History of the Great Stupa

Sri Lanka's City of Anuradhapura is host to many monumental structures such as Stupas. These Stupas contribute to Sri Lanka being unique, as host to so many Stupas from ancient times.
Curiously, of all the imposing architectural works of the time, the construction of one Stupa is chronicled in copious detail, seemingly to convey it to the future generations to discover its true purpose. This particular Stupa harmony with the other such monumental works of architecture in the general landscape and is yet 'like no other'.
The Mahathupa (Ruwanweliseya) is one of the key monuments. The building of this amazing structure is chronicled in the Mahavamsa and other ancient writings with much detail of its architecture highlighted.
Among Sri Lanka's many varied facets are its ancient structures at Anuradhapura in the North Central Province dominated by 'pinnacles of power' soaring into the sky. The major structures are many, some large, others smaller. Of these the 338 feet tall Ruwanweliseya or Mahathupa stands out. This monumental work of architecture enshrines the sacred relics of Lord Buddha and is holy and sacred to Buddhists and is a monument of National importance.
The site, according to the ancient texts, was originally hallowed by the ancient Buddhas named ‘Kakusandha’, ‘Konagama’, ‘Kassappa’ in earlier times and further by Gautama Buddha's presence on his third visit to Sri Lanka. It was subsequently marked by Venerable Arahant Mahinda, emissary of King Asoka, on his visit to Lanka and confirmed by King Devanampiya Tissa who reigned in Lanka around 306 BC – 266 BC.
The Mahathupa was ultimately built several generations later by King Dhuttagamani (Dutugemunu). It was completed by his brother King Saddhatissa.

History records, Arahant Mahinda had informed King Devanampiya Tissa that, at Anuradhapura there was a spot consecrated by four previous Buddhas, and in time to come a beautiful and large Dagaba would be built, one hundred and twenty cubits high to enshrine several relics of Sakyamuni Gautama Buddha. The King hearing of this, was anxious to proceed with the ambitious construction work himself, but the Arahant had stayed him, and foretold that one of his descendants, a mighty King loved by his people, named Dutthagamini Abhaya (161-137 B. C), would six generations later be the destined one to construct the said Dagaba. Thereafter, King Devanampiya Tissa had caused the prophecy to be engraved on a stone pillar which exists today on the North side of the great Dagaba.
According to the legend, there had been a Thelambu tree in the place where the Ruwanwelisaya was planned to be built. On that Thelambu tree lived a goddess called Swarnamali. The King wanted to cut down the tree to build the Stupa. And the goddess asked,
"If you want to cut my tree, name the Dagaba (Stupa) after me,"
and the King agreed. Even now the Ruwanwelisaya is called the Swarnamali Seya (Swarnamali Stupa) remembering the goddess.
Construction of Ruwanwelisaya started on the full moon day of the month of Vesak (May). King Dutugemunu had the workers dug a 7 cubit deep excavation. (Approximately 10.5 feet). He had soldiers brought in round stones and had them crushed with hammers. Crushed stones were placed at the bottom of the excavation and compacted using elephants.
Elephants had their feet bound with leather to protect their feet.
Fine clay was brought in from a nearby river. This clay was known as butter clay since it was very fine. King Dutugamunu ordered to spread butter clay on top of crushed stones.
After placement of the butter clay layer, King ordered to bring bricks. Bricks were placed on top of the butter clay layer.
On top of bricks, mesh of iron was placed.

Eventually, King accepted the last master builder’s proposal.
King’s next question was regarding the appearance of the Thupa.
King asked “What’s the shape and form of the Thupa?”.
The master builder took two bowls of water and poured one bowl into the other. When he was pouring water, bubbles were formed and rose to the surface. The engineer answered that the shape and form would be similar to the rising bubbles. King accepted the shape and form of bubbles as a model for the Thupa.
During the construction of the Thupa, King ordered that no person should be forced to work without pay. He ordered to place gold coins, garments, ornaments, food and sugar at each gate for the workers.
Another thing was happened during the construction of the Thupa.
A Bhikkhu who wanted to participate in the construction work to acquire merit for himself, brought a brick made of clay prepared by himself and gave it to a workman. The workman placed the brick without the knowledge of the overseer. When the overseer found out about the unauthorized brick, a dispute occurred. The King heard of the dispute and came to the site. The King questioned the workman who placed the unauthorized brick. The worker stated that a foreign Bhikkhu gave the brick to him to be placed. The King sent people to find the foreign Bhikkhu. When King’s people found the Bhikkhu, the King ordered his men to give Jasmine blossoms removed from Sri Maha Bodhi to the foreign Bhikkhu.
Second Bhikkhu also wanted to participate in the construction work. He found out the exact dimensions of bricks at the structure from a relative working at the site. He prepared a brick, similar to the bricks in the site and gave it to his relative to be placed in the Ruwanwelisaya. The relative placed the brick in the structure. When one of the overseers found out of the unauthorized brick, a dispute started. The King heard of the dispute and came to the site. The King asked the workman whether he could recognize the unauthorized brick, the worker said he could not. The King sent people to find the Bhikkhu who gave the brick. When King’s men found the Bhikkhu, the King ordered to give the Bhikkhu garments.

According to the history, an interesting incident occurred during construction of the Thupa. Two female workers, who worked in the Ruwanwelisaya, went to heaven after their deaths. They watched the construction activities from heaven and one day came down from heaven to pay homage to Ruwanwelisaya. This story states, that not only the male workers but also the female workers participated to the construction of the Thupa.
The Mahavamsa and the Thupavamsa, two Pali Chronicles of ancient times, state that King Dutugemunu mustered support from over a thousand villages of his kingdom to build this enormous Dagaba in honour of the Buddha. In the Pali Chronicles it is recorded that the King ordered that all his subjects who perform numerous deeds in regard to the construction work were, to be paid. They performed their tasks in accordance with their caste. For the building of the Maha Seya the King supplied barbers free of charge, and 1500 wagon loads of clothes rolled in bundles, honey, clarified butter and sugar were provided. The soldiers were ordered to bring rounded stones, whilst the Samanera monks (A Samaṇera is a novice male monastic in a Buddhist context) brought clay.
As revealed in the Dipavamsa, King Dutugemunu used following materials at the foundation to build the Stupa:
Chunam work, clay bricks, pure earth, a plate of Iron, gravel, eight layers of rock stones, crystal, copper and silver.
Present at the time of the laying of the foundation were the clever monks named, Indagutta Maha Thera, Dharmasena Maha Thera the great preacher, Mahadeva, Uttara Thera and the learned Dhammarakkitha Maha Thera who had all come from Jambudweepa (India). The King with great joy had enshrined in all foul corners of the Mahaseya, where Vahalkada’s (Frontispiece) were built valuable treasures, including gold and silver found in two villages, Archaragama in the North East and at a cave to Amutota in the South. Amutota is now known as Ridigama where the Ridi Viharaya (Silver Temple) stands (about 20 kilometres away from the ancient kingdom of Kurunegala).

When construction started on the flower stages, they started to sink. More stones were added to bring the stages to the proper elevation. Stages sunk again. More repairs and more stones were added. Stages kept sinking. It happened nine times. Finally King Dutugemunu inquired the Bhikkhus for the reason for the sinking of flower stages. Bhikkhus stated that some Bhikkhus with miraculous powers are making the stages sink and they would not do that again. King was glad and ordered the stages to be constructed for the tenth time.
For the construction of The Relic Chamber, two Samanera’s (Novice Bhikkhus) were selected to bring special stones from Kuru Country (Northern India). Samaneras brought six massive stones measuring 80 cubits in length and breadth and eight inches thick.
These huge stones were placed in the middle of the Relic Chamber. A Bodhi tree made of jewels was placed at the center as well. Many jewels and pearls were placed around the Bodhi tree. Scenes from Lord Buddha’s life were painted. (Subdue of Jatilas, King Bimbisara’s visit, eight disciples, acceptance of Rajagaha etc). At four corners of the relic chamber statues of World securing Gods (In Sinhalese “Loka Palaka Deviyan”) were placed. Four World securing Gods are Vaisravana, Dhatarattha, Virulha and Virupakkha.

King Dutugemunu who, on the full-moon day of the month of Esala (June-July), under the constellation of Uttarasalha, would officiate in the ceremony for the enshrining of the relics in the great Stupa, worshipped the Sangha (Order of monks) on the day before the full-moon day, reminded them that tomorrow is the appointed day for the enshrining of the relics and requested them to give him the relics. The Sangha ordered then the novice Arahant Soouttara, who was gifted with the six supernormal faculties, to bring the relics, which Arahant Soouttara manages to bring and offer to the Sangha.

Then King Dutugemunu received from the Sangha the Buddha's relics upon his head in a casket and departed from the golden pavilion in the midst of manifold offerings and honours made by Gods and Brahmas. He circumambulated the relic-chamber three times, entered to it from the East, and when laid the relic-casket on a silver couch one koni worth, that was arranged in the North side. An image of the Buddha was then, according to the Buddha's determination, created in the lion's reclining posture (Sihaseyya), and all the relics were enshrined within that image. When the enshrining of the relics in the great Stupa Ruwanveli was completed, the two novices Uttara and Sumana closed the relic-chamber with the stone-blocks that were previously hidden to be used as a lid.

In the Thupavamsa numerous types of beings attended the enshrinement of the relics into the Mahathupa; including the Naga King Mahakala who until recently guarded them. The relics were to be placed atop a golden throne crafted by Visvakarman the divine artificer; the throne brought by Indra. Brahma offers his invisible umbrella of sovereignty, with the King Dutugemunu offering his own. The Arahant Indagutta creates a metal canopy over the universe, so that Mara will not interfere, as monks chanted the Sutta Pitaka (the Collection of Discourses delivered by the Buddha). Dutugemunu ceremoniously enters with the urn atop his head; but as he is about to place the urn on the golden throne, the relics rise into the air and form Buddha, with each of the 32 major signs and 80 lesser signs of a great man. In this form he performs the twin miracle of fire and water, fulfilling the fifth of his death bed resolutions. One hundred and twenty million Gods and Humans gain Arahantship from this experience. The relics return to the urn and they are laid to rest and the chamber sealed with forty meter stone slabs.
‘‘The relic-chamber shall not shake even by an earthquake; flowers such as jasmine that were offered on that day shall not wither till the end of Buddha Gotama’s Dispensation; the lamps that were kindled with ghee-oil shall not be extinguished; the clay that was mixed with perfume and sandalwood shall not dry; even a single scratch shall not appear within the relic-chamber; stains shall not appear in any of the golden goods that were offered. All this occurred by the determination-power of all Arahants present. They determined also that inimical persons should not be able to even see the relic-chamber. Furthermore, by order of King Dutugemunu, the people of Sri Lanka enshrined, along with many other objects such as golden and silver caskets, thousand more of the Buddha's relics over the relic-chamber."

Although King Dutugemunu started to build this Mahathupa, he could not live long enough to see its completion. The Mahavamsa vividly portrays the Great Kings dying moments.
It is said that during the construction of the top portion of the Mahathupa, (“Kotha” in Sinhalese) the King fell sick. King asked his younger brother Saddhatissa to complete the remaining work at Mahathupa, since he was sick. Tissa (Saddhatissa) understood that King Dutugemunu was in his last stages. Tissa knew he would not be able to complete the Thupa before the death of the King. He had tailors prepare the top portion of Mahathupa with cloths. Prince Tissa having done that, went to King Dutugemunu and said that the Mahathupa was completed.
King immediately showed his desire to see the completed Thupa. Workers carried the King to the Thupa on a specially prepared bed.
King paid homage to the Thupa at the South entrance prior to entering it. The King was placed between Mahathupa and Lohapasada (Lowa Maha Paaya). On his right side there was splendid Mahathupa and on his left side there was Lohapasada.
If one goes to Ruwanwelisaya today it is possible to make an educated guess where King Dutugamunu was at his last moment.
The King was surrounded by many Bhikkhus. Hearing the presence of the King at Mahathupa, many lay people and monks came to the site. Bhikkhus recited Buddhist chants in one voice. (“Seth pirith” in Sinhalese).
Looking around, King saw many Bhikkhus, but he did not see the former warrior (now a Bhikkhu), Thera Putthabhaya.

King said,
“Oh, the great warrior Thera Putthabhaya, who fought twenty eight battles with me never yielding ground is not here in my last battle with death. He is not coming to see me since he foresees my defeat.”
Messengers were sent to Thera Putthabhaya and he arrived immediately to see the King.
King looked at Thera Putthabhaya and said,
“Oh.. Great warrior Thera Putthabhaya… In the past you helped me, fight those many wars. Today I have entered the battlefield alone. In this struggle you cannot help. I cannot conquer death”.
Bhikkhu Thera Putthabhaya stated,
“Oh... Great King…Death cannot be conquered without conquering sin.”

Then he recited the very famous Buddhist poem:
“Anichcha Watha Sankara…………..Uppada Vaya Dammino
Uppajitva Nirujjanti…………………Tesam vupasamo sukho”

“All things decay….Having been produced from perishable bases, they dissolve and perish.”

Bhikkhu Thera Putthabhaya continued…
”Your love for the doctrine of Lord Buddha was great in this life. You brought glory to the doctrine of Lord Buddha. You have accumulated lot of merit in this life. There is no reason to fear.”
When King heard these words uttered by Thera Putthabhaya, he was joyful.
“In my last battle with death, you are here to help me, as you did in the past”.
Next, Thera Putthabhaya loudly read all the meritorious deeds conducted by the King.
“Ninety nine Viharas, Mahathupa and Loha pasada (Lowa Maha Paaya) was constructed by the King.
Twenty four great Vesak festivals were held by the King”.
After listening to these words, King stated,
“I have been a patron of Maha Sangha (Bhikkhus) for twenty four years.
When I am dead, let Maha Sangha burn my body”.

Then King Dutugemunu turned to his brother, Tissa and said,
“Complete all the remaining work of Mahathupa. Offer flowers to it every morning and evening. Continue the ceremonies introduced by me in honor of Lord Buddha”.
After uttering these words, the King fell into a silence.

At this moment, Maha Sangha started chanting Gatha (Buddhist poems). Gods from heaven came in six chariots and invited the King to heaven. At this moment, the King was listening to Gatha, chanted by Maha Sangha.
King gestured to Gods in the sky with his hand….
“Wait…I am listening to Dharma of Lord Buddha”.
King’s gesture was misunderstood by the Bhikkhus who were chanting Gatha. They thought, the King wanted them to stop chanting Gatha. The Bhikkhus stopped chanting.
The King inquired why Bhikkhus stopped chanting. The Bhikkhus said that they thought King gestured to stop. King Dutugemunu said he gestured to the Gods in chariots, not to the Bhikkhus.

Then some people thought that King was uttering nonsense from the fear of death. Sensing what the people were thinking, Thera Putthabhaya asked the King to prove that there are chariots parked in the sky. King asked to bring garlands of flowers.

Workers brought garlands. Then King asked the garlands to be thrown into the sky. When soldiers threw garlands to the sky, they got entangled in the wheels of chariots and hung in the air. Doubts in the minds of people disappeared when they saw freely hanging garlands in the sky.
Then King Dutugemunu glanced at Mahathupa for one last time and closed his eyes.