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Home > Heritage > Anuradhapura > Tapovana Monastery

Tapovana Monastery

Out of the usual path of the pilgrim in the quieter parts of the sacred city of Anuradhapura are the Western monasteries or the Tapovana, claimed to be archeologically as well as ideologically one of the most intriguing of our ancient sites.


It is said that the western suburbs of the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura were the least desirable quarter. Here were the burial grounds, cremation sites, places of execution, and here also dwelt the lowliest communities whose duty it was to tend these. In this unpleasant and deprived neighborhood settled a community of monks in an angry protest against worldliness which they believed had desecrated the older foundations. These monks screened themselves off from public observation by building head high walls. They ate rice with only the rank and bitter oil of the margosa tree for relish and clothed themselves in robes made of scraps stripped off the corpses . They were forest dwelling meditating monks who came into prominence in the seventh century and are frequently mentioned during the next two centuries.

The main component of the hermitages of these monks were the padhanagaras or the meditation houses, which were beautifully built of well proportioned and meticulously- dressed plain stone. The distinguishing feature of these monuments is that they are made up of two sections- a residential pasada or kuti at the back and an open platform or malaka in front- joined together by a relatively narrow passage or stone bridge. Its foundations were built in such a manner that a moat surrounded the platforms. These structures also incorporated a pool and has the main entrance on the east The main entrance is an elaborate porched doorway built of heavy stone slabs while the subsidiary entrances have similar but smaller porches.

Architecturally the habitations of these tapovana sect also called Pamsukulin are generic, and are duplicated in many another monastery of the fraternity as at Ritigala and Arnakele. However according to scholars the monasteries at Anuradhapura represent the padhanagara pirivena in its most developed form.

The porched entrance at Anuradhapura is very well preserved and contains a pair of comfortable stone couches on either side of the door way. The pool incorporated within this building is cut into the living rock on which the padhanagara itself is erected and has a stairway cut into its side reaching the bottom. A curious feature of these monasteries and one which may have had some ritual significance is the ornamented urinal stones These urinals are the only elaborately decorated feature in these monasteries which are otherwise characteristically devoid of ornamentation except of the simplest kind.

Much is said of these. Godakumbura believed that some of these sculptured stones, were not specially turned out for use here but were prized out of earlier buildings and adapted for use here. Scholars who argue against this hypothesis say that since some of these urinal stones depict the image of Kuvera the God of wealth. - it was the intention of the sculptor to say that these ascetics have given up their worldly desires and totally rejected them.

The Tapovana is first mentioned in the reign of Kassapa IV ( 898 -914 AC) it is said that this king built a dwelling there for the Pamsukulika order of monks. Kassapa V (914 -923 AC) built the Deva dwelling in the Tapovana. This ascetic grove was also known as the ‘grove of the penitents’. During the reign of Udaya III ( 946 -954 AC) some court officials who had cause to fear the king sought refuge here only to be followed by the king and his henchmen and beheaded. Outraged the Tapovana community departed as a group for Ruhuna, a virtually independent principality. At this the populace and the army as well rose in revolt scaled the tall Ratnaprasada in which the king and his supporters had in turn taken shelter , beheaded them and tossed their heads from the windows. Not until desperate emissaries from the king had followed the ascetics to Ruhuna and persuaded them back to accept the king’s abject apology, was peace restored.

by Kishanie S. Fernando
Daily Mirror, June 5, 2006


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Updated February 4, 2007
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