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Jethavanaramaya Jethavanaramaya

Location Details

The Jetavanaramaya is a stupa, located in the ruins of Jetavana Monastery in the sacred world heritage city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. King Mahasen (273–301 AD) initiated the construction of the stupa following the destruction of Mahavihara. His son Maghavanna I completed the construction of the stupa. A part of a sash or belt tied by the Buddha is believed to be the relic that is enshrined here.

The structure is significant in the island's history for it represents the tensions within the Theravada and Mahayana sects of Buddhist monks, it is also significant in world history as one of the tallest structures in the ancient world.  The height of the stupa is 400 feet (122 m)[citation needed] and was the tallest ancient stupa in the world, the structure is no longer the tallest however it is the largest with a volume of 233,000 m2 (2,508,000 sq ft). At the time of its completion the structure was the third tallest structure in the world behind the Great Pyramids of Giza.  Approximately 93.3 million baked bricks were used in its construction; the engineering ingenuity behind the construction of the structure is a significant development in the history of the island. The sectarian differences between the Buddhist monks also are represented by the stupa as it was built on the premises of the destroyed Mahavihara, which led to a rebellion by a minister of king Mahasen.

This stupa belongs to the Sagalika sect. The compound covers approximately 5.6 hectares and is estimated to have housed 10,000 Buddhist monks. One side of the stupa is 576 ft (176 m) long, and the flights of stairs at each of the four sides of it are 28 ft (9 m) wide. The doorpost to the shrine, which is situated in the courtyard, is 27 ft (8 m) high. The stupa has a 8.5 m (28 ft) deep foundation, and sits on bedrock. Stone inscriptions in the courtyard give the names of people who donated to the building effort.

Following king Jettha Tissa's death his brother Mahasena was consecrated as king by monk Sanghamitta, under the monk's influence king Mahasena brought about a campaign against orthodox Theravadins dwelling in Mahavihara.  The differences between the orthodox Theravadins and heterodox Mahayanists escalated to an extent to which a penalty was established to any person providing alms (food) to monks dwelling in Mahavihara. The Mahavamsa quotes Sanghamitta: `The dwellers in the Mahavihara do not teach the (true) vinaya, we are those who teach the (true) vinaya, O king',.

The Mahavihara was eventually abandoned. The monks dwelling at the premises moved to Malaya and Ruhuna, this followed by the pillaging of Mahavihara by Snaghamitta and minister Sona, all valuable were transferred to Abhayagiri vihara. The pillaging prompted a rebellion by minister Meghavannabhaya, the minister raised an army from Malaya and set camp by the Duratissaka tank.  King Mahasena marches an army to meet minister Meghavannabhaya, where negotiations ensue the night before the battle and the king apologizes for the pillaging and agrees to build a vihara at the grounds of Mahavihara, the Mahavamsa quotes the king: I will make the vihara to be dwelt in yet again; forgive me my fault,'.  Sanghamitta was assassinated by a labourer on the instructions of a wife of the king, following his demise and the construction of parivena by Meghavannabhaya marked the return of monks to the site of Mahavihara.

Thus the construction of Jetavanaramaya began and offered to the monk Tissa, but the monk was accused of a grave offence upon investigation and proof by a minister, monk Tissa was disrobed and expelled from the order. The dakkinagiri monks were then entrusted with the premises of Jetavana Vihara.

Design and construction,

As the largest ancient stupa  constructed and one of the tallest ancient structures in the world, the structural ingenuity and engineering skills employed for the construction are significant. The foundations of the structure were 8.5m deep and the size of the structure required bricks which could withstand loads of up to 166 kg.  The solid foundation lay on bed-rock and the dome was constructed of full and half bricks and earth fill, the unique shape of a perfect ellipsoid allowed for stress and thus allowed the construction of the large structure. The Mahavamsa describes the foundation laying, where fissures were filled with stones and stamped down by elephants whose feet were protected with leather bindings. The bricks used for the construction were a significant development of ancient Sri Lankan engineering, the bricks used for Jetavanaramaya had a composition of 60 percent fine sand and 35 percent clay, the bricks could withstand 281 kg/in2.  Linear elastic finite element analysis under self weight produced a maximum compressive stress of 839 kPa at the bottom centre, thus the maximum stress in the dome is ten times less than what the bricks could withstand.

Finely crushed dolomite lime stone, sieved sand and clay provided the bonding material for the bricks. The clay employed was pliable and thus accommodates movement within the structure. One of the sides of the brick was roughened to trap the bonding slurry thus limiting lateral movement.  The stupa was then covered with lime plaster; the plaster used contained seashells, sugar syrup, egg whites, coconut water, glues, oils, plant resin, sand, clay and pebbles. The plaster also provided waterproofing for the structure. The Mahavamsa also mentions the use of copper sheets over the foundation and arsenic dissolved in sesame oil to prevent insect and plant intrusions inside the stupa.  It is estimated that Jetavanaramaya took 15 years to complete and would have required a skillful workforce of hundreds, including brickyard workers and bricklayers, and stonemasons.

Late history,

The Jetavanaramaya was under the monks of the Sagalika sect. The Sagalica sect was closely linked with the Abhyagiri viharaya. Towards the end of the Anuradhapura period, Jetavana had developed into one of the three fraternities of the island along with Mahavihara and Abhyagiriya. The fraternities were united during the reign of King Parakramabahu I. A pasada constructed by King Sena I was destroyed by fire. King Agghabodhi VI constructed and added a new pasada. Chola invaders during the reign of king Udaya IV destroyed the gold images of Buddha by King Sena. Repairs were completed by King Mahendra IV. Juma, a Sri Lankan merchant, presented King Silakala with a Mahayana book Dhammadatu brought from Benares. King Silakala held a festival annually in celebration of Dhammadatu. Monks of Mahavihara have boycotted the festivals, citing the Mahayana origins of the book, but were later persuaded by Abhayagiri monks to participate in the festivities. The leadership of the Mahavihara was later accepted during the reign of King Aggabodhi I, following the defeat of a public debate between the monks.


Until 1909 the colossal structure was covered with shrub jungle. Monk Kumbuke Dhammarama of Sailabimbaramaya temple of Gammanpita received approval to clear the stupa and the court from the Atamasthana committee. The approval was subsequently canceled as the monk decided to settle down. Palannaruwe Sobita thereto sought and received permission to continue clearing the premises but approval was once again canceled when the monk initiated the collection of contributions. However, the monk refused to leave; in the legal procedures which ensued he was forced to leave.

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