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The great monastery at Anurādhapura, for many centuries the chief seat of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It was founded by Devānampiyatissa, on the counsel of Mahinda, and included the Mahāmeghavana. The Mahāmeghavanārāma henceforth came to be included in the Mahāvihāra. The boundary of the vihāra was marked out by the king ploughing a circular furrow starting from near the Gaṅgalatittha on the Kadambanadī and ending again at the river.¹ A list is given in the Mahābodhivaṃsa (pp.135 f) of the places through which the boundary (simā) of the Mahāvihāra passed — Pāsāṇatittha, Kuddavāṭakapāsāṇa, Kumbhakāra-āvāṭa, the Mahānīpa tree, Kakudhapāli, Mahā-aṅgana tree, Khujjamātula tree, Marutta pokkharaṇī, the northern gate of the Vijayārāma park, Gajakumbhakapāsāṇa, then passing Avattimajjha, Bālakapāsāṇa on the Abhayavāpi, Mahāsusāna, Dīghapāsāṇa, the left side of Candalagāma, the Nīcasusāna to the left of Kammāradeva Sīmānigrodha, Veluvangaṇa, round the hermitages of the Nigaṇṭhā Jotiya Giri and Kumbhanda, to the right of the various hermitages of the Paribbājakas, by Hiyagalla, along the shrine of the brahmin Dīyavāsa, through Telumapāli, Tālacatukka, to the right of the stables (assamaṇḍala), on to Sasakapāsāṇa and Marumbatittha. It then proceeded up the river to Sīhasinānatittha, on to Pāsāṇatittha, ending at Kuddavāṭakapāsāṇa.

The Mahāvihāra contained thirty-two Mālakas (Mhv.xv.214) and had numerous buildings attached to it, apart from sacred shrines, such as the Mahābodhi tree, Thūpārāma, Mahā Thūpa, etc. In its early period, the precincts of the Mahāvihāra contained other buildings besides those dedicated to the service of Buddhism — e.g., the hermitages of the Nigaṇṭhā and the Paribbājakā (as mentioned above) and the shrine of the guardian deity of Anurādhapura (Mhv.xxv.87).

In the time of Vaṭṭagāmaṇī, the Mahāvihāra monks divided into two factions, and one party occupied Abhayagiri, built by the king (Mhv.xxxiii.97 f). At first the differences between these two factions were trivial, but, as time went on, Abhayagiri grew in power and riches and proved a formidable rival to the older monastery.

From time to time various kings and nobles made additions and restorations to the Mahāvihāra. Thus Vasabha (Mhv.xxxxv.88) built a row of cells, and Bhātikatissa erected a boundary wall (Mhv.xxxvi.2), while Kaniṭṭha Tissa removed the boundary wall and constructed the Kukkuṭagiri pariveṇa, twelve large pāsāda, a refectory, and a road leading from Mahāvihāra to Dakkhiṇa-vihāra (Mhv.xxxvi.10 f). Vohārikatissa appointed a monthly gift of a thousand to the monks of Mahāvihāra (Mhv.xxxvi.32), while Sirisaṅghabodhi built a salāka house (Mhv.xxxvi.74). Gothābhaya erected a stone pavilion and made an area for striving (padhānabhūmi) to the west of the vihāra (Mhv.xxxvi.102,106).

Towards the latter part of Goṭhābhaya's reign, a dispute arose between the Mahāvihāra and Abhayagiri on matters of doctrine, and sixty monks of Abhayagiri, who had adopted the Vetullavāda, were banished. They obtained the assistance of a Coḷa monk, named Saṅghatissa, and at a solemn assembly of the monks concerned, at Thūpārāma, Saṅghamitta expounded his heretical doctrine, refuting the opposition of the Mahāvihāra monks, and succeeded in winning over the king, who was present, in spite of the efforts of his uncle, Goṭhābhaya Thera, to bring him round to the orthodox party. Saṅghamitta became tutor to the king’s sons, and when one of these, Mahāsena, became king, he prompted him to destroy the Mahāvihāra. A royal decree was issued forbidding the giving of alms to the Mahāvihāra. The monks thereupon left the monastery, and for nine years it remained deserted. Many of the buildings were destroyed, and various possessions belonging to the Mahāvihāra were removed to Abhayagiri; but the people, led by the king’s minister and friend, Meghavaṇṇābhaya, revolted against the impious deeds of Mahāsena and his admirers, Saṅghamitta and Soṇa, and the king was forced to yield. Saṅghamitta and Soṇa were slain by one of the queens, and the king, with the help of Meghavaṇṇābhaya, rebuilt several pariveṇas and restored some of the possessions that had been removed. However, Mahāsena’s allegiance to the Mahāvihāra teaching was not lasting; acting on the advice of a monk named Tissa, he built the Jetavana-vihāra in the grounds of the Mahāvihāra, against the wish of the monks there; the latter left again for nine months as a sign of protest against the king’s attempts to remove the boundary of the vihāra. This attempt, however, he was forced to abandon (Mhv.xxxvi.110 f; xxxvii.1‑37).

Mahāsena’s son, Sirimeghavaṇṇa, on coming to the throne, exerted himself to undo the damage that had been wrought by his father. He rebuilt the Lohapāsāda and restored all the demolished pariveṇas, together with their endowments (Cv.xxxvii.54 ff). Mahāvihāra had, by now, become famous as a seat of learning; it was the centre of Theravāda Buddhism, and was the repository of various Commentaries, of which the chief were the Sīhalaṭṭhakathā on the Pāḷi Canon. Thither, therefore, came scholars from various countries, among them Buddhaghosa (q.,v.), who resided in the Ganthākara pariveṇa and compiled his Pāḷi Commentaries (Cv.xxxvii.215 ff).

When Dhātusena became king he had the walls of the Mahāvihāra painted with various ornamental designs (Cv.xxxviii.43). The Dhammaruci seem to have been favourites of this king and to have occupied the Mahāvihāra, later moving to Ambatthala-vihāra (Cv.xxxviii.75). Mahānāga instituted a permanent distribution of soup to the inhabitants of the Mahāvihāra (Cv.xli.99) and Jeṭṭhatissa III planted another Bodhi tree there, called the Mahāmetta (Cv.xliv.96). Udaya I built a new salāka hall (Cv.xlix.14). Aggabodhi IX discontinued the habit of the monks of the smaller vihāras surrounding Anurādhapura from coming to Mahāvihāra for their supply of medicines and made other arrangements for their distribution (Cv.xlix.88). Sena I and his queen Saṅghā erected and endowed the Saṅghasena pariveṇa (Cv.l.70), while Kassapa IV built the Samuddagiri pariveṇa and gave it for the use of the Paṃsukūlikā, while for the forest dwelling monks of Mahāvihāra he built forest dwellings (Cv.lii.21 f; Cv. Trs.i.163, n.8). Kassapa’s kinsman, the general Rakkha, built a vihāra in the village of Savāraka and gave it to the incumbents of the Mahāvihāra, to be used as a meditation hall (padhānaghara), while Mahālekhasena built, in the Mahāvihāra itself, the Mahālekhapabbata (Cv.lii.31 ff). Udaya IV gave a diadem of jewels to the Buddha image in Mahāvihāra, while his wife Vidurā added to it a network of rays made of precious stones (Cv.liii.49 ff).

During the invasions of the Coḷā and the Paṇḍū from South India, and owing to the consequent confusion prevailing in the country, the Mahāvihāra seems to have been neglected. Many of the buildings were destroyed and their priceless possessions plundered. Discipline among the monks became slack and there were many dissensions. Later, when Parakkamabāhu I had restored peace, he wished to purify the religion, but met with great opposition, and it was only after strenuous efforts that he brought about a reconciliation between the different parties (Cv.lxxviii.11 ff). It is said (Cv.lxxviii.25) that the king could not find one single pure member of the Order. He, therefore, held a special ordination ceremony, admitting many monks into the Order. After the removal of the capital from Anurādhapura to Pulatthipura, the Mahāvihāra lost its importance; the centre of activity was now at Pulatthipura, and later, at other capitals, and the Mahāvihāra fell into neglect and decay, from which it has never recovered.

¹ Mhv.xv.188 ff; MT.361; Mbv. 135, 136 says that the ford on the Kadambanadī was Pāsāṇatittha.