Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 17 June 2012





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Jethavana Stupa challenges modern architecture

Jethavana Stupa, the most architecturally stunning Buddhist dagoba made of bricks merits careful preservation for future generations. Located in a picturesque terrain surrounded by the Malwathu Oya and Halpanu Ela, the Stupa is hailed to be the most perfect archaeological monument of this nature so far found in the island. Thus, Jethavana Stupa and its complex of 'Aramas' with a history of around two thousand five hundred years offer revelations of a developed phase in Sri Lankan civilisasation.

The Stupa is roughly speculated to be the world's biggest brick structure. The historical and archaeological evidence supports the conclusion that the Stupa was erected by King Mahasena. The evidence further illustrates that it had stood under restorations by successive rulers in Sri Lanka.

According to historical records, the history of Jethavana Stupa stretches back to 3rd century AD and the massive dagoba bears the marks of being restored by several Kings upto the twelfth century AD.

How Sri Lankan artist employed mathematical precision in designing and building dagobas sometimes defies analysis. Even the great architectural works stand for Sri Lankan artists' expertise acquired from nowhere - through nothing. Strangely, Stupas such as Jethavana, Abhayagiriya, or Ruwanweli Seya did not transmute into odd heaps of bricks even though they had been thickly overgrown with trees and shrubs through centuries.

Even the Jethavana Stupa had not been subject to a widespread collapse (except for a part of its 'Kotha') although it had been covered with a jungle prior to renovation.

Today, having been subject to the natural decaying process, and man made destruction over thousands of years one can see the original grandeur of Jethavana Stupa towering to the sky.

Historic dissension

When some bhikkus expressed disagreement and dissatisfaction with opinions and decisions supported by bhikkus of Mahavihara, they had to establish separate sects. Thus they broke into Abhayagiri Nikaya and Jethavana Nikaya creating a major religious dissension.

At this critical juncture, King Mahasena strongly opposed the Bhikkhus of Mahavihara and supported the dissents because Mahavihara Bhikkhus had refused to endorse some of the ideas put forward by the King.

King Mahasena built Jethavana Stupa and 'Aramaya' on 'Nandana Uyana' in the premises of Mahavihara and ceremonially dedicated it to Tissa Thera. However, Tissa Thera's acceptance of Jethavana led to his immediate expulsion from Mahavihara and subsequent events gave birth to a new sect called 'Jethavana Nikaya'.

This Buddhsi sect flourished under the fullest royal patronage by King Mahasena who repeatedly favoured Tissa Thera to the disadvantage of Mahavihara bhikkhus.

The project of Jethavana Stupa did not near completion during the reign of Mahasena. King Keerthi Sri Meghavarna (Son of Mahasen) completed building of the Stupa partially erected by his father.

King Mahasen's Jethavana is ranked perhaps the world's most gigantic brick structure which originally had a height of 300 feet. But a part of its pinnacle (Kotha) has broken leaving a height of 252 feet to the currently renovated Stupa from its base.


When the Jethavana Stupa was first built, it was the third biggest dagoba in the world. Many people labour under the misapprehension that only the outside of the Stupa has been built with bricks and the inside of it has been filled with earth. But it is not so. According to the data obtained from archaeological excavations, the core of the dagoba is made up of half bricks, fragments of bricks, powdered bricks and bricks not fired. These different parts of bricks have been aligned in certain positions and in different layers in a labyrinthine network within the dagoba.

The bricks used have been made to different sizes to ensure the strength and duration and the binder of bricks has been made out of fine clay.

According to the latest investigations by the Central Cultural Fund, the inner core of the dagoba is a huge column composed of earth, clay and fragments of bricks arranged systematically in different strata.

The 'Sathares Kotuwa' which ascribes a grand appearance and shape to the Stupa is almost 35 feet high and 66 feet long.

The data obtained from excavations and investigations carried out by officials of the Central Cultural Fund and engineers unravels the technological expertise possessed by the builders of Jethavana Stupa.

The foundation of the Stupa has been laid on the bed rock some astounding 30 feet beneath the ground level.

The foundation has been built with strong bricks of varying sizes and it is difficult even to imagine the amount of bricks buried in constructing the circular foundation with 1315 feet in diameter.

The premises of Jethavana Stupa sprawls throughout 5.6 hectares and it is the area within the outer wall. The area on which the Stupa has been built is encircled by a wall made with stone slabs. Jethavana Stupa is complete with stone steps, 'Vahalkada', 'Sathares Kotuwa', 'Devatha Kotuwa' and 'Kotha' which are the architectural essentials of a typical Stupa.


The massive Jethavana Stupa built by Mahasen was subsequently renovated by King Parakramabahu I after Chola invasion. The Stupa lay largely abandoned to the forces of nature during Chola reign.

Major Forbes, who had visited Anuradhapura twice, records that he had witnessed Jethavana Stupa virtually covered with a dense jungle growing on it on his first visit.

He claims in his writings that a pious bhikkhu was seen clearing the over grown areas of the Stupa and in consequence of the clearing, heavy rain had made a part of its Kotha collapse.


Walisignghe Harischandra stated that a larger portion from the 'Sathares Kotuwa' collapsed in 1885 and English officials took immediate measures to restore it. Charles Perviyes Bell did ample justice to the conservation of the Jethavana Stupa when he launched archaeological excavations in Anuradhapura.

He had marked the special site of Jethavana Stupa as 'J' and had established a cholera hospital within the premises of the Stupa (as stated in his records).

The Jethavana Stupa is a cultural property and is a masterpiece of most advanced scientific technology and engineering skills possess by Sri Lankan artists and architects.



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