possible that the name
Abhayagiri symbolizes the monastery created by Vattagamani Abhaya after
his recapture of the kingdom surrounding the hillock known as
Digapasana, now inside the Abhayagiri complex.
Under Gajabahu I, Abhayagiri grew in prestige and importance. The accession of King Mahasena in the 3rd century AD saw the suppression of the Mahavihara
monks. The king prohibited the giving of alms to them and went as far
as to demolish the buildings of the Mahavihara and re‑use their
materials for the construction of new buildings at the Abhayagiri. The
accession of Mahasena ushered in the golden age of Abhayagiri. After the
Buddha’s Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century, Abhayagiri was selected to house it for public veneration.
Faxian, a Chinese monk, recounted:
days from now, Buddha’s tooth will be brought out and carried to the
Abhayagiri Monastery… on both sides of the road; the king sets images
of the Five Hundred Forms which the Buddha assumed in his previous
By the time Faxian came to Sri Lanka in search of the Dhamma
and visited Abhayagiri in 412 AD, it had developed into a leading
Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka. By the 7th century, Abhayagiri Vihara
consisted of four mulas (literally “families”, fraternities or grouped institutions for religious teaching):
All of these have been located and identified through archaeological excavations, research and epigraphical evidence.
the 12th century CE, more rulers of Sri Lanka gave support and
patronage to the Abhayagiri Theravādins, and travelers such as Faxian
saw the Abhayagiri Theravādins as the main Buddhist tradition in Sri
According to the Chinese text Biqiuni Zhuan, the biography of the bhikkhuni compiled by Shi Baochang in 526 AD, and the biography of Gunavarnam and Sanghavarnam, the Sinhala nuns gave the second Upasampada, or higher ordination, to the Chinese nuns. According to another Chinese source, in 426 AD, eight Sinhala nuns arrived in Nanjing, the capital of the Liu Song dynasty
(420–77 AD), on a merchant ship owned by man named Nandi. Consequently,
three more nuns, headed by Tissara, arrived in Nanjing. Thus in the
year 434, over three thousand nuns received their higher ordination for
the second time in the presence of more than ten Sinhala nuns headed by
Tissara at the Nanjing Temple in China.
It is also recorded that
there were religious contacts between Sri Lanka and Java through the
Abayagiri Vihara, at least toward the end of 8th century, as described
by a fragmentary inscription from the Ratubaka plateau in central Java.
This inscription records the establishment of “the Abhayagiri Vihara of
Sinhalese ascetics trained in the sayings of jinas [Buddhas].”
Commenting on this record, J.G. de Casparis observes, ‘The most
important detail is the name of the foundation, the Abhayagiri Vihara.
Abhayagiri Vihara appears to have been a center for Theravadin Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna teachings; as such, it was seen as heretical by more conservative Mahavihara monks. In the 7th century CE, Xuanzang also describes the concurrent existence of both monasteries in Sri Lanka, and refers to the monks of the Mahavihara as the “Hīnayāna Sthaviras” (Pali: Thera), and the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihara as the “Mahāyāna Sthaviras.” Xuanzang further writes:
Mahāvihāravāsins reject the Mahāyāna and practice the Hīnayāna, while
the Abhayagirivihāravāsins study both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings
and propagate the Tripiṭaka.
a major university and center of learning, Abhayagiri was the home of
various important Buddhist scholars working in Sanskrit and Pali. These
include Upatissa (who wrote the Vimuttimagga), Kavicakravarti Ananda (authored the Saddhammopåyana), Aryadeva, Aryasura, and the tantric masters Jayabhadra, and Candramåli.
the 8th century CE, it is known that both Mahāyāna and the esoteric
Vajrayāna form of Buddhism were being practiced in Sri Lanka, and two
Indian monks responsible for propagating Esoteric Buddhism in China, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, visited the island during this time.
trend of Abhayagiri Vihara being the dominant Theravāda sect changed in
the 12th century CE, when the Mahāvihāra gained the political support
of King Parakkamabāhu I (1153-1186 CE), and completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana traditions.
Culavamsa narrates that (ch 78:1-27) king Parakramabahu I purified the
Mahavihara first and then unified it with the Abhayagiri and Jethawana
The monks of these two traditions were then
defrocked and given the choice of either returning to the laity
permanently, or attempting re-ordination under the Mahāvihāra tradition
as “novices” (sāmaṇera) according to  Richard Gombrich who writes:
the chronicle says that he reunited the Sangha, this expression glosses
over the fact that what he did was to abolish the Abhayagiri and
Jetavana Nikāyas. He laicized many monks from the Mahā Vihāra Nikāya,
all the monks in the other two – and then allowed the better ones among
the latter to become novices in the now ‘unified’ Sangha, into which
they would have in due course to be reordained.
Periodic South Indian invasions, especially in the 9th century in the reign of Sena I,
almost half a century of Cola rule and the subsequent abandonment of
the capital, Anuradhapura, led to the disintegration of the Abhayagiri
Vihara. Despite efforts by Vijayabahu I and Parakramabahu I in the 13th
century to renovate and resurrect the temple, its gradual destruction in
the course of time could not be averted, particularly after the final
transfer of the capital from Polonnaruwa in the Rajarata, or King’s Country, to an alternative location in 1215 as a result of repeated Maga invasions.
dark era of eight hundred years engulfed Abhayagiri Vihara until its
rediscovery in the 1880s awoke scientific and scholarly interest in the
abandoned and vandalized ruins. Mistakenly identified at first as
Jetavana Vihara, they were photographed and drawn by specialists in the
late 19th century, while the Department of Archaeology, established
about the same period, undertook excavation and conservation work of
some of the edifices at the beginning of the 20th century.
Veneration of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva has continued to the present day in Sri Lanka, where he is called Nātha. Avalokiteśvara
worship is a prominent practice in Mahayana, while the Maithreya
Bodhisatta (Santhusitha) is venerated by Theravadins. In more recent
times, it has been attempted to identify Nātha with Maitreya Bodhisattva. However, traditions and basic iconography, including an image of Amitābha Buddha on his crown, identify Nātha as Avalokiteśvara. Andrew Skilton writes:
It is clear from sculptural evidence alone that the Mahāyāna was fairly
widespread throughout [Sri Lanka], although the modern account of the
history of Buddhism on the island presents an unbroken and pure lineage
of Theravāda. (One can only assume that similar trends were transmitted
to other parts of Southeast Asia with Sri Lankan ordination lineages.)
Relics of an extensive cult of Avalokiteśvara can be seen in the
present-day figure of Nātha.
Early reports by Europeans from the 18th century describe the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka as being engaged in the recitation of mantras, and using mālā beads for counting, as practiced in Mahāyāna Buddhism.
architectural elements of the buildings excavated at Abhayagiri Vihara
clearly reflect the social beliefs and religious practices prevalent at
the time. Although Buddhism was the state religion and the principal
doctrine followed by the majority of the population, the influence of
other local beliefs, particularly Hinduism,
were considerable, and are expressed in the architecture of the period.
The design of entrances, for example, illustrates the practice of
placing buildings under the protection of a guardian deity.
two slabs erected on either side of the foot of the flight of steps
leading to a building are known as guard stones (Muragal). They are
usually carved, although plain guard stones have also been found. Among
the Hindu symbols represented on these stones, the most common, apart
from the Pot of Abundance and Kalpavrksa, is the figure of the Nagaraja,
or anthropomorphic King Cobra. The best example of these, and one of
the finest guardstones yet discovered, was found at the Ratnaprasada in Abhayagiriya,
and illustrates the degree of perfection reached by the sculptors of
Abhayagiri. Lotuses and punkalas are indicative of plenty.
Representations of the lotus
are of particular significance in agricultural societies where they
symbolize the daughters of the guardian deity of rain. The elephant
figure at the Eth Pokuna is also a symbol of water.
Buddhist guardian deities are frequently indicated by the animal
vehicles of the particular gods, particularity on the guard stones. A
good example is furnished by the exquisite statues on either side of the
entrance to Abhayagiri Stupa. The head‑dress of one of the statues is a
conch while that of the other is a lotus. Representing Sanka and Padma,
the two principal treasure houses of Kuvera, they are believed to have
been erected to ward off any evil or danger that might threaten the stupa
or its precinct. Even at present they are commonly believed to be
endowed with mystic powers, and courts of law in Anuradhapura accept
swearing before the statues as evidence in settlement of minor disputes
The best example of a moonstone,
a unique creation of Sri Lanka sculptors, can be seen at the foot of
the steps leading to the Pancavasa commonly known as Mahasena’s palace. A
smaller example, just as exquisitely carved, was found nearby at the
Queen’s Pavilion. Varying in shape and size and made of different kinds
of stones, all are exquisite artistic creations. According to
Paranavitana, the moonstone symbolizes samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth, and the path to freedom from the samsaric process leading to nirvana.
He interprets the pattern of the outermost ring as flames, and the
various animals shown in the other concentric circles as successive
phases of man’s passage through samsara.
Over the course of 15 years, the Abhayagiri Stupa
was fully restored and renovated by the Sri Lankan Central Cultural
Fund as a UNESCO project for a total of Rs519.5 million (US$3.9
million). It was unveiled in June 2015 with President Maithripala
Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attending.
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