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The Abhayagiri Dagaba is situated in Anuradhapuramarker, Sri Lankamarker. It is one of the most extensive ruins in the world and one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage cities. 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. Surrounding the humped dagaba, Abhayagiri Vihara was a seat of the Northern Monastery, or Uttara Vihara.

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 second century B.C., it had grown into an international institution by the first century of this era, 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 jetavanamarker Buddhist monastic sects in the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura.

King Valagamba and Abhayagiri

It is recorded in the chronicles that Abhayagiri was established by King Vattagamini Abhaya (Valagamba), during the period of his second reign, from 89 to 77 B.C.. 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 Mahinda Thera who brought Buddhism to the island, Brahmins held the highest place in society. After the establishment of the Bhikkhu order on the island, however, they lost their supremacy, and were replaced by the Buddhist 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. King 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 "like a palm leaf cutting itself". He sent a message to Tiya that 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 Anuradhapuramarker, a Jain priest of the 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 B.C. 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.

According 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.

Jainism & Buddhism

In Sri Lanka also before the advent of Buddhist religion, Jain religion was well entrenched. This has been substantially proved from old Buddhist literature. The Buddhist literature in SriLanka, ‘Mahavansh and the ancient text ‘Deepvansh’ mention that Jainism existed during the reign of the early 21 kings in Lanka (10 B.C. to 3A.D), but was later destroyed by king Vattagamini.

The golden age of Abhayagiri

The accession of King Mahasena in the third century A.D. saw the suppression of the Theravada doctrine practised by 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 fourth century, Abhayagiri was selected to house the relic for public veneration.

Fa‑hsien, a Chinese monk recounts that: 'Ten 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 existence.' By the time Fa‑hsien came to Sri Lanka in search of the Dhammaand visited Abhayagiri in 412 A.D., it had developed into a leading Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka. He spent two years studying the Dhamma doctrine, and carried away copies of texts of the Mahayana doctrine. 'Fa‑hsien stayed in this country for two years and obtained a copy of the "Rules of the Mahisasakas". He also procured copies of the 'Dirgagama", the "Samyuktagama" and the "Sannipata", all of which were unknown in China.'

By the seventh century A.D., Abhayagiri Vihara consisted of four mulas (fraternities or grouped institutions for religious teaching): the Uttara‑mula, Kapara‑mula, Mahancthpa‑mula and Vahadu‑mula, all of which have now been located and identified through archaeological excavations, research and epigraphical evidence. In the course of time, Abhayagiri had developed into a well‑organized religious and educational institution having well­ established relations with China, Javamarker and Kashmirmarker.

According to the Chinese text Pi‑Chitu‑Ni‑Chung, the biography of the bhikkhunis (nuns) compiled by Pao Chang in 526 A.D., 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 A.D., eight Sinhala (shin‑iza‑kuo) nuns (pi­-chiu‑ni) arrived in Nankingmarker, the capital of the early Sung dynasty (420‑77 A.D.), on a foreign merchant ship owned by man named Nandi. Consequently, three more nuns, headed by Tie-so-re (Tissara in Sinhala), arrived in Nanking. 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 Nanking 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 eighth 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 (Buddha).' Commenting on this record, J.G. de Casparis observes, 'The most important detail is the name of the foundation, vis., the Abhayagiri Vihara. The name at once suggests that of the famous monastery of Anuradhapura, and the addition of the words "of the Sinhalese' proves that this is not just a coincidence. In fact, the foundation is a second Abhayagiri Vihara ... either in common with it in form or spirit, or both, to deserve the same name.'

Periodic South Indian invasions, especially in the ninth 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 thirteenth 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 Polonnaruvamarker in the Rajarata, or King's Country, to an alternative location in 1215 as a result of repeated Maga invasions.

A 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 nineteenth 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 twentieth century.

Architectural decoration

The 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 principle 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.

The two slabs erected on either side of the foot of the flight of steps leading to a building are know 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.

The principle 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 between litigants.

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.

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