Chapter 1, Part 1
Some people say what comes to you in life depends on what you choose to do with your life. Today you may choose to stay at home and end up feeling inspired to write, or you may choose to go out with your friends and end up planning a trip with them, or you may choose to have a deep conversation with your parents and end up deciding something drastic for your life. The creation of nations in 20th-century Southeast and South Asia was indirectly the result of what certain people decided centuries earlier. What if the decisions made were different? How would the world have looked today?
Let us begin the journey back in time to two centuries after Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. By that time much of the Indian subcontinent belonged to the Maurya Empire under the rule of King Ashoka. After defeating the state of Kalinga in a bloody battle that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives from both sides, Ashoka, shaken by the bloodshed and destruction, changed heart and decided to embrace Ahimsa, the same non-violence principle adopted by Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle against colonialism more than two millennia later.
Ashoka became a prominent figure of Buddhism in India, helping the religion spread further beyond his realm. One of his daughters, Sangamitta, even became a Buddhist monk who with her brother, Mahinda, actively proselytizing Dharma, teachings of the Buddha, to the island of Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka). On her way she brought a sapling of the Bodhi Tree from Bodh Gaya – under which the Buddha attained enlightenment – and planted it in Anuradhapura in the mid-third century BC. Today it is believed to be the oldest surviving tree in the world with known planting date.
At the time the tree was planted, King Devanampiya Tissa was the ruler of Anuradhapura and an ally of Ashoka. Apart from embracing Buddhism and allowing its teachings to propagate throughout his kingdom, King Devanampiya Tissa was also credited for building a man-made lake (Tissa Wewa) and a nearby temple, Isurumuniya, during his reign.
Not too far from the temple a cave shelter compound with drip ledges to prevent rain water from spilling over to the cave interior sits in a hilly terrain. According to Mahesh, our homestay owner in Kandy, a teacher as well as a native to Anuradhapura, 500 monks used to live around the caves. Second-century BC Brahmin script were carved on some parts of the sanctuary, a testament to the cave’s usage during that period in history. Isurumuniya itself was built to accommodate the monks and is still used today as a monastery. The temple was renovated about seven centuries later by King Kasyapa I who is better known for building a palace on top of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock.
In a gesture of further acceptance of Buddhism, King Devanampiya Tissa donated parks to sangha (Buddhist monastic community) except Ranmasu Uyana, a royal garden with man-made pools and home to one of the world’s oldest maps. Sakwala Chakra, as the map is known, is considered by modern scholars as an interpretation of the world by erstwhile Tantric Buddhist monks as well as a place for them to meditate.
The same king also commissioned the construction of Thuparama, the first dagaba (Sri Lankan Buddhist stupa) on the island, although its current structure dates back to as recent as the 19th century following destruction and reconstruction for centuries since it was built.
More than a century after the death of King Devanampiya Tissa, Anuradhapura was ruled by King Dutugamunu, notable for his effort to project the power of his kingdom through construction of imposing structures, from Brazen Palace (a long-gone copper-roofed chapter house) to Ruwanwelisaya. The latter inspired later kings to build gargantuan dagabas, including Abhayagiri and Jetavana stupas.
During its heyday, Abhayagiri stupa was one of the tallest structures in the ancient world, and the nearby monastery was one of the most important learning centers of Buddhism on Lanka. Long after the completion of the stupa, Abhayagiri not only remained a focal point for Buddhist teaching, but also developed as the heart of ancient Sinhalese craftsmanship where intricate stone carvings were produced.
Moonstone, one of the finest examples of artistic achievement from this period, decorated the entrance of buildings with high significance, including palaces and stupas. A theory suggests the carvings on the half-circle stone depict samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth from which Buddhists and Hindus strive to escape through moksa to reach nirvana.
Another example of advanced artistry during this period in Anuradhapura was guard stones, placed on both sides of a building’s entrance. In spite of being a Buddhist community, Hindu elements were often used in ancient Sinhalese artwork, including the Pot of Abundance (Kalasha) and Nagaraja as the most common carvings on guard stones.
Hundreds of years after the completion of Abhayagiri stupa another king of Anuradhapura, King Mahasena, built Jetavana stupa, the biggest brick structure the world has ever seen. Jetavana, Ruwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri remained the religious centers of Lanka until the Chola kingdom from across the strait invaded in the late 10th century, an event that led to the shift of Sinhalese power from Anuradhapura in the north to Polonnaruwa further south in the 11th century.
The golden age of Sri Lankan masonry, with the construction of Jetavana at its zenith between late third and early fourth centuries AD, is still relatively unknown to people today as another series of events far in the west was unfolding around the same period of time. The Roman Empire was ruled by Diocletian who reunified the nearly-collapsed empire and established the tetrarchy, which a few decades later collapsed. This led to another attempt to unify the empire by Constantine, the emperor who moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium – later renamed Constantinople – the very city whose fall eleven centuries later indirectly started the Age of Discovery, bringing European explorers to the Spice Islands and changing the world forever.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.