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Mahā Thūpa

The great Thūpa in Anurādhapura, built by Duṭṭhagāmaṇī. The site on which it was erected was consecrated by the visit of all the four Buddhas of this world-cycle and was at the upper end of the Kakudha-lake. It was one of the spots at which Mahinda scattered campaka flowers by way of homage, and the earth trembled. When Mahinda informed Devānampiyatissa of the great sanctity of the spot and of its suitability for a Thūpa, Tissa immediately wished to build the Thūpa himself, but Mahinda bade him desist, telling him that the work would be carried out in the future by Duṭṭhagāmaṇī. Tissa recorded this prophecy on a pillar of stone.¹ When Duṭṭhagāmaṇī had won his victory over the Damiḷā and had brought peace to the country, he saw the prophecy inscribed on the stone pillar, but was unwilling to start the work as the people were too crippled with regard to money to be able to support such an immense undertaking. However, the devas read his thoughts and provided him with all the necessaries for the building of the Thūpa. Prepared bricks were found on the banks of the Gambhīranadī, copper near Tambapiṭṭha, silver in the Ambaṭṭhakolaleṇa, pearls at Uruvelā, and gems in a cave near Peḷivāpigāma. The building was started on the full-moon day of Visākha. The foundation stone was laid on the fourteenth day of the bright half of the month of Āsāḷha. Great celebrations marked the event, arrangements for which were in the hands of the ministers Visākha and Sirideva. Monks were present not only from all over Sri Lanka but from many other places: eighty thousand under Indagutta from Rājagaha, twelve thousand under Dhammasena from Isipatana, sixty thousand under Piyadassī from Jetavanārāma, eighteen thousand under Mahā Buddharakkhita from Mahāvana in Vesāli, thirty thousand under Mahā-Dhammarakkhita from Ghositārāma in Kosambī, forty thousand under Mahā-Saṅgharakkhita from Dakkhiṇāgiri in Ujjeni, one hundred and sixty thousand under Mittinna Asokārāma in Pāṭaliputta, two hundred and eighty thousand under Uttinna from Kasmīra, four hundred and sixty thousand under Mahādeva from Pallabhogga, thirty thousand under Yonamahā-Dhammarakkhita from Alasandā, sixty thousand under Uttara from Viñjhātavī, thirty thousand under Cittagutta from Bodhimaṇḍa-vihāra, eighty thousand under Candagutta from Vanavāsa, and ninety-six thousand under Suriyagutta from Kelāsa-vihāra. Of Arahants alone nine hundred and sixty million were present.

As the king stepped into the space left open for him, he expressed the desire that, if his worship were to have a happy result, theras bearing the names of the Buddha, his Dhamma and his Saṅgha, should take their places on the east, south, and west sides respectively, and a thera bearing the name of Ānanda on the north side, each thera to be surrounded by a group bearing the same name. The king’s wish was fulfilled; the theras in question and their companions were called Mahā Buddharakkhita, Mahā Dhammarakkhita, Mahā Saṅgharakkhita, and Mahānanda. As the king was about to mark the space to be covered by the cetiya, the Thera Siddhattha, looking into the future, told him to define only a moderate space for the Thūpa. This the king did; then, looking at the theras immediately around him, he inquired their names and rejoiced to find them so auspicious, they being Siddhattha, Maṅgala, Sumana, Paduma, Sīvalī, Candagutta, Suriyagutta, Indagutta, Sāgara, Mittasena, Jayasena, and Acala. He then laid the first foundation stone on the east side on sweet smelling clay prepared by Mittasena and sprinkled with water by Jayasena; Mahāsumana placed jasmine flowers on the stone. Immediately the earth trembled in wonder. The minister who helped the king to mark out the area of the cetiya was Suppatiṭṭhitabrahmā, son of Nandisena and Sumanadevī. At the end of the ceremony, Piyadassī taught the assembled populace, and many attained to various fruits of the Path.

The Thūpa was like a water bubble in shape; its architect was Sirivaḍḍha and his assistant Acala. Orders were given that no unpaid work should be done in the construction of the cetiya. Arahants caused the three terraces of flower offerings to the Thūpa (pupphādhānā) to sink nine times into the earth, in order, as they explained, to strengthen the foundations. The cetiya was one hundred and twenty cubits high, and for the ten flower terraces alone a hundred million bricks were used.

The Relic Chamber was of unparalleled magnificence, and consisted of four fat-coloured stones (medavaṇṇapāsāṇā), each eighty cubits in length and in breadth and eight inches thick. These were brought from Uttarakura by two novices (sāmaṇera), Uttara and Sumana. In the Chamber were placed sculptural representations of the chief events connected with the Buddha’s life ² as well as pictures of several Jātaka stories, including the Vessantara.

The work of the Relic Chamber was under the personal supervision of Indagutta Thera, of great psychic power. When the Chamber was ready for the enshrining of the Relics, Soṇuttara of Pūjā pariveṇa was entrusted with the task of obtaining them. In a previous birth, as Nanduttara, he had vowed to have the power of doing this, and now was his opportunity. He went to Mañjerika Nāga-bhavana, where the Relics, washed away from the Thūpa at Rāmagāma, were in the custody of the Nāga Mahākāla, and by a display of psychic power obtained them from the Nāga against his desire. They represented one barrel-full (doṇa) of the Buddha’s Relics, and the Buddha had predicted that they would ultimately be placed in the Mahā Thūpa. These Relics were enshrined on the fifteenth uposatha day in the light half of the month of Āsāḷha, under the constellation of Uttarāsāḷha. Many devas and brahmas and nāgas were present as on the day of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and nine hundred and sixty million Arahants attended the ceremony. As the king, after passing three times round the cetiya, ascended it on the east side, and was about to descend into the Relic Chamber, bearing on his head the Casket of Relics, the casket opened and the Relics rose out of it, and taking on the form of the Buddha, performed the Twin Miracle, as at the foot of the Gaṇḍamba. When the Relics were placed on the couch prepared for them they assumed, as the king had desired, the form of the Buddha as he lay on his death bed. For a whole week the celebrations lasted, and during this period the king offered to the Relics the dominion of Sri Lanka, and Indagutta decreed that the people of Sri Lanka, wherever they might be, should be able immediately to visit the Thūpa should they desire to do so. At the end of the seven days, the two novices, Uttara and Sumana, closed the Chamber with the fat-coloured stones (medavaṇṇapāsāṇā) set apart for the purpose, while Arahants pronounced that flowers offered in the Relic Chamber should not wither, nor scents dry up; the lamps should not be extinguished nor anything whatever perishThe treasures enshrined in the Mahā Thūpa were worth two hundred million, the rest cost ten thousand million.⁴

Before the parasol of the Mahā Thūpa and the plaster work could be completed, Duṭṭhagāmaṇī fell ill, and his brother, Saddhātissa, summoned from Dīghavāpi, contrived with great skill to make the Thūpa look complete, that the king might see it before he died. After the king’s obsequies had been performed, in a place within sight of the Mahā Thūpa,⁵ Saddhātissa finished the work yet remaining and established celebrations to be performed three times daily at the Mahā Thūpa.⁶ Lañjatissa levelled the ground between the Mahā Thūpa and the Thūpārāma and built three stone terraces at the cost of three hundred thousand.⁷ Khallāṭanāga made the courtyard of sand, surrounded by a wall.⁸ Bhātika constructed two railings (vedikā) around the courtyard.⁹ It is said ¹⁰ that Bhātika was taken by the Arahants into the Relic Chamber, and he held great celebrations in its honour (see Bhātikābhaya). Mahādāṭhika-Mahānāga converted the sand courtyard into a wide court laid out with small (kiñcikkha) stones on plaster,¹¹ while Āmaṇḍagāmaṇī erected a parasol over the cetiya ¹² and Iḷanāga made the Lambakaṇṇā construct a roadway leading up to the Mahā Thūpa.¹³ Sirināga had the whole Thūpa gilded and crowned with a new parasol,¹⁴ this work being undertaken again later by Saṅghatissa,¹⁵ while Saṅghabodhi made rain to pour down by means of prostrating himself in the courtyard.¹⁶ Jeṭṭhatissa offered two precious gems to the Thūpa,¹⁷ while Aggabodhi I placed on the Thūpa a golden umbrella.¹⁸ From this time onward the country passed through very troublous times and the Mahā Thūpa was neglected. However, it was restored by Parakkamabāhu I¹⁹ and again by Kittinissaṅka;²⁰ it was later pillaged by Māgha,²¹ and remained neglected until the time of Parakkamabāhu II, who started the work of reconstruction,²² which was completed by his son Vijayabāhu IV.²³

The Mahā Thūpa has been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from the time of its building down to the present day, even when the place was deserted and its courtyards overgrown with creepers.²⁴ There seems to have been a hall for pilgrims to the west of the cetiya.²⁵ When the Buddha’s dispensation (sāsana) disappears, all the Relics of the Buddha deposited in various cetiyas all over Sri Lanka will gather together at the Mahācetiya, and from there will go to the Rajāyatana cetiya in Nāgadīpa, thence to the Mahābodhipallaṅka, where all the Relics, assembled from everywhere, will take the form of the Buddha seated at the foot of the Bodhi tree. Then they will be consumed by self-generated flames.²⁶

The Mahā Thūpa is known by other names: Mahācetiya, Ratanavāluka,²⁷ Ratanavāli,²⁸ Soṇṇamāli (Hemamāli),²⁹ and Hemavāluka.³⁰


¹ Mhv.xv.51 ff., 167 ff.

² For list see Mhv.xxx.71 ff. The MT (549 ff.) contains a long disquisition to prove that there is no reason to doubt the account given of the contents of the Relic Chamber, for in its construction the power (iddhi) of the king, of devas, and of Arahants came into play.

³ The building of the Māha Thūpa is described in Mhv. chaps xxviii-xxx; MT. 514‑83; Dpv.xix.1 ff; also Thūpavaṃsa (pp.66 ff.).

Mhv.xxxii.18. Mhv.xxxii.58. Mhv.xxxii.60; Mhv.xxxiii.5.

Mhv.xxxiii.22 f. Mhv.xxxiii.31. Mhv.xxxiv.39. ¹⁰ MT. 553 f.

¹¹ Mhv.xxxiv.69. ¹² Mhv.xxxv.2. ¹³ Mhv.xxxiv.17. ¹⁴ Mhv.xxxvi.24.

¹⁵ Mhv.xxxvi.65. ¹⁶ Mhv.xxxvi.75. ¹⁷ Mhv.xxxvi.126. ¹⁸ Cv.xlii.32.

¹⁹ Cv.lxxiv.10; lxxvi.106 f; lxxviii.97.²⁰ Cv.lxxx.20. ²¹ Cv.lxxx.68.

²² Cv.lxxxvii.66.

²³ Cv.lxxxviii.83; after this, the cetiya once more fell into disrepair and has so continued until 1937, when an attempt was made to rebuild it.

²⁴ E.g., VibhA.446. ²⁵ VibhA.446.

²⁶ VibhA.433. ²⁷ Cv.lxxvi.106. ²⁸ Cv.lxxx.68. ²⁹ Mhv.xxvii.3. ³⁰ Cv.li.82.

The Great Stūpa at Anurādhapura


The Great Stūpa at Anurādhapura